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Abraham Lincoln's campaigns
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The word "campaign" has its origins in 17th-century battles, the term referring to an army's field operations. By the beginning of the 19th century, "campaign" took on its current political meaning. And 150 years ago, it was aptly applied to both.
For on June 8, 1864, the delegates of the National Union Party, a hastily assembled group of Republicans and politicians known as War Democrats, gathered in Baltimore for its nominating convention. The Civil War Battle of the Wilderness was a month in the past, the Battle of Cold Harbor was coming to an end, the selection of Abraham Lincoln's onetime top general, George B. McClellan, for the Democratic presidential nomination, nearly a dozen weeks off.
The Lincoln Papers include a manuscript that is not in Lincoln's hand, but that nonetheless quotes him saying he was gratified to have been deemed "not unworthy to remain in my present position."
The double negative reflected his mood, and the country's.
Shortly thereafter, a delegation from the convention descended upon the president, who said his re-nomination was less a "personal compliment" than a symbol of what he described as "a higher view of the interests of the country for the present and the great future." Then he added:
"I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that it was 'not best to swap horses when crossing streams.'"
And yet the stream Lincoln was crossing was perilous indeed and, by midsummer, no one, especially the president, had a clear view of the perilous twin campaigns ahead -- one military, one political.
On Aug. 22, Thurlow Weed, the prominent publisher and politico, wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward that Lincoln couldn't possibly be re-elected, as "People are wild for Peace." In the entire 886 pages of the Library of America anthology, there is no document more poignant than this one, dated Aug. 23, 1864, written from the executive mansion and quoted here in its sorrowful entirety:
"This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards."
It is signed: A. Lincoln.
Lincoln took the November election, winning seven times as many states as McClellan and 10 times as many electoral votes. The next month the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated. America's sadness marched on, along with this truth: Lincoln won important campaigns, for himself and for the North, but really all of them for the country he helped define.
Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).