November 4, 1862 – Democrats made substantial gains in both the Federal and state elections, which reflected growing dissatisfaction with President Abraham Lincoln’s war policies among northern voters.
Despite not being on the ballot, Lincoln considered these elections the first major political test for him and his administration. The election feature six contested governorships, as well as most state legislative and all U.S. House seats. This was the first U.S. House race conducted according to the 1860 census, which had granted 14 new House seats to western states (Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas) and removed seven seats from the middle states (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Indiana).
Lack of southern opposition enabled the Republicans to keep their majority in the House, but the margin dropped sharply. Republicans had 105 of the 178 House seats in the previous Congress, but the next Congress would have 102 Republicans, 75 Democrats, and nine from other parties. Notable Republicans who lost reelection included House Speaker Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, John A. Bingham of Ohio, and Roscoe Conkling of New York. Prominent anti-war, anti-Lincoln Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham lost his Ohio seat only due to Republican redistricting.
Democrats gained 23 seats in the middle states while Republicans lost 28. Five states that Lincoln won in 1860 (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) elected Democratic majorities to the House. However, Republicans remained strong in New England, the Northwest, and California where abolitionism was more popular and voters supported Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation. And the Federal military occupation of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri assured Republican victories in those states.
In state elections, Democrats won only two of the six governorships, but the Republican governors of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania could have easily been defeated had they been up for reelection. The biggest Democratic win was New York, the North’s largest state. New York Republicans had split between a moderate candidate (backed by Secretary of State William H. Seward and political boss Thurlow Weed) and Radical abolitionist General James Wadsworth, backed by influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley. The split enabled Horatio Seymour, the state’s most talented Democrat, to win the race.
Seymour supported a war to preserve the Union but not to abolish slavery, and he warned that the Emancipation Proclamation would “invoke the interference of civilized Europe.” Seymour also denounced Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus: “Liberty is born in war, it does not die in war.” Upon winning the election, Seymour pledged to adhere to Lincoln’s war policies but resist infringements on personal freedoms.
Republicans enjoyed many victories in the state legislative races, maintaining control of the legislatures in 17 of the 19 free states. Only New Jersey and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois had Democratic majorities in their legislatures. Because the legislatures selected U.S. senators, the Republicans saw a five-seat increase in their Senate majority.
In Illinois, voters rejected a new state constitution but approved two sections by majorities greater than 100,000: 1) “No (person of full or partial African descent) shall migrate or settle in this State”; 2) “No (person of full or partial African descent) shall have the right (to vote) or hold any office in this State.” This reflected the opinion of most Illinoisans that they were fighting the war to preserve the Union, not to free slaves.
In Kentucky, Federal authorities threatened to arrest candidates campaigning against the Lincoln administration, and the military governor called the vote a “kind of Military Census, telling how many loyal men there are in a county.” In Missouri, Federal authorities required voters to swear strict loyalty to the U.S., thus disqualifying many Democrats from voting. Moreover, the Missouri constitutional convention exempted the non-elected provisional state government from facing a popular vote. Consequently, Republicans easily carried both Kentucky and Missouri.
The main reasons for the Democratic victories included war weariness, a struggling economy with soaring prices and taxes, the high cost of shipping, the possibility of a military draft, infringements on civil liberties, and the fear of freed slaves coming north to compete for jobs. Moreover, northern governors resented Federal infringement on their prerogatives, particularly military recruitment.
Republicans were horrified by this “great, sweeping revolution of public sentiment,” calling the elections “a most serious and severe reproof.” Democrats proclaimed that “the verdict of the polls showed clearly that the people of the North were opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation,” and they celebrated “Abolition Slaughtered.”
Lincoln reacted to the results by saying he felt like a boy who stubbed his toe–too big to cry but it hurt too much to laugh. He had alienated conservatives by signing the Confiscation Acts and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He then alienated Radical Republicans by voicing opposition to the Second Confiscation Act even after approving it. And Lincoln’s silencing of criticism through the suspension of habeas corpus backfired as people went to the polls to voice their opposition to politicians who supported his policies.
In Washington, the general perception was that northerners were dissatisfied with the Lincoln administration. The New York Times opined that the elections showed a “vote of want of confidence” in Lincoln. Republican Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa said, “We are going to destruction as fast as imbecility, corruption, and the wheels of time can carry us.”
However, the results did not necessarily reflect a wholesale Republican repudiation. The Democratic victories were very narrow in some states (for example, 4,000 in Pennsylvania, 6,000 in Ohio, and 10,000 each in New York and Indiana). The Republicans would still have a majority in both houses of Congress. And many, including Lincoln, believed that the results would have been different had soldiers, who generally supported the administration, been allowed to go home to vote.
Moreover, this election introduced the concept of an alliance between Republicans and War Democrats, as several states featured candidates running on a fusion or “Union” ticket to show political solidarity in the war effort. This coalition helped offset the Republican stigma of being the minority party and the Democratic stigma of being identified with the South.
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