The National Union Convention Assembles

June 7, 1864 – Republicans and some Democrats supporting the war effort gathered at Baltimore’s Front Street Theater on the first day of a convention to decide who would be the presidential and vice presidential candidates in the upcoming national election.

Delegates to this convention mostly represented the conservative faction of the Republican Party, and they invited War Democrats to join them. To promote this new political unification, the delegates changed their name to the National Union Party, and this became known as the National Union Convention.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

To many at this gathering, re-nominating President Abraham Lincoln was a foregone conclusion. But he had not always been such an easy choice. Radical Republicans were so dissatisfied with Lincoln’s leniency toward the South and his moderation on freeing slaves that they had backed Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, to run against him. When Chase dropped out, some Radicals formed their own convention and nominated John C. Fremont, the Republican nominee in 1856, to run again.

Lincoln was also unpopular among many conservative Republicans and War Democrats for his inability after four years to conquer the Confederacy. They noted that history was against him as well: the last incumbent to win reelection to the presidency was Andrew Jackson, 28 years before. Martin Van Buren was the last incumbent to be re-nominated by his party; he then lost the 1840 election.

But by this month, most Republicans had come to accept that Lincoln was the best choice, if only grudgingly. Even so, there was still a small number of delegates at this convention who hoped for a deadlock so they could offer a compromise candidate such as Chase, or even Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.

Lincoln sent his secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay to represent him at the convention. Nicolay noted that this was “almost too passive to be interesting–certainly… not at all exciting as it was at Chicago” in 1860, where Lincoln was first nominated. The lack of enthusiasm was largely attributable to the recent news of the horrible battle losses in Virginia. But it also had to do with a lack of suspense, as Hay said that “death alone could have prevented the choice of Mr. Lincoln by the Union Convention.”

Senator Edwin D. Morgan of New York, chairman of the National Union Executive Committee, opened the convention with a speech that included a call to “declare for such an amendment of the Constitution as will positively prohibit African slavery in the United States.” Lincoln had quietly urged the convention to support this measure, which undercut the Radical convention by co-opting its top issue. This was loudly cheered.

Morgan reminded the attendees of the first Republican convention in 1856 and the subsequent election loss. But then, “in 1860 the party banner was again unfurled, with the names of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin inscribed thereon. This time it was successful; but with success came the rebellion, and with the rebellion, of course, war, and war, terrible and cruel war, has continued up to the present time, when it is necessary, under our Constitution, to prepare for another Presidential election.”

Morgan declared, “Does any one doubt that this convention intends to say that Abraham Lincoln shall be the nominee?” The correspondent for the New York Times, a pro-Lincoln newspaper, wrote that the audience erupted in “great applause.”

Other speakers on this first day made it clear that this was not the third Republican convention, but rather the first National Union convention. The prevailing theme was that Republicans and War Democrats were putting up a united front against Radicals, Peace Democrats, and Confederates to select a presidential candidate dedicated to winning the war.

In all, over 500 delegates representing 25 states and the territories of Nebraska and Colorado attended this convention. They allowed the admittance of delegates from Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas, three states reconstructed according to Lincoln’s controversial “Ten Percent Plan.” Unionists representing just 10 percent of the voting population selected the delegates in these states.

Missouri sent two rival delegations, one elected by the state’s Radical Union Convention, and one elected by the state’s Unconditional Union Party. The attendees voted 440 to 4 to seat the Radical delegation and expel the conservatives.

Conventions in many western states, most notably California, Iowa, and Wisconsin, elected delegates loyal to Lincoln. Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s disgraced former secretary of war, used his influence as Pennsylvania political boss to pack his state’s delegation with Federal employees who owed their jobs to Lincoln. New York boss Thurlow Weed persuaded his state’s 66 delegates to back Lincoln.

The entire 24-man Massachusetts delegation pledged to nominate Lincoln, despite opposition from influential abolitionist Wendell Phillips and Governor John Andrew. Delegates from Salmon Chase’s home state of Ohio rejected publicly supporting Chase and instead backed Lincoln, mainly because they were all “aspirants for Congress, who expect Administration favor.”

Meanwhile, Democrats had scheduled their convention to begin on the 7th as well, but they postponed it until late summer. Since it appeared that the Federal armies were stalling throughout the South, the Democrats wanted to wait until northern dissatisfaction with the war’s developments worked to their advantage.



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