August 23, 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln asked his cabinet members to endorse a confidential memo acknowledging that he would probably not win the upcoming presidential election.
The continuing stalemate on nearly all military fronts emboldened Lincoln’s political enemies as the election approached. Anti-war Democrats (i.e., “Copperheads”) dreaded the prospect of Lincoln winning reelection. Prominent Copperhead Marcus M. “Brick” Pomeroy, editor of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Democrat, published an editorial stating that if Lincoln “is elected… for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”
Lincoln also faced strong opposition from within his own party, primarily from the Radical Republicans who asserted that he had not prosecuted the war vigorously enough. On August 18, over two dozen prominent Radicals met at New York Mayor George Opdyke’s home to discuss holding a new party convention that would replace Lincoln as their nominee.
Some Radicals, such as former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, did not participate in the meeting, preferring instead to wait and see what the Democrats did at their convention at the end of August. Nevertheless, the attendees agreed to call for a new convention in Cincinnati on September 28 to “concentrate the union strength on some one candidate who commands the confidence of the country, even by a new nomination if necessary.”
But in a follow-up meeting in late August, the Radicals conceded “that it was useless and inexpedient to attempt to run Mr. Lincoln.” They instead proposed asking Lincoln to voluntarily step down in favor of a more Radical candidate. They also sent letters to the northern governors asking them if they believed Lincoln should be replaced. To their dismay, none did.
Meanwhile, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan worked behind the scenes to garner Radical support for Lincoln. Henry W. Davis, co-sponsor of the Wade-Davis bill and the vitriolic Wade-Davis manifesto, agreed to back Lincoln only if he ousted Postmaster General Montgomery Blair from his cabinet (Davis and Blair were bitter political rivals in Maryland). Other Radicals also hinted at possibly supporting Lincoln if he dropped Blair.
Despite this potentially new support base, the conservative Republicans who had consistently supported Lincoln still worried that he would lose the election. Party boss Thurlow Weed warned Lincoln in early August that his defeat was possible. In an interview, Lincoln acknowledged, “I cannot but feel that the weal or woe of this great nation will be decided in the approaching canvas.” Then Lincoln received a somber letter from political ally Henry J. Raymond on the morning of August 23.
In response to the growing opposition to him, Lincoln wrote a memorandum that read:
“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.”
The growing opposition, combined with the fact that no president had been reelected since Andrew Jackson 32 years before, prompted Lincoln’s doubt. Lincoln also worried that a new president, which would most likely be a Democrat, would cancel many of his war policies. He could even seek a compromise with the South, which might include granting Confederate independence or withdrawing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln sealed the memo shut and brought it to his weekly cabinet meeting on the 23rd. He asked for the members’ endorsement by signing the back of the paper without reading it. Lincoln feared this document would spread alarm throughout the North if made public. They all signed, even though none knew that they approved Lincoln’s secret prediction of his own defeat.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 182; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11178-90, 11268, 11313-23, 11367-78, 11696-707; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11511-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 489; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 647-48; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-55, 557-59; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Loc 55465-68