August 29, 1864 – Delegates assembled at Chicago to nominate an opponent for Abraham Lincoln, but they were split over how to deal with the Confederacy.
The Democrats had delayed their convention for over two months in hopes that the Federal war effort would stagnate enough so that voters would turn to them to end the costly conflict. But the Democrats did not have the momentum they were hoping for; although Richmond remained uncaptured, the fall of Atlanta was imminent, and the Federals had won a sensational victory at Mobile Bay.
Also, the party was deeply divided between War Democrats who sought to continue the war until the Confederacy returned to the Union, and Peace Democrats (i.e., Copperheads) who sought peace at any price, even if it meant Confederate independence. The Peace Democrats seemed to outnumber the war faction, as delegates cheered the playing of “Dixie” at the convention and gave little applause to Federal war tunes.
Both sides agreed on two things: abolishing slavery should not be a war aim, and Lincoln and the Republicans had ruined the country. August Belmont announced, “Four years of misrule by a sectional, fanatical and corrupt party, have brought our country to the verge of ruin.” An Iowa delegate declared, “With all his vast armies Lincoln has failed, failed, failed, and still the monster usurper wants more victims for his slaughter pens.”
Convention Chairman Thomas Seymour delivered a speech in which he stated, “The Administration cannot save the Union. We can. Mr. Lincoln views many things above the Union. We put the Union first of all. He thinks a (emancipation) proclamation more than peace. We think the blood of our people more precious than edicts of a president.”
The delegates adopted their party platform on the 30th. Clement L. Vallandigham, the former Ohio congressman exiled by Lincoln for encouraging men to avoid the draft, chaired the resolutions subcommittee responsible for writing the party platform. This ensured that the Peace Democrats would dictate what policies the party would embrace. It was resolved:
“That this convention does explicitly declare, as the sense of the American people, that after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of a military necessity, or war power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that at the earliest practicable moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”
This was greatly influenced by the Peace Democrats, and it indicated that the party wanted peace above all else, including reunion. The delegation declared, “That the aim and object of the Democratic party is to preserve the Federal Union and the rights of the States unimpaired.” As such, they condemned the Republicans’ “administrative usurpation of extraordinary and dangerous powers not granted by the Constitution,” which included arresting political dissidents, implementing martial law, suspending habeas corpus, and infringing on the right to bear arms.
The delegates noted the Lincoln administration’s “shameful disregard” of “our fellow citizens who now are, and long have been, prisoners of war in a suffering condition.” This was a criticism of the administration’s refusal to exchange prisoners of war because the Confederacy would not exchange black troops. Consequently, Federal prisoners languished in overcrowded and diseased prison camps such as Andersonville.
The delegates next debated who their presidential nominee should be, with some Peace Democrats refusing to endorse any candidate “with the smell of war on his garments.” Several peace candidates were suggested, including Chairman Seymour, New York Governor Horatio Seymour, and New York Congressman Fernando Wood. Other potential candidates included L.W. Powell of Kentucky and former President Franklin Pierce.
Peace Democrats initially objected to former General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, but his backers assured them that “the General is for peace, not war… If he is nominated, he would prefer to restore the Union by peaceful means, rather than by war.” Before the convention had begun, McClellan made his views clear: “If I am elected, I will recommend an immediate armistice and a call for a convention of all the states and insist upon exhausting all and every means to secure peace without further bloodshed.”
Having written the party platform, the Peace Democrats agreed to allow the War Democrats to nominate McClellan. He received 174 votes on the first ballot, with Thomas Seymour garnering 38 and Horatio Seymour 12. Horatio Seymour announced he would not accept the nomination and was dropped. McClellan received 202 1/2 votes on the next ballot, and Vallandigham moved that his nomination be made unanimous.
To balance the ticket, George H. Pendleton of Ohio was nominated for vice president. Pendleton had opposed the war and voiced sympathy for the Confederacy. Rumors quickly spread that McClellan was so embarrassed by the peace platform that he would refuse to endorse it. But he remained the Democratic nominee nonetheless, poised to defeat his former commander-in-chief in the upcoming election.
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