The midterm Federal elections were considered to be the first major political test for the Lincoln administration. They featured 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 President Abraham 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 Brigadier General James Wadsworth, backed by influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley. The split enabled prominent Democrat Horatio Seymour 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. Republicans lost only in New Jersey and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. Because the legislatures selected U.S. senators, the Republicans would see a five-seat increase in their Senate majority in the next Congress. But this did not guarantee that the new Republican senators would support Lincoln’s emancipation policy.
In Illinois, 11 of the 14 House seats went to Democrats, and Democrats won a 28-seat majority in the state legislature. 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 a war for Union, not racial equality.
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 in the northern states 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.” Diarist George Templeton Strong wrote, “It looks like a great, sweeping revolution of public sentiment. All is up… The Historical Society should secure an American flag at once for its museum of antiquities.” Albert G. Riddle noted, “Seldom has the personnel of a House been so completely changed with a change of parties.”
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 wrote political advisor Carl Schurz that “Three main causes told the whole story”: war supporters who had gone off to war could not vote, leaving behind those opposed to Lincoln’s war policies; Democrats spread fear that the Emancipation Proclamation would bring a flood of freed slaves to the North; and the press had given the Democrats “all the weapons” they needed to carry this message to the voters.
But Lincoln had alienated both factions of his own party: conservatives opposed him signing the Confiscation Acts and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and Radicals opposed him criticizing the Second Confiscation Act (even though he approved it) and continuing to support General George B. McClellan despite the general’s constant failure to move against the enemy. 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.” A colonel wrote, “There is not a man in the nation destined to endurance. This great Republic, late the wonder and the envy of the nations, is crumbling into bloodstained fragments because there is no head and hand to guide and light it through the peril… There’s no human granite nowadays. It’s all clay.”
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.
Perhaps more importantly, 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.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.