Lincoln did it in 1864 The precedent for dumping a v.p.

Martin D. Tullai

January 07, 1992|By Martin D. Tullai

IN THE FACE of distressing economic problems and tumbling popularity polls, President Bush is facing a tough re-election campaign and is undoubtedly seeking ways to strengthen his position. Although Samuel Skinner has replaced John Sununu as his chief of staff, is this enough?

Or will Bush, like Abraham Lincoln in 1864, resort to an even more drastic political ploy? Will he replace his vice president in an effort to strengthen the Republican ticket?

While it was not the Martin D.Tullaionly time it has happened, undoubtedly the most significant dumping of a vice president took place in 1864. Four years earlier, when tapped by the Republicans to be their standard-bearer, Abraham Lincoln had as his running mate Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. Lincoln's Whig and Western background balanced well with the former Democrat from the East.

An anti-slavery Democrat who later turned Republican, Hamlin was a lawyer who had served in the Maine legislature and had been a U.S. representative and senator as well as the governor of his state.

But Hamlin enjoyed little influence and power. So he spent much of time in Maine. In fact, for two months in 1846 he served a tour of garrison duty with the Maine Coast Guard. (He gained the distinction of being the highest elected official to serve in the lowest military capacity while in office. As a private in Company A, he stood guard duty and worked as a cook.)

Lincoln was disappointed in Hamlin because he usually sided with the radicals, but as the election of 1864 approached, he had an even more pressing reason to drop the latter from the ticket: His re-election was in jeopardy.

Lincoln's distress was evident in the summer of 1864 when he wrote a note on Aug. 23, six days before the Democrats were to meet in Chicago to nominate George B. McClellan:

"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 cooperate with the president-elect to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot save it afterward."

He had his cabinet members sign the folded sheet of paper, but did not reveal its contents. Only later, after the election, on Nov. 11, 1864, was the blind memorandum read to them.

Lincoln's action was prompted by the unanimous pessimism of his advisers. For one, Thurlow Weed, the New York political boss, told Lincoln that his election was "an impossibility." He also reminded the president that Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, had declared "that unless some prompt and bold step be now taken, all is lost."

In truth, many politicians of the day doubted Lincoln's ability and sought someone of greater competence. The correspondent for the Detroit Free Press reported: "Not a single senator can be named as favorable to Lincoln's renomination for president."

Another reflection of Lincoln's shaky position was the "Pomeroy Circular," which called for the Republicans to nominate Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's secretary of the Treasury. It charged that the renomination of Lincoln was not only undesirable but impossible because the cause of liberty and union would suffer by his re-election. Chase was described as the most qualified man in public life to serve as president.

In light of Lincoln's lustrous reputation today, it is difficult to realize that several factions were anxious to prevent his nomination and election in 1864.

A masterful and shrewd politician, Lincoln quickly recognized the rising tide of opposition and moved with alacrity to neutralize it. Perhaps the most perceptive of his moves was to replace Hamlin with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as his running mate. Johnson, the only senator from a seceded state who had not resigned, had become the military governor of his home state.

Publicly, the president insisted he did not wish to interere with the selection of the vice president. He indicated that the "convention must judge for itself." But behind the scenes he worked to make the change. Despite his claim that he did not seek to put Johnson on the ticket, strong evidence indicates Lincoln's influence was clearly a factor.

Certainly a series of military victories, especially Sherman's capture of Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864, played an immense role in Lincoln's success. But so, too, did the strategy of replacing Hamlin with Johnson.

Is it illogical to presume that an incumbent president facing a tough re-election campaign some 125 years later might well consider the same ploy?

Martin D. Tullai is chairman of the History Department at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville.

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