This week, Trump’s bottomless neediness reached desperation with a frantic tweet pleading for a delay in the presidential election. That declaration of course lacks a basis in the Constitution and lies beyond his authority. It diminishes him to a nullity in the shadow of the 16th president, who amid the Civil War insisted: “We cannot have free governments without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
During what he called a “fiery trial,” Lincoln never flinched. Facing what he thought was certain defeat in his reelection bid, he held to his course, come what may, maintaining his composure and insisting on the defense of democracy.
“You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten, but I do, and unless some great change takes place, beaten badly,” Lincoln confided to his friend Schuyler Hamilton, discussing his chances in the 1864 election. By the summer, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign had suffered enormous Union casualties and stalled in trench warfare. A radical third party led by the 1856 Republican nominee, John C. Fremont, had attracted the support of abolitionist luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Wendell Phillips, and threatened to split the Republican vote. The Democratic nominee, former General George B. McClellan, who had been dismissed by Lincoln, was hostile to the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democratic Party convention had been taken over by its pro-peace wing of “Copperheads,” who wrote a platform calling the war a failure, in effect demanding an armistice and recognition of the Confederacy.
Lincoln wrote a memo on Aug. 23: “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.” He folded and glued it closed and had his Cabinet members sign the document without allowing them to read their commitment to his plan for the worst-case scenario.
Given Lincoln’s poor electoral prospects, some suggested that the election be postponed. Lincoln never considered such a possibility. Then on Sept. 3, a telegram arrived from General William Tecumseh Sherman: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” With the victory at the Battle of Atlanta, the tide turned.
Two nights after Lincoln’s reelection, on Nov. 10, 1864, the Lincoln Clubs of the District of Columbia marched to the White House to serenade him on his victory. A cannon was repeatedly fired in celebration. Then Lincoln appeared at a second-floor window to speak to the cheering throng. It was his first occasion to make a statement about the meaning of the election at the most precarious moment in the nation’s history. He did not preen in self-congratulation. He did not boast of his personal success. Instead, he chose to explain to the revelers why holding the election in the midst of the Civil War was the most important vindication of the purpose of the war to maintain American democracy.
“It has long been a grave question whether any Government not too strong for the liberties of the people can be strong enough to maintain its own existence in great emergencies,” he said. “On this point the present rebellion brought our Republic to a severe test, and a Presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion, added not a little to the strain. If the loyal people, united, were put to the utmost of their strength by the rebellion, must they not fall when divided and partially paralyzed by a political war among themselves? But the election was a necessity.”
Lincoln warned that “the strife of the election … must ever recur in similar cases.” He predicted that, in future and inevitably fractious contests, the full range of “human nature” would again be revealed under pressure: “In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good.”
Trump’s cowardly panic fulfills the 16th president’s observation that a national trial could expose the weak, silly and bad. And his grasping at the straw of an emergency largely of his own making, in an effort to evade the people’s judgment, stands as his final, invidious comparison to Lincoln.