This reflects a stark departure from the roots of the Republican Party and the president with whom Trump has repeatedly compared himself. President Abraham Lincoln saw functional transitions and placing the public good over a politician’s ego after a stinging defeat as central to the very survival of the nation.
Americans had endured years of a bloody civil war by the time Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864. He faced challenges from all sides. Democrats thought Lincoln overstepped his constitutional authority and placed the nation on the path toward social and political equality for Black and White Americans with the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, many Republicans felt he hadn’t done enough. His chances of winning reelection looked dismal.
As the 1864 election approached, Democrats feared that Lincoln would abuse presidential powers and prevent an election. But this represented a profound misreading of Lincoln. Even as his party’s fortunes suffered in the previous election, he held firm that elections would commence, a choice he never wavered from as his own political prospects grew grim.
Lincoln confronted a bleak political future in the spring and summer of 1864. After Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war had returned to a grueling and grisly slugfest with high death tolls and no end in sight.
Politically, Lincoln confronted two challenges. Republicans unhappy with him called for a new candidate to lead the nation. As a potential replacement, some radicals floated John C. Frémont, the former commander Lincoln removed after Frémont refused to rescind a proclamation establishing martial law in Missouri and illegally emancipated enslaved Missourians in 1861. Conservative Republicans questioned Lincoln’s leadership too and pondered presidential alternatives.
Even after effectively beating back Republican detractors, Lincoln still had to tackle a Democratic challenger and persuade the electorate to give him a second term. This would prove especially difficult because the Democrats had a message that had already resonated at the ballot box and were poised to select a strong candidate.
In advance of the 1862 midterm elections, Democrats returned to their antebellum political roots, spewing racial vitriol to entice Americans to abandon the Republicans after the president issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The strategy proved effective, as many feared the results of emancipation and the war remained deadlocked. Democrats thumped Republicans in many races and predicted that similar tactics would work in 1864.
Also, as Democrats prepared for their convention in Chicago, they signaled that they’d choose a seemingly ideal candidate for the moment: Gen. George McClellan.
McClellan had risen to prominence early in the war. He efficiently transformed green citizens into combat-ready troops and fostered a following within the Union Army and across the country. Lincoln appreciated this and worked with McClellan early in the war, hoping the famous general could end the war quickly.
But the relationship soured, especially after McClellan hesitated in the field and Lincoln determined he’d save the Union with an emancipation strategy. McClellan cringed at an emancipation scheme and undermined Lincoln’s authority, ultimately leading the president to remove the general. Yet this conflict only added to McClellan’s popularity among many as a Democratic candidate and a clear alternative to Lincoln.
Suffering from military and political setbacks, the president reflected on his prospects for reelection in August 1864 and, like others, anticipated that he’d lose to McClellan. Yet Lincoln remained a patriot and hoped to win the war and maintain American democracy even if defeated in his reelection effort.
To save the country, Lincoln wrote what has come to be called the “blind memorandum.” In the short note, he said: “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.”
Lincoln then folded the note, placed it in an envelope and requested his entire Cabinet sign the envelope without reading its contents.
Weeks later, Lincoln reconvened the Cabinet and explained the purpose of the note. After his secretary read it, Lincoln said, “I resolved, in case of the election of General McClellan[,] being certain that he would be the Candidate, that I would see him and talk matters over with him. I would say, ‘General, the election has demonstrated that you are stronger, have more influence with the American people than I. Now let us together, you with your influence and I with all the power of the Government, try to save the country. You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assisting the war.”
The note reflected Lincoln’s sense of the president’s duties. He understood that should he lose, helping the nation and ensuring its survival would require swallowing his pride, relinquishing power and working with the president-elect.
Ultimately, Lincoln pulled off a comeback and never needed to work with McClellan. After Atlanta fell to the Union Army and the war veered toward Union victory, Lincoln’s popularity resurged in his party and throughout America. In November, he earned 55 percent of the popular vote and locked up enough electoral votes to win.
Yet this does not alter the lessons for today from Lincoln’s planning at his nadir. Lincoln realized that even in defeat, he would shoulder critical responsibilities before his term ended — and had the capacity to lead his country through a crucial moment. His ability to put aside his ego in the face of a potentially bruising defeat revealed Lincoln’s conception of the presidency and the need to subordinate his own interests to those of the nation.
Trump, on the other hand, refuses to concede, not only making the nation look nearer to a failed state than one of the world’s oldest surviving democracy but also placing Americans suffering from a pandemic in record numbers at greater risk.
Since Trump echoes baseless rumors of ballot tampering, it seems unlikely that he will follow in Lincoln’s footsteps. But here is the good news: Americans showed their commitment to democracy by turning out to vote in record numbers. The nation resolved to cultivate democracy — even during a pandemic.
Individual Americans’ wherewithal demonstrates the nation’s resiliency. Lincoln recognized as much shortly after his 1864 electoral victory. To a crowd gathered at the White House, he said, “It has long been a grave question whether any government … can be strong enough to maintain its own existence, in great emergencies.” The election, he said, “demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war,” which shows “how strong we still are.”
While we endure another great emergency, we have shown our willingness to maintain democracy and how strong we still are.