Reaching Across Two Aisles.

Reaching Across Two Aisles.

In 1864, amid the Civil War, the National Union Party Convention tried to unite a divided country and return Abe Lincoln to the White House by nominating a loyal southern Democrat to the ticket.

Lincoln’s real-time popularity does not match his historical legacy. An anti-Lincoln movement culminated in a competing convention in Cleveland in late May. The gathering of a few hundred Radical Republicans, abolitionists, and anti-war Democrats, styled the “The Radical Democracy,” sought to end the “imbecile and vacillating policy of the present administration in the conduct of the war.” They nominated the Republican’s 1856 choice John C. Fremont.

A week later, the Republican party rebranded itself the “National Union Party” and met in Baltimore, the birthplace of presidential nominating conventions. Delegates from thirty states and a total crowd of about 600 attendees crammed into the Front Street Theater.

The gathering followed conventions of the era. Each state was allotted twice as many votes as they had in the Electoral College. States could opt for the unit rule, essentially a winner-take-all method, or they could divvy up their votes. No primary elections guided delegates, but other political forces and state party bosses often did. And of course, candidates seeking high office would never actually show up, as that would have been too pretentious.

A quick analysis of the 1864 Union platform will give you a sense of who was there. The 11-point document denounced southern treason, endorsed Lincoln, and called for an amendment to abolish slavery. “We pledge ourselves as Union men,” it states directly, to punish “the crimes Rebels and traitors arrayed against [the Union].”

On the first ballot, Lincoln received all votes from every state save Missouri, which voted for General Ulysses S. Grant (who was not seeking the office). Lincoln won renomination 484 to 22. As common custom after a clear winner, the party takes a final, unanimous vote. “The delegates and the audience simultaneously rose to their feet and greeted the announcement with vociferous applause.” Hats, handkerchiefs, and jubilation followed.

The real surprise was the vice presidential pick: Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. The convention nominated Johnson to gain support from northern War Democrats, to display the nation coming together, and to award this loyal southern statesman for his patriotism in the face of real danger.

What was Lincoln’s role? An examination of VP nominations through the era, reveals much less influence from the presidential candidate, and quite often the VP pick was an afterthought. The presidential nominee often found out the VP nominee only after the convention concluded. It is hard to believe, with Lincoln’s overall support in mid-1864, that he could not have pulled strings to name his own running mate.

President Lincoln was certainly not public about his preference. For that reason, historians differ on his opinion and influence. Sitting Vice President Hannibal Hamlin had served admirably with Lincoln, but many suggest Lincoln was open to or maybe even highly in favor of adding a War Democrat to the ticket. Historian David Herbert Donald declares “the evidence was evenly balanced and inconclusive” as to whom Lincoln desired. But other biographers tell a tale of Lincoln dispatching General Dan Sickles to Nashville to engage Johnson, as he served as military governor of Tennessee, but without any direct offer. After Sickles return to Washington, Johnson biographer Robert Winston says, “Mr. Lincoln quietly set to work to have Johnson placed on the ticket with him.” Lincoln’s affinity for Johnson as the number two was also likely to confirm the president’s stance that Tennessee never left the union. The clinching evidence: one of its loyal citizens is suitable for high office.

Andrew Johnson came from an impoverished background, was illiterate into adulthood, but rose in Tennessee politics through tenacity and pure grit. In December 1860, then-Senator Johnson gave a two-day, inflammatory anti-secession/pro-Union speech in the Senate, as several states signaled a departing. He became a top southern voice for Union and continued to serve in the Senate after his state seceded, the only senator from a seceding state to do so.

His eastern Tennessee region differed from most of the South. More mountainous and less reliant on slave labor, the area from Knoxville to Johnson’s Greeneville often opposed the southern aristocracy. In fact, the crisis brought together political foes—a mix of Democrats and Whigs-turned-Republicans–to defeat the rebellion. Parson William G. Brownlow, a fierce, venomous newspaper editor had made a career of insulting Johnson, while the more mild-mannered Congressman Horace Maynard had campaigned against him on the stump. But their common pro-Union stance and the abuse they took from Confederates—accosted in the streets, jailed, terrorized in their homes, and eventually exiled—brought Brownlow and Maynard together with Johnson on the one issue that mattered most. When the Union took back Tennessee in mid-1862, they came to a figurative and literal embrace. Now, it was Brownlow and Maynard who traveled to this hybrid gathering in Baltimore to put Johnson over as VP.

The proposition of adding a Democrat to an otherwise-Republican ticket was unusual enough. Nominating a candidate from a rebel state seemed even more bizarre. East Tennessee Unionists, and those in similar pro-Union pockets in the South, had been stuck in a unique state of political and legal purgatory through the secession crisis. Confederate states claimed to secede from the U.S. and to create their separate political country, while Lincoln, his administration, and the Radicals viewed those states as rebelling within an existing country. Another worthy question, What political rights do the citizens, loyal as they may be, have in a state in rebellion? The Republican majority saw these southern Unionists as philosophical allies, but could not agree to accepting representatives from a treasonous state. Indeed, years earlier, leading House Republican, the forceful Thaddeus Stevens, had plowed over Representative Maynard and additional southern Unionists elected to Congress before they could be admitted to the House. He maneuvered to prevent Maynard from taking his seat or being added to the roll. Tennessee was legally blocked from the people’s House. Would the state and its leading statesman be blocked by the party?

At the Baltimore convention, a similar dynamic existed. In fact the Credentials Committee moved to allow the Tennessee delegates entry, but without voting privileges. The fiery and popular Parson Brownlow took the floor to argue for Tennessee’s representation, while he laid the groundwork for Johnson as the nominee. Reluctant Republicans were in a bit of a quandary. If they refused to seat the Tennessee delegation with full voting rights, were they also acknowledging secession? A denial of Tennessee’s vote could also call into question candidate Andrew Johnson’s status. “I pray you not to exclude us,” Parson Brownlow warned, “and thereby recognize secession.” Then he cleared the way to advertise his former nemesis. “It has been my good luck and bad fortune to fight untiringly and preservingly for the last twenty-five years—Andrew Johnson . . . Three years ago we got together on the same platform and we are fighting the devil, Tom Walker, and Jeff Davis side by side.”

The delegates voted to admit Tennessee as a voting delegation 310 to 151. This legitimized Johnson as a potential VP pick and guaranteed him 15 more votes. He still had to get through the hurdle of other contenders Hamlin and New York’s Daniel Dickinson.

An Indiana delegate officially nominated Johnson, but it was Horace Maynard that rallied support throughout the theater, declaring “that citizen, known, honored, distinguished,” must be added to the ticket. “From the time he rose in the Senate,” Maynard went on about Johnson’s stand off with southern Democrats after Lincoln’s first election, “and met the leaders of treason face to face, and denounced them there.” He reminded how Johnson was hanged and burned in effigy and was mobbed and molested on the train en route to Washington. “He has spoken in words unmistakable,” Maynard asserted, “not in a corner, but before thousands.”

On the first vote, Johnson received 200 votes, Hamlin 150, and Dickinson 108. The remaining 61 votes were split among seven additional candidates. As the chairmen of the convention counted the initial ballots, states who had voted for the others began switching over to Johnson. In a second tally, the Tennessee tailor had 494 votes while the remaining 27 were shared among three men.

Johnson had moved across the national stage from outspoken southern Unionist to the majority party’s second man. Lincoln was bestowed a War Democrat from the South, and seemed content and aided in the campaign.

At the end of August, the Democrats met in Chicago to nominate the general Lincoln had fired, George McClellan, and to add Ohio Congressman George Pendleton as the VP candidate. Tennessee held a presidential election with a low turnout, but overwhelmingly for Lincoln and Johnson. Congress refused to count votes from any states that had rebelled. Lincoln and Johnson won that November by ten points, 55 to 45 percent in the popular vote, and 212 to 21 in the electoral vote.


David Wolfford teaches at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati, and has presented at state and national conferences. 

Photo/Images: Andrew Johnson & Delegate votes on 1st Ballot for VP.