Q: In choosing his second-term running mate, why did Republican Abraham Lincoln pick Democrat Andrew Johnson, who was against what Lincoln wanted to do?
Elmer McCurdy, of Caseyville
A: When it comes to politics making strange bedfellows, the Lincoln-Johnson ticket would seem to be one of the oddest tandems in U.S. history.
As the nation continued to be torn apart by a horrific Civil War, you’d probably expect a political party to rally its troops behind its own top two candidates. But in 1864, Lincoln chose a man who was not only from the other side of the aisle but who once represented the Confederate state of Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.
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Could you have imagined Donald Trump, in a show of national unity, choosing Bernie Sanders or Maxine Waters as his running mate last summer? Why, Mitch McConnell would have gone nuclear. Bill O’Reilly’s head would have exploded on national TV.
Yet if you study the situation closely, the choice of Johnson made a lot of sense at the time. It’s just too bad, historians say, that Johnson did not follow through as Lincoln had hoped once he took over the White House. Otherwise, even though he often wins greatest-president polls, Lincoln might be considered even more of a genius today.
As you likely know, Lincoln, running as a Republican, defeated three other candidates to win the 1860 election, including fellow Illinoisan Stephen Douglas, his nearest rival in the popular vote totals. As his running mate, Lincoln had chosen former Maine Sen. Hannibal Hamlin, himself a former Democrat who switched to the new Republican party in 1856 because of his opposition to slavery. Yet even before Lincoln could take office on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states voted to secede. In mid-April, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, launching the Civil War.
By 1864, Lincoln faced hostility not only from the opposition Democrats but from his own party as well. Just like today, a faction of Lincoln’s party had split off to form the Radical Republicans. For them, Lincoln was not acting decisively enough to win the war and free the slaves. Many also planned to deal with the secessionist South harshly once the war was over. By 1864, they had formed the Radical Democracy Party and nominated John C. Frémont as their presidential candidate.
At the same time, Lincoln by many accounts had spent much of 1864 worrying he would not be re-elected. Confederate forces had triumphed at the battles of Mansfield, the Crater and Cold Harbor. Northern casualties continued to mount. As a result, Lincoln also had to worry about his Democratic challenger, Gen. George McClellan, whom Lincoln had removed from his war command in November 1862. Even though McClellan opposed it, the Democrats had adopted a peace plank during their national convention, perhaps adding to Lincoln’s concern that voters, tired of war, would back McClellan.
So when it came to picking his running mate in 1864, Lincoln decided to get a little radical himself. At its own national convention in Baltimore, the Republicans changed their name to the National Union Party to reflect the fact that it now was also the party of those Democrats who supported the war and opposed the Peace Democrats, the so-called Copperheads. To try to make those defecting War Democrats happy, Lincoln dropped Hamlin from his ticket in favor of Johnson.
It wasn’t as odd a choice as you might think. Like Lincoln, Johnson had grown up in poverty. He had learned to read while working for a tailor. He gained political power by backing the small farmer, railing against “slaveocracy” and a bloated “Southern aristocracy.”
Moreover, he was a Union loyalist. After Tennessee seceded in May 1861, Johnson became the only sitting senator from a Confederate state who did not resign. Then, after his term did end in March 1862, Johnson was appointed by Lincoln as the military governor of Tennessee after the Union had recaptured most of the state.
So for Lincoln, Johnson’s appointment was a win-win: First, Lincoln had balanced the ticket with a Democrat, which he hoped would undercut both McClellan and the Democratic peaceniks. And by choosing a Southern Democrat, Lincoln hoped to show the South that it would be dealt with fairly and humanely once the war was over. The decision certainly won over his party at the time.
“As a Union party I will follow you to the ends of the earth, and to the gates of death,” Kentucky’s Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, the convention’s temporary chairman, said. “But as an Abolition party, as a Republican party, as a Whig party, as a Democratic party, as an American [Know-Nothing] party, I will not follow you one foot.”
By November, however, Lincoln’s re-election seemed all but certain. With their hawkish candidate and dovish platform, the Democrats appeared inconsistent and confused. The Radical Democracy Party ticket of Frémont and John Cochrane had withdrawn, fearing that a Democratic victory would produce “union with slavery,” a position they felt untenable. Then when Atlanta fell on Sept. 2, Union victory seemed both inevitable and close.
On Nov. 8, 1864, Republicans and War Democrats heeded the National Union Party’s advice of “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.” Lincoln earned 55 percent of the popular vote and won 22 of 25 states in a resounding defeat of McClellan. But six weeks after retaking his oath of office, Lincoln was assassinated, and, as we know now, Johnson failed to realize any dreams Lincoln may have had to fully integrate an estimated 4 million slaves into American society.
According to historians, Johnson felt African-Americans were unable to manage their own lives. In fact, at one point in 1866 he reportedly told a group of blacks visiting the White House that they should emigrate to another country. He also allowed the South to deal with blacks as they wished, resulting in the oppressive Black Codes that severely restricted any freedoms former slaves thought they had won. The result was a political, economic and cultural struggle that continues to this day.
Why were Democrats opposed to the Civil War known as Copperheads?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: On Feb. 20, 1991, Johnny Carson interviewed Miko (MEE-ko) Hughes. It was two days before Miko’s fifth birthday, making him Carson’s youngest guest ever. Hughes had just starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop” and would go on to appear in nearly two dozen movies, including “Mercury Rising” and “Apollo 13.”