Saturday, August 2, 2008

Consequential Elections: A Brief History

A great find!

Kenneth T. Walsh White House correspondent, and author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September.

Abraham Lincoln is commonly listed by historians as one of America's greatest presidents—often as the greatest of all. Part of the reason is that he provided strong leadership, set a clear course, and articulated a moral vision to guide the nation through very difficult times. Franklin Roosevelt, also recognized as one of America's best chief executives, once said that, "All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." And it was Lincoln's singular accomplishment that he clarified the goals of "union and freedom" for his time and for the ages, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Lincoln had risen to national attention because of his widely reported debates with Stephen Douglas in the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858. During that race, Lincoln also gave a powerful and eloquent speech in Springfield in which he declared, "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." In another memorable passage, he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." These arguments were considered moderate among the antislavery forces at the time, and they established him as a leader of what might be considered a "centrist" faction of the Republican Party in the North.

In 1864, there were more Union successes, including those at Atlanta and Mobile Bay, and Lincoln got much of the credit. With the war now seemingly on a positive track, he easily won a second term. He received 2.3 million votes to former Union Gen. George McClellan's 1.8 million. Even though McClellan had been Lincoln's senior commander, the former general sought an early end to the war, which was a popular position for most of the campaign. But the North's newfound military success undercut his arguments that it was time to sue for peace. Perhaps most gratifying to Lincoln, the soldiers doing the fighting gave Lincoln a huge margin, 116,887 votes to McClellan's 33,748, even though they knew that re-electing Lincoln would mean continuation of the conflict and the likelihood that many of them would be killed or wounded. But they also knew that re-electing Lincoln would virtually guarantee victory, complete with the end of slavery and the preservation of the Union, and these were their top priorities.

No comments: