November 1864

Election Day 1864

On November 8, 1864, Abraham Lincoln was chosen by voters in the loyal states for a second term as president. Many historians find the election’s most notable feature to be that it was held at all. Some observers in 1864 blanched at the idea of risking a change of national leadership and policy in the midst of a civil war. Others, including Lincoln, felt differently. The president himself said (after having been safely reelected), “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”


The campaign would of course revolve around issues connected to the war, including competence, the balance between security and civil liberties, and the future of people of color in the nation and in Illinois specifically.


National and Illinois Republican leaders worked in 1864 to keep the support of Democrats who shared the determination to defeat treason and save the Union. They rebranded their organization as the Union Party, allowing Democrats to support the war effort without having to take the name of their old rivals.


There was good reason for this. Many voters who were determined to defeat the Confederacy disagreed strongly with the Lincoln administration on other issues. They felt the administration had overreached in the closing of and banning from the U.S. mail of newspapers deemed disloyal, the periodic suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and arrests of men for voicing opposition to the government’s policies. Especially concerning to many pro-Union Illinoisans was the Lincoln administration’s continuing determination to end slavery and the policy allowing enlistment of black men into the armed forces, along with the implications of those acts for future social and political status of African Americans.


President Lincoln also faced problems with his base voters. Several leading Illinois Republicans, including Governor Richard Yates and Senator Lyman Trumbull, considered the president’s progress on emancipation to have been timid at best and his leadership of the war effort to have often been lackluster.

Lincoln’s Democratic opponent was not officially chosen until August 1864.Gen. George B. McClellan faced intra-party problems of his own. The party apparatus was dominated in many states by men who were quite willing to allow the seceded states their independence and denounced all efforts to force them back into the Union. The platform adopted by the convention declared the war to be a failure and called for an immediate end to hostilities. McClellan accepted the nomination but ignored the platform, defending the war as the only way to maintain the Union and the reestablishment of the Union as the only condition for peace.

The Illinoisans qualified to vote on November 8, 1864, were defined in the 1848 state constitution as “every white male citizen, above the age of twenty one years, having resided in the state one year” preceding election day. Such a citizen was entitled to vote only where “he shall actually reside” on the date of voting. That constitutional stipulation was interpreted to mean that soldiers in service outside the borders of Illinois—who had as large a stake as anyone in the election’s result—could not cast a ballot.

For all the sound and fury of the campaign, Election Day and those following passed peacefully in Illinois. Lincoln won his home state handily, receiving 54% of the popular vote to 45% for McClellan. Percentages of support for the two candidates varied greatly across the state. Lincoln won 80% or more of votes cast in the counties of Boone, Carroll, DeKalb, and Winnebago. McClellan’s broke 75% in Hamilton County.

Some historians have questioned the level of enthusiasm felt by voters who cast ballots for Lincoln. Many saw him as a weak vessel, but understood that he shared their commitment to the causes of union and freedom. It also has been argued that many potential McClellan voters in the end could not support him—in spite of his strong support of the war—because of disgust with the Democratic platform and the strong antiwar position of much of the party leadership.

Votes cast for governor of Illinois largely reflected the presidential balloting. Gen. Richard J. Oglesby, severely wounded at the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, and the full slate of Union candidates for statewide offices won easy victories. In races for the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate many seats filled by Democrats elected in the anti-emancipation backlash of 1862 were lost, creating Union majorities in both chambers. Membership of the new state Senate would be 14 Union men to 11 Democrats, and the House of Representatives would contain 50 Union members and 35 Democrats. Illinois would be represented in the new Congress by 12 Union men and 2 Democrats, a striking change from the 9 Democrats and 5 Republicans elected in 1862.

The relative peace that followed the tumultuous campaign was noted by Richard J. Oglesby in his January 16, 1865, inaugural address as governor: “While the recent canvass in our National and State elections was marked by some bitterness . . . it is with much satisfaction I admit it, and very creditable to our opponents, that the expression of the people, by which they have again chosen their servants . . . seems to be accepted with a becoming and respectful acquiescence.”

The era of solidarity brought about by opposition to the Confederacy would soon be challenged. A revolution was clearly on the way. Congress was about to send to the states for ratification a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery and many Illinois Union party men called loudly for an end to the state’s discriminatory Black Laws. Unionists would also elect now-former governor Richard Yates, considered by most a radical on issues of black freedom, to a seat in the United States Senate.

Interested in learning more?
There is a large literature looking at the campaign and election of 1864 at the national level. For more on Illinois see “E.L.E.C.T.I.O.N.: The 1864 Election in Illinois,” Illinois History Teacher 8:2 (2001), which can be found online at http://