Andrew Johnson: Campaigns and Elections

Andrew Johnson: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1864

Uncertain about his chances for reelection in 1864, President Lincoln tried to balance the ticket by convincing Republican delegates to their National Union Convention to drop Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as vice president in favor of Andrew Johnson, who was the most prominent "War Democrat" in the nation. Moderate Republicans eagerly supported Johnson, who was known for his tough stand against the planter aristocracy, although Hamlin lobbied hard to retain his place on the ticket.

At his party’s national convention in Baltimore in June 1864, President Lincoln relied on Tennessee’s convention delegates, William G. Brownlow and Horace Maynard, to publicly make the case for Johnson—and this they did, with stirring speeches that praised Johnson for having stood loyal while “in the very furnace of the rebellion.” Lincoln’s backers in the North delighted in contrasting Andy Johnson’s rock-ribbed loyalty to the Union with the altogether less admirable record of McClellan’s running mate, George H. Pendleton of Ohio. Pendleton was the very personification of the treacherous Copperhead Democrats, who wanted to make a peace settlement with the Confederates. Johnson also strengthened Lincoln's appeal to the Union's working class, especially the Irish. The Irish Catholic voters favored Johnson for his strong record of opposing anti-Catholicism while governor of Tennessee.

Additionally, Johnson was a widely recognized champion of the nation's so-called yeoman Democrats, a term that embraced small farmers and village artisans everywhere in the Union. But there were some Radical Republicans who felt differently. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania grumbled in the Senate that the Republicans should have found a candidate "without going down into one of those damned rebel provinces." Other Radical Republicans had called a convention in Cleveland and nominated John Frémont for the presidency and General John Cochrane for the vice presidency, but with Johnson on the ticket, Lincoln's hand was strengthened with moderates even as he lost support from the right wing of his party.

The Lincoln-Johnson ticket, opposed by Democratic candidates, General George B. McClellan of New Jersey and George H. Pendleton of Ohio, went into the election with several advantages: Most rank-and-file Republicans greatly supported Lincoln and his determination to win the war. So too did most Union soldiers, even though McClellan, whom Lincoln had dismissed because he felt that the general was unwilling to decisively engage the Confederate forces of General Robert E. Lee in the Virginia theater, was popular with most bluecoats. Also, McClellan rejected the peace plank of his own party platform, which called for immediate cessation of hostilities and the restoration of peace "on the basis of the Federal Union of States." Most importantly, when General William Sherman successfully marched through Georgia in September, delivering Atlanta to Lincoln as an election present, the sentiment for Lincoln united the party behind him. Lincoln was reelected in a landslide victory in which he earned ten times more Electoral College votes than McClellan.

The Campaign and Election of 1866

Although not a presidential election, the off-year congressional election of 1866 was in fact a referendum election for President Andrew Johnson. By the summer of 1866, Johnson had lost support within the Republican Party for his Reconstruction policies. (See the Domestic Affairs section for details.) After a unity meeting of 7,000 delegates at the National Union Convention—which met in Philadelphia on August 14—failed to bridge the growing gap between Johnson and the Republicans, the determined President decided to take the issue to the people.

Beginning on August 28, accompanied by such notables as Civil War hero Admiral David Farragut, President Johnson launched an unprecedented speaking tour in the hopes of regaining public and political support. He traveled from Philadelphia to New York City, then through upstate New York and west to Ohio before heading back to Washington, D.C. This "swing around the circle" was marked by an intemperate campaign style in which Johnson personally attacked his Republican opponents in vile and abusive language reminiscent of his Tennessee stump speech harangues.

Provoked by hecklers, Johnson hissed that he was as prepared to “fight traitors at the North” as he had been to fight Southern traitors. In his view, Radical Republicanism was like secessionism: both were forms of extremism which tended toward the destruction of the Union. Having worked during the war to discredit secessionism, Johnson now focused on discrediting Radical Republicanism; having cast blacks as the pawns of the planters, he now cast them as the pawns of the Radicals. What most angered Republicans who read the press reports of Johnson’s public speeches was that he brazenly accused the “Radical Congress” of inciting black violence in the South and of trying to “poison the minds of the American people” against him. On several occasions, it also appeared that the President had had too much to drink, nearly stumbling from the platform. In the end, the campaign was a disaster for Johnson. One observer later said that the President lost one million Northern voters as a result of his tour.

In the congressional elections, the anti-Johnson Republicans won two-thirds of both houses, thus sealing Johnson's doom and giving his opponents enough power to override his programs. Later, the House of Representatives, in voting its articles of impeachment against Johnson, would charge him with disgracing his office by attempting to appeal directly to the people for support in the 1866 elections—something that was considered to be demagogic and beneath the dignity of a President at the time.

The Campaign and Election of 1868

Having escaped being convicted in his May 1868 impeachment trial by one vote, Johnson had no chance of being reelected as President. (See the Domestic Affairs section for details.) He attempted to win the Democratic nomination at the convention in the newly completed Tammany Hall in New York. He told his supporters that a united Democratic Party, with him at its helm, stood the best chance of blocking the drive for black political equality in the South. At the convention, Johnson came in second in the balloting on the first vote, trailing first-place leader George H. Pendleton of Ohio 105 to 65. After that ballot, in which Democrats tried to allow Johnson to save face, the incumbent President never surfaced again. Instead of Johnson, the Democrats ran Horatio Seymour, the former wartime governor of New York, who was the presiding officer of the convention, and Francis P. Blair of Missouri.

The Republicans bitterly attacked Johnson as a traitor to Lincoln and the nation in their convention in Chicago, nominating General Ulysses S. Grant and House Speaker Schuyler Colfax of Indiana as President and vice president, respectively. Running a "bloody shirt" campaign, which tagged the Democrats as the party of secession and treason, the Republicans swept to victory, winning 53 percent of the popular vote to Seymour's 47 percent. (See Grant Biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for further details.) Johnson took a little active role in the campaign for Seymour, but Seymour echoed Johnson’s arguments that Congressional Reconstruction was corrupt and punitive.