One remarkable feature of the American Civil War is that in its midst we nonetheless held regularly scheduled elections. And as is well-known, in the 1862 mid-term election, President Lincoln and the Republican Party suffered devastating losses in the U.S. House. The Republican Party barely retained partisan control of the House, with the plurality but not the majority of seats (even with almost no representation of the Confederate States), although the Republicans did remain firmly in control of the Senate. The five largest states in the North, all of which had gone for Lincoln in 1860 — New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Lincoln’s home state, Illinois — now sent Democratic majorities to Congress, as did New Jersey. Without effective Republican control of the House, many of the legislative measures essential to the war and emancipation might not have been enacted during the critical years between 1863-65.
But did the Republican Party manage to maintain control of the House only because of election fraud? That’s the striking, underdeveloped allegation I ran across in reading a provocative new book on the origins of the Civil War, Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. Fleming makes this assertion just in one paragraph, which I quote in full here:
Worse, the Republican Party took a drubbing in the November midterm elections. Kentucky was carried for the Union using totally desperate tactics. At each polling place, there were detachments of Union troops. When a Democrat arrived to vote, the officer in command warned him that he could not guarantee his safety on the way home. Most of the time, the man decided not to vote. Kentucky’s fraudulently elected delegation enabled the Republicans to retain control of the House of Representatives. If the Democrats had won, they would have had the power to cut off funding for the war.
I have never seen the assertion before that Lincoln’s continuing support in the House was possible only due to this kind of intimidation that flipped Kentucky’s congressional delegation. But is the assertion right?
The concluding line of this passage is obviously wrong: even had the Democrats controlled the House, they would not have had the power to cut off war funding without enacting legislation, which would have required the Senate and Lincoln to approve. But partisan control of the House was still hugely consequential for the second half of Lincoln’s presidency. The 38th Congress enacted the first draft in U.S. history; legislation creating America’s first progressive income tax, to pay for the War; it sent a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery to the states for review; it authorized the transcontinental railroad; it admitted West Virginia (on condition that it abolish slavery) and Nevada into the Union; and anticipating ratification of the 13th Amendment, that Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist former slaves making the transition into full citizenship. So an enormous amount was at stake, not surprisingly, in unified Republican control of the government from 1863-65.
I’ve started trying to track down whether Fleming could possibly be right that election fraud in 1862 kept control of the government in Republican hands. Democrats did pick up 28 seats in these elections, which gave them 72; Republicans still had 86 seats, though; the other 25 seats were held by the Unionist party (mostly Southerners who did not want to be associated with the Republican Party). But Kentucky had 9 representatives, all of them Unionists; if I’m right about that, even assuming the Kentucky delegation was fraudulent and would have legitimately been all Democratic, as Fleming asserts, the House would still have been 86 R; 81 D; and 16 Unionist. So it would appear the Republican plurality would still have been in control. But perhaps I’m missing something about the dynamics of the remaining Unionist members; would the Democrats have been able effectively to control the House, had the Kentucky delegation been all Democratic? I’ve looked at Fleming’s footnotes, but they don’t seem on point at all.
By the way, the reasons the mid-war election was such a blow to Lincoln are themselves evidence of how dramatic and momentous the 1862 elections were. The consensus is that Lincoln was repudiated at the polls (but not quite so badly as to lose control of the House) for three reasons. First, Lincoln had issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in late September, with the promise to make it law on January 1, 1863. Second, two days later, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the country, in order to enforce conscription; Democrats argued that Lincoln was seeking to make himself a dictator. And third, the war appeared to be going badly for the Union on the eve of the elections.
If anyone has further insight, get in touch. I’m curious both about whether it’s reasonable to conclude that intimidation/fraud flipped Kentucky’s congressional delegation and, if that’s credible, whether that would have changed partisan control of the House in this critical period. I’m not sure I’ve seen either claim made before.