At the end of August 1864, with a bitterly contested presidential election less than three months away, Lincoln had good reason to believe he would lose his bid for a second term.
The three-year-long effort to quell the Confederacy's slaveholder rebellion was faltering, casualties mounting. Just 13 months earlier, chaos had struck some of the North's largest cities, as resistance to military conscription triggered looting, arson and violent attacks against innocent people of color. In New York alone, draft rioters had not only lynched innocent African Americans and sacked retail stores, but also unleashed a particularly heinous attack on the "Colored Orphan Asylum" on Fifth Avenue -- setting it ablaze with more than 200 orphans still inside (they escaped).
By 1864, press attacks on Lincoln reached new levels of vitriol. Democratic newspapers condemned the incumbent as a despot and clown, mocking him as an ineffective commander-in-chief. Much of this could be written off as partisan dissembling, but then, in the summer, two of the most influential Republican newspaper editors turned against Lincoln as well.
Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune went so far as to undercut administration policy and propose to personally negotiate a peaceful end to the Civil War, bullying Lincoln into authorizing him to talk armistice with dubious Confederate conferees. When Lincoln also instructed Greeley not to negotiate away the Emancipation Proclamation in return for a cease-fire, the talks collapsed and conservative voices in the North condemned Lincoln for showing his hand. Where public relations was concerned, it seemed Lincoln could not win.
And then, Henry J. Raymond, editor of the reliably pro-Lincoln New York Times, warned the president: "The tide is setting strongly against us." If the vote were held that week, Raymond predicted, Lincoln would lose the swing states of Illinois, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Why not launch a peace initiative of your own, Raymond urged him -- this time aimed directly at Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself. This proved the most unnerving advice of all, for Raymond was not only a newspaper editor, but chairman of the Republican (redubbed the Union) Party.
With nowhere else to turn, a desperate and despondent Lincoln threw up his hands and authorized Raymond to seek such a conference with the Rebel chief "in entirely respectful terms" and "propose, on behalf of this government, that upon the restoration of the Union and the national authority, the war shall cease at once, all remaining questions to be left for adjustment by peaceful means." Even the freedom of Blacks seemed negotiable.
The meeting never materialized, but what President Trump needs to consider most closely is what Lincoln did next.
First, he refused to question the legitimacy of an election in the midst of chaos.
"We can not have free government without elections," he said in a November speech, "and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone, a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us."
Second, Lincoln insisted on the fullest possible participation. Between 1862 and 1865, 20 northern states changed laws that required in-person voting to allow deployed soldiers to cast their ballots. True, as most historians agree, nearly 80% of the troops voted for Lincoln, but the President had no sure way of knowing in advance how much support they would provide. More importantly, never before had a candidate -- much less a president -- shown such confidence in the security of absentee ballots, or the right of voters to cast them.
Third, Lincoln suddenly welcomed heated debate on campaign issues without complaint -- a sharp departure from the earlier years of his presidency. For years, he had cracked down harshly on dissenting voices -- allowing the army and several federal departments to shut down newspapers and even throw hostile editors into military prisons without trial -- not his greatest legacy.
As recently as June 1864 he had personally authorized the shutdown of the harsh Democratic daily, the New York World. Such journals, he had long insisted, were practicing not freedom of the press but outright treason. But as the campaign entered the final stretch, Lincoln relaxed his grip on anti-Republican, anti-Union journalism. They were no longer enemies of the people, but legitimate political combatants. Democratic papers resumed their attacks without retribution. Case in point was the New York World itself, which promptly launched vicious racist attacks on Lincoln, publishing cartoons and fake-news pamphlets that accused him with planning racial integration should he win a second term -- a charge that threatened to doom his chances in the Empire State, and elsewhere.
Lincoln let the attacks roll off his back -- even one calumny that alleged he had publicly disrespected casualties of the war (does this sound familiar?). To this charge, he did draft a response. But once he got his fury off his chest, he filed away the letter without sending it -- a show of restraint unimaginable in 2020 with Trump's use of Twitter.
Fourth, in the midst of dire predictions about his own election chances, Lincoln patriotically planned for a peaceful transition of power. He went so far as to craft a memorandum that openly stated: "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards."
Lincoln then folded the memo in half, glued it shut, and asked his Cabinet officers to sign it sight unseen -- unwilling to foment panic by sharing its contents, but making clear that, if needed, it would bind his entire official family to handing over the reins of government to the opposition.
Oh yes, and finally, when a longtime member of the Supreme Court -- Democratic Chief Justice Roger B. Taney -- died just a few weeks before Election Day, Lincoln deferred nominating a successor until after the people had decided on their next president. Could he have rammed a nominee through Congress earlier if so disposed? Yes. In fact, when he did ultimately forward the name of Salmon P. Chase as Taney's successor, the Senate consented on the very same day!
As it happened, fate -- and Union General William Sherman -- rendered the success of all these initiatives' efforts moot. When Sherman captured Atlanta in the first week of September, the political tide quickly shifted in concert with the military. And on November 8, Lincoln won nearly 55% of the popular vote, and an overwhelming majority of the Electoral College.
Thus, Abraham Lincoln's selfless plan to yield presidential power was never tested in real time. But even in a maelstrom, Lincoln himself had passed the test of democratic leadership -- and political decency. The election, he later admitted, had unleashed much "undesirable strife," but added, "it has done good, too. It has demonstrated that a people's government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war ... It shows how sound, and how strong we still are."
If Donald Trump really imagines himself another Lincoln, he should remember Lincoln's behavior on the eve of a tough election. He might also read the words Lincoln spoke when he contemplated the result.
"I do not impugn the motives of anyone opposed to me," Lincoln said while the votes were still being counted. "It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one; but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence if the people's resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity." Whatever the judgment of the people, he promised, still uncertain of the result, "I have no desire to modify this opinion."