In 1864, Like in 2020, America Just Got Lucky

The arc of history does not bend inevitably toward justice. Sometimes, Americans barely avoid disaster.

photo of the Lincoln Memorial
Library of Congress / Getty

On the Monday following the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House, I made the short drive from my home in Maryland down to Washington, D.C., to visit the Lincoln Memorial. It was unseasonably warm for November, and I rolled up my sleeves as kayakers propelled their bodies forward on the river behind me. Just 48 hours before, every major U.S. news network had projected that Biden had won the presidency. That outcome—even though President Donald Trump and most Republican officials were (and still are) refusing to accept it—pulled the country back from continuing on what has been an ever more dangerous trajectory. For four years, Trump has, among other things, hammered away at government accountability, dismissed the reality of systemic racism, strained relationships with our allies overseas, eroded America’s commitment to human rights around the world and at home, and ignored and exacerbated the climate crisis. Four more years of his administration would have rendered the damage even worse than it currently is.

That possibility is why I was thinking of Lincoln. His bid for a second term in 1864 was another election that could have turned American history in a far more frightening direction. But for the good fortune and lucky timing of two battles that fell in the Union Army’s favor prior to the 1864 election, slavery might have been allowed to continue in exchange for peace with the Confederacy, and our country might look very different than it does. But then, as now (at least for the time being), the United States has managed to avoid a descent into immediate catastrophe. That events could so easily have turned out the other way, however, should make Americans wary of any notion that this country glides across time and space along a natural arc of progress. Our norms, our institutions, or our systems do not inevitably bend toward justice and protect us. That has been made clear. The truth is that, in some instances, we have simply been extremely lucky. And this month, even after a period of uncertainty, we were lucky again.

In the summer and early fall of 1864, Lincoln appeared to be on the brink of losing his bid for reelection. People across the country—or what remained of it—were tired of the Civil War. When hostilities began, many had initially assumed that it would be a relatively quick military exercise to put down the southern insurrection. But the war was now in its third year, and a Union victory was far from assured. The Confederacy was holding its capital of Richmond, Virginia; the bodies of young men who had joined the Union Army were piling up across the South; and the lists of the dead in northern newspapers were growing longer and longer. What’s more, following the Emancipation Proclamation, the war had become as much—if not more—about freeing enslaved people as it was about preserving the Union, a shift that didn’t sit well with many northerners.

Lincoln sensed that his support was diminishing, and quickly. “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly likely that this Administration will not be re-elected,” he wrote in a letter to his Cabinet in August 1864. “Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

For their ticket, the Democrats had selected the 37-year-old former Union General George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln had dismissed for failing to follow Robert E. Lee’s troops after the horrifically bloody battle at Antietam in 1862. “While the Union army won the battle and Lee ordered a retreat back into Virginia, McClellan refused to take advantage of Lee’s vulnerability or to pursue the defeated rebels across the Potomac,” the late historian David Brion Davis wrote in his book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. “Indeed, [McClellan] refused to cross the river and move into Virginia for nearly six weeks. As one hard-fighting Union colonel wrote to his wife, ‘the whole Rebel Army could have been captured or destroyed easily before it could have crossed the Potomac—but indeed it seems to me that McClellan let them escape purposefully.’”

According to the historian David Goldfield, the Democratic effort to nominate McClellan was “probably the most racist presidential campaign in history.” Speakers at the 1864 Democratic convention referred to Black people in abhorrent terms. One speaker, the historian Eric Foner recounts in his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, railed against “flat-nosed, long-heeled, cursed of God and damned of men descendants of Africa.” A Democratic campaign pamphlet referred to Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus the First” and mocked the Republican Party as an entity whose first commandment was “Thou shalt have no other God but the negro.”

This was the party McClellan was chosen to represent. This was the party that could have decided—for the nation—that freeing Black people from bondage was not a goal worth continuing to fight a war for. The Democratic Party adopted a platform that was oriented around making a peace deal with the Confederate states—something that might have not only allowed them to keep their slaves, but allowed enslavers to reclaim the formerly enslaved who had escaped across Union lines. After winning the nomination, McClellan rejected the platform, but Lincoln feared that, if McClellan won, Democrats would persuade him to abandon the war.

But in September, the tide changed. The Union General William T. Sherman’s troops had Confederate forces in Georgia on the run, so much so that Confederate President Jefferson Davis removed the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston in the middle of the campaign because of his defensive tactics and replaced him with General John B. Hood. In the weeks that followed, Hood was more aggressive, but no more successful. And in September, Sherman sent officials in Washington a telegram stating, “So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” After this major victory, and another by General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, the country rallied behind Lincoln, giving him a convincing 212–21 victory in the Electoral College. What’s more, 78 percent of Union soldiers ultimately cast their ballot for Lincoln, throwing their overwhelming support behind their commander in chief whose campaign slogan, “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream,” seemed to resonate, especially after a series of military victories. According to one officer whose sentiments were captured by Foner, the soldiers supported Lincoln because he believed that “this war is not a failure, that slavery must die.”

History often turns on events whose significance goes unrecognized by later generations. I suspect that many Americans do not realize how Sherman and his troops in Atlanta helped shape our country as we know it. I myself had been unfamiliar with the story for most of my life. I don’t remember being taught in school about how close Lincoln was to losing reelection—how, but for Sherman’s military triumph so soon before the election, voters in the Union states might have ousted the 16th president. America narrowly avoided a world in which President George B. McClellan, under pressure from Peace Democrats, declared a cease-fire and assured the Confederate states that slavery would be protected in the South if they rejoined the Union. How much longer would slavery have continued after the war was over? Maybe into the 20th century. Quite possibly well into it.

The 2020 presidential race was far more stable than 1864’s was. Biden, it seems, was always ahead, even if his lead was not nearly as wide as polls had led us to believe. But the margins in some swing states were close enough that I find myself imagining how, but for the occurrence of any number of scenarios, Trump might have eked out reelection. Many seem to think that Trump has been largely impervious to the onslaught of scandals that have plagued his presidency, including those that have come during the final months of the campaign. And that might be true for the more than 73 million people who decided to support his bid for a second term, but I find myself wondering whether there was any single event that might have persuaded just enough voters, in just enough swing states, not to vote for Trump. Perhaps The Atlantic’s story on Trump calling people who serve in the military “losers” and “suckers” was the final straw for just enough people in Wisconsin. Perhaps The New York Times’s revelations about Trump paying only $750 in federal taxes was too much for just enough people in Arizona to accept. Perhaps the story of more than 500 children remaining separated from their parents at the border was too much for just enough voters in Georgia to stomach. But the central hypothetical I keep returning to is what the election might have looked like if Trump had responded to the coronavirus pandemic with even a modicum of empathy or a sliver of competence. Might enough voters in Pennsylvania have made a different decision if they saw a leader driven by science and not empty bravado? Biden’s margins in a handful of swing states were—although larger than Trump’s own margins in many of those states in 2016—still narrow enough that slightly different circumstances would have given the incumbent a second term.

But now Biden takes charge of a fractured nation, one that is not experiencing a civil war but is experiencing cultural, economic, and partisan conflict exacerbated by the most divisive president in modern American history—a man who, as I write this, refuses to accept the legitimacy of the election he lost and a Republican Party that acquiesces to his whims and insecurities. The president-elect is tasked with bringing some semblance of unity to a country whose citizens seem more and more to be living in completely different worlds. Biden knows this. Indeed, it was the premise of his campaign. In his first speech after winning, he said explicitly, “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify,” and told the American people that “it’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”

Those words remind me of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, where the reelected president, too, was tasked with healing a nation that was quite literally divided. The war was not over, but the voters had given him an opportunity to finish the job, and to bring the country back together without millions of people in bondage. Unity, Lincoln believed, was essential, but the country had also reached a point where freedom for those who had long been denied it could not be sacrificed for unity’s sake. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” he wrote, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The area in front of the Lincoln Memorial the day I visited was lively and cacophonous. The air was filled with a medley of languages: Spanish, Russian, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese, French, and Korean intermingled over the stone steps. Green, red, and orange leaves dangled from trees that ringed the memorial in a garland of autumn. Dusk bathed the western facade of the monument in a soft orange hue of early evening light, while the slow curve of the Potomac River shimmered behind it. Farther east on the National Mall, the Washington Monument shot up into the cloudless sky like an arrow, its long body wrapped in the pink of sunset, its mirror image stretching the length of the reflecting pool between the memorials to the first and 16th presidents. The Capitol building, wrapped in the same blanket of light, sat behind the monument like a shy child hiding behind its older sibling’s leg. An ambulance blared in the distance. A flock of black birds took flight from a nearby tree.

I walked up to a group of three people who were standing on top of the steps overlooking the reflecting pool. A young man who introduced himself as Fernando Ferrer wore a blue mask; black, slicked-back hair; and thick-framed transition lenses that edged toward darkness as the light struck them. His friend Luis Garcia wore a white N95 mask, the shadow of his receding hairline still noticeable from his closely shaved head. Another friend, Carmen Garcia, also wore an N95 mask, and long brown hair fell down her back. All three were originally from Puerto Rico. Luis and Carmen still lived there, and were visiting Fernando, who had lived in Alexandria, Virginia, for a few years now. I asked them how they were feeling after the election, and they said they were relieved because, under Trump, they felt like they had been treated as second-class citizens. Hearing this, I remembered the footage, taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, of Trump tossing paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans as if he were shooting a basketball.

They felt as though Trump had not taken the hurricane seriously—a storm that was later determined to have killed more than 3,000 people. “People had to [bury] their own family members that died during the hurricane in their backyard,” Luis told me. “There wasn’t really any follow-up from the White House.”

I asked them what they thought about the possibilities of a Biden presidency. “I don’t know how Biden will act,” Fernando said, the sun setting into the river behind him, “but with the past experience of seeing Trump as president, at least I don’t feel as tense.”

When I asked why they had come to visit the Lincoln Memorial, Carmen said that Lincoln was someone who left an enormous imprint on the country and that they wanted to see the man who had been immortalized for abolishing slavery. Then she became more reflective, thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation and how the country might be different had Lincoln been unsuccessful. “I wonder, would I—would we be here,” she said, “or would things be way worse?”

I, too, wonder whether I would be here. And if so, what would that “here” have looked like? But for Sherman’s successful march toward Atlanta—and its timing right before the election—how different might the trajectory of my own family’s life have been? Might McClellan have won, and gone on to negotiate away the freedom of my ancestors in order to bring the Union back together? Might this magazine, founded by abolitionists just four years before the war began, have had to continue advocating for slavery’s end for decades more in a country that had just reaffirmed and reestablished its role? History’s hypotheticals lead easily to scenarios few of us would like to imagine. We have just come close to another moment that would likely have produced a worse future for this country, and, for now, I’m glad we don’t have to find out for sure.