Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

How innocent people can be about politicians who feel their power is threatened. A case in point is Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest presidents but one who, as author Tom Wheeler wrote in a blogpost for The Brookings Institution, faced in 1864 somewhat similar circumstances to those of facing President Donald Trump.

“The first (parallel) was whether an election could be conducted amidst a national crisis. The second was the need to change voting laws. The third was the availability of a new technology to spread the president’s words,” Wheeler writes.

Very true, and Wheeler astutely notes the battles at the time over whether soldiers could vote absentee — important Lincoln states like Indiana and Illinois did not allow it — and politicos were adjusting to the telegraph and its national impact through the newspapers of the day. Echoes of absentee battles and Twitter today?

In terms of national crisis, though, Lincoln was doing pretty well — arguably much better than Trump’s “war” against coronavirus — as his war increasingly was looking as if it was won by the fall of 1864, even if Confederates had stalled the Union advance in the east at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

But every lever that Lincoln could pull, he did. Military operations were often suspended to send whole regiments back home, in the belief they would support the incumbent commander-in-chief.

Louisiana had a key role in other Lincoln maneuvers. The formerly secessionist state had seen New Orleans and Baton Rouge occupied since 1862. Lincoln promoted a rump government of Whites willing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, and Lincoln’s Union ticket carried our state and Tennessee by a similar arrangement.

The U.S. government had also pushed creating the states of Kansas, Nevada and West Virginia to give Lincoln an 1864 boost. No matter how sparsely populated, each state counted in the Electoral College: Nevada had two for its senators and one for its representative.

Fortunately for the incumbent, the capture of Atlanta in 1864 gave such a boost to the president, and a large popular win to Lincoln’s ticket, that the election was clearly won. The electoral votes supplied by Louisiana’s new Unionist government were ultimately not counted, but the Union ticket nevertheless won overwhelmingly in the Electoral College.

Are some circumstances different today? Again, the stakes are high beyond merely political control, as the coronavirus pandemic is a huge threat to life and also to commerce.

But the situation is hardly comparable to the existential threat to the Union of Lincoln’s day. Those days should also be a caution to prognosticators: Lincoln was widely seen as the underdog in 1864, until the capture of Atlanta in early September.

Events, then, had more to do with the result than Lincoln’s maneuvers to round up dodgy electoral votes.