This past week the major news story in the country was the midterm elections, and the resulting Republican Party takeover of the House of Representatives. In some ways, the failure or success of President Obama’s first term as president now weighs heavily on the ability of the president and the new Congress to compromise and cooperate. As in every election, accompanying the aftermath is the prospect of change and progress, mixed with a tinge of uncertainty of whether that progress will actually materialize. As an Abraham Lincoln historian, these 2010 elections spurred me to reflect upon two elections in the past: one being the 1860 presidential election 150 years ago this month, and the midterm elections that faced Lincoln as president in 1862.
Indeed, 150 years has now passed since the crucial election of 1860. A century-and-a-half later, Lincoln’s mark on the presidency is unparalleled, and all subsequent presidents have looked to Lincoln as the example of presidential leadership. He was a president not without mistakes and examples to avoid, but how he steered the country through its worse constitutional crisis is an example that any aspiring political candidate should examine thoroughly. 150 years since the division began which led to the American Civil War in April 1861. It is natural for us to question that had Lincoln not been elected in 1860 how our country would have been so much different. While both Democrats, but especially Republicans, hail the recent election as a landmark achievement, it pales to the stakes 150 years ago.
But even with that victory, Lincoln’s success in forwarding his agenda and in prosecuting the war depended upon a Congress willing to collaborate with his policies. It could be argued that one of the most important years legislatively for Lincoln was 1862. After all, the war was not going well for the Union. Discontent and dissent was rising in Congress against a president they viewed as inadequate to the task of subduing the rebellion. Along with that, in September of that year he had advanced one of the most controversial and significant presidential decrees ever—the Emancipation Proclamation. National measures on slavery had always been congressional responsibilities, so needed a Congress to concur with this action. Additionally, Lincoln faced criticism on his taxing policies, on the draft, and on the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. In short, Lincoln’s presidency depended upon the midterm elections of 1862.
While Republicans—who controlled the House before the 1862 election—retained control after the election (unlike the Democrats in 2010), there are striking and fascinating similarities between 1862 and 2010. In 1862, the Republicans held 59% of the House seats, exactly identical to the Democrats in 2010. After November 1862, Republicans held only 46% of the seats (but still held control because of Democratic Party unionists who defected their party), a mirror image to the 43% seats Democrats will now face come January. Interesting! If 2010 is an electoral landslide for Republicans and an electoral message to President Obama, then certainly 1862 was for Lincoln. Most presidents do witness their party losing seats in midterm elections, and even though this year and 1862 are similar, it could be argued that ramifications in 1862 were far worse. Lincoln even lost his own home district, and in the middle of a war, it could have been a clear signal to Lincoln to dramatically alter his course—even to consider abandoning emancipation and pursue peace terms with the South. For the most part, he stayed true to his principles and his actions. A lesser president elected 150 years ago may not have done so. Whether Obama will change course is yet to be seen, but the president might well study lessons from history.