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The American Presidency

The Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1289, p. 525-526.

November 26, 1864


In itself, the election of a President of the Federal States of America could have aroused very little, if any, of that anxiety which agitates those who watch a competitive struggle. The issue was so certain that, even amongst the people for whom the event possessed a real and actual interest, the sweet pangs of suspense must have been wanting. Practically, Mr. Lincoln had no antagonist. An invitation to a four years' occupation of the White House at Washington now by no means implied a pleasant tenure of an office, which, in a self-governed country, used to be accompanied with few of the cares and not too many of the responsibilities of state. The candidature for the presidency was, therefore, peculiarly circumscribed on this occasion, and scarcely any individual emerged from comparative obscurity to present what has often proved the best claim to support--namely, an ignorance on the part of the nation over which he was to rule (to say nothing of the world in general) of anything about him. When the contest came to be confined to Mr. Lincoln and General M'Clellan, the principles on which it was to be conducted were supposed to be defined. The one was the acknowledged representative of the Republican and the war party; the other was announced to stand as typifying the Democrats, and something more, for, while he was proclaimed as the embodiment of a policy which desired the preservation of the Union, it also comprehended the restoration of peace between the contending States. However those who laid down this policy proposed to carry it out, at least General M'Clellan at a very early period of his candidature, which, by-the-by, seemed on a great measure to have been involuntary on his part, disclaimed all notion of being responsible for the opinions which had been inscribed for him on what the Americans call his ticket; declined to pledge himself at least to a peace-at-any-price policy, and so effectually neutralised any opposition to Mr. Lincoln, which was thereafter carried on but feebly in his name, and the race became as nearly as possible a walk over. On the face of it, then, it would appear that the principles which Mr. Lincoln professes and which in an especial manner he may be supposed to represent, have obtained a great triumph, and the policy of the Federal States may be assumed to be settled for the next four years. It may also be asserted that the re-election of the existing President is a more decided testimony in favour of the cause of which he is the emblem than the first choice of a man who was at that time, so to speak, a political abstraction. The force of these assumptions may nevertheless be subjected to some modifications.

Although American history is so shortlived that events scarcely survive in memory for four years, it is possible that it may be recollected, even in such a go-ahead country, that the election of the President, four years ago, was the result of a severe struggle for political ascendancy between two parties in the State, both of which put forth their strength to secure a victory. The entire people of the United States were engaged in this contest; every State in the Union took part in it; and, as they contended for a principle, and one which enlisted all the sympathies and all the energies of opponent parties, it mattered very little, at the moment, who or what the man was who represented the opinions of the section which was seeking to oust another from power. Perhaps the very fact of his obscurity was considered to be an element in the triumph of the Republican party if it succeeded; for their immediate purposes a Chinese joss would have sufficed. They did triumph, and ere long King Log was created by circumstances into one of the most powerful and responsible rulers in the world. Without entering into the question of his capabilities for his great function, we must accept the fact that Mr. Lincoln has in a manner become a necessity to the Federal party, and his reelection has become almost a matter of course. In a sense, which is not the usual flattering sense, he is without a rival. Not only is he practically freed from the impediment of personal opponents, but the suffrage by which he is re-elected has been changed from that to which he appealed in his first

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candidature. The whole of the Southern States have nothing to say in this election, and with them, of course, has vanished the great bulk of the personnel of the party which fought so hard against Mr. Lincoln in his representative character in 1860. Numerically, the Democrats have lost at least two thirds of their strength in the presidential election for the Northern States. The records of previous elections show how vast was the influence of the party in power in the choice of President. For years, what was theoretically a popular election had resolved itself into a system of succession. How much more complete must be that organised action of the ascendant power in the State in such a matter now, when the Government is a practical despotism, and when--to take one special, though new, instance of its peculiar command of those resources which have always been unscrupulously used in political movements--the election could be turned by the votes of the soldiers in the large army, of which the aspirant to re-election is not only technically but in a very efficacious sense the Commander-in-Chief! Indeed, it seems almost a waste of argument and a supererogation to bring together the circumstances which would prove that the re-election of Mr. Lincoln was a certainty. Divination with regard to the effect of his continuance in power is by no means so easy.

There are those who do not hesitate to lay down the results of this event in no measured language. With them it signifies the deliberate abdication by the American people of their right of self-government; an avowed step towards the foundation of a military despotism, towards the subversion of a popular Government, which may still exist in form, but which in substance is gone; and that the second presidency of Mr. Lincoln may be taken as the period from which to date the complete abrogation of the American Constitution and the commencement of that transition state, so well known to students of history, through which republics pass on their way from democracy to tyranny. Again, it is pronounced that this re-election means, in the North, new conscriptions, abridged liberty, the free press fettered, and free speech suppressed; and, throughout the South, a renewed outburst of all the horrors of war, followed by social anarchy. It is probable that sober-thinking men, even amongst those who least affect Mr. Lincoln and his policy, will be inclined to treat such high talk as manifest exaggeration.

It may, perhaps, be permitted to some impartial observers of the great contest which is going on in America to derive some gleams of hope in reference to the settlement of the question in issue, even out of this apparently unhopeful circumstance of the renewal of a Government which is pledged to a prosecution of the war. At least one point has been gained--the supremacy of a distinct and intelligible policy has been asserted. The Northern States understand that they will be asked to continue to carry on the war on the same scale and with the same undeviating continuity for four years more. Surely, this is a proposition which may well bring every man to reflection and to a careful consideration at once of the causes and the effects of the struggle in which the antagonistic States are engaged. Not being prepared to give in our adhesion to that doctrine of the abnegation of popular Government by the American people to which we have alluded above, we are prone to hold to a belief that, ere long, public opinion in the North will assert itself in reprobation of a policy involving consequences so tremendous, sacrifices so awful; and all for what is fast becoming a dream of national unity, a unity founded, not upon sympathies of race, habits, and institutions, but on mere geographical considerations. There is already a peace party, which is neither contemptible for number nor influence; and with such a prospect as is deliberately offered to the Federal States by the twice-chosen symbol of civil war, it is incredible but that the feelings and principles of that party will make way into the minds of a people, in the main sober, sensible, and not so over-burdened with abstract enthusiasm as to be prepared to immolate all that it holds dear for an idea.

During the period of this civil war it is computed that the Federal States have contracted a debt amounting to three thousand millions of dollars; that within three years three hundred thousand men, in the vigour of health and in the pride of early manhood, have died, and two hundred thousand more have been maimed and crippled, in the service of the North. Every family in those States has its wounded son; many have several; and hundreds of thousands mourn those who have fallen never to rise again. This is the retrospect; is it to be the prospect? No doubt the American people have shown great resolution, great aptitude to look their trials and troubles in the face; but the question is whether they have not done enough to prove those qualities, and whether the time has not arrived when they may yield to gentler influences, and think of submitting their political differences to other arbitrament than that of the sword. Again, we take on ourselves to repudiate the notion that the people of the North have now delivered themselves up as mere puppets into the coarse hands of Mr. Lincoln for another term of presidential power. It may be that at present he symbolises a sort of vague opinion of the majority of them; but to say that, if that opinion should change and their wishes take a different direction, he will be able to control and mould such a people to purposes of mere personal ambition, is to presuppose in this creature of unhappy circumstances the commanding qualities and character of a Cromwell--a resemblance which even caricaturists have not yet imagined. It is possible that, after all, the prolongation of Mr. Lincoln's tenure of office once will be productive of ultimate benefit to the people over whom he has been selected to rule for eight years; and that, by means which he never intended and the concurrence of events which he never contemplated, he may become the involuntary saviour of his country.

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