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Lincoln insisted the election of 1864 go forward—even though he was sure he would lose

You hear it all the time, from Democrats and Republicans alike: The 2012 presidential campaign was the ugliest, the longest and the most expensive ever. It was a horror show from start to finish. Neither candidate discussed real issues. Each ran away from his record. Both refused to be specific about their plans for the future. The noise from the nominees and their surrogates was both deafening and unenlightening.

However, aside from the cost of these national campaigns (obscene, to be sure) and their duration (mercilessly long), the truth is modern campaigns are no more raucous or divisive than the ones that took place during the war. Then, newspapers and candidates argued every bit as vehemently and self-righteously as today’s zealots on Fox News and MSNBC.

But the very fact that an election occurred at all when America was at war with itself marks the election of 1864 as not only singular, but an inspiration for all time to come. Surely it remains a major chapter of what modern politician (and Civil War author) Newt Gingrich calls “the romance of the American system.”

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln was one-for-two when it came to historic precedent. First, unlike any White House occupant since Andrew Jackson, he decided to stand for a second term. Second, and more important, he decided against the advice of many patriotic Unionists that the election must be held—whatever the formidable challenges of staging it amid a rebellion, and whatever the consequence to his own political future. Lincoln made many heroic decisions during his presidency: issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, ordering a military draft, imposing an income tax to pay the cost of saving the Union. But one can argue that none was braver than his insistence on asking Americans to vote up or down on their future, not to mention his own. It spoke volumes to critics who had complained that Lincoln had assumed unimaginable executive powers that he would never voluntarily give up. By standing for re-election on schedule, Lincoln effectively declared:

I will not only surrender my war powers. If the people so decide, I will surrender my presidency.

Of course Lincoln went on to win that vote of confidence, but for most of the 1864 campaign (another race that seemed intolerably long to those who lived through it) he believed he would lose. Wartime casualties had mounted to almost inconceivable numbers. Emancipation remained unpopular among many white voters—so much so that Republicans had already taken a major beating at the polls during the 1862 midterm elections. Worst of all, despite the Union’s numerical and self-proclaimed moral advantages, the Confederacy seemed closer to, not farther from, independence, and the end of the bloody war appeared to be nowhere in sight. Yet regardless of political consequences, Lincoln had brought his party another giant step further toward universal freedom. He insisted the 1864 Republican—renamed Union—Party platform commit itself to a constitutional amendment to end slavery everywhere—regardless of the political consequences, and with no reimbursement to pro-Union border state slaveowners who had rejected overtures for compensated emancipation.

By mid-summer, Abraham Lincoln grew convinced that the final verdict in 1864 would mean his ouster—and with it, the cancellation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Democratic candidate George B. McClellan was just as committed to rescinding it, if it would bring an armistice, as Mitt Romney would be in 2012 to undoing Obamacare.

So certain did Lincoln become of his own “exceedingly probable” defeat that he did two extraordinary things. First, on August 23 he made his Cabinet ministers sign, sight unseen, a mysterious sealed document. It committed them to cooperate with the incoming Democratic president “to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

In other words, if necessary, Lincoln pledged to fight as hard as possible to win the war between November and March.

Second, he recruited African-American leader Frederick Douglass to spread the word to as many enslaved people as he and his followers could reach, to alert them that they were “forever free.” They should use the precious time between a Lincoln and McClellan administration to flee their bondage and secure their permanent liberty. If there was ever a doubt that Lincoln was a sincere liberator, this partnership with Douglass to widen the net of freedom erased it.

There was one tradition to which Lincoln clung: Unlike today’s candidates, he did not campaign in his own behalf. He made no speeches, did no traveling and responded to no attacks. (Now there’s a tradition Americans might vote unanimously to restore!)

But after his substantial victory, the president finally expanded on what, in a sense, was the most important plank of his 1864 platform—perhaps even more important (with apologies to Steven Spielberg) than the campaign for the 13th Amendment—the determination that the election itself must go on if the country, however divided, was to continue to call itself a democracy.

As a victorious Lincoln put it when a crowd of supporters gathered at the White House to serenade him, “the election was a necessity.” And the “strife” of a raucous campaign, moreover, had “done us good.” Then Lincoln went on to explain why this nerve-racking, frustrating, irritating ritual remains the most important, indeed romantic, season on the American calendar.

As Lincoln put it—in words that serve to stress the beauty of democracy in action for all time to come, whatever global strife or natural disasters challenge our focus on preserving our own right to choose our leaders—“We can not have free government without elections; 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.”

Let’s try to remember that when we start drowning in the tweets, commercials, Facebook alerts, telephone pitches, mailings and fliers next time. So far, and so good, free government always wins.

Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.