McClellan Accepts his Presidential Nomination

September 8, 1864 (Thursday)

While Grant stewed outside Petersburg, and Sherman squeezed out Atlanta, there was another General about to make his mark. George McClellan had more or less disappeared from public life after being dismissed from the Army in the autumn of 1862. But he was not wholly absent. It might have taken some time, but in July of 1864, McClellan made clear his intention to run against Abraham Lincoln in the coming election.

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With every Union setback, calls sprang anew for the reinstatement of General McClellan, yet Lincoln would never entertain such a thing. For his part, McClellan made himself available for not only military duty, but to the Democratic Party, should they need him.

For a time, there was even an effort to place him in command of something if only he would give up his political aspirations. This he refused to entertain and by early September, when the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago, he was nominated to run for President.

While the Democratic Party’s platform did not specifically mention slavery, their stance was clear when they resolved “that the aim and object of the Democratic party is to preserve the Federal Union and the rights of the States unimpaired.” What right did one state have over another that did not involve slavery?

For many in the North, the war had turned from one to preserve the Union to one to free the slaves. This was something the Democrats could not abide. In 1862, their motto was “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was,” meaning that slavery should continue to be constitutionally protected and the Union should be preserved as it had been, with slavery, as if the war hadn’t specifically been about that very subject.

The crux of their position, however, was to end the war, capitulating and allowing the South to keep their slaves. The 1864 platform demanded that “immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view of an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”

To this, George McClellan assented, and on this day accepted their nomination to run. He had labored for days, honing his speech and selecting his words, until finally it was perfect. He began, making it clear that he did not seek this office, and from there stated his own reasons for running.

“The existence of more than one Government over the region which once owned our flag is incompatible with the peace, the power, and the happiness of the people.

“The preservation of our Union was the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced.

“It should have been conducted for that object only, and in accordance with those principle which I took occasion to declare when in active service.”

McClellan was referring specifically to his Harrison’s Landing letter to President Lincoln, in which he insisted that “Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.”

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This was his stance, and though it was said then that he was running as a so-called “Peace Candidate,” it might just as truthfully be said that he was running on the pro-slavery ticket.

The only basis for him was Union. “The reestablishment of the Union in all its integrity is, and must continue to be, the indispensable condition in any settlement.” His goal was “to secure such peace, reestablish the Union, and guarantee for the future the Constitutional rights of every state.”

He wished that whenever any seceded state was willing to rejoin the Union, “it should be received at once, with a full guarantee of all its Constitutional rights.”

Peace at any cost was not McClellan’s way. Though many in his party demanded just that, it was something with which he simply could not agree. “I could not look in the face of my gallant comrades of the army and navy who have survived so many bloody battles, and tell them that their labors and the scarifies of so many of our slain and wounded brethren had been in vain; that we had abandoned that Union for which we have so often periled our lives.”

And if they were willing to come along with him, he would lead them, and if the “Ruler of the Universe” guided him to a victory, he would do so from the White House.1



  1. Sources: Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sears; Reelecting Lincoln by John C. Waugh; Democratic Party Platform of 1864 adopted August 29, 1864. []
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