It’s easy to forget that prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, members of the U.S. Senate were elected by state legislatures. Although it can’t true, it seems as if historian Francis Barry, who has written a confusing editorial in the Washington Post, seems to have forgotten. So, let’s start with an accurate portrayal of what actually happened in the 1858 Senate election between Democrat Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln.

On Election Day, “Republican candidates for the state legislature by far outpolled Democratic candidates in total number of votes,” but gerrymandered districts resulted in a decisive win for Douglas’s Democrats.

…the apportionment of the state’s population among the fifty-six state house districts and the twenty-five state senate districts was not even. Even though more Lincoln voters cast votes, they were unevenly represented in the various districts and failed to elect a sufficient number of Republican state legislators to secure Lincoln’s election to the Senate in January 1859.

When the General Assembly met to vote for the winner, Douglas received 54 votes to Lincoln’s 46, which matched exactly the 40 Democrats and 35 Republicans who were elected to the state House of Representatives, and the post-election 14-11 Democratic majority in the state Senate.

Given this, it’s somewhat peculiar to write an editorial about why Lincoln lost without any reference to the popular vote. But, okay, Lincoln knew that the goal was to win the legislature, so let’s ask the Organization of American Historians what went wrong?

In particular, Lincoln failed to get majorities in the districts across the middle of the state, which historically had been loyal to the old Whig party. Lincoln had been a Whig before 1856, and the “Whig belt” had given its votes to Whig candidates even as late as 1856, when the last Whig presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, ran against the Democrat, James Buchanan, and the nominee of the new Republican party , John C. Fremont. As a former Whig, Lincoln had hoped to carry these “swing” Whig districts. But Douglas played strongly on Whig fears about abolitionism and race, capping his efforts with an “October surprise”: an endorsement letter from the last great champion of the old Whigs, John J. Crittenden of Kentucky.

So, Lincoln was banking on winning in traditional middle-state Whig areas but that didn’t pan out mainly because Douglas was successful in race-baiting. But to hear Barry tell the story, Lincoln lost largely because he used the phrase “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and was successfully attacked as too divisive.

If you find that theory confusing, you’re not alone. The basic idea is that Lincoln should have been focused on what united Illinoians rather than what divided them, and that Joe Biden should heed the precedent and not fall into the same trap by constantly emphasizing the threat to democracy presented January 6 and a second term for Donald Trump.

I acknowledge that Biden, irrespective of his strategy, could win the argument and still lose the war. It happened to Al Gore and it happened to Hillary Clinton, both due to the vagaries of the Electoral College. You must play by the rules that exist, not the ones that you think ought to exist, and the 2024 election won’t be decided by the popular vote. Having said that, a candidate who gets the most votes must have done many things right and probably isn’t the best choice to serve as an exemplar of failure.

The choice of Lincoln’s 1858 campaign is all the stranger for the fact that Barry actually treats Lincoln’s strategy as if it had been successful, asking, “So what can Biden learn from Lincoln?”

Barry identifies four strategies that Lincoln utilized in his failed campaign that he believes Biden should emulate.

First, [Lincoln] put his wit to work, mocking Douglas for his criticism of the biblical [House Divided] verse in ways that disarmed and endeared. Biden, who revels in Irish American blarney, should have more fun cutting Trump down to size. An old uncle who can crack up a room wins hearts.

Blarney is all fine and good, but has Barry forgotten that Lincoln actually lost?

Second, Lincoln separated himself from his party’s radical wing, assuring his audience that he was neither an abolitionist nor a believer in Black equality, and reaffirming his support for the right of enslavers to reclaim their “fugitives.” The Biden campaign should look for opportunities to underscore its separation from the party’s far left, especially on issues where Trump is inflaming fear, such as crime, “wokeism” and border security.

Yes, you read that correctly and Barry just praised Lincoln for distancing himself from abolitionism and Black equality. Biden, Barry believes, should find ways to act similarly by dissing the progressive left. It has always been disheartening to read Lincoln’s denouncement of black equality during his seven debates with Douglas, and been all the more troubling that his calculated lack of principle wasn’t redeemed by victory. You can argue that Lincoln needed to do more distancing to keep the support of traditional Whigs in the middle of that state, but I remind you that the Republicans won, by far, more votes than the Democrats. Even if he still lost by sticking to principle, it would have looked better in the history books.

Third, Lincoln went out of his way to express personal understanding of his opponents and solidarity with them, saying that Southerners “are just what we would be in their situation.” Biden should not hesitate to say much the same of Trump’s supporters. Doing so will strengthen his call for unity by sending a more welcoming message to undecided voters, depriving Republicans of the kind of advantage they gained from Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark.

Here we have to ask just what “situation” Trump voters are in? In what way are Trump voters just what non-Trump voters would be if the tables were turned? This argument makes absolutely no sense. Should Biden absolve the people who stormed the Capitol because Democrats would have done the same? It’s a preposterous idea.

Fourth, and most crucially, Lincoln reframed the debate. Without giving an inch on the principle that mattered most to him — upholding what he saw as the Founders’ vision of containing slavery for the purpose of eventually extinguishing it — he emphasized how local differences are part and parcel of the “bonds of Union.” In other words, as long as Americans kept faith with the Founders, a house divided against itself could stand.

Okay, how many things are wrong with this? First, Lincoln lost. Second, the house did not stand. Less than three years later, the country was at war with itself. Nothing Lincoln said during the 1858 campaign brought victory or prevented catastrophe. Barry whitewashes this by arguing, “Although these tactics were not enough to carry Lincoln to victory in 1858, they ultimately helped lift him into the White House, where they remained hallmarks of his leadership.”

Does Barry think Biden is running for president in 2026?

Barry starts this piece by arguing that Biden shouldn’t fall into the trap Lincoln fell into, and then uses Lincoln’s failed strategy as his guidepost. He fails to identify the most crucial reason that Lincoln lost, which was gerrymandered districts, and he suggests Lincoln’s appeal as a presidential candidate was based on being convincing about uniting the country. He was so unconvincing that the South seceded before he could be inaugurated.

How did this piece get published in the Washington Post?

Oh right, it’s run by News Corp. veterans now.



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