Does this sound familiar? A Republican president is attacked relentlessly by the Democratic press for four years as a crass, crude man—and a tyrant and bully unworthy of his high office.
When his re-election becomes a distinct possibility after months of expectations that he is headed for defeat, a pro-Democrat publication—without naming its sources—unleashes a brutal new assault on his character. It reports that the president displayed disdain for the nation’s dead soldiers.
Donald Trump, right?
The airwaves and newspapers were filled with such a story over the weekend, which cited anonymous sources of unknown and unknowable veracity.
But it is interesting that another Republican president got the very same treatment when he was running for re-election in 1864, amidst the carnage and chaos of the Civil War. I write about it in my new book, Every Drop of Blood.
Abraham Lincoln was known for trying to relieve stress and misery by using humor. Many of his critics found his resort to funny (and sometimes smutty) stories grossly unpresidential.
The New York World, on September 9, 1864, reported a disgusting new account of Lincoln’s unworthiness for office, in a piece titled “One of Mr. Lincoln’s Jokes.”
The Charge Against Lincoln
The story was about Antietam, in Maryland, where a horrific battle was fought on Sept. 17, 1862—the bloodiest single day of conflict ever on this continent. Lincoln visited the site in October, two weeks after the fight, and met with Union General George B. McClellan. By September 1864, McClellan was the Democratic nominee for president.
According to the World, Lincoln was riding over the field in an ambulance with several people: his old friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, General McClellan, and another officer.
Army teams, the newspaper claimed, were still on the field, burying the piles of dead. When the ambulance neared the old stone bridge, “where the dead were piled highest,” Lincoln slapped Lamon on the knee. “Come, Lamon, give us that song about Picayune Butler; McLellan has never heard it.”
“’Not now, if you please,’ said General McClellan, with a shudder, ‘I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.’”
The notion of a vulgar president requesting a comical minstrel song on such hallowed ground might have filled many American families with disgust and anger, especially those who had lost a son, brother, or husband in that terrible war.
The Democrats readily exploited the story, using it in one of their campaign songs:
Abe may crack his jolly jokes
O’er bloody fields of stricken battle
While yet the ebbing life-tide smokes
From men that die like butchered cattle.
He, ere yet the guns grow cold,
To pimps and pets may crack his stories . . .
There was one problem: The story was not true.
Responses from Trump, Lincoln
It is interesting how both Trump and Lincoln responded to the brutal attacks on their character. President Trump immediately blasted The Atlantic’s story as a “hoax,” savaged the magazine, and brought out people who were there that day and denied on the record that he disparaged the dead.
Lincoln’s friend Lamon readied a similarly angry response. He demanded to know the source of the smear. But Lincoln nixed it as too “belligerent.” He said it would be more beneficial to set out the facts unemotionally. The president helped prepare a memorandum.
There was, in fact, a kernel of truth inside the story. As Lamon recounted, during the ride to the battlefield—but not on the hallowed field itself—“the President asked me to sing the little sad song(s) . . . which he had often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much. I sang them.”
Someone else in the party—“I do not think it was the President”—“asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things of which Picayune Butler was one.”
Lamon continued: “Neither Gen. McClellan or any one else made any objection to the singing; the place was not on the battle field, the time was sixteen days after the battle, no dead body was seen during the whole time the president was absent from Washington, nor even a grave that had not been rained on since it was made.”
Then Lincoln did something distinctly un-Trumpian. He filed the response away instead of releasing it to the newspapers. It was only discovered among his papers decades later.
Trusting the People
The story did not sink him. The president won re-election—mainly on the strength of Union victories in the field, and the sense that Lincoln was finally winning the war.
Lincoln had to trust the voters to recognize that the president who had honored the dead at Gettysburg, and had showed his deep respect for soldiers in a thousand other ways, was not the crass and despicable figure depicted by the World and the Democratic press.
Six years earlier, during his bitter Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln had noted how difficult it was to endure such smears.
“When a man hears himself misrepresented, it provokes him—at least I find so with myself, but when the misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.”
Trump, we all know, fights fire with fire, and trades ugly insult for ugly insult, an approach that has taken a heavy toll on his popularity and stoked division. Lincoln had a rare ability to set his emotions aside and work to tamp down ill will—even as he was being vilified by his enemies.
Ultimately, the American people decide which of the candidates for president has the strength and character to lead.
A version of this essay originally appeared in EdAchorn.com.