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Lincoln and Fremont

March 20, 2019

Lincoln was the first Republican to become President, but he was not the first Republican candidate.  That distinction belongs to John Fremont.  He too was one of Lincoln’s generals, and although Lincoln probably voted for Fremont in 1856, the two did not always see eye to eye.

Fremont was more aggressive than Lincoln in acting to emancipate slaves.  When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the President declared it to be a military necessity which freed only the slaves in the seceding states.  But when in 1861 General Fremont emancipated the slaves of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri, a state which had not seceded, Lincoln was worried that neighboring Kentucky would be driven to join the Confederacy.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not take effect until January 1863, and he had given the seceding states the last few months of 1862 to rejoin the Union instead of having their slaves freed.  In the 1861 action Fremont had simply declared martial law without regard for the political consequences and without consulting Lincoln.  The President at first tried to persuade Fremont to change course.  When that failed, he overruled the General.  Lincoln, although deserving of honor for his eventual triumph over slavery, did not want to trade political advantage for mere temporary success.

Lincoln would never have been considered by the Democrats in 1860, but in 1856 Fremont had been offered the chance to contend for that Party’s nomination.  If he had consented, he would have faced tough competition, but if he had been the Democratic standard-bearer, his chances of becoming President would have been greatly enhanced.  Instead, he chose to run as a Republican and lost.






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