Democrat attorney encouraged John C. Fremont to challenge Lincoln in 1864 election
A rare 1864 letter by Frederick Aiken, the attorney who later represented Mary Surratt in her Lincoln Assassination conspiracy trial, is up for sale by Seth Kaller Historic Documents. Owning historic documents is not for the feint of heart – or budget.
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Frederick A. Aiken, former Secretary of the Democratic National Convention, applauds General John C. Frémont’s nomination by the Radical Republicans. He suggests that Frémont will have the blessing of the Democrats if he goes up against Lincoln for the Republican nomination. Aiken went on to serve (unsuccessfully) as defense attorney for Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt.
“Washington D.C. June 12th 1864.
Up to the present time I have not heard from any democrat in this city an unkind word concerning yourself since the action of the Cleveland Convention. The Platform promulgated by that convention and your brave, truthful and powerful letter of acceptance have completely disarmed all bitter and personal hostility at the hands of the democratic party and if the choice or alternative with us was either Mr. Lincoln or the nominee of the Cleveland Convention we should to a man take the latter. We shall do all we can to elect our own candidate but we certainly shall not find time to wage war against you: and if we are successful we shall be generous. At [text loss] last meeting of the National Democratic Association here, the mention of your name by Hon. T.B. Florence was received with genuine and  hearty cheers. What I want to say is this. The democrats are willing to help you all they can as against Mr. Lincoln and if I could be put in communication with the chairman of your national committee I think I could make a suggestion that would do infinite good and not be attended with great expense.
I was the Secretary of the National Dem. Executive Com. (Breckenridge & Lane) during the last Presidential election and have experience in such affairs.
I have the honor to be
Very truly & Respectfully
Yr. ob’t serv’t
To / Maj Gen’l John C. Fremont
[docket:] Enclosed as JCF / 15th June 1864”
On May 31, 1864, Republicans and abolitionists who were dissatisfied with Lincoln’s management of the war met in Cleveland. Among them were such powerful figures as Schuyler Colfax, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, and Wendell Phillips. The Cleveland Herald ridiculed the gathering of “sly politicians from New York, impetuous hare-brained Germans from St. Louis, abolitionists, and personal friends and parasites of Frémont.” In addition to advocating a constitutional amendment immediately ending slavery – something Lincoln also supported – the Cleveland Republicans put together a platform that included a limit of one term for the chief executive and confiscation of all rebel lands in the South. They also nominated John C. Frémont as their presidential candidate, and New Yorker John Cochrane for vice president. They confusingly called themselves the “Radical Democracy.”
Lincoln and his advisors were not overly concerned about the third party. Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck called the Cleveland meeting the“Ragtail convention,” and professed that Frémont merely wanted to be bought off. If the aim of the organizers of the Cleveland Convention was to influence the mainline of the Republican Party, then they failed. The Republicans met in Baltimore on June 7 and 8, and renominated Lincoln, replacing Hannibal Hamlin on the ticket with Tennessee Unionist Andrew Johnson.
In this letter, Democrat F.A. Aiken (1810-1878), a high-ranking advisor in John C. Breckenridge’s 1860 presidential campaign, suggests to Frémont a clandestine collaboration with the Democrats to defeat Lincoln. It was one of the few times in American history that a sitting wartime president stood for reelection, and Lincoln faced considerable opposition. The war was not going well in the late spring of 1864. Nine days earlier, the Battle of Cold Harbor – Grant’s worst setback in the Overland Campaign – had reached its bloody conclusion. In his southward march on Richmond, Grant acquired a reputation of callousness in the face of mounting casualties (already 60,000 in the month-long campaign). If Frémont, who was very popular with German-Americans in New York and the Midwest, could manage to divide the Republican electorate, he could throw the election to the Democratic candidate.
Early in the war, Lincoln had removed Frémont from military command in Missouri because he had unilaterally declared martial law in the state and threatened to confiscate the property, including slaves, of Southern sympathizers. Lincoln gave Frémont command of an army in western Virginia, where he was defeated by Stonewall Jackson in the Battle of Cross Keys. Frémont refused to serve under General John Pope in the subsequent army reorganization, and Lincoln never again gave him a field command, contributing to the Pathfinder’s personal grudge.
The Democratic Party did not hold its convention until the end of August. With the campaigns against Richmond and Atlanta still stalled, the Democrats nominated another discarded general with a loyal following – George B. McClellan – to run against Lincoln.
Efforts to broker a deal between McClellan and Frémont were unsuccessful – the two had little in common except their hatred of Lincoln. On September 2, William Tecumseh Sherman finally defeated John Bell Hood and occupied Atlanta. This event, coupled with Philip Sheridan’s subsequent successes in the Shenandoah Valley, helped ease voters’ concerns about the war, and propelled Lincoln to a convincing reelection victory in November. Frémont abandoned his political campaign on September 22, 1864, after agreeing to a deal in which Lincoln removed Frémont’s enemy, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, from office.
John C. Frémont (1813-1890), “the Pathfinder,” was a legendary explorer who achieved military victories in California during the Mexican War. He entered politics as California’s first senator and then became the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856. Frémont was a controversial political general during the Civil War, commanding the Western Department from St. Louis in 1861, and West Virginia in the first half of 1862, before being pushed out of service.