The 1812 presidential election took place as the United States was fighting its fourth foreign war. President James Madison sought re-election several months after declaring war on Great Britain and won by the narrowest margin in U.S. history to date. The election was inconvenient to the prosecution of the war and its outcome uncertain due to a bitterly partisan and nearly even national split, but the election was carried out on schedule. Postponing the national election was not seriously contemplated.

In an even more disruptive state of war in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that the scheduled elections “added not a little to the strain” of the ongoing struggle, but postponement was not an option. “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” Lincoln further noted that keeping to schedule “demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.”

As disruptive as hurricanes are, wars are much more so. Considering that the United States has maintained a regular and uninterrupted national election schedule for more than two centuries, including in times of devastating war, Hurricane Sandy would seem an odd and unlikely reason to postpone the presidential election. Not unlike 1864, it is an opportunity to prove to the world that the American people’s government can sustain a national election even in the aftermath of a terrible hurricane. As such, 2012 is yet another milestone of continuity for America’s experiment in constitutional self-government.

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