Dickinson College, Spring 2024

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Election of 1860

Why did the results of the 1860 election trigger Civil War?

Close Reading exercise

Grace Bedell

The election of 1860 was the only presidential election in American history that resulted in widespread violence.  Seven states in the Deep South,  led by South Carolina, refused to accept the results of the contest that elevated the new Republican Party and its nominee, Abraham Lincoln, into national power.  Secession began in December 1860 (with an ordinance drafted by Dickinson College graduate John A. Inglis) and escalated into the organization of the Confederate states in February 1861 and then full blown Civil War by April when President Lincoln refused to back down in the face of assaults on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

Thus, the 1860 contest stands alone in American history.  Yet how should students best understand its meaning?  In History 211, students will look carefully at the so-called “campaign” of Abraham Lincoln, through study of his 1859 autobiographical sketch and his October 1860 letter to a young girl named Grace Bedell.  C-SPAN filmed a previous version of this particular class in 2010.  You might want to check it out (and pay particular attention to the late student arriving at the beginning of the video…).

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For those who need additional background on the contest, please check out the following resources:

The Election of 1876: Compromise vs Truce

The election of 1876 is one of the most contested elections in American history.  As election day drew to a close on November 7, 1876 it seemed to be clear that the Democratic candidate for office, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York had been victorious over his Republican counterpart, Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.  Tilden had won roughly 51 percent of the popular vote while garnering 184 electoral college votes compared to Hayes who only recieved 165.  Where the election began to get murky was the fact that neither candidate had won the majority of electoral votes, and four states were still up in the air as far as who their votes would be counted towards.

Hayes and his fellow Republicans accused Tilden and many southern Democrats of voter fraud and intimidation, especially with the recently empowered african american population in southern states.  The drastic unrest between these two sides led some to speculate that the beginning of another Civil War was on the horizon. 

Tilden was a man of reform and embodied the movement that many Democrats within the south were looking for.  While he his popularity grew he also exposed his greatest weakness, his secretiveness.  Hayes on the other hand was proclaimed by his supporters as, “open…and..he utters aloud and in the presence of others his opinions on all proper subjects of discussion.”

The states of Florida, Louisiana, Oregon and South Carolina held the key to the election as all four of these states electoral votes were being disputed.  The reconstruction governments of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina went and threw out Democrat votes to allow Hayes to receive the states electoral votes, allowing him to possess the majority.  This led to the what is now know as the Compromise of 1877.  In exchange for the presidency Rutherford Hayes  had to remove all federal troops from the south thus leaving african americans exposed to southern law and order and he had to name name a southerner as Postmaster General which he did by appointing David M. Key of Tennessee. 

Finally after months of heated debates Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugerated on March 5, 1877.  The election of 1876 almost pushed our already battered nation to the breaking point again.  It did however mark the end of Reconstruction and the new beginning of the nation as one.

McClellan and the Election of 1864: Election Amid the War

Republican Lincoln vs. Democratic McClellan

“Conscious of my own weakness, I can only seek fervently the guidance of the Ruler of the Universe, and, relying on His all-powerful aid, do my best to restore Union and peace to a suffering people, and to establish and guard their liberties and rights.” – General George B. McClellan

The Election of 1864 was one of the few elections to take place amid a wartime setting. The two candidates were friends on opposing sides. The Republican Party nomination went, of course, to Abraham Lincoln for reelection and he ran under the National Union Party.  The Democratic Party went a different route in nominating General Gorge B. McClellan, a “young Napolean” war general and one of the leading men of Lincoln’s Union Army.

The Democratic Party was torn between the War Democrats and the Peace Democrats. This duality placed a certain strain onto the Party, thus dividing it and making it all the more weaker in comparison to the united Northern Republicans. At the Democratic Convention in August of 1864 brought McClellan to the forefront of the Democratic Peace Party, also known as the Copperheads. Though he stood for much of what the political group represented, an immediate cease-fire and negotiation with the Confederacy, McClellan was more pro-war did not agree altogether with the cease-fire. He instead promised a stronger effort for the Union to stop the war in the hopeful near future. Unfortunately for the Peace Party, his pro-war stance worked against the Democratic Party and sent more votes Lincoln’s way. McClellan attempted to keep himself at a distance from the strong anti-war sentiments of the Peace Party. In his acceptance speech for his nomination he wrote, “The Union must be preserved at all hazards.” He did not believe in attempting to bring peace into a country where there was no immediate, peaceful resolution.

As the Election grew nearer, Lincoln’s campaign gained momentum as the McClellan Democratic Party continued to lose supporters. The War raged on in the North and the South. On September 2, Atlanta fell to the Union Army. This victory almost so close to the election date brought further motivation for Republican votes and “boosted Union morale.” Lincoln’s re-election seemed more certain with each passing day.

Finally on Election Day, McClellan realized his loss. It was rather inevitable with the events leading up November 8, 1864. The Republican Abraham Lincoln defeated General McClellan a whopping 212-21 in the Electoral College votes. McClellan won in merely three states, Kentucky, Delaware and his home state of New Jersey. It was a sound victory for Lincoln, as he became only the second president in the history of the United States since Andrew Jackson to be victorious for a second election. On that day, the defeated and, albeit exhausted, General McClellan wrote to his friend, “For my country’s sake I deplore the result, but the people have decided with their eyes wide open and I feel a great weight has been removed from my mind.” On that same day he wrote his letter of resignation from the Union Army. General McClellan went happily into retirement.

The Election of 1864 is significant in the elections of United States history. Not only does it occur during wartime, but it also provides insight into the politics of the Civil War. The race between Lincoln and McClellan was not close. McClellan was placed into a tight spot with his divided party and unique views. Though unsuccessful in his quest, he put up a valiant effort against the popular and famous Abraham Lincoln.

Election of 1864 – Soldiers and Absentee Voting

In 1864, the nation was in the midst of civil war and Lincoln was fighting for re-election. With half the nation not voting, this was unlike any other election in American history. And, for the first time, the government had to address the problem of absentee voting for soldiers in the field.

The two main candidates for the election of 1864 were General George McClellan and the current president, Abraham Lincoln. This election was of pivotal importance to the soldiers fighting in the Civil War. A strong commander in chief of the army could be a matter of life or death. Campaigners tried to depict their opponent as a weak military leader as in The Gunboat Canidate comic shown here. Lincoln was aware of how much the right to vote would mean to soldiers, and to his successful candidacy, so he worked hard in the months leading up to the election to insure that soldiers in the field would have their votes count.  In previous off-year elections the military proved to be one of Lincoln’s largest demographics. This advantage was not one he was about to let go of. According to the New York Herald, as the winter approached, fighting started to cease and the election “kept our brave army in almost comparative idleness for two weeks.” The nation turned its focus onto the campaign between Lincoln and McClellan. In the days leading up to the election, voting became the most important battle for the Union.

Simply delaying fighting was not enough to ensure that every soldier, many of whom were far from home, would get the opportunity to cast their ballots. At the start of the war absentee voting was unnecessary and almost unheard of. Many worried that such a system would lead to fraud and corruption. Governer Horatio Seymour claimed that absentee voting was unconstitutional, and he tried to prevent its passage into law. However, most politicians knew that they needed the support of soldiers to win. They began to think of ways in which their votes could be counted from the field.  According to historian Alexander Keyssar, “for the first time, states were obliged to contend head-on with the issue of absentee voting…nineteen states enacted laws allowing soldiers in the field to vote” (Keyssar, The Right to Vote, 83). Different political groups lobbied for a variety of strategies to ensure that their candidate would receive representation. These strategies included passing out pamphlets and ballots to soldiers, sending representatives to the field to make sure votes were counted, and a system called vote by proxy. Voting by proxy allowed soldiers to mail their ballots home. This was the form of absentee voting that was eventually turned into law in April of 1963.

John Hay was with Lincoln in D.C. on a rainy election day in November. While they waited for updates on the election throughout the day Hay reported that in many cities the voter turnout “can only be accounted for by considering the great influx, since the war, of voting men from the country into the State centers where a great deal of army business is done.” As soldiers returned home to vote absentee ballots were counted across the nation, Lincoln began to see that his victory was inevitable.

About 78% of all the Union soldiers who voted, voted for Lincoln. Most historians credit his victory over McClellan to this. The influence of this election is one that still lives on today. Absentee voting is legal across the country and is an unquestioned part of voting rights in America.

1864 Soldiers’ Election Day

“Well, we ‘voted’ and the ‘Little Mackerals’ are nowhere.  Uncle Abe is ’round’ some,” explained Captain W. F. D. Bailey, Co. G, 32d Wis. Vols., to the editors of the Wisconsin State Register on November 19, 1864.  The results were in and, at least in Co. G of 32d Wisconsin, the incumbent Abraham Lincoln had won a landslide against the “Little Napoleon,” George B. McClellan:  508 in his favor, and 73 against.  All across the country, results were being tallied after the November 8, 1864 presidential election.

The election that pitted sitting president and Republican Abraham Lincoln against the Democrat George B. McClellan was extremely crucial in American history.  Indeed, some were calling for there to be a recession of the presidential election, but Lincoln saw so much at stake that he could not allow this, and defended himself two days after the election took place: “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 clearly so deeply loved the Union, that even though his loss to the “Peace Democrat” George McClellan would mean a dissolution of the United States, he knew that if there were no elections, the country would equally be destroyed by his own hands.  The direction of the country hinged on the results of this critical election, and soldiers knew it, those both in the north and the south.

Soldiers clad in blue and gray knew the power of the coming election, such as one Confederate Sergent Connor, who observed “If thay Succeed in electing a peace man I do not think the war will Last Long but Should thay elect a war candidate God alone knows when we will have peace.” Just as the Johnny Rebs down south saw the consequences of what an election would bring, so did the Billy Yanks who began to use the first absentee ballots, or tickets as the soldiers called them in United States history.

Throughout October and early November, the soldiers of all Union armies began to cast their ballots.  While marching through Georgia, on October 11, Colonel Oscar Jackson of the 63d Ohio Volunteers began accepting ballots:

We have polls opened at my headquarters. 1:00 P. M. Move and carry election with us. Have a camp kettle with paper pasted over it for a poll box. The officers march at head of the regiment and every few minutes halt and take in tickets. We are in the same county still, and as my headquarters are in the saddle the voting is strictly legal being at the quarters of the commanding officer.

As these votes from regiments in all of the Union armies poured in, the results soon became clear:  Lincoln won 78% of the soldiers’ votes. The soldiers who had enlisted to save the Union voted to continue fighting the Confederates until the end:  “The soldiers are fighting for the suppression of the Rebellion, and they vote the way they fight –– They are the friends of no man who is not the friend of his country, and for that reason they visited upon George B. McClellan the most withering rebuke ever any man received.”

1867/1871: William “Boss” Tweed’s elections to the NY State Senate

William M. Tweed in 1865

“Immigrants were quickly naturalized by Tammany judges- on one occasion, under the eyes of horrified Republican observers in 1867, at a rate of 3 per minute.” -Excerpt from Dennis Hale’s introduction to “The Story A Grim Generation: Boss Tweed” by Denis Tilden Lynch

From 1854-1872, William “Boss” Tweed was the leader of the New York Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. In the course of his long and colorful career, Boss Tweed used his control of the largely immigrant electorate to get himself elected to the New York State Senate in 1967 and subsequently re-elected, as well as steal millions of dollars from state coffers.

Despite being the leader of a Democratic party machine, Boss Tweed was nominated for the New York State Senate as the candidate for the Republican party. The choice was unenthusiastically greeted by the major papers of the time, starting with the Tribune and followed by the New York Times. It was, in their words a nomination “not fit to be made.” Even so, with his control of the party machine his election was all but assured. The election would even go relatively unchallenged, as the power of Tammany Hall suppressed any real investigation into this widespread fraud.

The election of Boss Tweed to the NY State Senate in 1871 functioned much the same way as that of 1867, in terms of the tactics used by Tammany Hall. The main difference was the publication of Tweed’s crimes defrauding the public by the New York Times led to investigations of election fraud. The results from these investigations, and the elections themselves, clearly bore out these accusations. Not only was an incredibly large number of votes cast compared to the average election (see bottom of middle column), but the breakdown of votes in relation to the candidates that were on the ballot are shocking. In the Ninth District alone, all but 10 votes out of nearly 500 were cast for Mr. Tweed (see top of column three) and in the 8th District, which only say 126 cast, not a single vote was cast for another candidate. There was also a very famous cartoon series in Harper’s Weekly by Thomas Nash known to have greatly irritated the party boss, who griped “Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damnit, they can see the pictures.”

There was also a great deal of focus on the way in which the ballot boxes themselves were controlled through the placement of key election officials. This allowed Tweed supporters to monitor and organize the vote directly from voting booths. The positioning of these officials also led to one of the more famous, and telling, quotes attributed to Tweed: “As long as I get to count the votes, what are you going to do about it?” Indeed until a reform movement swept through New York in the early and mid-1870s, putting Tweed behind bars, there was little that anyone could.

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