Have you ever heard that Lincoln received no votes in the south because he was “left off the ballot” in the 1860 Presidential election?
Well, not really, but sort of.
The allegation does demonstrate the unpopularity of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party in the slaveholding states, and that’s no myth.
However, the almost complete lack of votes he received in the election was not the result of a conspiracy of state boards of elections, simply put, because there were no state boards of elections.
Nor were there ballots that had all candidates on one sheet of paper.
In the middle of the 1800s, to say the least, voting went differently than it does today.
To cast a ballot, an eligible voter had to first obtain a ticket—a slip of paper with their candidate’s names printed on it. A voter could obtain a ticket by cutting one out from a newspaper or by picking one up from a party official at the polling station. Needless to say, political parties did not print tickets for their competitors.
Which is also to say that the Republican party did not exist in most places in the slaveholding south. With no one to print tickets for Lincoln, Lincoln’s (or any other Republican’s) tickets simply did not appear.
There are caveats, of course. Lincoln did receive votes in several slaveholding states. 26,395, in fact. 17,028 of those votes were cast in Missouri. The remainder in Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. The fact that the Republican party had a presence in those states, and that those states had a robust two-party system, contributed to their remaining loyal to the Union.
Interestingly, 1,887 Virginians cast ballots for Lincoln as well. Those votes came from the far northwestern part of the state in the region that became West Virginia.
So, Lincoln was not technically “left off the ballot.” His party simply did not exist in most slaveholding states where they could distribute election tickets. Despite that fact, those places that did have a Republican presence demonstrated that he could have received votes from southerners if given the opportunity.
The 2020 Presidential election season is momentous. It turns not only on generation-defining issues, but also on the pure mechanics of voting. Will voters in a pandemic show up to potentially crowded polling places? Will the United States Postal Service deliver mail-in ballots in time? In some states, who is even an eligible voter is disputed.
The American Civil War has proven to be the pivotal moment in the transformation of American voting rights, if not the actual mechanics of voting. The 14th and 15th Amendments changed everything. Yet in some ways, nothing changed at all. Still, the United States that approached the presidential election of 1860 differed remarkably from that which elected a president in 1872.
To appreciate the changes, the American Civil War Museum is introducing a series about voting in the era of America’s greatest conflict.
This series will highlight key electoral moments, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and will illuminate how deeply passionate Americans have been about political participation, about who gets to participate at all, and who gets to decide. In the spirit of voting, we would like to invite you to have your say. Cast your questions at [email protected] or message us at @ACWMuseum on Twitter or Facebook!