By Christian McWhirter
One of the lesser-known services the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum provides is occasionally helping media outlets fact-check claims about Lincoln and his times. This week, for instance, factcheck.org reached out about social media posts comparing President Donald Trump’s recent potential removal from state ballots to Lincoln’s 1860 campaign. You can read the final article here.
There is a long history of claims that Lincoln “did not appear on ballots” in the South in the 1860 election. Although it’s being applied to Trump today, it’s been put to all kinds of uses in the past. The problem is this kind of statement assumes voting practices worked the way they do now, which isn’t true.
In the mid-19th century, voters were not presented with official ballots at polling stations that allowed them to check off which candidate they were voting for, as these kinds of statements seemingly presume. Instead, a 19th-century ballot or “political ticket” was a slip of paper, provided by each party, listing their candidates for whatever offices were up for election. This allowed voters to easily “vote the ticket” for their party without having to know the names of every candidate and office. Here, from the ALPLM’s collection and the National Museum of American History, are two 1860 examples of these political tickets. One is from Massachusetts and is for Lincoln supporters. The other is from Virginia for backers of John Bell.
Political tickets voters could drop into the ballot box. One is for Lincoln supporters, and the other
is for backers of John Bell. (Courtesy of ALPLM and National Museum of American History)
So, a voter would receive tickets like these, often at a political event or in a newspaper before an election or even from a party representative at their polling station. Then they could just drop it in the ballot box as is, and that was their vote. What’s more, the “secret ballot” was only beginning to be implemented at the time, with some states even still allowing “viva voce” voting, meaning voters would tell the voting clerk their choices for office out loud and, if they had a ticket, they’d just say what was on it.
An illustration of election day in New York City. Note the booths where voters could get tickets for Buchanan, Fremont or Fillmore to use when they voted. (Courtesy of New York Public Library)
Since the 1860 Republican Party had no real presence in most Southern slaveholding states—especially the Deep South—there were no political tickets being distributed. So that’s actually what was happening, rather than Lincoln being “left off” or “removed from” an official ballot like we have today. Of course, that didn’t mean people couldn’t vote for Lincoln, but they would have had to write him in like we would a third-party candidate today, and results show very little of that happened in those states. This is not to say Southern voters only had one option, as there were four major candidates for president in 1860 and the other three did actively campaign in those states.
Historians generally assert that just over 80 percent of eligible voters participated in the 1860 election, which was the highest percentage up to that point and remains the second-highest behind 1876. However, population statistics are imprecise for the period, so it’s hard to produce hard numbers, and only white males could vote in most places. That makes comparisons to modern voter turnout problematic because it’s not an apples-to-apples situation.
Casting a ballot for president in 1844. (Courtesy of New York Public Library)
So, while the election of 1860 was controversial for many reasons, the current situation involving Trump’s candidacy has an entirely different context. What’s happening now revolves around interpretations of the 14th Amendment, which didn’t even exist in Lincoln’s time. Historical comparisons can often be useful for understanding what happened in the past and even today, but details matter and loose generalizations usually obscure more than they reveal.
Dr. Christian McWhirter is the Lincoln Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.