Monthly Archives: October 2020

Barroom Blitz

Polk Laffoon, James F. Clay and the barroom primary

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Democrat James Franklin Clay had made an admirable showing in Washington as representative for Kentucky’s Second Congressional District.  When the Henderson lawyer sought re-election in 1884, however, he faced a challenge from within his own party.  James Knox Polk Laffoon was a relatively unknown Madisonville attorney, but “Polk” (his nephew Ruby Laffoon would become Kentucky’s governor in the 1930s) soon charmed the voting public with his “quiet, yet honest and open” demeanor.  And he had a dramatic backstory: as a youth of 17, he had entered the Confederate Army and endured two stints as a prisoner of war.  During a forced march from Bowling Green, a veteran recalled seeing “the gallant boy soldier” trudging through the rain and mud after giving up his horse to a sick, weak comrade. 

Laffoon’s dogged campaigning undercut Clay’s previously unassailable position.  At the party’s convention, ballot after ballot failed to give either man the nomination.  Laffoon, it was reported, could have broken through with “a little trickery” by courting an “uninstructed” delegation from a county where the voters supported his opponent, but resolved instead to “go down true” rather than risk staining his honor.  Finally, the convention resolved to hold a primary election to break the deadlock.

In the primary held on October 13, 1884, Clay carried his own Henderson County by a large majority, but across the district he lost to Laffoon by about 300 votes.  Several days later, the Courier-Journal correspondent assured readers that Clay’s supporters were “reconciled to their defeat, and will heartily support Polk Laffoon, who they credit with gallantly winning the fight.”

On the ground, it was a little grittier.  From McLean County, where Clay had eked out a 75-vote majority, a disappointed George Priest reported on his efforts to bring voters into the fold with incentives of the liquid kind.  In accordance with Clay’s instructions, the Livermore merchant had enlisted a local saloon-keeper “to run his Barroom in your interest on the day of [the] primary Election.”  Unfortunately, the campaign of the “boy soldier” had responded in kind, Priest griped, as the town’s “other two Barrooms were thrown wide open for Laffoon.”  Beaten at his own game, he “regretted exceedingly that such a man should be elected.”  All that was left was to settle accounts: $25 to the pro-Clay barroom keeper, and $12 to Priest for out-of-pocket expenses.  Oh, and one more thing, wrote Priest to the soon-to-be-lame-duck Congressman: “If there is anything ‘Soft’ in the way of a Government position that I am competent to fill please remember me.”

George Priest’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan of the letter.  For more collections on election campaigns, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Left to their own devices

Party symbols on Warren County’s 1901 ballot

Bots and trolls aside, some of us may find our devices useful in making sense of the forthcoming election: to research candidates and polling places, request an absentee ballot, or get texts and updates from our favored office-seekers.  But the “device”—in its more archaic meaning of an emblem, logo or design—took on a different significance in past American elections.

Late in the 19th century, some Kentuckians could still cast a vote by voice, but others going to the polls were liable to be handed a ballot printed not by an election authority but by a particular political party.  One glance at the distinctive colors and markings of such “tickets” allowed voters to quickly register their preference, but unfortunately the process also made their votes public and, once deposited in the box, eligible for remuneration from the candidate with the deepest pockets and fewest scruples.

Kentucky’s mandate of a secret ballot in 1891 sought to diminish opportunities for fraud, but concern remained for the then-large number of voters who were unable to read.  Accordingly, the state’s election law of 1892 prescribed the steps by which candidates, whether nominated by a party or put forward by petition, could appear on a ballot: in addition to “a brief name or title of the party or principle which said candidates represent,” they were to include “any simple figure or device by which they shall be designated on the ballots.”  It could be “any appropriate symbol,” with a few exceptions: “the coat-of-arms or seal of the State or of the United States, the national flag, or any other emblem common to the people at large, shall not be used as such device.” 

In October 1901, the Warren County, Kentucky clerk received instructions from Secretary of State Caleb Breckinridge Hill for balloting in the forthcoming state and local elections.  As long as each of four parties had at least one candidate entitled to appear, their devices were to be shown as follows: “a game cock in the act of crowing” for the Democrats; a “Log Cabin” for the Republicans; “the Plow and Hammer” for the People’s Party; and “a Phoenix” for the Prohibition Party.  The ballot should further display beneath each emblem the prescribed large circle in which voters could place an “X” indicating their endorsement of the straight party ticket.  From there, it was up to the voters.  Left to their own devices, on November 5 the county gave the Democratic ticket the lion’s share (or rooster’s, perhaps?) of 2,920 votes cast.      

These ballot instructions to the Warren County Clerk are found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For other collections on elections and balloting, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat

P. S. Need help this year?  Check your ballot. . . the “devices” are still there!

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