Tag Archives: voting

“Abe will be reelected”

Soldier William Ballew writes from Tennessee, 1864

It was November 12, 1864, and members of the 12th Kentucky Infantry were pondering the results of the presidential election held four days earlier.

Camped near Spring Hill, Tennessee, William Ballew wrote to friend Thomas Hopkins in Clinton County that his regiment had shown a strong preference for “Little Mac” – the nickname of President Abraham Lincoln’s challenger, Major General George B. McClellan.  Earlier, Lincoln had relieved McClellan of his command after becoming frustrated with his innate caution and failure to produce results on the battlefield.  Though popular with the average soldier, McClellan had run for president as the candidate of a Democratic Party hobbled by its split over what to do about the war.

While Pvt. Ballew himself was unsure which candidate would “be the best for the US,” he claimed access to a “decision desk” of his own, namely the votes of the African Americans in Nashville.  Five thousand of them, he reported, had “voted for abe.”  Ballew forecast “that if the election is carryed on every whare like it was in nashville that abe will be reelected for the negroes had the same privalege of voteing that the white man has.”

Ballew didn’t realize that what he had witnessed was only a mock election, conducted by a still-disenfranchised community demonstrating its intention to secure the “privalege” of the vote.  On Election Day, about 3,200 African Americans had assembled on College Street to participate in a symbolic poll that gave all but one of their votes to Lincoln.  The initiative came after a delegation of Tennessee freedmen returned from the National Colored Men’s Convention in Syracuse, New York determined to press their demands for equality and the abolition of slavery.  It turned out, of course, that their “votes” were prescient. While McClellan carried Kentucky, he secured only 45% of the national vote and lost the election to Lincoln.

William Ballew’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 typescript.  For more collections relating to the Civil War and elections generally, 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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