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There’s no neat detective story behind these pictures—the electoral tally from the 1864 presidential election is stored in the Legislative Treasures Vault, and it’s one of a few dozen Vault documents I had time to photograph. (I definitely need to acknowledge the kindness of my supervisor, who took time out of her day to accompany me to the Vault on my next-to-last day just so that I could view documents I’d missed earlier. She has a blog of her own, which you should check out if you find mine interesting.)

I’ll admit to not knowing there was such a thing as an electoral tally before I started my internship. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution directs presidential electors to transmit their states’ results to the “Seat of the Government of the United States.” Then the vice president is to “open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.” As it happens, we have tangible vestiges of these constitutionally prescribed computations. Here’s what the 1864 tally looks like:

Lincoln took many constitutionally questionable steps during the Civil War. As he later justified himself to Albert Hodges, “my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? . . . I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation.” Yet probably none of Lincoln’s actions did more to preserve the Constitution and the republican form of government it created than his decision to stand for reelection in 1864. He feared his defeat would ensure the Union’s dissolution, and canceling or postponing the Election of 1864 would certainly have safeguarded his enlightened superintendence temporarily. But it would also have stripped the People of their sovereignty. Lincoln wisely chose to risk the Constitution’s destruction through his personal defeat rather than offend the most fundamental principle of American constitutionalism.

A few thoughts/observations about this document:

1) I find it peculiar that the seceded states are listed alongside Union ones. This reflects the administration’s official refusal to acknowledge the reality of or legal right to secession—this whole thing was a domestic insurrection. (That didn’t stop Lincoln from taking other measures inconsistent with that theory, such as blockading rather than “closing” Southern ports.)
2) It might seem strange or shocking that one of Lincoln’s own generals challenged him for the presidency, yet that almost certainly would have happened in 1848 had the Democrat Polk weaseled out of his one-term pledge (Gen. Zachary Taylor was elected as a Whig that year).
3) If you click on the first image to magnify it, you can see that the tabulator also counted of the number of electoral votes the non-participating Confederate states would have commanded (82).
4) An inscription to the left of Nevada’s line says “Entitled to 3 [electoral votes] but on[ly] 2 given.” Having done no research on this, I have no idea why it happened.
5) This was the only time in American history that one or more formally recognized states didn’t choose electors to participate in the presidential election. Tennessee abstained, of course, so 1864 was also the only time that someone (Andrew Johnson) was elected from a state (“state”) that sat the election out. (In 1861, Senator Andrew Johnson was the only member of any of the seceded states’ Congressional delegations who answered his name during the roll call in the United States Congress.)

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