One hundred and fifty years ago, another seemingly close presidential campaign was coming to an end. Following the accepted custom that candidates were to remain silent during the campaign, Abraham Lincoln had done just that. And on Election Day, his silence continued. He made no campaign appearances in battleground states nor played a friendly game of basketball.
Things were different then.
On Nov. 6, 1860, Lincoln probably ate his usual spare breakfast of an egg, toast and coffee, sitting with his wife, Mary, and sons Willie and Tad. Eldest son, Robert, was in college. Whatever was said that morning at the breakfast table remains unknown.
As Lincoln walked to his office that morning, his feet crunched layers of dead leaves whitened by an unexpected frost, according to “Lincoln: President-Elect” by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. Lincoln was headed for the Illinois state capitol building where, as the Republican presidential candidate, he had an office that had been loaned to him.
Reporters visiting there noted a cluttered place with piles of gifts sent by supporters that included a 12-foot-long chain of wooden links carved from a single tree. Its maker told Lincoln that the chain was meant to symbolize the indissoluble union of the states.
There he spent the day, leaning back in a chair with his feet propped on a stove, entertaining all who came by. His plans did not include voting that day, according to his law partner, William H. Herndon, because it would appear immodest for a candidate to vote for himself and there was a “feeling that the candidate for a Presidential office ought not to vote for his own electors.” The names of the electors appeared on the Republican Party ballot right below the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates.
Herndon suggested that Lincoln simply cut off that part of the ballot and only vote for the state officers. At the time, preprinted ballots were handed out by party supporters to men approaching the polls. There was no choice but to vote a straight ticket. Inside, each voter announced his name and dropped the ballot into a glass bowl.
About 3:30 p.m., Lincoln slipped out of his office and leisurely strolled over to the courthouse where the polling was taking place. There was no government-paid security for candidates back then. A couple of friends walked with him.
Surprised Republicans cheered as Lincoln walked up, and he was practically carried inside by an enthusiastic crowd. Before he voted, Lincoln publicly snipped off the top of the ballot.
That evening was spent at the telegraph office, where a friendly operator handed Lincoln the election news as it arrived. Hours passed until, sometime after midnight, they learned that the count from the various states had added up to a Republican victory.
More important, Lincoln had amassed 180 electoral votes, 30 more than was needed for a victory. If none of the four candidates had received enough electoral votes to decide the election, the House of Representatives would have decided the victor. Historians say that if that had happened, there would have been little chance that Lincoln would have become the 16th president of the United States.