As it does today, the idea that people will vote when they have no right to — and thus, potentially, misdirect the will of the people — shadowed the 1858 election for U.S. Senator in Illinois, the one that produced the iconic Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Abraham Lincoln and his Republican cohorts feared the collusion of two forces, the railroads and the Irish.
Their fears had some merit.
The Illinois Central Railroad Company had been the recipient of political favors from Sen. Stephen Douglas, who had sponsored legislation that funded railroads through publicly held land. The Illinois Central would certainly want to protect its advantage by supporting his campaign for re-election.
Lincoln and the Republicans feared that support would take a nefarious form.
According to Allen Guelzo, author of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, Lincoln and the Republicans envisioned the Illinois Central “sending road gangs of Irish Catholics down the line, dropping them off in strategic districts days or weeks before the election to perform grading and repairs, and to turn up on Election Day to vote as though they were permanent residents.” (208-209) Lincoln himself said as much, without naming the Irish, in one of this speeches.
The Illinois Central, of course, denied any such plans and did so with a letter from its president George McClellan. Lincoln and McClellan would be cast together again three years later as president and commanding general in an entirely different milieu.
Voters at that time did not vote directly for candidates for the U.S. Senate. The race was over who would be elected to the state legislature, which had the power to name the senators from the state. Lincoln lost the election to Douglas probably not because there was a sudden flood of illegal Irish voters into the electorate but more likely because the incumbent senator began with such a decided advantage in that electoral system.
Still, there were the usual charges of voting irregularities that always surface in post-election periods. Lincoln’s friend William Herndon blamed the defeat on “thousands of wild, roving, robbing, bloated, pock-marked Irish.”
The Irish were perceived to be different and thus were an easy target — not unlike our modern times.
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