Five years ago I wrote a blog post about my 3rd great uncle, Cornelius Harris (see Insanity and the Election of 1856). At the time I knew he was involved in some irregularities related to the election of 1856, but I didn’t know exactly what they were. Since then, I’ve found out what happened. As Americans go to the polls today–160 years later–in one of the craziest elections in memory, it’s good to remember that election controversy has a long history in our country.
Race and sexuality were high in voters’ minds in 1856. The newly formed Republican party claimed that it was “both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism–Polygamy and Slavery.”
In Indiana, the race between Democrats and Republicans was close. It was so close, in fact, that certain Republicans thought they could shift the election by moving some young voters from one county to another to get their candidate elected to Indiana House of Representatives. A scheme was put in place to move Republican voters–mostly young men who needed a little extra cash–from the highly Republican Wayne County to the battleground Rush County.
Several months after the election, Cornelius testified before the Indiana House of Representatives about his involvement in the plan. “Mr. Applegate gave me my ticket; I suppose it was a Republican ticket; my vote was not challenged…I remained in Rushville only an hour or two. We hired a wagon, and I returned with Mr. Kinsey and the same crowd with whom I came there.”
Mr. Kinsey was Cornelius’s uncle, Phillip Wagoner Kinsey, the youngest brother of his mother Mary. Phillip was only about 10 years older than Cornelius (Phillip was 33 at the time of the election, Cornelius was 23).
Phillip testifies that Mr. Hudelson, a Republican who had encouraged him to go to Rush County to vote, said that the Democrats were importing votes into Rush, and they wanted to counteract the matter by the importation of voters.
The testimony doesn’t reveal motives. We don’t know why Cornelius and Phillip went to Rush County to shift the vote for Republicans. Perhaps they were compelled by their beliefs and idealogies; perhaps they were paid. Or maybe they were just under the influence of more powerful and persuasive men.
Whatever their reason, they tried to change the results of an election and they got caught doing it. Both were called before the Indiana House of Representatives and testified in hearings about the election. A year later, Cornelius ended up in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane. One of the reasons for his institutionalization, according to his father, was his having been called to testify before the legislature about his dubious voting activities.
In the end, Leonidas Sexton, the Republican candidate from Rush County, was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. On a national scale, the party “benefited from its control of most northern state legislatures” and gained strength toward the ultimate election of Abraham Lincoln four years later. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sources for this post include “Majority and Minority Report of the Committee on Elections on the Election Frauds in Rush Co. including the Evidence in the Case; Made by the order of the General Assembly of Indiana, at the session of 1857” and America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink by Kenneth M. Stampp.