Election Days Past

By Jeremy Dibbell

To mark Election Day, I thought I would take a look back at some diaries from 1860 and 1960, to see how the elections of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were remembered by some of those whose collections are housed at the MHS.

In our online catalog, ABIGAIL, I can search for diaries from a specific year using a Subject Search, so I plugged in “Diaries 1860” and “Diaries 1960” to see what I had to choose from.

We have 57 diaries that cover 1860, so I looked through a few of them. Here’s what I found:

Edward Everett (1794-1865) [collection guide] was the vice presidential nominee for the Constitutional Union party in 1860. He writes about Tuesday, 6 November:

The day of the Presidential election, quite rainy in the morning but clears up for a little while at noon.

The Frothinghams got home from an 18 months tour in Europe last night. I called for short time to see them early.

Went at One to vote. A considerable crowd about the Ward-room, but orderly. They cheered me both inside & when I had got out. I voted the entire union ticket.

In the early evening I receive a message that Mr. Appleton is elected, the first sign of returning sense & reason; & a well [?] rebuke to the rampant sectionalism which has so long tyannized over us [William Appleton, Constitutional Unionist candidate for Massachusetts’ 5th Congressional District].

The imperfect telegraphic accounts that reach us from Newyork are favorable, but not to be depended on for the main result.

A Mr. T.F. Marshall, nephew of the Ch. Justice, and for a time Member of Congr. called upon me with a letter from Prest. Wheeler. A weary visitation.”

Not until Thursday 8 November does Everett write about the election result, noting “The returns of the election make it certain that Mr. Lincoln is President; & not only so, but give to Mr. Breckenridge the votes of several states, that were confidently claimed for the “Union Ticket.” A very little show of real strength at the North would have given us the entire South; but after the overwhelming Republican vote in Pennsylvania, the democratic party at the South rapidly gained strength & the opposing elements (Douglas & Bell) lost confidence; – & many were inclined to take refuge with the majority. The struggle, in this way, has become one of South & North & has ended as far as this election is concerned in the triumph of the latter by an overwhelming majority. What will be the result, it is of course impossible to foresee. Some of the Southern States, – S. Carolina & Alabama, – seem pledged to some revolutionary movement, but whether they will be sufficiently sustained by public opinion remains to be seen.”

Everett remained an ardent supporter of the Union cause, serving as the first president of Boston’s Union Club and delivering the keynote address at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863.

And what of Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886), [collection guide], son and grandson of presidents, and incumbent Congressman from Massachusetts’ 3rd District? His diary entry for 6 November reads:

Morning cloudy with heavy showers, and one clap of thunder, a thing which I never remember to have happened here so late in the year. … I designed to go to the city, but failed to get there. At eleven I went to the town hall for the purpose of voting. I found quite a crowd very busy and good natured, but uncommonly quiet. I voted the entire ticket of the republicans, and remained talking to various people until one o’clock when I came home. It is a remarkable idea to reflect that all over this broad land at this moment the process of changing the rulers is peacefully going on. And what a change in all probability upon this occasion. The first step towards a reform of the shockingly corrupt system of the slaveholding oligarchy. Election day is one of the most listless of the days of the year, when nothing is to be done, and no ability exists to do anything useful. In the course of the afternoon my man Bradley came and answered with quite a lugubrious aspect that the vote for me was 448 whilst that for my opponent Mr. Saltonstall [Leverett Saltonstall, the Constitutional Unionist candidate] was 463. He seemed to think this a type of what I was to meet with elsewhere; and seemed surprised when I told him that it was decidedly encouraging. I had reduced the vote against me here from 125 which it stood in 1858 to 17. A telegram soon afterwards came from Randolph, announcing a gain in the town of 150. So that I concluded myself elected by an increased majority. At night the Wide Awakes came down from Mr Charles Marsh’s the representative elect, and saluted me, and I went out and thanked them for their active services in my behalf. After this I remained up to wait for my sons who had gone to the city to await the news, and come back with Mr Butler. They got back before midnight with intelligence of the success of all the republican candidates, excepting Mr. Burlingame, who has been replaced by Mr Appleton. Mr Thayer has failed in his attempt to resist his ejection. Every thing is carried by the republicans, so far as the intelligence is received, and the prospect is great of a victory. I have always expected it, so that I was much less uneasy or anxious than I might otherwise have been. Some reflections occur to me at this time, but perhaps I may as well put them off until the result is definitively ascertained.”

I don’t know about you, but I find Adams’ description of Election Day feelings just about spot-on!

The following day, Adams picks up where he left off:

The morning brought only confirmation of the favourable return of last night. All New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio run in one settled current in our favor, out of the limits of the city influence. The returns from my own District elect me by a majority greater even than the plurality I had two years ago. There is now scarcely a shadow of a doubt that the great revolution has actually taken place, and that the country has once [&] for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders. Of course such an event cannot be brought about with the same ease that a country changes its fashions. Much of struggle yet remains. But considering the prospect of a new Appointment, of the admission of new states on the side of freedom, and of the [?] on the border slave States by the spread of our opinions, it seems to me that the crisis of danger from this cause is passed. I went into the city, and at the office Mr Dana came in to see me. We talked much over the matter, and speculated on the probabilities of the future. It cannot be said to be altogether clear, but time will develope results quite as fast as we shall be prepared to meet them. …”

Adams’ sense of the crisis having passed proved rather incorrect (to put it mildly). He was appointed Minister to England in the spring of 1861, and served in that capacity until May 1868.

Turning to the election of 1960, I found my options for diaries were much more limited. Since records and personal papers from that period have in many cases not yet made their way to us, or are still closed to researchers, I could count the number of available diaries on one hand. Thankfully the very first one I checked made the whole search worthwhile:

Mildred Cox Howes kept diaries off and on from 1899 through 1973. As our catalog record for the collection notes, “Entries include accounts of daily life, including time spent with family members such as her father William Emerson Cox, her mother Josephine Nickerson Cox, her husband Osborne “Howsie” Howes, her sister-in-law Edith Perkins Cox, her daughter Pricilla Howes Nickerson, and her governess Laura A. Young (know as Val); visits with friends; social engagements and events; and time spent sailing. Travel accounts include camping trips, fishing, and hunting trips in Maine, Montana, and Canada; time spent aboard the yacht Santanta in the Florida Keys and the Inland Waterway; and sea voyages to England, France, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey, among others.”

So what did Mrs. Howes have to say on Tuesday, 8 November 1960? Nothing as lengthy as Everett or Adams, but I find her diary quite fascinating in its own right:

“Tues. Fair. Voted. Red Cross. … Took Mildred & Barbara to Camelot. Kennedy elected.”

It doesn’t get any better than that, does it? She went to see “Camelot” on Election Day!