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Get a glimpse into divisive 1860 election

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-04 06:00:07-05

BURLINGTON, Ky. -- Based on what’s happened so far in the presidential primaries and caucuses elsewhere in the country, there’s a good chance the grandiose Donald Trump may vacuum up most of Kentucky’s delegates in Saturday’s Republican caucuses.

And if Trump gets just two votes in Boone County, where there are some 50,000 registered Republicans, he will double the number of ballots cast for a Kentucky native who turned out to be a pretty decent U.S. president.

A framed vote tabulation document in the office of Boone County Clerk Kenny Brown from the presidential election of Nov. 6, 1860, shows that Republican Abraham Lincoln received one vote in Boone County some five months before the Civil War ripped the country apart over the issue of slavery.

The total votes that Abraham Lincoln received in Boone County during the 1860 presidential election can be seen in the lower right of the document. Photo by Greg Paeth

Just one vote in an election in which 1,849 voters — 81 percent of those who were eligible to cast a ballot — went to the polls and swamped Lincoln, who finished behind three other candidates in a state that was neutral during the war, although thousands of Kentuckians signed on to fight for either the Union or the Confederacy.

Lincoln, of course, won that 1860 election when he cobbled together 180 electoral votes even though he lost the popular vote in a four-way race in which North-South geography was critically important.

Kentuckian John Breckinridge, who was President James Buchanan’s vice president at the time of the election, finished second as the standard bearer for southern Democrats while Stephen Douglas finished fourth as the choice of Democrats from the north.

John Bell of Tennessee, running for the Constitutional Union party, won Boone County and the rest of Kentucky, which had 12 electoral votes in 1860, three more than it has now.

Unlike today, when America votes by secret ballot, voters in 1860 had to make a public declaration of their preference in front of election officials and other voters who happened to be nearby, according to James Duvall, a Boone County historian who found the election document years ago when he was working as the local history specialist for the Boone County Public Library.

Because of his knowledge about county history, Duvall said he wasn’t particularly surprised about Lincoln’s poor showing with Boone County voters.

“At the time, about a third of the families were pro-South and the rest of them just wanted the whole thing to go away,” said Duvall, who added that relatively few families owned slaves in Boone County.

He said his research also showed that many of the residents who sympathized with the Confederacy wound up moving out of Boone County to southern states when the war began.

For the last few years, Duvall has been working as a contractor for Brown in an effort to find, organize and preserve documents that had been stored in the basement of county office buildings.

“There was a plethora of old documents down there that were not organized at all,” said Brown, who took office in 2011 and said he is the first Republican to be elected county clerk since the county was created in 1799. “I saw in an instant that we had to get a lot of the documents preserved. We had to identify the rarest and those that were in the most danger of deteriorating.

“I knew that some of the documents were so fragile that they had to be taken out of the public’s hands so that they could be turned over to a professional to be preserved.”

Brittle old paper disintegrates easily and there also is some concern that old documents that have some value to collectors might be stolen from the record room, Brown explained.

Duvall said he has made copies of about 400 documents that were in danger of disintegrating because of age. Property deeds, wills and records about domestic dogs, which were taxable at the time, are among the documents he has copied.

The Boone County election document that records one vote for Lincoln shows that Bell received 881 votes while native son Breckinridge received 739 and Douglas was the choice of 228 voters.

Four years later in November 1864 as the war dragged on toward its conclusion in April 1865, Lincoln easily won re-election in the 25 states that had not seceded from the Union.

But even then, Lincoln couldn’t muster much support in the state where he had been born, receiving less than 20 percent of the votes that were cast, Duvall said. The Boone County vote count for 1864 was not immediately available.

Lincoln’s opponent in the election was George B. McClellan, a prominent Union general during the war who would later become the governor of New Jersey. He received 21 electoral votes in 1864. Eleven of those were delivered by Kentucky, which joined Delaware and New Jersey in voting against Lincoln’s bid for a second term.