Summary of Legislative Debate on Resolution on Election Frauds, 28 November 1840
Mr. Lincoln offered a resolution refering so much of the Governor’s message as related to the elective franchise and fraudulent voting, to the committee on elections, with instructions to report a bill sufficient to prevent all frauds of every discription that may occur hereafter.1
Mr. McClernand moved to strike out the above, and insert a resolution appointing a joint select committee of five from the House and three from the Senate, to inquire into all cases of fraudulent voting that may have occurred during the recent elections in this State, and that they report the evidence thereof to this House.
Mr. McClernand said he had reason to believe that the most stupendous frauds had been committed in the recent elections, and he was for an investigation of the matter. The offence was of most deadly character to our free institutions. In no way could our liberties be successfully attacked as through the corruption of the elective franchise. In New York recent developements had shown that corruption had been practised for years. He also believed that extensive frauds of a similar character had been carried on in Ohio, Pennsylvania and our own State. He had heard of an instance of a steamboat on the Wabash river, whose crew voted at three different places in Illinois, and then returned and voted at Vincennes in the evening. He was for a thorough investigation, and for exposing and punishing all engaged in them.
Mr. Lincoln said without granting for a moment the truth of any of the gentleman’s charges and surmises, from Gallatin yet he was willing for the purposes of his Resolution, to assume that all these stupendous frauds of which the gentleman had been speaking, had been committed; and if so it showed the necessity of the adoption of the Resolution offered by himself. If it was a fact that Legislative action was necessary to protect the elective franchise from abuse in this state, he was willing to go as far as any,—and to provide any punishment within the bounds of humanity, for those who could abuse such a right. It was for that reason he had submitted his resolution. He was afraid of no investigation that might be instituted into the recent election in this state, for himself or his friends. But he could see no good that could result from such an investigation as that proposed by the gentleman. He had every reason to believe that all this hue and cry about frauds, was entirely groundless, and raised for other than honest purposes.
As to the instance which the gentleman had given of the Steamboat on the Wabash river, he would state that he was near the Wabash at the time and place mentioned by the gentleman, and after making diligent inquiry for a Steam Boat, could hear of none. Again, he believed as much fraud had been charged to have taken place in Sangamon county as any where else—he was willing for the purpose of testing the truth and character of these charges, that a special investigation should be instituted into the election in this county, that every vote should be scrutenized and the result, whatever it might be should be taken as conclusive as to whether these charges were well founded or not. This investigation would cost the State but little;—it would be here, where we had every facility for enquiring into the facts, without expense, and here too where the greatest frauds are alleged to have been perpetrated, and surely no gentleman who was honest in the belief of these frauds, could object to the proposition.
Mr. Peck said this was a most serious matter, which demanded investigation. He was for investigation first, that we might see the importance of action upon the subject. He believed that frauds had been committed to a most alarming extent. We were sent here to protect the people’s rights, and we could make no better use of our time and their money than in expending it to preserve incorruptible the elective franchise, than of preserving their confidence in our free institutions. He believed it could be proven that men had gone from precinct to precinct and voted under different names three or four times.
Mr. Hardin said he would like to inquire of the mover of the Resolution, whether it was intended that a full, fair and legal investigation of all these cases of alledged frauds, should be gone into by the House, or whether it was only his object for the committee without such an investigation to write out a long report filled with stereotyped slang of the party, to be entered upon the Journal.
It must be for one purpose or the other, and either was alike ridiculous. If an investigation was attempted, every honest man must say let us have a full and fair one. In order to do this it would be necessary to send for persons and papers, and if we should go into the extent charged, hundreds and thousands must be brought here and maintained at the expense of the State, besides consuming weeks and weeks of the time of the Legislature. The House would certainly have too much regard for the people’s rights to pursue such a course, and too much self respect to render it ridiculous by pursuing the other.
Mr. Henderson pronounced these wholesale charges of frauds, implicating thousands of our fellow citizens, a slander upon the people and our free institutions. Individual cases might and doubtless had occurred of illegal voting in both parties; but it had been charged to an extent sufficient to affect our whole population—thus virtually denying the capability of the people for self Government, which he pronounced a slander upon the American people. No one could pretend that the result of the investigation could be entitled to any regard, unless it was a full and fair one; and if this was attempted what could be the result? we should have a swarm of hungry loafers, flocking in upon us, equal to that once overrun the land of Egypt,2 and all too, at the expense of the State. He knew of many such that were now hanging about the legislature, and of many more that were not here, but who would be ready to flock in if they could do so at the public charge.
Mr. Minshall remarked that the greatest burthen of the song of those who support this resolution seemed to be of the frauds which they alledged had occurred in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Was it seriously intended that a committee should be raised to run down all these frauds in different States? What power would a committee of this Legislature have to send for persons and papers from New York and Ohio? We had already provided heavy penalties by law, which would apply to every instance which had been alledged of illegal voting, and why did not those who [?] there were any such, [?]
Mr. Dodge was in favor of a [?] investigation. He wished to [?] of individuals who had been engaged in fraudulent voting given to the public. He stated an instance as within his knowledge where a wagon load of Norwegians voted two or thre times, and “they did not fail to give Old Tip a turn.” He had heard much from the whigs of frauds in his district, and wished to see the matter fully investigated. There had been “pipe laying” in Kane and Du Page counties, one of which had given a Democratic majority in August and a whig majority in November.
Mr. Webb knew of no instance of what might be termed fraudulent voting in his county. There was an impression held extensively by the people that a citizen of the United States, might voting in any State for President. Some citizens of other States offered their votes at the county seat of his county, but they were not suffered to vote. In another part of his county, where the judges of election were of the dominant party, the votes of such persons were admitted. Five were given at that precinct, and all were given for Mr. Van Buren. He did not regard this as fraudulent voting in the sense in which some gentlemen would give to that term; it simply proceeded from a misapprehension of our laws. The laws of this State in regard to fraudulent voting, and double voting, were severe; and if the perpetrator of the act could not be found in our State, we might pursue him to the remotest portion of the Union and bring him back for punishment. The course proposed by gentlemen, would result in holding up these persons before the public as guilty of a crimnal act—it would be pre-judging their case—it would give them no opportunity of defending themselves before the country,—depriving them the right of trial by jury, which it was supposed was secured to them by the Constitution. He thought that it was the duty of every good citizen when he saw our laws outraged in the manner stated by the gentleman from La Salle, to inform the grand jurors of his county. They were the proper persons to take cognizance of it; and it was their bounden duty to do so. The laws were, he believed, fully sufficient to sustain the purity of elections if carried into effect,—and it was the duty of those who witnessed their violation to see to it that his own privileges, as well as those of his fellow citizens, were sustained by their proper and legal execution. He could not see that any public advantage would arise from the proposed investigation.
Mr. Dougherty, stated that it was not the design to send for persons and papers, but to confine the investigation to facts within the knowledge of the members of the House.
The question was put on striking out and inserting, and carried—ayes 48, noes 40.3
The resolution was then adopted, 51 ayes, 33 noes.4
1Governor Thomas Carlin claimed in his message that, while he had no direct knowledge of election fraud, he had been “informed from sources in which I place the utmost reliance,” that citizens from another state had come into Illinois to cast ballots in the 1840 presidential election. Citing instances of voter fraud in New York and other states, Carlin called for a law punishing offenders of the election law.
2Reference to any number of the ten biblical plagues recorded in the Book of Exodus.
3Abraham Lincoln voted no to the motion to strike out his text and insert McClernand’s amendment.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 34-35.
4Lincoln voted no. The Senate adopted the resolution on November 30 by a vote of 34 yeas to 3 nays.
Lincoln and other Whigs in the General Assembly labeled the resolution as amended by McClernand and consequent investigation a “party” measure concocted by the Democrats to cast a shadow over Whig victory in the 1840 federal election.
The General Assembly addressed some of Carlin’s concerns by passing an act amending and explaining the general election act of 1829.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 35, 43; Illinois Senate Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 26, 29-30; Illinois State Register (Springfield), 4 December 1840, 2:2-3; An Act to Amend and Explain the Election Law, Approved January 10, 1829.
Copy of Printed Document, 1 page(s), Quincy Whig (Quincy, IL), 12 December 1840, 1:5-7.