Summary of Legislative Debate on Petition of Norman H. Purple, 4 December 18401
Mr. Peck, from the select committee to which was referred the petition of N. H. Purple, for a seat in this House, in the room of Mr. Phelps, submitted the report of a majority of the committee, which was read.2 The majority of the committee in their report, say—that from the poll books, Phelps has a majority of seven—that they find fifteen illegal votes were cast for Phelps, and eight for Purple—and that two were rejected by the Judges, which should be counted for Purple—leaving Purple a majority of two. In arriving at these facts, the committee say they were not governed by legal rules, but such evidence was submitted as satisfied them. The report concluded with a resolution that Mr. Purple should be admitted to his seat.3
Mr. Hardin, from the minority of the committee, also submitted a report.4 From this report it appears that eleven illegal votes were found on the poll books—6 for Purple, and 5 for Phelps—that were proven such by primary and satisfactory testimony. The evidence in relation to each disputed vote is given at length in the report—and the minority conclude that Phelps’ majority is not changed from what it appeared upon the poll books. The report animadverted at length, and with severity upon the testimony which was admitted by the majority, in order to cast doubt upon the legality of several votes given for Phelps.
Mr. Lincoln moved that both reports be committed to a committee of the whole House, and that the House now resolve itself into a committee of the whole House.
Mr. Lincoln said he would state the course he proposed the House should pursue when in committee—that the two gentlemen who had made the reports should agree as the votes about which there was no dispute, and that the committee should then take up the disputed votes, and decide upon them one by one, whether they should be received or rejected.
Mr. Cavalry made some remarks in opposition to this course.
Mr. Gridley said he was not surprised at the course pursued by the gentleman from Green, after having observed his course in the committee—all he asked was, that the House should hear the testimony and decide upon each vote. He had no fears of the result.
Mr. Drummond would be willing to this course, if he had been upon the committee and heard all the testimony; but as it was, he was not prepared to act upon it—we were acting under great responsibility—we were judges, and sworn to decide impartially, and
<Page 2>he wished time to examine the testimony. He knew that retrenchment was necessary in our expenses; but he knew of no way in which our money could be better applied than in calmly and dispassionately examining this testimony. It should be printed, that all might read for themselves. He was opposed to deciding such questions in the hurry and excitement of the moment.
Mr. Lincoln said it would afford him pleasure to oblige his friend from Joe Davies, (Mr. Drummond) but he thought his objections to taking up the matter now, were not well founded. This is the very reason why we should now go into the testimony—we should go into it like a jury without prepossessions, and be the better prepared to arrive at correct conclusions from the testimony. The gentleman had deprecated party feeling. He confessed he had this much feeling about it, honestly. The gentleman who held his seat, was a political friend of his, and if, after an investigation, it is shown that he is fairly the representative, he should feel gratified. But he did not believe that his mind would be swayed by party feeling, from deciding honestly and justly in this case. The sooner we could decide this matter, the better—there was less party excitement now than there would be to-morrow, and less to-morrow, than there would be the day after.
Mr. Drummond replied—we certainly should decide this matter immediately; but this was of minor importance, compared with deciding it rightly. The reasons applying to a jury, would not hold to us—the evidence there was oral—here it written, and required an examination. He utterly disclaimed all party feeling upon such a question as this. He felt himself acting under the obligations of a juror, and he cared not whether the rightful member was for Harrison or Van Buren, in making up his decision.
Mr. Dougherty remarked, that gentlemen seemed to have misapprehended the question before the House—it was not whether we should now go into committee, but on the reference to the committee of the whole.
The motion to refer it to the committee of the whole, was then put and carried.
Mr. Peck moved that the House now resolve itself into committee of the whole.
Mr. Peck said, when the question was up the other day of investigating the election frauds, the gentleman from Morgan had stated that its only object was to get an electioneering speech upon the Journals. The gentleman had effected the same object by his minority report, and he hoped he was now satisfied. This report reminded him very much of what a poet had written:
“Some books are lies from end to end, And some great lies were never penned.”5
Mr. P. was proceeding to point out some errors in the report, when he was corrected by Mr. Hardin, who remarked, that he hoped the gentleman would not “tear his shirt.”
Mr. Webb was convinced of the propriety of the views of his friend from Joe Davies, (Mr. Drummond) that the reports should be printed. If the committee had not agreed upon the testimony, how did they expect the House to agree upon it, without deliberation?
Mr. Murphy, of Perry, was surprised at the course of the gentleman from White, (Mr. Webb) who had objected to printing 2,000 copies of the Governor’s message, over the additional number, because of the expense, and was now in favor of printing these voluminous reports. He was in favor of the proposition of the gentleman from Sangamon. (Mr. Lincoln.) We were prepared now, dispassionately, to decide this matter.6
Mr. Webb replied—this was a very different matter from that of printing the additional copies of the Governor’s message. This was absolutely necessary, in order that we might judge correctly. It was important to the country, that it might know what constituted a legal voter; and it was important to many members in this House, who held their seats by small majorities, to know upon what light tenures they are held. He would move to reconsider the vote on its committee of the whole.
The motion to reconsider was put and lost.
The question recurred of going now into committee of the whole.
Mr. McClerned said he could think of no higher question than the present—it involved the interests of the whole community, and especially of that community upon whose rights we were deciding. If the committee were not able to agree in their conclusions, how was it expected that this House should agree at a moment’s warning? We could only arrive at conclusions by careful examination. The testimony should be printed. He thought the gentleman from Sangamon most unhappy in illustrating our situation by that of a jury. The very intention of a jury was that they could obtain a greater amount of information—that they should have the best information in the best way—so we should act in this House. The point was against the gentleman.
Mr. Parsons said that he was not disposed to take up the time of the House with any remarks. The gentleman from Gallatin and Joe Davies seemed determined on misunderstanding the proposition of the gentleman from Sangamon. His proposition was not for us to decide now, upon the case, but to commence the inquiry now.
These facts were of the simplest character—not near so complicated as those generally submitted to a jury They were simply as to whether these individuals had been in the state six months—or were twenty-one, as the case might be. It was not necessary to determine these facts, or to think long upon the subject. Party influence has been alluded to. He was sent here as a party man, but this should not influence his judgment, in a case of this sort, nor would he decide upon party grounds.
Messrs.[Messieurs] Murphy, of Perry, Ormsbee, Bentley, and several others, addressed the House, when the vote was taken, and the motion to go into committee of the whole prevailed.
The committee immediately rose and reported, and had leave to sit again.
1The Illinois State Register also published a version of this debate. The Register’s summary is superior except in the description of the respective majority and minority reports and Lincoln’s retort to Drummond
2On November 24, 1840, Ebenezer Peck in the House of Representatives presented the petition of Purple. In the state election of August 1840, Phelps, the Whig candidate, had defeated Purple, the Democrat, by a meager seven votes in the race to represent Peoria County, and Purple had contested the canvass, claiming that fifteen voters had cast illegal ballots for Phelps, whereas he had only received eight illegal votes. Purple also purported that election officials had rejected two of his supporters at the polls without cause. On November 25, the House appointed a select committee to investigate Purple’s contentions. This select committee had five Democrats and four Whigs.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 7, 8, 9, 59-61; Theodore C. Pease, ed., Illinois Election Returns, 1818-1848, vol. 18 of Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1923), 348.
3As part of their investigation, the select committee had subpoenaed William Mitchell, clerk of the County Commissioners Court of Peoria County, to bring with him the respective poll books in his custody listing the votes given the election.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 9-10; An Act Making Compensation to the Persons Therein Named.
4Partisanship divided the select committee, and resulted in majority and minority reports.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 61-67.
5Robert Burns, “Death and Dr. Hornbook: A True Story,” The Poetical Works of Robert Burns: Three Volumes in One (Cambridge, MA: Riverside, 1898), 66.
7Both reports were referred to the Committee of the Whole. On December 21, the House adopted a resolution affirming that Phelps was rightly entitled to the seat. The House adopted the resolution by a vote of 48 yeas to 33 nays, with Lincoln voting yea.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 7, 8, 9-10, 59-67, 90, 93, 131, 132-34, 138-39.
Printed Document, 2 page(s), Sangamo Journal , (Springfield, IL) , 8 December 1840, 2:7; 3:1