If you think this election season has been bad …
… you should have been in Springfield, IL, for the election of 1838. The political year opened with an acrimonious dispute between rival candidates for a plum patronage job as Registrar of the federal land office. (The Registrar was entitled to a percentage of every sale of federal land, which was a huge part of the economic activity in western states like Illinois at the time.) Culminating a long-running quarrel, the losing candidate confronted the winner at the Spottswood Hotel in Springfield, whereupon the winner took out a pistol and shot him dead. All this played out in front of an audience of Springfield’s elite. Indeed, the prosecutor had to recuse himself from the case because he was a witness to the murder. Lincoln later defended the murderer; he was acquitted based on self-defense.
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s law partner John Stuart was engaged in a bitter campaign for Congress against Stephen Douglas – yes, that Stephen Douglas, the same man whose famous debates against Lincoln two decades later set an elevated standard that this year’s presidential debates failed to meet, to put it charitably. At an early joint campaign appearance in the grocery story of William Herndon, one of Lincoln and Speed’s roommates, the candidates “both fought ‘til exhausted, the grocery store slippery with slop.”
Then, in a formal debate at the Springfield market house in late July, Stuart responded to a choice insult from Douglas “by deed rather than word, expressing contempt by picking up the little giant [Douglas was famously diminutive] and carrying him all the way around the market house before setting him down again, a feat that surely delighted a western audience.” Douglas responded with a typical western fighting move: he bit Stuart’s thumb. Hard. Stuart’s thumb got infected and he missed the next debate, with Lincoln standing in for him.
On election day, it was widely reported that Douglas had been elected. But then additional votes for Stuart kept trickling in from unlikely sources, and in the final official tally Stuart prevailed by 36 votes out of nearly 37,000 cast. Douglas protested, but to no avail. I believe he might have even claimed the election was rigged....
Photos from the book tour