(HOST) According to commentator Howard Coffin, this week we not only conduct mid-term elections. We also observe a significant political anniversary. .
(COFFIN) One hundred fifty years ago this November sixth, Vermonters went to their town halls and school houses to cast their votes for the nation’s sixteenth president. Interest was high with the upstart Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln facing Brandon native Stephen Douglas, Illinois senator and standard bearer of a fractured Democratic Party.
Throughout the campaign, Lincoln had stayed at home in Springfield, Illinois, letting others speak for him. Rallies on his behalf had been held throughout Vermont, some supporters carrying fence rails in honor of the rail splitter candidate. Douglas had gone on the road, even coming to the State House in Montpelier.
In Burlington, as the election neared, the Free Press, a Republican paper, urged support for Lincoln and his stand against the westward expansion of slavery "to protect the natural rights of man." Burlington’s Weekly Sentinel, a Democratic publication, indicated a lack of faith in that party’s success stating that it would welcome a post-election "return to quiet" and that no matter who won, "We trust that the government will be worthily administered."
Election day dawned rainy, dark, and windy, but still Vermonters flocked to the polls. A Brattleboro paper reported that a pine tree, 70 feet high, was struck by lightning, with the top blasted away and the trunk "split into hundreds of pieces as if by gunpowder." It continued, "A democrat, who was coming to the village to vote, and who saw the tree soon after it was shivered, declared, ‘Well, it’s all up with us now! Old Abe will get it: for he is round here splitting rails.’"
Get it Lincoln did, receiving 42,419 Vermont votes to 6,849 for Douglas. Election night in Burlington, the town hall was packed to hear telegraphed updates of the national vote. At 1 a.m. with Lincoln’s election assured, a great celebration began in the square outside launched by a 100 gun salute and lit by flaming tar barrels.
At 3 a.m., everyone flocked up Church Street to demand a speech at the home of George Perkins Marsh, the former congressman soon to be appointed minister to Italy by Lincoln. The Woodstock native stepped into the night to say that, despite threats of southern states succeeding if Lincoln were voted in, the Union was, "in comfortable circumstances." Then everybody went to bed.
But despite those reassuring words, as Marsh well knew, the issue had been joined. The thunder and lightning of that Vermont election day would be rivaled in less than six months by the blast of rebel cannon sending shells through the South Carolina darkness at a brick and stone fort named Sumter. Because it was the property of the Unites States of America, the frontier man so overwhelmingly supported by Vermont voters, had refused to surrender it without a fight to those who would sunder his beloved union.