The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same: Abe Lincoln and the Election of 1860

One of the joys of living in Northern Virginia is experiencing the past.  So much American history was made right here, and no drive into the nation’s capital goes by without finding a building I’ve never noticed before, in which events that rocked the world took place.

When the National Park Service recently offered a chance to visit Arlington House, the former  home of Robert E. Lee–in what is now Arlington Cemetery–I jumped at the opportunity.  The event was a kick-off for the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which will be observed over the next five years.  This particular event was a look at the presidential election of 1860, in which four candidates competed for office.  As part of the evening’s entertainment, we were to listen to four re-enactors stumping for “their” candidate, then vote, even those of us of the female persuasion, and those people of color among us, neither of which had any say in the real election.

We’re particularly interested in all things Lincoln at my house.  My husband’s family claims a relationship through a great-great-grandmother who was a cousin of Lincoln’s mother.  As these things go, the story is more fun than doing the actual geneaology would be.  But, of course, we went to cast our vote for Cousin Abe.

The evening was perfect, cool and clear, and the road leading up to Arlington House was softly illuminated by lanterns.  Our National Park Service guide was charming and well-informed, and the walk to the house was lovely with a moon shining brightly and the lights of the city below. As we were serenaded by a period brass band, our mission was to listen to supporters of each of the four candidates give stump speeches, complete with costumes and soap boxes, and decide for ourselves which man–of course they were all men–to vote for.  In a gesture of 21st century concilliation, even the women and people of color in the crowd were allowed to cast ballots.

That’s when the evening began to feel “real” to me.  Because even though 150 years have passed since the campaign leading up to Lincoln’s election (in which 60% of voters voted AGAINST him) listening to the various candidates’ supporters, I felt as if I were sitting in front of my own television set, watching the increasingly obnoxious ads in the Maryland governor’s race and local Virginia races too numerous to mention.

Without fail, in almost every one of these campaigns, past and present, the ads or speakers have twisted the facts about the other candidate’s record, refused to address the real issues facing the people they want to govern, avoided giving any actual information about their plans for our future or how they’ll go about accomplishing them.  They promise no new taxes, while also promising expensive solutions.  They point fingers, avoid answering questions and hope that buzz words will carry the day instead of logic.  Those with money  try to buy their way into our voting booths.

Lincoln’s campaigner was every bit as off key as the rest.   I wonder if, at the end of that particular speech, Lincoln would have stepped forward to say, “I’m Abraham Lincoln, and I approved this message.”

This is a serious time in our country’s history, and the following is not a partisan request. Whatever you do, whomever you vote for, together let’s “ignore” the ads and the speeches and the cute nicknames that tell us nothing we need to know when we go to the polls on Tuesday.  Let’s do our homework and vote with clear heads for the candidates who have been honest and taken a risk to tell us what they believe and really plan to do.   Maybe if we do, eventually, candidates will begin to do more of the same.

A hundred and fifty years have gone by since the election of 1860, but despite a flawed process, I think we made a good choice with Cousin Abe.  Now let’s wend our way through the garbage strewn trail of television lies, and do it again this year.


  1. Dorothy Schreyer on November 1, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Too strange, my paternal Grandmother always said we are related to General George McClellan who ran against Abe Lincoln in 1864.

  2. Merry Lu on November 4, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I wish I could have told my nieces about this, I think they would have loved it. Thanks for sharing. And now, everytime I hear “I’m Mr. X and I approved this message”, I will hear Abe Lincoln saying those words, and smile. 🙂

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