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"The Soldier Vote" - A Memorial Day Tribute

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The Soldier Vote

When You Lay It On The Line
Voting Doesn’t Come Easy


By Michael Collins
First Published in
Scoop Independent News

Washington, DC

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Those Who Defend the Vote Deserve the Vote: The American Revolution

Soldiers of the American Revolutionary Army forcefully argued that they had the right to vote. Restrictions to voting based on property and other criteria were common in colonial America to assure the right type of voters. Washington’s troops were acutely aware of the injustice of their sacrifices for a freedom that they lacked.

Several states responded to these demands by expanding the franchise. For example, Pennsylvania’s radical constitution abolished property ownership as a requirement for voting. Male voting rights were based only on one requirement: to vote you needed to be a tax payer.

The Revolutionary Army’s demand for voting rights was a strong influence that spread democratic ideals. While the wealthy in other states were troubled by Pennsylvania’s consistent application of revolutionary ideals, those states were ultimately influenced by the general trend toward democracy generated by the war time contributions of citizens from all economic classes.

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During the war, many patriot militiamen claimed the right to elect their officers; subsequently, many veterans, whether or not they had property, demanded the franchise. And when they voted, they chose different sorts of leaders. Before the war, about 85 percent of the assembly were wealthy men; by 1784, however, middling farmers and artisans controlled the lower houses of most northern states and formed a sizable minority in the southern states. Oxford University Press

What began during the birth of a new nation was expanded as a result of the Civil War.

Revolutionary Army Demands Bear Fruit for the Union: Reelecting Lincoln

The Civil War was coming to an end in 1864 and President Lincoln was worried. Grant and Sherman and his other commanders were about to deliver a resounding victory but it was an election year. Lincoln faced Democratic challenger, General George B. McClellan. At the start of the war, the president had fired the general as commander of the Union army. Little mac displayed a hesitance and unwillingness to fight that had hurt the Union cause and troubled Lincoln. Now the president worried about losing the 1864 election. He was convinced that McClellan would capitulate to the secessionist movement thus ending the Union at the moment of victory.

On the basis of principle and political instinct, Lincoln put his faith in the Union soldiers. He sought to expedite the vote. In this letter to one of his best generals, Lincoln made a suggestion for soldiers from states without absentee ballots.

To: General W. T. Sherman.
Major-General
Sherman:

The State election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October, and the loss of it … would go far toward losing the whole Union cause. The bad effect upon the November election, and especially … giving the State government to those who will oppose the war in every possible way, are too much to risk if it can be avoided. … Anything you can safely do to let her soldiers or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election will be greatly in point. They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once. This is in no sense an order, but is merely intended to impress you with the importance to the Army itself of your doing all you safely can, yourself being the judge of what you can safely do.

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Yours truly, A. Lincoln.

Sherman cooperated gladly.

Lincoln won the election with 77% of the Union soldiers giving him their vote. In most states, the soldier vote added to his margin. Of greater importance, their votes provided the margin to win critical House seats retaining the Republicans majority in congress. But in one state with a commitment to the broadest possible franchise, the soldiers made the difference for Lincoln. The Pennsylvania soldier vote exceeded Lincoln’s margin of victory and saved that critical state for those loyal to the Union cause

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