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Challenging Students to Differentiate Between Election Returns and Results with a Memo and a Telegram from 1864

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This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

In the October 2014 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article focused on the presidential election of 1864.  We suggested that President Lincoln’s Blind Memo, and a telegram reporting Nevada election results might challenge students to think about the differences between election returns and election results.

Abraham Lincoln. Memorandum, August 23, 1864.
Abraham Lincoln. Memorandum, August 23, 1864.

Lincoln’s Blind Memo revealed his belief in mid-1864 that he had little chance of being reelected; the sample telegram from early November reflected the actual election returns:  Republican Lincoln defeated Democrat George B. McClellan by a large margin.

When the president delivered his annual address to Congress on December 6, 1864, he made reference to the election and emphasized its significance.  He reminded members, “At the last session of Congress a proposed amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery throughout the United States, passed the Senate, but failed for lack of the requisite two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives.”  He challenged Congress to vote on the bill again and reminded them that “The most reliable indication of public purpose in this country is derived through our popular elections.”

Congress took his message to heart and on January 31, 1865, nearly two months before the newly elected members would be sworn in, the House called another vote on the amendment–this time it passed.  One result of the election of 1864 was the passage of the 13th Amendment.

If you’ve used these sources or others to discuss election returns and results with your students, to what extent did they help students understand the differences?


  1. This is an excellent example of comparing two versions of an event – a central literacy goal. It also drives home the point: elections matter. Votes matter.

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