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Looking backward

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Feeling like there's no drama in the upcoming presidential race? Bored by the fundraising...er convention spectacle on TV? Annoyed by North Carolina's position at the tail end of the primary season? It may be some comfort to know that this isn't the first time Tar Heel citizens have felt gypped politically.

I recently discovered, while poring over a 1913 copy of the official North Carolina Manual, that state voters who went to the polls in 1860 to choose a president could not cast votes for Abraham Lincoln.

The reason was simple: Lincoln wasn't on the ballot. The choices that year were John C. Breckinridge on the Independent/Democratic ticket, Whig Party member John Bell and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. While the Republican Party was strong in the western part of North Carolina, it lacked the statewide numbers to get the GOP nominee on the ballot, says Harry McKown, a reference historian at the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. "And that was real upsetting to a lot of people."

The small, burgundy-colored manual, published by the N.C. Historical Commission, was full of other surprising details. The Commissioner of Agriculture in 1913, W.A. Graham, had the same last name as our current outgoing "Sodfather," Jim Graham, although, in answer to our query, Graham says they are not related. And there were other familiar names scattered throughout the roster of legislators, judges and council of state members--Bryant, Faircloth and Price among them. (We're still not sure if they are related to any current state leaders).

Other names had a less familiar ring. Dorothea Dix Hospital was then the Central Hospital for the Insane. The institutions now known as Fayetteville State, Elizabeth City State and UNC-Pembroke were then called the State Normal Schools for the Colored Race and for the Indians of Robeson County.

The numbers tell a story, too: Of the total 762,607 school-age population of North Carolina in 1913, 237,100--or about 31 percent--were not enrolled in school. The average annual salary for teachers was $405.84 in rural districts and $493.80 in urban ones. The governor's salary was $5,000.

The election returns in the back of the manual speak to the state's quirky political character. An 1861 vote to secede from the Union was close--the question won by only 661 votes (the total in favor was 47,333). Four years later, amendments to abolish slavery and forbid secession won handily. Of course, those measures were requirements for being let back into the Union. A "suffrage amendment" of 1900, was essentially a literacy test used to disenfranchise African-American voters. The measure was pushed by conservative Democrats who had defeated an alliance of Republicans and blacks that briefly won power over the state house during the Reconstruction era of the 1890s.

The manual came my way by accident. It was part of a treasure-trove of old books that one of our neighbors was given by an elderly Durham man. Thumbing carefully through its pages, I try to imagine a time when voters could choose between Whigs, Liberal Republicans, Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Socialists, Populists and Prohibitionists.

Of course, there is that matter of not being able to vote for Honest Abe. Wonder what Ralph Nader and the Green Party would have to say about that?

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