Sunday, December 9, 2012

Coffroth vs. Koontz continued...

Back at the end of November I spent some time looking into the controversy in Pennsylvania's 16th district during the 1864 election. The district included Gettysburg, and the incumbent representative Alexander Coffroth faced off against Republican challenger William H. Koontz. Those who have seen the film Lincoln know that the disputed result of the election serves as a background story for one of the minor side plots - Republican efforts to convince Coffroth to switch his vote on the 13th Amendment.

When we last left the story a controversy had erupted over the soldiers' vote. In my last blog post I quoted from several articles written at the time in the Adams Sentinel and Gettysburg Compiler, describing the dispute - albeit with clear partisan leanings. Essentially - several units at the front  failed to observe the strict letter of the election law when conducting their polls. The vote totals from these units contained a significant majority for Koontz, enough to win the election. However, Democratic Return Judges decided to toss out many of the returns, thereby giving Coffroth a narrow victory. Republican Return Judges in return refused to add their signatures to the election certifications, and charged the Democrats of playing politics by tossing out the soldiers' votes on technicalities. Each side claimed victory and sent in their own returns to the governor, neither of which contained the correct signatures to be considered legal.

On January 3, 1865, the Adams Sentinel ran the opinion of Pennsylvania's Attorney General, W.M. Meredith:
Two papers, purporting to be returns of the recent election in the 16th Congressional District, have been sent to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.... One of these papers is signed by four persons, viz: Messrs. Man, of Bedford county; Leker, of Franklin; Winter, of Fulton; and Diehl, of Adams, styling themselves a majority of the return judges of the above named counties; and the paper goes on to state that they have examined and counted the votes cast for Congress in the district... and that Mr. Coffroth having a majority of all the votes cast as counted before the board, is declared duly and legally elected....

The other paper is signed by five persons, viz: Messrs. Wills, or Somerset county; Curt, of Adams; Wilhelm, of Franklin; Winter, of Fulton, and Peek, of Bedford, styling themselves as being appointed return judges of the election held in the several counties composing the 16th Congressional District.... The paper goes on to state that having carefully examined the returns of the said several districts, and added together the votes therein contained, according to law, they... declared that Mr. Koontz, having received the greatest number of legal votes, is duly elected. Both bodies claiming to be the district return judges met on the day and at the place fixed by law....

On this state of facts the Governor has requested my opinion on the question, which of the two candidates ought to be proclaimed by him as having been returned as elected?
Meredith's opinion - supported by two full columns of detailed analysis of both returns - stated that neither return was legal. As a result, Governor Curtin declined to issue credentials to either Koontz or Coffroth for the next session of Congress, set to convene in December of 1865. Instead, he would leave the controversy for the House of Representatives to decide on its own.

When the House convened , the Clerk declined to seat either candidate, and the House referred the contest to its Elections Committee, with instructions to determine which candidate had a prima facie (as in, "on first examination") right to the seat. You can find some pretty good primary source material on the whole affair in the Digest of Election Cases: Cases of Contested Election in the House of Representatives from 1865 to 1871, Inclusive. On February 19, 1866 Coffroth was seated with the prima facie right to the seat, but Congress allowed Koontz to appeal the decision and prove his right to the seat. The Committee of Elections then took up the full case, to determine the merits of each side. On July 9, 1866 Republican Joseph W. McClurg of the committee made a full report to the House. The report detailed how the committee took up each and every disputed return and considered both arguments. For instance, take this excerpt from the report:
No. 8. One hundred and eighty-fourth Pennsylvania regiment, Koontz 39, Coffroth 21.

The sitting member [Coffroth], in his answer, alleged that 'said election is illegal and void, not being held in accordance with laws,' and that 'the persons voting were not qualified electors of the district.' But he did not specify in what manner the laws were violated or electors not qualified. In his brief he seems to admit that all should be counted but one, as he says: 'Rejected return of Company K, One hundred and eighty-fourth regiment, if counted, should be counted, Coffroth 21, Koontz 38.'

In his argument he objected to the return because it contained a voter in Franklin County.

That objection cannot deprive the qualified voters of Adams County of their right, when a perfect return, as this is, is properly certified by the prothonotary.

But the certificate of prothonotary of Adams County is not evidence to us of a vote in Franklin County. In the absence of other testimony we reject one vote from this return for Mr. Koontz, and count for Mr. Koontz 38, for Mr. Coffroth 21.
 In the end, the House Committee on Elections determined the legality of each disputed return in a similar manner, hearing evidence from both sides and judging on the merits of each argument. McClurg ended his report with a summation of the vote totals:
The conclusion to which the committee have arrived is:

From the majority of the uncounted votes for Mr. Koontz, as shown by table last above named...............159

Take the majority for Mr. Coffroth, as appears in the official count. 88

Leaves a majority for Koontz of................... 71

Should any doubt the correctness of counting the vote of Companies B and G, One hundred and thirty-eighth regiment Pennsylvania volunteers, where the two companies voted together, a deduction of Mr. Koontz's majorty at that poll 32-1.....31

Gives a majority for Mr. Koontz of.........40

The committee therefore recommend the adoption of the following resolutions:

That Alexander H. Coffroth is not entitled to a seat in this House, as a representative from the sixteenth district of Pennsylvania in the thirty-ninth Congress.

Resolved, That William H. Koontz is entitled to a seat in this House, as a representative from the sixteenth district of Pennsylvania in the thirty-ninth Congress.
 Nine days after the report, on July 18, 1866 - the House decided. Before the vote, McClurg stood to address his fellow members. First he noted that Coffroth had intended to speak, but had become indisposed and was forced to leave the city the day before.  McClurg then gave a speech of his own, summarizing his report, and noting that "the policy of the sitting member, both in his allegations and his argument, is to attack upon the soldiers' vote, persistent attack. He offers to disenfranchise many who voted for himself, that in so doing he may disenfranchise more who voted for the contestant."

Koontz also received permission to have a 30 minute speech printed in the record. After summing up his case for election, Koontz closed very powerfully:
Beaten upon the home vote largely, my election was saved by the brave men in the field, who for a brief time stopped their work of putting down treason in the front to send a crushing blow against its allies in the rear. To the brave men in the front, with cannon in front of them, cannon to the right of them, and cannon to the left of them; to the brave men, hurrying to the front to join the deadly strife; to the brave men who had been to the front, but alas! then lay prostrate in the hospitals with fevered brows, [unreadable] limbs, and bodies pierced with shot and torn with shell, is due the credit of having saved the sixteenth district of Pennsylvania to the Union cause. Many of them have since the close of the war returned to their homes, and are now engaged in the peaceful pursuits of life, while many others were stricken down upon the battle-field or by disease contracted in the service to their country, and were not permitted to return to their homes and firesides, but now rest among the patriot dead of the Republic.
'They sleep their last sleep, they have fought their last battle,
No Sound can awake them to glory again.'
 Justice to the martyred dead and heroic living of the brave soldiers of the sixteenth district of Pennsylvania demanded that I should make this contest and vindicate their rights by preserving the purity of the elective franchise. Impelled by these considerations, sir, I have gone through this long and annoying contest, to find at last, as a reward for my time and labor, that justice is about to be done to myself and the majority of the legal voters of the sixteenth congressional district of Pennsylvania.
The House agreed to the resolutions, installing William H. Koontz as the duly elected representative of the 16th District, a year and nine months after the election.

Whether the disputed election provided the Lincoln administration and allies in Congress an opportunity to flip Coffroth's vote on the 13th amendment in January of 1865, we may never know. It is certainly a possibility though. What we do know is this:

1. Coffroth voted against the amendment in the summer of 1864
2. In January of 1865, with his reelection still in serious doubt, he shocked many by changing his vote on the amendment, as chronicled in an earlier blog post.
3. In February of 1866, he received prima facie right to his seat.
4. In July of 1866, the House Committee on Elections endorsed William H. Koontz's right to the seat, and by resolutions passed in the House Coffroth lost his seat on July 18, 1866.

A fascinating political story.

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