Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: To impress upon readers the importance of casting their votes, lists circulate that perpetuate a variety of "one vote" canards, such as:
Origins: Regardless of the value of casting a ballot, the fervor to incite others to vote doesn't abrogate the need to be factual in the claims used as prods. The falsities listed above routinely find their way into the media, most likely because they have so often been circulated as part of larger lists detailing incidents where one vote made an important difference that this year's inciter doesn't think to question
Worse, not only are these lists published as gospel both in the traditional print media and on the Internet, they often survive attempts to debunk the various erroneous claims made in them. Election year after election year, screwball "one vote" lists have life breathed back into them through impassioned readers' letters on the editorial page, in the body of news articles by paid journalists, and in the offerings of advice and opinion columnists.
Misinformation of this nature is a Weeble — you can hit it, you can knock it down, but as surely as God made little green apples, it will pop back up. And sure enough, Jesse Jackson's speech before the Democratic National Convention in
One vote decided that America would speak English rather than German in 1776. One vote kept Aaron Burr, later charged with treason, from becoming our president. One vote made Texas part of the United States of America in 1845. One vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic. One vote has the power to change our course.Ann Landers ran the following on
DEAR READERS: Tomorrow is Election Day. If you don't bother to vote, you have no right to complain about who gets elected. The essay that follows was sent in by a reader in Missouri. I hope it will inspire you.When Ann Landers' readers started flooding her mailbox with "you wuz wrong" notes, she printed their comments in her
How Important Is One Vote?
Dear Ann Landers: I'm no historian, but that essay in your column about one vote preserving English as our official language is a myth that refuses to die. There NEVER was a possibility that German would be the official language of the United States, nor was there a vote on such a measure.[Even the lad who was setting Ann Landers straight got a bit of the explanation wrong. The claim "This petition was referred to a committee, which voted the idea down - by a margin of one vote" isn't right. Nothing got voted down; the measure that was defeated was a petition to adjourn. By the way, in case Lewiston's explanation wasn't perfectly clear, the German language fracas was over a proposal brought by a group of German-Americans from Virginia who were asking that a printing run of 3,000 sets of laws also be translated into German for the benefit of the German-speaking folks they represented.
The Library of Congress first began to receive queries about this during the late 1930s, when Nazi propagandists were hard at work trying to convince the world that America had almost been a German-speaking country. That story gained such momentum over the years that the Congressional Research Service looked into it in 1982. Here's what happened:
In 1794 some German settlers in Virginia petitioned the U.S. Congress to have certain federal statutes translated into German and printed in both languages. This petition was referred to a committee, which voted the idea down - by a margin of one vote.
Please stomp out that piece of fiction whenever you encounter it. Support your local responsible historian.
Dear Lewiston: Thank you for helping to set the record straight.
Our German Vote page explains this more clearly than constraints of space allow for here. Now let's get back to Ann's response.]
Methinks when early American history was taught in school, I was out to lunch. Read on for some other interesting tidbits:Ten years earlier Ann's sister, Abigail van Buren, was given a similar list by one of her readers, ran with it, and also received a flood of mail setting her straight.
Dear Ann: You printed that "in 1868, one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment." Actually, "impeachment" means a public official has been charged with a crime. Andrew Johnson was not saved from that. However, he was not convicted because the Senate was one vote shy of the two-thirds necessary. Thought you'd want to know.
- Gail in Bartow, Fla.
Dear Ann: Oliver Cromwell did not gain control of England by one vote. Parliament dissolved itself without even taking a vote. That wasn't the only error in your column about the importance of one vote. On the day
- Madison, Wis.
Dear Madison: I want to thank all who wrote about the importance of one vote. Did you know that in the last presidential election, fewer than half the people eligible to vote turned out? This is a sad commentary when one considers how many people have fought and died for the privilege.
[Dear Abby, 23 March 1986]Like Ann's, Abby's readers reacted by sending in corrections. Here's one of Abby's columns of those letters:
Dear Abby: In a recent column you emphasized the importance of voting. May I share with your readers some examples of how one vote changed history?
[Dear Abby, 12 May 1986]Our earliest print sighting (so far) dates to 1979, where it appeared in a collection of anecdotes and talking points:
1 MAN, 1 VOTE — AND MANY ERRORS
Dear Abby: I would like to comment about the letter from an Alabama reader who gave examples of "how one vote changed history." His purpose, to encourage voting, was a good one, but most of his facts were wrong.
He said: "In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England."
Wrong! In 1645, Oliver Cromwell became leader of the New Model (Puritan) Army, but not of England, which was then in the midst of a civil war. He didn't establish his own government until 1649 - and then did so in part by expelling opponents from Parliament. It wasn't primarily votes but strong leadership and military force that established his control.
He said: "In 1649, one vote caused King Charles of England to be executed."
Wrong! In 1649, King
He stated: "In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union."
Wrong! In 1845, the U.S. Senate passed the convention annexing Texas by two votes (27-25), not one; and it entered into force only after ratification by the Texas Congress and voters.
He stated: "In 1876, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic."
Wrong! In 1876, France was not a monarchy; it had become a republic in 1875, by a larger margin. (Its empire had ended in 1870; previous monarchies ended in 1830 and 1848.)
He stated: "In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party."
Wrong! Hitler acquired dictatorial control of the Nazi Party in 1921, not 1923, and by a party congress vote of 553-1 - not exactly a one-vote margin.
Abby, if your Alabama correspondent wanted his argument to be effective, he should have checked his facts.
Louise E. Hoffman, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Hoffman: I was hesitant to publish his letter without checking his facts, but he seemed so cotton pickin' sure, I didn't question his sources. My fault, not his.
Suppose we scan the pages of history to see some of the great issues which were one or lost by one vote.Some claims from the "one vote" laundry lists have something to them, namely:
Oliver Cromwell won control of England in 1645, when Parliament voted 91 to 90 in his favor. King
During the American Revolution, anti-British sentiment was high in many colonies. A bill was presented to the Continental Congress which would have abolished English as the official American language in favor of German. The bill was defeated by one vote. In 1845, the Senate voted 26 to 25 to admit Texas to the union. Indiana's Senator Hannigan changed his mind and voted in favor of its admission. And, the senator himself had won his election to office by only one vote!
President Andrew Johnson escaped impeachment in 1868 by one vote. Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President of the United States in 1876 by an electoral vote of 185 to 184.
On November 8, 1923, the leaders of the tiny Nazi party met in a Munich tavern and elected Adolf Hitler as their leader — by a margin of one vote. What disastrous world war might have been averted if that group had elected a different man!
On 18 January 1961, in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), the Afro-Shirazi Party won the general elections by a single seat, after the seat of Chake-Chake on Pemba Island was won by a single vote.Barbara "and no married ones" Mikkelson
Last updated: 29 September 2007
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