Made in Florida, a small piece of accidental history

The Ballot Paper
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The Independent US

When the electoral officials of Palm Beach County in Florida designed their controversial machine-countable ballot for the 2000 elections, they could never have dreamt it would become a historical document.

When the electoral officials of Palm Beach County in Florida designed their controversial machine-countable ballot for the 2000 elections, they could never have dreamt it would become a historical document.

This confusing, badly laid-out voting form, about the size of a 7" x 5" notebook, in which residents of Palm Beach had to indicate their choice by punching a hole rather than making a mark, is a classic item of inadvertent history. There are photographs, magnetic tapes and pieces of paper that seemed insignificant at the time, only to assume huge importance later. Whatever the outcome of the closest presidential election in America's 224-year existence, the Palm Beach ballot is being seen as one of these.

Examples are already being offered for sale on eBay, the world's biggest online auction site, where an optimist is asking $10,000 (£7,000) for one of the sample ballots sent to every registered voter in Palm Beach County. (Their existence may enable electoral officials to argue that voters had adequate warning of what they would find at the polling station, so there should be no re-run of the election.) No one had taken him up yesterday, but bids for the 41 other copies of the sample ballot went as high as $76 (£53.40).

In a nation that reveres "the record", perhaps because of its written Constitution, small pieces of accidental history have attracted obsessive attention. John Hancock, president of the colonial congress, was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence: he wrote his name in the middle, forcing all the other signatories off to the sides of the paper. Americans still speak of "putting their John Hancock" to a legal or official document.

Anything, such as props or playbills, associated with Our American Cousin, the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated, fetches high prices. But the only photograph of him delivering his immortal Gettysburg Address is invaluable, not least because no one expected it to be immortal at the time. Lincoln spoke after a two-hour oration by the forgotten Edward Everett, and finished his 272-word speech before many people realised he had started. He considered it a failure, yet millions of American schoolchildren know every word by heart, "Four score and seven years ago ... "

And Paul Revere's famous ride was a little-remembered incident of the American Revolution until decades later, when the poet Longfellow eulogised it, dramatising or making up most of the details. It is inadvertent history in the sense that most of what Americans think they know about the event is wrong. Perhaps Britons are right to be upset about recent movie travesties, such as the claim that Americans captured the Enigma machine, which enabled the Allies to crack the most secret Nazi code.

But no history could be more inadvertent than that made on the late Richard Nixon's White House tapes. Only he knew then that every word uttered in the Oval Office was being recorded, and he never imagined the tapes would be made public. All the sleazy, profane plotting to cover up the Watergate scandal was captured for eternity, adding the expression "expletive deleted" to the language, as when Nixon famously said: "I don't give a [expletive deleted] about the lira."

The Nixon tapes gave Americans a glimpse into government that made them recoil. It still overshadows that other piece of accidental historyassociated with the nearimpeachment of a president, the photograph of Bill Clinton in a hug with an enthusiastic White House intern called Monica Lewinsky, which would have been forgotten had there not been subsequent revelations.

In Nixon's case, Watergate led to a document unique in American history, now on display at the National Archives in Washington. It is a letter to Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, dated 9 August 1974, which says: "I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States." It was certainly the kind of history Nixon never intended to make.

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