Chaotic Presidential Elections in U.S. History
Since 1789, when George Washington won the presidency unopposed, the United States has seen 58 presidential elections. Most produced clear victors and either returned incumbents or initiated smooth transitions of power. Yet, a short but notable list has produced murky results, leading to a set of unconventional means of selecting the next President.
Other elections have taken place against the background of rising divisions in the nation with varying results of whether results churned or calmed the waters.
This article was penned ahead of Election Day 2020. Yet a year of unprecedented changes to the voting system brought on by the ongoing COVID pandemic and vacillation from President Donald Trump and some of his supporters on whether they would accept a Biden victory have led to a heightened level of speculation that 2020 might be added to America’s list of messy elections. It has also prompted some to take a look back at other U.S. presidential contests that ended with some level of chaos. Hamodia did just that in the following piece, with the help of Thomas Schwartz, professor and director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of History at Vanderbilt University and an expert on the history of the presidency.
A Smooth Rocky Beginning
The first wrinkle in the story of presidential elections occurred early in the nation’s history when John Adams, who squeaked out a victory in 1796, faced a rematch against his ideological foe, Thomas Jefferson. More than a disagreement over the appropriate role of the federal government, views on the French Revolution and proper balance of church and state separated the two. Adams and Jefferson had once been great friends who worked closely with each other in the Continental Congress and when the two spent much of the revolutionary period together in France. Yet, their bond had been severed by opposing views and political rivalry. The election of 1800 was marked by name-calling and a high level of acrimony between the camps.
The result was a clear defeat for Adams. But it still left Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who ran as Jefferson’s Vice President, but according to the rules of the time, could be voted for directly) with 73 electoral votes each and the match was thrown into the House of Representatives to be settled.
When Congress would next meet in February 1801, it would take 36 rounds of voting for either candidate to get a plurality. Ultimately Alexander Hamilton (whom Burr would kill in a duel over an unrelated dispute in 1804) negotiated a deal which awarded Jefferson the votes he needed to claim the presidency.
Jefferson’s victory marked the first time that the nation would see a transfer of power from one party to the other and Jefferson’s consolatory inaugural address remarks that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was looked at as an important precedent that established a tradition of peaceful transitions between administrations.
Years later, Jefferson himself would call the event “the Revolution of 1800,” a time when change was achieved not “by the sword,” but “by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”
“It showed an understanding and acceptance of the system that, whatever arguments they had, the stakes were not high enough to break up the union or to resort to violence,” said Professor Schwartz.
A Backroom Deal Backfires Four Years Later
In 1824, the campaign of another Adams would once again test the boundaries of the county’s electoral system. John Quincy Adams faced off against Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. Jackson won the popular vote (a relatively new phenomenon in a period when the selection of electors began to shift from state legislatures) as well as the largest tally of electoral votes, but failed to receive a majority that needed to declare victory.
For the second and last time, as dictated by the Constitution, the election once again found itself in the House of Representatives. The result was that Clay, who had placed fourth in the race, put his support behind Adams, handing him the presidency, and Clay found himself named Secretary of State. But Jackson, whose fiery image was rooted in his defense of the “common man” against ruling elites, denounced the arrangement as a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson and his supporters never let go of the accusation and spent much of the next four years painting Adam’s administration as one that lacked legitimacy. The messaging worked and, in 1828, Jackson defeated Adams outright.
“This type of dealmaking really intersected with what was going on the states at the time where there was more of a push to let the people vote for President,” said Professor Schwartz. “The idea of choosing a leader through a deal would have worked better in a parliamentary system, but [for Adams] it kept him from being able to consolidate his successes in office. Jackson kept up his campaign of illegitimacy and was able to take advantage of his own image as a frontiersman and military hero.”
The Hazy Election of 1876
The year 1876 is often billed as the most chaotic presidential election in U.S. history. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden handily won the popular vote but both he and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes walked away with 17 states apiece with four more, Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina, ruled as too close to call. A good deal of the smoke covering election results in the three Southern states was subsequently blamed on efforts by Democrats to suppress black voters who favored “the party of Lincoln” and to elect Tilden, whom they expected would relieve the pressure Washington had placed on the former Confederacy.
Unable to resolve the issue and without the tools available to carry out an easy recount, different officials in each of the four states authorized slates of electors from opposing parties to go and select a new President. Facing an unprecedented conundrum, Congress formed a 15-member commission with members from both houses and the Supreme Court to resolve the disputed election.
The commission voted 9-8 in favor of Hayes along partisan lines. Still, their choice was only accepted as part of a deal that all federal troops would be withdrawn from the South, effectively ending the government’s attempt to forge a new post-slavery South. Ironically, through electing Hayes, who had been a staunch abolitionist, it paved the way for what became known as the “Jim Crow era.”
“Had African-American voters been able to vote [in the south] Hayes might very well have won straight out, so the result was not as undemocratic as it might have appeared, but the long-term effects took on a much uglier tone,” said Professor Schwartz.
Noting the dangers that such an election could pose to the system, in 1887 Congress passed the Electoral Count Act which laid out procedures and deadlines for resolving such disputes. The law has never really been tested and many scholars say its provisions leave an abundance of gray areas that could be easily twisted to the advantage of battling sides in an election dispute.
Too Close to Call
For more than a century after Hayes became President, results were occasionally delayed, such as occurred in 1916, when apparently Woodrow Wilson went to bed thinking he had lost his reelection bid only to learn when counting was done that he in fact had won. Some races were erroneously called, such as in 1948, when a broadly smiling Harry Truman famously held up a headline reading “Dewey Beats Truman.”
Yet, winners eventually emerged with clarity.
That is until 2000, when the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Gore had initially been called as the winner, but as the evening went on, Bush took the lead by 537 votes. The Gore campaign contested the result and asked for a hand recount in several counties. More than a month after Election Day with Bush still in the lead, the recounts were stopped by a Supreme Court decision and Gore conceded. Subsequent counts confirmed that Bush would have won a narrow victory even if recounts would have been completed.
“[The year 2000] did do some degree of damage. Certainly to Democrats it seemed that the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court decided the election. The irony is that some recounts showed Bush would have won anyway,” said Professor Schwartz. “[Democrats] felt that sort of short-circuited the process, but I think the damage was not as great since the issues at hand were not as momentous as they would be four years later.”
Some degree of complication has been mixed into the process on several occasions by third-party candidates who managed to garner significant slices of the vote, such as Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who split the Republican vote in 1912 to give Wilson the presidency. In 1948, Strom Thurman’s States Rights Party split off four states from the Democratic vote, but Truman still emerged victorious. Thurmond’s run set in place a trend of southern Democrats running independent campaigns aimed mostly as a protest over civil rights issues. In 1968, George Wallace won five deep southern states, but failed in his goal of denying either of the mainstream candidates a majority of electors. In 1992, Ross Perot’s candidacy failed to win any full states, but likely syphoned off enough support from George H.W. Bush to hand the election to Bill Clinton.
“We’ve dodged the bullet a few times, with races that could have ended up in the House of Representatives,” said Professor Schwartz. “If we had a viable third party, we might have had more, but we haven’t seen that since Ross Perot. It usually happens every 15 years or so, and it’s interesting that anti-Trump Republicans didn’t try in 2016. I think the partisanship has gotten so intense that people are more afraid of splitting the vote and getting the other side elected.”
The point Professor Schwartz referenced has left its mark on both sides of the partisan divide. In 2016, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg floated an independent run, but abandoned the idea saying he feared such a campaign would split the Democratic vote and lead to a Trump victory.
A Sword and a Salve
Two tumultuous periods of American history have been marked by tense elections with opposite results.
After more than a decade of rising division over the question of expanding slavery into new Western states and territories, the election of 1860 became a flashpoint in the growing national crisis. The newly formed Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who pledged not to interfere with slavery in the South, but opposed its expansion. He was challenged in the election by three other candidates, two Southerners who supported slavery, and Stephen Douglas of Illinois who argued that the matter should be left to the electorate in new territories and states as they join the Union.
Lincoln won both the popular vote and a majority of electoral votes, but won no Southern states — many of which did not even place him on the ballot.
The election results were clear, but the South saw Lincoln’s victory as the last straw and several states seceded, quickly setting off the Civil War. The example showed that, even with definitive results, rejection by a cohesive part of the country could endanger the foundations of the American system.
More recently, the election of 1968 was held against a backdrop of intense division and tension in the country. Opposition to the Vietnam War had given rise to a protest movement that turned to violent riots outside the Democratic convention in Chicago. Protests in favor of civil rights expansions continued around the nation and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had set off violence in many major cities. The Democratic field itself had been shaken by the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Amid this stormy picture and a strident left-wing youth movement gaining much national attention, Americans chose Republican Richard Nixon as their President. Many on the political left remained staunchly opposed to the man who, although moderate on social issues, had made his name as a stalwart anti-Communist and foe of the northeastern liberal establishment. Perhaps ironically, Nixon’s victory was the beginning of an era that saw defused tensions, improved race relations, and an end to the Vietnam War — though his presidency would ultimately be overshadowed by the Watergate scandal.
Professor Schwartz said that the sum total of presidential contests, including some of the shakier ones, speak well to the strength and resilience of American Democracy.
“I think the glass is half full,” he said. “Besides 1860, results have always been accepted. That does not mean that it does not need changes, but given how profound some of the issues have been we could have seen major breakdowns. I’m prepared to be more optimistic.”