September 6, 2016

If this year's election is too contentious for you,

it may comfort you to know it’s been even worse in the past. For your edification and perhaps consolation, we offer an online version of our current display.

   Election of 1800  
John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson

... vs. Aaron Burr

- Uglier than 2016, and weirder than them all -

Much like today, by the time this election happened, one can imagine many were happy to see it end. But there was a problem. A big problem. So big that we were forced to amend our Constitution in order to solve it.

The Constitution originally gave each member of the Electoral College two votes. Whoever received the largest majority of votes became President, and whoever came in second became Vice-President. It was expected that the electors would cast one vote for the presidential candidate, and one vote for his running-mate. Jefferson won a majority of the electors—73, but since each elector had two votes, so did his running-mate, Aaron Burr. This meant both men were technically tied, leaving each with an equal claim to the presidency. The tie had to be broken by the House of Representatives.

Burr could have ended the controversy by disavowing any claims to the presidency and accepting the vice-presidency. However, Burr, branded an opportunist by even the most sympathetic historians, did not do this. Instead, he made it known that he would accept the presidency if Congress so chose. The result was surreal: a presidential candidate and his own running-mate squaring off in an election within the House of Representatives for the highest office in the land.

Enter Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a member of the Federalists, the sworn enemies of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Hamilton strongly disliked Jefferson, but he hated Aaron Burr. Hamilton lobbied members of Congress to choose between the lessor of two evils and elect Jefferson. Still, it took the House 36 ballots to break the deadlock and choose Jefferson as our nation’s third president. Burr, for his part, became the VP and the most reviled man in American politics. Jefferson never forgave him; in fact, he (unsuccessfully) put Burr on trial for treason in 1807.

Pro-Jefferson ad
Pro-Jefferson ad
Pro-Adams ad
Pro-Adams ad

The ads above seem tame when compared to these attacks:

[John Adams has a] “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

[If Jefferson is elected] “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”

Further reading:
Jefferson's Vendetta

   Election of 1876  
Samuel J. Tilden vs. Rutherford B. Hayes

- Violence. Fraud. Backroom deals. Messiest election ever. -
(Yes, even messier than 2000.)

The election of 1876 has cast a shadow that still lingers with us today, although most of us know nothing about it. In this absurd election, held only 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the same passions and prejudices that ignited that conflict were played out at the ballot box. Yet, ballots did not decide this election. Ultimately, it was decided in a smoke-filled back room at Washington, D.C.’s Wormley Hotel.

The mess that was the “election” of 1876 was possible because of the still-fractured status of the nation as it attempted to heal the wounds of the Civil War. Most of the former Confederate states had only recently seen federal troops removed from state governments, resulting in a re-assertion of white dominance (via the Democratic party) over black “freedmen.” However, three states, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, remained under federal military control. The Reconstruction Era was breathing its final breaths.

DEMOCRATIC "REFORMER": "You're as free as air, ain't you? Say you are, or I'll blow your head off."
The problem was that white Southern Democrats had no intention of being “reconstructed.” Their goal was to terrorize, intimidate and marginalize blacks by whatever means necessary. The Ku Klux Klan was born in this time. Along with other paramilitary organizations like the Red Shirts, the KKK worked with the Democratic Party to ensure blacks would not vote Republican.

Amidst widespread violence and intimidation of black voters, every single former Confederate state voted for Tilden, the Democrat. In Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, the three states that were still occupied by the military, federal officials disqualified many of the Tilden votes because it was known they were procured by fraud, resulting in apparent victories for Hayes. However, the locally-elected Democratic governments in the three states certified the original vote counts, which awarded apparent victories for Tilden. In the rest of the former Confederate states, the votes for Tilden were allowed to stand, because those states were now controlled by local white Democrats.

The result of this was chaos. Three states’ electoral votes were being claimed by both parties, and the only thing anyone agreed on was that those electoral votes were “disputed.” When the rest of the electoral votes were tallied up, the result was 184 for Tilden and 165 for Hayes. The number needed for a majority was 185. Not counting the 20 disputed votes, Tilden was only electoral vote shy of the presidency. Hayes could only become president if all 20 of the disputed votes were awarded to him.

The nation faced a Constitutional crisis. With no guidance to be found in the Constitution or historical precedent, the politicians on both sides bickered for months, right up until the day before the new president was to be sworn in. At an infamous meeting at Washington’s Wormley Hotel, the “Compromise of 1877” was worked out. All 20 disputed electoral votes would be awarded to Hayes, the Republican, who would become president. In exchange, the Republicans agreed to remove all remaining federal troops from the South.

The result was disastrous for the Republicans. Sure, they “won” the battle that was the election. But they’d lost the war: the moment federal troops left the South, blacks were effectively disenfranchised. Jim Crow laws abounded, and the Southern Democrats reversed with impunity the gains that blacks had made during Reconstruction. These wounds are still with us today, 140 years later.

Further reading:
Centennial Crisis: the Disputed Election of 1876

   Election of 1828  
Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams

- The ugliest of them all -

Rachel Jackson
Rachel Jackson
There have been closer elections (2000, 1877, 1960). There have been more violent elections (1877). But as for sheer ugliness, nothing can quite match 1828. It is the only presidential election in American history to have gotten so ugly, so dirty, so downright cruel that it killed the first lady before her husband served a day as president.

Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams knew each other well—they had faced each other (and a few others) in the previous election of 1824. That election had to be resolved in the House of Representatives, because no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes. Jackson had won the most, by a fairly comfortable margin, but through a deal that came to be known as the “Corrupt Bargain,” he was denied the presidency in favor of Adams. Jackson swore revenge. He eventually got it, but paid a horrible price.

The deeply personal attacks reached depths that have never quite been matched (though many have tried.)

Adams, the sitting president, is accused of pimping for the czar or Russia, among other things:

• John Quincy Adams served as ambassador to Russia from 1809-1814. One of Adams’s chambermaids, a young woman, had expressed a desire to meet the czar. The czar agreed to allow Adams to bring her to his court, where they engaged in a very short, very mundane and very public conversation. Somehow, Jackson’s supporters twisted this event into a story involving Adams “procuring prostitutes for the czar.”

• Adams was accused of transforming the White House into a “gambling den” because he installed a pool table. Then some more creative mudslingers declared that the pool table had been purchased with government money, allowing Adams to wager the “public treasury” on games of billiards. (Adams did purchase and install the pool table, but with his own money and by all accounts he had no time ever use it.)

• Adams was called an aristocrat, and was accused of spying for Europe with the intent of introducing monarchy in America. Never mind that during the four years he served as president, or at any point in his life did he ever even hint at desiring a monarchy.

• Adams’s father, the recently deceased former president John Adams, was called “the worst president…ever” and a “traitor” by Jackson’s supporters. It was claimed that the younger Adams was “unfit to carry his father’s water.” Adams was so offended by the insults to his dead father that he virtually ceased all campaigning.

Jackson was called a murderer, and his wife and mother were both disparaged:

• Jackson was accused of being a murderer. He had indeed shot and killed a man in a duel in 1806, but that was not the source of the insult. Instead, it was for the execution of soldiers for desertion that served under him during the War of 1812. Handbills were circulated featuring six coffins, one for each soldier executed.

• Jackson’s mother was called "a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers," after whose service she "married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!"

• Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was called a “bigamist” because of a previous marriage, a “whore” and in the most childish insult of all, fat. Jackson loved his wife dearly, and was deeply affected by the insults. Rachel was affected too, so much so that when she suffered a heart attack and died shortly after her husband’s triumph in the election. Jackson remarked, “In the presence of this dear saint[Rachel], I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.”

Further reading:
Andrew Jackson, Portrait of a President

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