Electile Dysfunction – Part III
Sixty eight years ago, in 1948, a presidential election was held, the results of which historians then labeled as the most surprising in the history of the Republic. Those old enough to recall that election will also remember the momentous picture of Harry Truman displaying the front page headline of the Chicago Tribune proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” That election has been considered as one of the greatest upsets in American political history––until now.
After experiencing the election we just endured, attempting to write an article about historic dysfunctional elections is almost a fool’s errand. This has been an election that even the founders turned politicians would shake their heads about. I won’t bother repeating here the many repugnant aspects of this latest voting mishmash that supposedly represented to the world the best of a democratic society. Instead, in the dazzling panoply of American history, I cannot find, nor can I conceive of an election that has been more vicious in tone, more vitriolic in words, more denigrating of opponents, or with more mutual hostility. However, on the other hand, perhaps, as dirty and astoundingly surprising as this election has been, it might ultimately prove (I hope) that Churchill was right when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Hopefully, despite the often convoluted results of several of the other famously controversial elections throughout our nation’s history, they will serve to indicate that from a long-term perspective, regardless of the pessimism and despair expressed by the losing side, the Republic has survived. The two earliest contentious elections were covered in last month’s article. Here are two others in ascending yearly order, that historians consider consequential. Interestingly, of the five presidential elections considered as being “rigged,” these two were involved.
1824/1828 Jackson vs. Adams
While several of the past elections have been titled as the nastiest, one mentioned quite often by historiographers was that of 1828, although the enmity had started during the election of 1824. Andrew Jackson faced John Quincy Adams (the son of John Adams) plus three other famous and historic figures including Henry Clay. That election was tarnished, not only by its abrasive nature, but also by its notorious reputation of being “rigged.”
The 1824 election is significant for being the only presidential election in which the winner of the most electoral votes did not win the election. Andrew Jackson won the plurality of both the popular and electoral votes, but did not attain the majority. As a result of the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, the president was then to be chosen by the House of Representatives for the first and only time.
Henry Clay, the speaker of the House of Representatives, now held a decisive position. As a presidential candidate himself in 1824 (he finished fourth in the Electoral College), Clay had led some of the strongest attacks against Jackson. Rather than see the nation's top office go to a man he detested, the Kentuckian Clay forged an Ohio Valley-New England coalition that secured the White House for John Quincy Adams. In return Adams named Clay as his secretary of state, a position that had been the stepping-stone to the presidency for the previous four executives.
The rigging claim that surfaced alleged that Henry Clay accepted an offer by John Quincy Adams to drop out of the race and endorse Adams. In return Adams would appoint him as his secretary of state—presumably making him the next heir apparent since the last four men to lead the State Department became president.
Andrew Jackson and his supporters immediately called this a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay. The enraged Jackson said Speaker Clay approached him with a similar offer—to make him president in exchange for Jackson appointing him as secretary of state. As Jackson told it, he had too much character to accept such an offer. So Clay went to Adams with the same offer and received a different answer.
Clay and Adams denied that any deal was made. Clay even demanded a congressional investigation into the allegations, which found no proof. It is one of those things that can be difficult to prove or disprove if no witnesses were present for those meetings. Above all, having those meetings to start with seems a miscalculation on the part of Adams, who should have known it might look suspicious.
That said, there is no question who Clay preferred between the two. The only real question is who was telling the truth, Jackson or Clay, on the charge that he made the same offer to both rivals.
This turned out to be the prelude to the 1828 election between the same two candidates. This was the first campaign in history to use election materials such as campaign buttons, slogans, posters, tokens, flasks, snuffboxes, medallions, thread boxes, matchboxes, mugs, and fabric images so extensively. These campaign trinkets depicted some aspect of the candidate's popular image. Jackson's status as a war hero and frontiersman played far better with the public than Adams's stiff-looking elder statesman stance.
Neither candidate personally campaigned in 1828, but their political followers organized rallies, parades, and demonstrations. In the popular press, the rhetorical attacks reached a level of cruelty and misrepresentation not seen since the election of 1800. Jackson was accused of multiple murders, of extreme personal violence, and of having lived in sin with his wife, Rachel, who herself was attacked as a bigamist.
Adams, on the other hand, was attacked for his legalistic attitudes, for his foreign-born wife, and for reportedly having procured young American virgins for the Russian czar as the primary achievement of his diplomatic career. Adams's critics referred to him as “His Excellency” while Jackson came under attack as an ill-mannered, barely civilized, backwoods killer of Indians.
Jackson's appeal to the “common folk” served him well and he handily won the popular vote and the electoral vote. It came at a price, however. His wife Rachel suffered a heart attack and died before the inauguration, and Jackson always blamed his political enemies for her death.
1876 Hayes vs. Tilden
This is considered as possibly the most disputed election ever. The previous president, Ulysses Grant, served two terms that were marred by allegations of bribery and other improprieties in many of his departments, and he was removed from the ticket in favor of Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. The Democrats selected New York Governor Samuel Tilden, who had made a name for himself by sending legendary Tammany Hall boss William Tweed to prison. In a website created by educators named Owlcation, it describes a number of controversial and dirty elections. It observes that in 1876 “the Republicans, marred by the scandals of the Grant administration, took the fight to the South and conjured images of the Civil War, attempting to link the lifetime New Yorker Tilden to the Southern Democrats who had kept African-Americans as slaves and who had fought a four-year war against the United States government, assassinating President Lincoln after their loss. They contended that Tilden was a notorious womanizer who had affairs with married women and who had contracted syphilis from an Irish prostitute.
“The Democrats' tactics in the South included instigating race riots and shooting at African-Americans who attempted to vote. They spread rumors that Hayes had stolen money from an Army deserter who was on his way to be hanged, and that the teetotaler governor had shot his own mother in the arm in a fit of drunken rage.”
As described by WBTS: “In 1876 little more than 10 years after the Civil War, the nation was again in a state of crisis. Hysteria abounded in both the Republican and Democratic parties, and there were rumors that another civil war between North and South might break out. Just in case, President Ulysses S. Grant discreetly strengthened the army in Washington.
“The cause for such agitation was the presidential election of 1876. Not since the election of 1860, which brought Abraham Lincoln into the White House and prompted the Southern states to secede, had the nation been in such tumult over a national election.
“The conflict began with the election returns in certain Southern states. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was running against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes had promised to withdraw federal support for the Republican regimes in Louisiana and South Carolina. The election results revealed that Tilden had carried South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. But his overwhelming win caused many to question whether the votes were counted fairly.”
Allegations of widespread voter fraud forced Congress to set up a special electoral commission to determine the winner, composed of fifteen congressmen and Supreme Court justices. The commission finally announced their decision only two days before the inauguration. The vote was 8-7 along party lines to award the disputed Electoral College votes to Hayes, making him the winner. Southern Democrats threatened rebellion over what they saw as a stolen election, forcing a deal to placate them. The deal is often referred to as “The Compromise of 1877.” Even so, Democrats sneered at the deal, dubbing Hayes “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.”
During the commission’s deliberations, Hayes’ Republican allies met in secret with moderate southern Democrats in hopes of convincing them not to block the official counting of votes through filibuster and effectively allow Hayes’ election. In February, at a meeting held in Washington’s Wormley Hotel, the Democrats agreed to accept a Hayes victory, and to respect the civil and political rights of African Americans, on the condition that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from South, thus consolidating Democratic control in the region. Hayes would also have to agree to name a leading southerner to his cabinet and to support federal aid for the Texas and Pacific Railroad, a planned transcontinental line via a southern route. On March 2, the congressional commission voted 8-7 along party lines to award all the disputed electoral votes to Hayes, giving him 185 votes to Tilden’s 184. In the end, Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated as America's 19th president.
The Compromise of 1877 effectively ended the Reconstruction era. Southern Democrats’ promises to protect civil and political rights of blacks were not kept, and the end of federal interference in southern affairs led to widespread disenfranchisement of blacks voters. From the late 1870s onward, southern legislatures passed a series of laws requiring the separation of whites from “persons of color” on public transportation, in schools, parks, restaurants, theaters and other locations.
Known as the “Jim Crow laws” (after a popular minstrel act developed in the antebellum years), these segregationist statutes governed life in the South through the middle of the next century, ending only after the hard-won successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Compromises can only work amongst honest partners but remember, liars always lie.
Benjamin Franklin is well known for his aphorisms. One of his most famous resulted from the following incident: The deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were held in strict secrecy. Consequently, anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall when the proceedings ended in order to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. The answer was provided immediately. A Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We’ve been able to keep it for over 240 years; can we keep it for four more?
Another of my Franklin favorites appears to be even more relevant to current times: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.”
I suspect my readers have now had their fill of elections, dysfunctional or otherwise. However if nothing more interesting pops up, in next month’s issue I would like to show how one particular election, or at least the individual involved, still today (after close to 200 years) has what seems to be not only relevancy, but influence in the political arena.