At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, our founding fathers debated several systems for electing the President of the United States including legislative, direct, gubernatorial, electoral and lottery systems. With the knowledge that any system they chose would be subject to objection of some sort, they ultimately decided that the selection of our nation’s leader would be made by special electors chosen by state legislatures. The compromise preserved states’ rights, increased the independence of the executive branch, and avoided popular election.
While the current controversy over this month’s Presidential election may feel unusual, a review of our national history shows that our founding fathers were quite right to anticipate turmoil, and that Presidential elections have proven to be a source of controversy and challenge throughout our nation’s history. Here are some of the more notable presidential predicaments:
- In the election of 1796, John Adams won the presidency by just 3 electoral votes, but because of the then-current election law, his strong opposer and second place finisher, Thomas Jefferson, took the vice-presidency. The opposing viewpoints of the candidates was the source of discord and dilemma throughout the Adams administration.
- Fans of the famed musical “Hamilton” will know that Thomas Jefferson ultimately became President in 1800 after a lengthy run-off with Aaron Burr, but not by much. The Electoral College vote resulted in a tie, as did the intended tie-breaker vote in the House. After 6 days and 36 different House ballots, Jefferson won by just 2 votes.
- Experiences in 1796 and 1800 resulted in passage of the 12th amendment to the Constitution, which modified the method by which electoral votes for President would be cast. In 1824, the amendment came into play when Andrew Jackson won more of the popular vote than any other candidate, but not a majority: 99 electoral votes were cast for Jackson, 32 short of a majority. John Quincy Adams was runner up with 85, and William Crawford got 41. The Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, garnered 37 Electoral College votes and hoped to use his influence in the House to win the election, but the 12th amendment only allowed the top 3 vote-getters in the general election to be considered. The House chose Adams over Jackson and, when Adams made Clay the Secretary of State, Jackson and his supporters cried corruption.
- In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President even though Hayes’ challenger, Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote and electoral count. Republicans challenged votes from three southern states, and a bipartisan Electoral Commission comprised of House and Senate members, as well as Supreme Court Justices, was formed to investigate the challenged ballots from the south. The Commission voted along party lines and awarded the presidency to Hayes by a single vote.
- In 1860, Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates to win the Presidency, but southern states refused to accept the result and the Civil War ensued, costing 600,000 American lives.
- In 1960, the election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was shadowed by allegations of voter fraud. Nixon supporters pressed for recounts in many states but ultimately accepted Kennedy as the winner in order to avoid civil discord across the country.
- And, of course, the Bush/Gore election of 2000 featured the infamous hanging chad dispute in Florida. The issue was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court’s termination of recount efforts, resulting in Gore’s acknowledgement of Bush as the President-elect.
In each case above, the losing side was unhappy and cried foul, perhaps justifiably so or perhaps not. But the only case of unrest in the nation was the American Civil War, which historians almost universally agree was attributable to the moral issue of slavery rather than political division. Our nation’s legal system and government regulations allow for review of alleged election error, and those avenues have been utilized on many occasions, as they are today. But regardless of the result, we can take solace in the lessons of our national history and rest assured that America will endure, strong and secure.