As we note Presidents Day today, we are now in the second year of the 45th president’s term. It has been a wild ride, in many respects unlike any presidency we have seen before. It began with something that had occurred only four times before in American history: the winner of the election was not automatically the candidate who got the most votes. Most Americans remember the previous time this happened, in 2000 when George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a whisker to Al Gore. It happened three times in the 19th Century: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 all made it to the White House even though they didn’t prevail at the ballot box. In three of those five upside-down elections, including 2016, the Electoral College was the deciding factor. In 1824, it went to the electoral equivalent of double overtime.
The political chaos that was 1824.
That year, James Monroe was finishing out his second term and declined to run for a third, respecting the precedent set 28 years earlier by George Washington. It would be more than a century before the 22nd Amendment would restrict anyone from being elected more than twice. The field to succeed Monroe was crowded, and in those pre-primary days, not even the votes of the party’s members mattered. With the collapse of the Federalist Party, which had been nominally founded years earlier by John Adams, the Democratic-Republican Party ruled the political roost, a position its successor, the Democratic Party, would surely love to have today. The party’s congressional nominating caucus picked Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford as its candidate, but three other members ignored the caucus and ran anyway. One of the renegades was a member of Monroe’s Cabinet along with Crawford: Adams, the Secretary of State. The Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, wanted the job, too. And, from the wild Western state of Tennessee came that era’s version of the political “outsider,” former Senator and famed general Andrew Jackson.
After a bitter campaign, the election seemed to go Jackson’s way. He won 41.4% of the popular vote to 30.9% for Adams, with Clay and Crawford far behind. In the Electoral College, Jackson prevailed over Adams 99-84, with Crawford getting 41 votes and Clay 37. But Jackson had not won a majority in the College, falling 32 short. So, for the first and (so far) only time in American history, the 12th Amendment came into play, throwing the election to the House of Representatives to decide.
One can only imagine the chaos that type of situation would touch off today. It wasn’t much different back then. Under the rules specified by the 12th, only the top three finishers in the College could be considered. That eliminated Clay, the Speaker, and that’s where the real intrigue began. Clay threw his support behind Adams, who won on the first ballot. After the election, Adams appointed Clay his Secretary of State, the most prestigious office in the Cabinet and then viewed as a steppingstone to the presidency. Adams had become the sixth president, and the fourth to rise to that office from State.
Was there a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay? Without Clay’s support, Adams might have lost in the House to Jackson. With it, he prevailed. Historians tend to believe there was indeed a deal struck between the two ambitious men, and although no proof apparently exists, the idea of a quid pro quo in politics was certainly not unknown at the time. The two men held a three-hour private meeting on January 9, 1825, after which Clay announced his support for Adams. Both men later claimed a Cabinet post for Clay had not been discussed. But Clay certainly knew Adams would owe him a huge favor if he persuaded his supporters to vote for Adams in the House, and Adams surely knew that if he accepted Clay’s offer and then stiffed the Speaker when it came time to dole out Cabinet posts, Clay would not treat Adams’ policies with much respect in the ensuing years. So yes, there certainly was a deal, whether it was spoken or not. Was it corrupt? Well, it was certainly politics.
The deal might have made Adams and Clay the two most powerful men in the nation, but it didn’t have any staying power. Four years later, Jackson easily bested Adams in the rematch, winning Clay’s home state of Kentucky in the process. Clay was offered a Supreme Court judgeship by Adams in the waning days of the administration, but turned it down. He was elected to the Senate in 1831, served there until 1842, returned in 1849 and died in office three years later. During Jackson’s two terms (1829-37), Clay fought him from the Senate every step of the way, and ran against him in the 1832 election, losing badly. Adams rebounded from his 1828 loss by gaining election to the House from his home state of Massachusetts in 1830, serving there with distinction until his death at age 80 early in 1848. As for Old Hickory, he has gone into the history books as one of our most influential presidents, both for his style and for his accomplishments in office. Modern historians tend to give more weight, in a negative sense, to his policies toward Native Americans. Today, with the benefit of more than a century and a half of hindsight, we can view those policies with a good measure of disapproval, but Jackson also acted forcefully to preserve the Union when serious talk of secession began circulating in Southern states. If the Civil War had broken out 30 years earlier, it’s entirely possible an Adams or Clay administration would not have possessed the political and moral authority that Jackson’s did, or Abraham Lincoln’s, and the South might very well have prevailed.
The election of 1876 goes into overtime.
More than a half-century after the contentious 1824 contest, the election of 1876 was almost as chaotic. Civil War hero Ulysses Grant was happy to step down after serving a second term, and the opposing Democrats were thinking their time had finally arrived after losing the previous four elections to the upstart Republican Party. The Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York, to oppose Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio and a Civil War veteran who had risen to the rank of major general. The ensuing election was one of the most unique in American history. Tilden won a majority of the popular vote, 50.9% to 47.9% for Hayes, but came up one short of a majority in the Electoral College, 184-165, with 20 votes in dispute. The election had the highest turnout of eligible voters before or since, 81.8%. It was also the last time a state’s legislature chose electors: Colorado, having just joined the Union on August 1, didn’t have time to organize an election, so the new legislature awarded its three electoral votes to Hayes.
Nineteen of those disputed Electoral College votes came from three Southern states: Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, in which the popular votes all favored Tilden. Throughout the old Confederacy, there had been considerable intimidation to prevent newly-enfranchised African-Americans from voting, which undoubtedly swung many statewide votes to favor Tilden. In those days, many former slaves supported the Republican Party, which under Lincoln had worked to free them from bondage. But the election commissions of those states were dominated by Republicans, who had controlled the political offices in the old Confederacy during Reconstruction, and those commissions rejected enough Democrat votes to certify the states for Hayes. Meanwhile, in Oregon, the situation was reversed: Hayes clearly won the popular vote, but the state’s Democratic governor disqualified one of the three electors on questionable grounds, and appointed a Democrat to replace him.
The electoral votes of the three disputed Southern states, plus the original three from Oregon, would give Hayes the election in the Electoral College, 185-184. The 12th Amendment would not come into play, as the electoral votes, at least as certified after the election by the states, clearly gave Hayes a majority, albeit the thinnest one possible. But the issue then became the actual counting of the votes. The Constitution provides that the president of the Senate, in the presence of the House and Senate, would open the votes and count them. Normally, the incumbent vice president serves as Senate president, but there had been no vice president since the death of Henry Wilson, Grant’s second VP, in November 1875. Under the Constitution at the time, the president pro tempore of the Senate became the president of that body until the inauguration of a new VP. And in early 1877, as the Hayes-Tilden election dispute raged, the president pro tem was Thomas W. Ferry, a Republican from Michigan.
Tempers were high across the country. Hayes escaped an assassination attempt when a shot was fired through a window into his Cincinnati home as he was dining. Grant, fearing even wider trouble, quietly ordered the Army to firm up the defenses of the capital.
The Democrats didn’t trust Ferry, fearing he would count the disputed states for Hayes. Democrats controlled the House, and wanted to continue the practice in place since 1865, in which any disputed vote could not be counted without the consent of both houses of Congress. In that case, Tilden’s supporters were confident the House would throw out one of the disputed states and keep Hayes from being elected by the College. That in turn would bring the 12th Amendment into play, which would allow the heavily-Democratic House to elect Tilden.
The Congress voted to appoint a 15-man bipartisan commission to investigate the election. In those days the new president was inaugurated on March 4, but time was running out. Five members from each house were selected for the commission, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and five members of the Supreme Court were added. The first four justices named were all nominal Republicans, and they chose the fifth commission member, Justice David Davis from Illinois, who had not told anyone who he favored. Democrats in his home state thought they had bought Davis’ support by electing him to the Senate that January; in those days, senators were elected by state legislatures, not by a statewide popular vote. But Davis crossed them up by resigning from the Court to take his Senate seat. With the remaining four justices all avowed Republicans, the most impartial among them, Joseph P. Bradley, was selected to fill the final seat on the new Electoral Commission.
Bradley’s presence on the commission was decisive. He sided with the seven Republicans on the board to certify each of the disputed states for Hayes. The seven Democrats all voted against certification. Democrats threatened a filibuster to prevent a congressional vote accepting the commission’s decision, but leaders from both parties worked out a compromise to end the constitutional crisis: in exchange for Democrats accepting the commission’s findings, Republicans agreed to withdraw the remaining Federal troops from the three disputed Southern states. There were other concessions made by the Republicans, but ending Reconstruction was the big one, because the Democrats knew that it would allow them to gain political control throughout the old Confederacy.
The deal was struck on March 2, and Hayes was inaugurated two days later. The Republicans would wind up reneging on most of their promises in the deal, but the one about Reconstruction was the only one Democrats really cared about, and they held Grant, and then Hayes, to the word of their party. By late summer, the last troops were gone from Dixie, and before long Democrats had wrested political control of the states from the GOP. That control would last for nearly a hundred years. Florida didn’t vote for a Republican presidential candidate again until going for Herbert Hoover in 1928. Louisiana held out till Dwight Eisenhower’s second election in 1956. South Carolina voted Democrat in every election after 1876 until going for Richard Nixon in 1972 (and it has voted Republican ever since).
The presidential election of 1876 was the only time (so far) in U.S. history that a candidate won a majority of the popular vote but lost the election. In the end, none of those 4,034,311 votes for Tilden counted. Joseph Bradley’s vote against him did.
Since the contentious 1876 vote, things have been quieter. But not by much.
During the 1876 campaign, Rutherford Hayes had pledged not to run for re-election in 1880. He kept that pledge, and the next two elections were relatively free of controversy. But in 1888, the Electoral College once again decided the matter. The incumbent, Grover Cleveland of New York, had been elected in 1884, becoming the first Democrat to win the presidency since James Buchanan in 1856. Cleveland’s margin over the Republican, James Blaine, was the third-thinnest in history at 0.57% of the popular vote. Four years later, Cleveland out-polled the Republican challenger, Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, 48.6% to 47.8%, a margin of less than 95,000 votes out of more than 11 million cast. In the Electoral College, Harrison easily bested Cleveland, 233-168. There was a rematch in 1892, which Cleveland won comfortably in both the popular vote and the College, becoming the only president to serve non-consecutive terms.
In addition to that distinction, Cleveland holds another presidential record that will likely never be broken: he had the youngest First Lady ever. Frances Folsom, a 21-year-old recent college graduate, ended the 49-year-old Cleveland’s bachelorhood when she married him in the White House in 1886.
Back in Buffalo, N.Y., Grover Cleveland had been a close personal friend with Frances’ father, and used to wheel her around in her baby carriage. Her father died when she was 11 and Cleveland was executor of the estate. He proposed in a letter in the fall of 1885 when she was still in college. The wedding was the first (and so far only) time an incumbent president was married in the White House. Cleveland’s brother was one of the presiding ministers. Instead of saying “love, honor and obey” in the vows, the words “love, honor and keep” were used. After her husband’s defeat by Harrison, Frances reportedly told the White House staff to expect them back in four years. In between his terms, the couple’s first child, Ruth, was born in 1891. Ruth died of diphtheria in 1904, and sixteen years later the Curtiss Candy Company named its new product, the Baby Ruth candy bar, to honor the late First Daughter–and as a means to avoid paying royalties to baseball star Babe Ruth. When Cleveland won re-election, Frances delivered another first: on September 9, 1893, she gave birth to daughter Esther, the first (and so far only) child of a president to be born in the White House. In 1914, Esther would have a first of her own, when she became the first (and, you guessed it, so far the only) presidential daughter to get married in Westminster Abbey, when she wed British Army captain William Sidney Bench Bosanquet. Their daughter, Philippa Foot, became a renowned philosopher whose work in the field of ethics produced what has become known as the “trolley problem”: a trolley is barreling down the tracks, straight toward a group of five people who are tied down. You are near a switch, and can divert the trolley onto a side track, where only one person is tied down. Which is the more ethical choice?
The Clevelands had three more children. Marion, born in Massachusetts in 1895, later served as a prominent official of the Girl Scouts. Richard, born in 1897 after his father left office, fought as a Marine Corps officer in World War I and later became a renowned lawyer. The youngest child, Francis, came along in 1903 when his dad was 66. He went to Harvard, became a Broadway actor and was the longest-lived Cleveland child before he passed away in 1995.
Cleveland issued a total of 414 vetoes, far more than all his predecessors put together, a record that stood till Franklin Roosevelt topped him with 635. (Cleveland fans point out that his annual average, 54.4, beats FDR’s 52.9.) He was the first president ever to be diagnosed with cancer while in office; a tumor was removed from his mouth in 1893, during an operation aboard a yacht, kept secret to avoid scaring the shaky financial markets. Although well-regarded for his honesty, Cleveland might also be the most sarcastic president ever. Toward the end of his second term, he greeted the 5-year-old FDR in his office and said, “My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be president of the United States.” Cleveland lived another 11 years, and during his retirement he once quoted Louisville journalist Henry Watterson, saying, “And still the question, ‘What shall be done with our ex-presidents?’ is not laid at rest; and I sometimes think Watterson’s solution of it, ‘Take them out and shoot them,’ is worthy of attention.”
It would be 112 years after the first Harrison-Cleveland contest before another election went to the Electoral College. That, of course, was the 2000 battle between the incumbent vice president, Democrat Al Gore, and his Republican challenger, Texas governor George W. Bush. One other similarity to the 1888 election was that the declared winner had a presidential bloodline. Bush is the son of the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and back then, Harrison was the grandson of the 9th, William Henry Harrison. And that president, and his successor, are holders of a number of firsts in U.S. presidential history.
In 1840, it was “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”
The first Harrison, in addition to being the only president (so far) to have a grandchild achieve the same office, also has the distinction of being the first president to die in office. When he was elected in 1840, Harrison was three months away from his 68th birthday. He was the son of one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Harrison V, a Virginia plantation owner and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. William Henry distinguished himself as the first governor of Indiana Territory and a general who led American militia and regulars in campaigns against Native Americans, particularly the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and during the War of 1812. After the war he moved to Ohio and was elected to the House and then the Senate. He served as U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to what is now Colombia, where he had some influence on the great South American revolutionary, Simon Bolivar. One of several Whig Party candidates for president in 1836, Harrison came in second to Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, but the Whigs nominated him again in 1840, choosing him over Henry Clay and another War of 1812 hero, Winfield Scott. Harrison easily defeated Van Buren, but his resulting presidency would be the briefest in history.
On his Inauguration Day, Harrison achieved three presidential firsts. He was the first president to be older than age 61, the first to be photographed (a daguerreotype, featured above, taken by A.S. Southworth and J.J. Hawes), and the first to have an inaugural address at over 8,000 words. It would be 140 years before an older man, Ronald Reagan, would hold the office. As to his lengthy speech, which took over two hours to read (and remains the longest in history), that might have done old Tippecanoe in. He delivered it while enduring a cold rain without wearing a coat or hat. Even with that, his illness didn’t show up until three weeks later. Doctors tried everything, including the application of leeches, but Harrison died exactly one month after his inauguration, thereby achieving another, rather unfortunate, first.
None of the eight presidents before Harrison had died while in office, and it sparked a constitutional crisis concerning the issue of succession. As it was, Harrison’s vice president, John Tyler, was sworn in two days after Harrison’s death. But would he be the president for the rest of the term, or merely “acting” president until a new election could be called? The Constitution was not clear on the matter. A month later, the Congress did what Congresses often do: it punted, passing a resolution affirming Tyler’s right to serve out Harrison’s term, but leaving the larger question unresolved. It would be 126 years before the 25th Amendment would clear up the issue.
While the circumstances of his elevation to office were a first, John Tyler’s presidency would be relatively unremarkable in terms of policy, other than the fact that he worked hard for the annexation of the then-independent Republic of Texas, signing the bill approving it just days before leaving office. His frequent vetoes of laws passed by Congress earned him the ire of Andrew Jackson’s old opponents, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, even to the point of an impeachment resolution being introduced in the House, the first in American history. That resolution was eventually defeated. On the day before Tyler left office in March 1845, Congress voted to override his final veto, the first time that had ever happened. In 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, his final nomination for the Supreme Court was tabled by the Senate, causing much consternation among Obama supporters, who acted as if such a naked political move was unprecedented. They evidently had not read their history: Tyler had seven nominations to the Court rejected by the Senate.
Tyler remains one of our most interesting and unique presidents, despite having served a month and two days shy of a full term. He was playing marbles, his favorite game, when he was informed of Harrison’s death. He was the first president to be widowed while in office when his first wife, Letitia Christian, died of a stroke in September 1842. Tyler then became the first president to marry while in office when he wed Julia Gardiner nine months later. She was 23, he was 53. Tyler fathered 15 children, the most of any president. Eight were with his first wife, seven with his second. He may have fathered even more; he was a slaveholder, and some descendants of his slaves claimed Tyler parentage, although nothing has ever been proven. His youngest acknowledged child, Pearl, was born in 1860, the year Tyler turned 70. In all, his last four children were born after their father turned 60, an impressive feat for the old guy in those pre-Viagra days.
Through his son Lyon (1853-1935), who was the fifth of his children with Julia and 13th overall, Tyler has two grandsons who are still alive. Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. was born in 1924 and lives in Tennessee; his younger brother, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, born in 1928, maintains his grandfather’s estate, Sherwood Forest Plantation in Virginia. (Lyon Sr. apparently inherited his dad’s potency, fathering both boys when he was in his 70s.)
Tyler was the first president to have a security detail (four men). It was during his administration that “Hail to the Chief” was first played to mark his appearance at a state function, something his second wife insisted upon. He was the first president to sit for a real photograph while in office. Tyler was appointed to the Confederate Congress shortly after it was formed in 1861, becoming the only U.S. president ever to serve in the legislative body of another nation, albeit one that was not formally recognized as such.
Nobody remembers Tyler today, except perhaps his two elderly grandchildren, and their memories are not direct; they were born more than sixty years after their granddad’s death. But Tyler was one of only 44 men who have held the highest office in the land. His legacy can be felt today anytime anybody refers to Texas, which might very well have remained an independent nation if not for his efforts. As to the winners of the disputed elections of the 19th century, much can be said of Jackson’s influence, not much for Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. What these elections teach us, though, is that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, at least when it comes to politics. The contentious election of 2016, which many Americans continue to try to upend more than a year later, will not result in the destruction of our country, despite the wailing of so many people who voted against the winner. We survived 1824 and 1876 and 1888 and 2000. We’ll survive this one, too.