The 1876 Democratic National Convention, editorial illustration (Cornell University Library/Collection of Political Americana)
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The United States has held 57 presidential elections since the first in 1789. Voters are invariably informed that the current one is “the most important ever,” but some elections have proven more significant and historic than others. These led to landmark political changes including a Constitutional amendment, the dissolution of major political parties, or changes in national policies—including those that altered civil rights for decades to come. Several elections had contested results in which the winner remained in doubt weeks after the ballots were counted. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, historian Ralph Nurnberger looks back on the elections of 1800 and 1876.
The controversial election of 1800 marks the only time a president (John Adams), ran against his own vice president (Thomas Jefferson). Under the election rules of the day, electors cast two indistinguishable ballots, so that Jefferson and his vice-presidential running mate (Aaron Burr) each received 73 electoral votes. It took 36 votes in the House of Representative and letters by Alexander Hamilton before Jefferson was declared the winner. The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, stipulated distinct Electoral College votes for president and vice president to prevent such ties.
In 1876, New York’s Democratic governor, Samuel Tilden, became the only candidate to win a majority of the popular vote and still lose the electoral vote. Weeks after voting day, an electoral commission decided by a single vote that Rutherford B. Hayes be declared the victor. As a result, in what came to be called the Compromise of 1877 Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South. This ended Reconstruction by ceding power to Southern states, which then disenfranchised black voters for decades to come.
If you are interested in a program about the elections of 1912 and 1948, click here.
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