Insults and Scandals and Contested Results. Oh My!

Insults and Scandals and Contested Results. Oh My!

A Brief Guide to Election Madness, 1776-2016.

“Unprecedented.” “Historic.” “Bizarre.” This year’s presidential campaign has been called a lot of things, and almost none are words you want associated with a peaceful transition of government in a modern democracy. True, it has been crazy, but is it totally unprecedented?


The 2016 race has been characterized in large part by attacks from both the Republican and Democratic nominees (and among the Republican primary contenders, but that’s for another time). Election observers often bemoan this “mudslinging” and yearn for a more civilized time. But that time may be further removed than they know.

In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson had newspaper writer James Callender call John Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” to which the Adams campaign responded by calling Jefferson a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” Evidently the public was unconcerned or unaware of Jefferson’s attack and elected him over Adams.

Twenty-eight years later, Adams’ son John Quincy smeared his opponent Andrew Jackson AND his wife, labeling Rachel Jackson as a bigamist because her divorce from her first husband had not been finalized when she re-married. Supporters of Adams, including the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, took things up a notch and called Jackson’s mother a “common prostitute.” The campaign had the hardest toll on Rachel, whose health declined until she died shortly after Jackson was inaugurated.


Scandals seem to have dogged the candidates of the two major parties throughout our nation’s history. Each time, their respective opposition has wondered aloud whether it would be the final nail in the coffin.

In 1952, Richard Nixon’s vice presidential bid was overshadowed by suspicion arising from a fund that financed his campaign activities. Although the fund was neither illegal nor secret, his spot on the presidential ticket was threatened. Nixon made a televised address denying any illegal activity, outlining his finances and urging Republicans to tell the national party how they felt. Nixon also said that no matter what his critics said, he would keep one gift: a cocker spaniel that his daughter Tricia had named Checkers. The speech was a sensation and Nixon remained on the ticket.

There was also the time in 1804 when sitting Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Not only did this incident not derail Thomas Jefferson’s re-election, as Burr was not on the ticket, but Burr himself served out the rest of his term and never faced any punishment. His farewell speech in the Senate was said to have moved lawmakers to tears.

Contested Results

While elections can be volatile and unpredictable, Americans can take comfort in knowing that a clear winner is declared and the new president decided by the morning after Election Day. Win or lose, the candidates graciously accept the people’s decision and the peaceful transfer of power begins. But as anyone who remembers the 2000 election can attest, sometimes the results are a little … delayed.

In 1824, neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson nor William Crawford had a majority of votes. Per the Twelfth Amendment, the decision went to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House and the fourth candidate, offered his support to Adams because their political views were aligned and because Clay disliked Jackson personally. The victorious Adams named Clay Secretary of State, a decision Jackson and his supporters denounced as evidence of a “corrupt bargain,” particularly since Jackson had won a plurality of electoral votes.

In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote over Republican Rutherford Hayes and had 184 electoral votes out of 185 needed. Hayes had 165. Meanwhile, 20 disputed electoral votes from Florida, Oregon, South Carolina and Louisiana all eventually went to Hayes, giving him 185 electoral votes and spurring Democrats to level allegations of fraud. Because the Constitution did not explicitly address how to resolve electoral disputes, an Electoral Commission was formed, and eventually, Democrats conceded victory to Hayes on the condition that federal soldiers be withdrawn from southern states, ending Reconstruction in the South.

Lessons To Be Learned

So what do all these experiences mean for this or future elections? The country has survived all of these elections more or less intact, despite controversy. Candidates became presidents and worked through their differences with the opposition, and as Franklin Roosevelt said, “Prophets of the downfall of American democracy have seen their dire predictions come to nought.” Regardless of the outcome of this election, let’s take solace in the words of FDR and be confident in our nation’s ability to heal its political scars and move forward to the benefit of its citizens.