Lincoln, Adams and George W Bush: The 6 Most Disputed Presidential Elections in American HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: elections, presidential history
History, Mark Twain is said to have declared, doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. The 2020 election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is shaping up to be a controversial contest, even more contentious than Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory. What can earlier controversial elections lead us to expect this year?
1800 – Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr
The first disputed election signals the connection between controversy and partisanship. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of Electoral College votes (73 apiece). Each state is permitted one elector for each US Senator [so always two] and one elector for each Congressman in the House [which varied according to population, giving populous states more electors]. Up until this time each elector had been allowed two votes and the vice presidency was awarded to the second-ranked candidate. The Constitution placed the decision with the House of Representatives.
It took 36 separate votes to award the presidency to Thomas Jefferson and the process deepened personal and party divisions. The ambitious Burr, who had ostensibly run for the vice-presidency, felt cheated, and blamed his loss chiefly on Alexander Hamilton (recently celebrated in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical), because Hamilton had persuaded Federalists from Maryland and Vermont to abstain, giving those states to Jefferson. Their feud culminated in a duel and Hamilton’s death in 1804.
While Jefferson used his 1801 inaugural address to call for bipartisan unity, declaring “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists”, party tensions produced both virulent press coverage and threats of secession. To reduce the likelihood of an Electoral College tie, the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804 and required a separate vote for the vice-presidency. The rise of the party system and of a combined ticket of president and vice-president ultimately solved the problem.
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