When it comes to politics, if you think secret deals, ballot tampering, and other shady tactics have arisen only in recent decades, think again. Here’s a look at three historical US presidential elections that were marked by scandal and controversy.
Wheeling and dealing
See if you can guess who this is: a father-son pair of presidents with very similar names, but not called “Junior” and “Senior.” The father served only one term, and the son—who did not win the popular vote—was elected by a means that many people found highly questionable.
That’s right, it’s . . . John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams ran against three other candidates, including Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. When the votes were counted, Jackson led in both the electoral and popular votes, but no one had a majority in the Electoral College. It was then up to the House of Representatives to choose among the top three contenders, with each state getting one vote.
It’s said that Adams had been making various deals with key politicians in the weeks leading up to the election, and he saved the biggest one for last. Though he always denied it, it’s widely believed that he convinced Clay that if he helped Adams win the key states of Ohio and Kentucky (Clay’s home state), Adams would appoint him as secretary of state. (He won, and he did.)
Don’t feel too sorry for Jackson, though. In the next election, he put a stop to Adams’ re-election bid—thanks in part to heated references to the “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay.
A presidency interrupted—by a fake letter
Maybe you know that just one president—Grover Cleveland—was defeated for re-election but came back later to win a second term. How did that happen? It’s possible that voters felt he’d been given a raw deal.
In the 1888 election, Irish immigrants—particularly in New York—were an important voting bloc. During his first term, Cleveland, a Democrat, had been managing a touchy treaty dispute in a way that made him look pro-Irish and the Republicans in Congress pro-British.
During Cleveland’s re-election campaign, though, a man named Charles F. Murchison wrote to the British ambassador to the United States to say that he was a former Englishman himself and wanted to make sure he voted for the candidate who was more favorable toward his beloved England. The ambassador wrote back that he thought Cleveland was the more pro-British choice.
Republican supporters of Benjamin Harrison published this letter two weeks before the election, which successfully swayed the Irish immigrant vote—and Harrison’s victory in New York meant an electoral majority.
As it turns out, “Murchison” was actually George
Osgoodby, a non-English Republican. Cleveland defeated Harrison’s re-election attempt, moving back into the White House after a four-year absence.
Ballot tampering and election fraud in the South
Here’s another one: This candidate did not win the popular vote, and controversy arose regarding ballots and vote-counting issues in Florida.
That’s right, it’s . . . Rutherford B. Hayes.
By midnight after Election Day in 1876, it was clear that Democratic contender Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote—but Republican Hayes led in the electoral vote, 185 to Tilden’s 184. Republicans said Democrats had intimidated and bribed African Americans in the South to prevent them from voting. (At that time, most African Americans voted Republican.)
The final result hinged on disputed returns in four states: Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon. Republicans then said Democrats in the three disputed Southern states had refused to count African American and other Republican votes, while Democrats said Republicans in one Florida precinct that was in favor of Tilden had smeared the ballots with ink.
After more confusion and controversy, a commission made up of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices voted along party lines and declared Hayes to be the president. Democrats protested until Republicans promised that if Hayes were allowed to assume office, federal troops would be withdrawn from the South, bringing Reconstruction to an end.
But this deal had consequences for Hayes: Historians say he lacked the mandate to get much done, and he was often mockingly called “Ruther-fraud.”