Democracy in Suspense: Awaiting Election Results with Guns Drawn

Americans were shocked when, during the third presidential debate on October 19, 2016, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump refused to say that he would accept the results of the presidential election, which he had long claimed would be rigged. Belief in the sanctity of popular elections and acceptance of their outcome are core principles of democracy. We have faith in the electoral process, even if we don’t like who gets elected.

But Americans haven’t always been willing to accept election results. In the 1860s, weeks before any votes were cast, some people were ready to disavow an election: Southern politicians planned to take their states out of the Union if a Republican were elected. As soon as the news arrived of Lincoln’s victory in 1860, the South Carolina Assembly passed a resolution “To Call the Election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President a Hostile Act” and declared it was leaving the union. Ten more states followed its example.

But 1860 wasn’t the first time Americans prepared to defy the national will.

Four years earlier, the 1856 election was a three-way contest between Republican John C. Fremont, Democrat James Buchanan, and Millard Fillmore, candidate of the Native American/Know-Nothing Party. Emotions ran high during the campaigning; in Baltimore, for example, the election had prompted “continued and violent rioting during the afternoon and evening,” according to the Post.

A fierce engagement took place between the Democrats of the Eighth Ward and the [Native]Americans of the sixth. Each party was provided with muskets and cannons, and the fight was kept up for over two hours. Some fifty persons were wounded, including a large number seriously. In the Second Ward, the Democrats drove off the Americans. The Fourth Ward Americans came to the rescue, and after a prolonged and fierce fight, retook the polls and drove the Democrats off. The fight lasted over an hour. One man was killed and thirty wounded, several fatally. [November 8, 1856]

The newly formed Republican party opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories. It promoted the idea of a “Free Society” without slavery or control by an aristocratic class. This policy won Fremont broad support in the North, but the hatred of many in the South, where political leaders assumed Fremont’s election would doom slavery and the southern economy. Through their newspapers, Southerners vilified the North and its ideas of a Free Society without slavery or a planter aristocracy.

In October, just one month before the election, the Post ran an article titled, “The Union: Shall It Be Preserved?” It alerted readers to the secessionist movement in the South, which was stirring bitter resentments against the North and the federal government.

We allude to those Disunion doctrines now openly avowed and advocated by the Secession press in the slaveholding States! These Secession editors evidently are striving with all their might to reconcile the Southern mind to the idea of practical Disunion. They are doing all in their power to stir up bitter feelings against the Free States as Free States. Not content with warring against a particular party, they are warring against the structure of Free Society itself.

Do our Southern readers ask for the proof of this? — let them read the following. The Muscogee (Ala.) Herald says:

“Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of GREASY MECHANICS, FILTHY OPERATIVES, SMALL FISTED FARMERS, and moon-struck THEORISTS! All the Northern, and especially New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen.”

The Virginia South Side Democrat — Democrat, indeed! — says: —

“We have got to hating everything with the prefix FREE, from free negroes down, and up the whole catalogue — FREE farms, FREE labor, FREE SOCIETY, FREE will, FREE thinking, FREE children, and FREE schools, all belong to the same brood of damnable ‘isms.’ But the worst of all these abominations is the modern system of FREE SCHOOLS. The New England system of free schools has been the cause and prolific source of the infidelities and treason that have turned her cities into Sodoms and Gomorrahs, and her land into the common resting-place of howling Bedlamites. We abominate the system because the SCHOOLS ARE FREE.”

The Richmond Examiner (Va.) says:

“Repeatedly have we asked the North, ‘Has not the experiment of universal liberty FAILED? Are not the evils of FREE SOCIETY INSUFFERABLE? and do not most thinking men propose to subvert and reconstruct it! … free society in the long run is an impractical form of society; it is everywhere starving, demoralized, and insurrectionary … If free society be unnatural, immoral, unchristian, it must fall, and give way to a slave society — a social system old as the world, universal as man.”

The Post’s editors wanted to alert Northern readers to the South’s plans to defy the government if they disagreed with the results of the election. They cited this 1856 comment from the Baltimore Patriot:

Carolina fire eaters have pointed out in magniloquent sentences, the admirable capabilities of the South for carrying on a defensive war. They have shown how batteries placed in this pass and rifles bristling on that hill side, could work destruction on an advancing foe. Col. [Preston] Brooks has, moreover, advised, in the event of Fremont’s election, that a gallant army of Southerners, equipped with Bowie knife and revolver, shall march in grim procession to Washington, and there seize upon the Government archives and treasury.

Henry Wise was willing to accept the election results. If he agreed with them.Library of Congress
Virginia Governor Henry Wise was willing to accept the election results. If he agreed with them.
(Library of Congress)

Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia hosted a secret convention of Southern governors in Raleigh, North Carolina in the early fall of 1856. Shortly afterward, the Post ran this item in its October 4 issue.

Preparing for War — The Norfolk (Virginia) Argus states that Gov. Wise has issued through the Adjutant General orders to the commandants throughout the State to thoroughly organize the militia, that it may be qualified “to render effective service whenever Virginia may call for it.”

Fremont lost the election to James Buchanan, but his 1.3 million votes were sizeable enough to keep supporters of slavery worried at the growing support for antislavery candidates.

Four years later, a Republican candidate won the presidency. Southern states promptly withdrew from the Union, and Post readers learned what Governor Wise had been up to in the final weeks before the election:

At a late Union meeting in Knoxville, Tenn., Judge Bailet, formerly of Georgia, stated that “during the last Presidential contest, Gov. Wise had addressed letters to all the Southern Governors — and that the one to the Governor of Florida had been shown to him — in which Gov. Wise said that he had an army in readiness to prevent Fremont from taking his seat, if elected, and asking to co-operation of those to whom he wrote.

—Editorial, February 18, 1860

Featured image: Waiting for the Election Returns in 1856 (Library of Congress)

The Worst Presidential Election in U.S. History

Allegations of election fraud and corruption traditionally come after the votes are cast, but in the current election, accusations that the 2016 election is “rigged” started months before election day. It’s unlikely that a presidential election could be “fixed” by one party without the other party learning of it or being implicit in it. In fact, in the closest historical example we have of a rigged presidential election, both parties were part of the deal.

On election night, November 7, 1876, presidential candidates Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) and Samuel Tilden (Democrat) went to bed believing Tilden had won. He had 184 electoral votes to Hayes’ 165 and needed just one more vote to win. That last vote could have come from any of four states that hadn’t yet reported results: Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Each party declared its candidate the winner in all four states.

With the election undecided, the Post editors published “Three Cheers For —.” It put the best face on the situation, urged patience, assured readers that both candidates were honorable and worthy of the office, and showed support for the new president, whoever he was.

Three Cheers For —


Originally published on November 18, 1876

At the date of this writing, November 10th, when this page must be sent to press, it is known that somebody is elected President of the United States, but whether Tilden or Hayes is not fully decided, although appearances favor the former.

The fact that the election has been such a close one we believe to be a most happy one for the country. Neither party can afford to conduct the administration loosely or corruptly when its hold on power is so slight; so that in either case we may expect the incumbent to “put the best foot forward.”

The closeness of the result will also, or ought to, be a consolation to the defeated, although many will be disposed to consider it an aggravation. Let it be remembered, however, that we are all in the same boat, whoever holds the helm. The party in power cannot afford to peril the interest of the country, for their own interest are thereby placed in jeopardy. Let the defeated comfort themselves with the thought, “we can stand it if you can.” If taxes are increased, the party who increase them must pay their share, and so of other results which partisans are apt to fear.

The country may congratulate itself on the fact that either of the candidates, personally, is not only unobjectionable, but of a character that will well sustain the dignity of the Presidential office and the honor of the nation. So, then, now we lift our hats and say: three cheers for ———.

Republicans believed Democrats in the South had used force and intimidation to keep black Republican voters away from the polls and had padded the vote tallies with the Democratic ballots of nonexistent men. They created an election board that threw out enough presumably fraudulent ballots to award Hayes the electoral votes.

The Democrats created their own election board, which not only concluded that Tilden had won the presidency, but that a number of Democratic candidates who’d been defeated by Republicans, many of whom were black, had actually won.

As the stalemate continued, partisan bitterness grew, as did fear that a lengthy political battle would spark another revolt in the South. The editor of a Washington paper was arrested for encouraging Democrats to arm themselves and declaring that he was for “Tilden or blood.” President Grant quietly arranged federal troops around the entrances to Washington to block insurrectionists from entering the city. Soldiers were sent to guard the federal arsenals in South Carolina and Louisiana, where officials worried that mobs would break in and seize weapons for an uprising.

A month after the election, there was less good will and humor in the country. Post editors published “Matches in a Powder House,” denouncing the men who exploited the mob’s fears and resentments. Contrasting the U.S. with revolution-torn Mexico, they urged readers to ignore the men who spoke of taking the law into their own hands.

Violence was worse than voter fraud.

Matches in a Powder House


Originally published on December 9, 1876

The madman who would recklessly scatter matches in a powder magazine would soon be placed where his freaks would be harmless. There are crazy heads of the press just now more dangerous to community than the lunatic referred to; writers who for sensational purposes are appealing to partisan spirit already raised to the highest pitch by the exciting political contest through which the country has just passed. Pending the decision for which all are anxiously waiting as to who are the successful candidates, threats of violence, bloodshed, and civil war are covertly or openly uttered apparently with the hope of influencing the result, or at least of keeping up an excitement and profiting by it.

Unfortunately, there is too much powder lying around loosely to permit such firebrands to be scattered harmlessly. Disappointed office-seekers, men wrought up by party feeling, gamblers who have large sums staked upon the issue, desperate speculators mindful of fortunes rapidly acquired during the recent war and ready again to peril the nation to fill their pockets, and that large class of thoughtless men who are ready to rush into any tumult, are not slow to catch at such incendiary utterances.

Such words, whether thoughtlessly or maliciously uttered, should be met with the sternest indignation. This is not Mexico. The people of the United States are law-abiding. They know that for every wrong there is legal remedy; that retribution can be speedily meted out to offenders even in the highest places, by peaceful but sure methods. No wrong would be so monstrous as the kindling of civil war, and those who even indirectly lead their followers to its contemplation are guilty of a higher crime than the worst of election frauds.

The arguing continued while December came and went. As the new year dawned, the three southern states had competing governors and legislatures. Congress took action, and the House and Senate each set up a panel to investigate. The Democratic-controlled House committee found evidence of Republican corruption and awarded the election to Tilden. The Republican-controlled Senate committee found corruption by Democrats and decided Hayes had won.

To break the stalemate, the House Judiciary Committee proposed a bipartisan group to study the election results.

Just days before the March 5 inauguration, the bipartisan commission decided that Hayes had won the election, though he had not won the popular vote — but it wasn’t their decision that settled the matter. It was an arrangement worked out between the Republicans and Democrats in an unofficial, closed session: Hayes would gain the presidency without objection from the Democrats. In return, the Republicans would withdraw their support of the Republican officials elected in the three southern states and, more importantly, remove federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction.

This arrangement essentially handed political power in the South back to the men who had supported secession and served the Confederacy, and hindered efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

The Long Tradition of the Smear Campaign

Daddy Cleveland
"Another Voice for Cleveland"

There’s always the hope, with the start of every presidential campaign, that this time it will be different. This year, maybe the candidates will offer intelligent, practical solutions to the country’s problems. They emphasize what they’ll do, not dwell on the many shortcomings of their opponent.

And usually we’re disappointed. No matter how earnest and well-intentioned a presidential campaign begins, by the time it approaches the finish line, it usually assumes an atmosphere somewhere between a carnival midway and a bar fight.

We had an intelligent, respectable election once, and the winner was George Washington. By the time the next election came around, the gloves were off and the tar buckets filled, as Jack Anderson pointed out. [The Pulitzer-prize winning author’s article—”The Dirtiest Campaign Tricks in History”—appeared in the Post on November, 1976]

In the 1796 election, John Adams suffered a blow when the Boston Independent Chronicle alleged that during the Revolution he had publicly supported Washington while surreptitiously attempting to have the General cashiered. In truth, it was Adams’s second cousin, Sam, who had sought Washington’s scalp.

Adams’s opponent, Thomas Jefferson … was accused of being the son of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father. Voters were warned that Jefferson’s election would result in a civil war and a national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery.

Andrew Jackson's ultimate goal, according to opponents.

Andrew Jackson [was portrayed by his opponents] as a bloodthirsty wild man; a trigger-happy brawler; the son of a prostitute and a black man… his older brother had been sold as a slave [and] Jackson … had put to death soldiers who had offended him. Worst of all, Jackson and his wife were depicted as adulterers. Through a technical mixup, Rachael Jackson had married Andrew before her first husband divorced her. “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” screamed the Cincinnati Gazette. Rachael succumbed to a heart attack before the couple could move into the White House, and many of Jackson’s advocates attributed her death to the calumnious campaign of 1828.

In 1839, Martin Van Buren was accused of being too close to the Pope, when, in fact, he had done little more than correspond with the Vatican in his job as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson. His opponents, nevertheless, spread the canard that a “popish plot” was afoot to ensure Van Buren’s election.

During the Polk-Clay race of 1844 the Ithaca, New York, Chronicle [quoted] … one Baron Roorback … [who] had witnessed the purchase of 43 slaves by James K. Polk. The entire story was a hoax. Polk had purchased no slaves; in fact, there was no Baron Roorback. But that didn’t keep the story from gaining wide attention.

During the campaign of 1864, Lincoln was tagged with every filthy name in the political lexicon, from ape to ghoul to traitor. Midway through his first term, his detractors accused his wife of collaborating with Confederates, a charge which compelled the President to appear, uninvited, before a Senate committee which was secretly considering the allegations [and swear to his wife’s innocence.]

In a rather complicated cartoon, Satan lures James Polk toward war with Britain over the Oregon territory.Click image to enlarge.

The campaign of 1884 held the dubious honor of being the dirtiest in American history. … In July, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph … accused Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate son a decade earlier in Buffalo. It turned out that Cleveland, a bachelor, had dated the child’s mother, as had several other men. The boy, therefore, was of questionable parentage. Yet the inherently decent Cleveland had provided for him. A chant soon arose in Republican ranks: “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!”

Cleveland’s opponent, James G. Blaine … involved in a business scandal. A railroad line had permitted him to sell bonds for a generous commission in return for a land grant. “Burn this letter!” Blaine instructed one cohort in a cover-up attempt. Thus evolved the Democratic comeback to Cleveland’s critics: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine.”

Warren Harding… became the subject of a whispering campaign about his ancestry. A great-grandmother, it was alleged, had been a Negro, and a great-grandfather had Negro blood.

The dirty tricks don’t end once the ballots had been cast, either.

Candidate Lincoln, according to Pro-South Democrats, would lead the country straight into insanity.

In the election of 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular election but fell one electoral vote shy of a majority. The electoral tallies in several states were counted and recounted, juggled and changed, until finally the election was thrown into the Congress. A Republican Senate and a Democratic House set up an Electoral Commission to decide the winner. Through some political maneuvering that fairly reeked of scandal, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the victor.

Lyndon Johnson first won his Senate seat in 1948 by an 87-vote margin when 203 previously unnoticed ballots were miraculously discovered several days after the election. The “voters,” curiously, had approached the polls in alphabetical order, and 202 of them had cast their marks beside the Johnson name. This election gave LBJ his nickname of “Landslide Lyndon.”

Dead men not only vote in American elections; occasionally they are candidates. Philadelphia’s Democratic party bosses, for example, ran a dead man in last April’s primary. The cadaverous candidate was Congressman William Barrett, who departed the scene fifteen days before the election. The party hacks kept Barrett’s name on the ballot in the hope that uninformed voters would select him anyway. Thus the bosses could handpick his replacement.Barrett won.


Next: The Big Change in Presidential Campaigns