Skip to main content

Departing from the monarchical tradition of Britain, the founding fathers of the United States created a system in which the American people had the power and responsibility to select their leader. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution establishes the Executive Branch of the U.S. government. 

Under this new order, George Washington, the first U.S. president, was elected in 1789. At the time, only white men who owned property could vote, but the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments to the Constitution have since expanded the right of suffrage to all citizens over 18. Taking place every four years, presidential campaigns and elections have evolved into a series of fiercely fought, and sometimes controversial, contests now played out in the 24-hour news cycle. The stories behind each election—some ending in landslide victories, others decided by the narrowest of margins—provide a roadmap to the events of U.S. history.

1789: George Washington – unopposed

George Washington

George Washington was the first president of the United States.

The first presidential election was held on the first Wednesday of January in 1789. No one contested the election of George Washington, but he remained reluctant to run until the last minute, in part because he believed seeking the office would be dishonorable. Only when Alexander Hamilton and others convinced him that it would be dishonorable to refuse did he agree to run.

The Constitution allowed each state to decide how to choose its presidential electors. In 1789, only Pennsylvania and Maryland held elections for this purpose; elsewhere, the state legislatures chose the electors. This method caused some problems in New York, which was so divided between Federalists who supported the new Constitution and Antifederalists who opposed it that the legislature failed to choose either presidential electors or U.S. senators.

Before the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, there was no separate ballot for president and vice president. Each elector cast two votes for president. The candidate with the largest number of electoral votes won the presidency, and the runner-up became vice president.

Most Federalists agreed that John Adams should be vice president. But Hamilton feared that if Adams was the unanimous choice, he would end in a tie with Washington and might even become president, an outcome that would be highly embarrassing for both Washington and the new electoral system. Hamilton, therefore, arranged that a number of votes are deflected, so that Adams was elected by less than half the number of Washington’s expected unanimous vote. The final results were Washington, 69 electoral votes; Adams, 34; John Jay, nine; John Hancock, four and others, 22.

1792: George Washington – unopposed

As in 1789, persuading George Washington to run was the major difficulty in selecting a president in 1792. Washington complained of old age, sickness and the increasing hostility of the Republican press toward his administration. The press attacks were symptomatic of the increasing split within the government between Federalists, who were coalescing around Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and Republicans, forming around Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. James Madison, among others, convinced Washington to continue as president by arguing that only he could hold the government together.

Speculation then shifted to the vice presidency. Hamilton and the Federalists supported the reelection of John Adams. Republicans favored New York governor George Clinton, but Federalists feared him partly because of a widespread belief that his recent election to the governorship was fraudulent. In addition, the Federalists feared that Clinton would belittle the importance of the federal government by retaining his governorship while serving as vice president.

Adams won relatively easily with support from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, except New York. Only electoral votes are recorded here because most states still did not select presidential electors by popular vote. Nor was there a separate vote for president and vice president until the Twelfth Amendment took effect in 1804. The results were Washington, 132 electoral votes (unanimous); Adams, 77; Clinton, 50; Jefferson, four and Aaron Burr, one.

1796: John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson

The 1796 election, which took place against a background of increasingly harsh partisanship between Federalists and Republicans, was the first contested presidential race.

The Republicans called for more democratic practices and accused the Federalists of monarchism. The Federalists branded the Republicans “Jacobins” after Maximilien Robespierre’s faction in France. (The Republicans sympathized with revolutionary France, but not necessarily with the Jacobins.) The Republicans opposed John Jay’s recently negotiated accommodationist treaty with Great Britain, whereas the Federalists believed its terms represented the only way to avoid a potentially ruinous war with Britain. Republicans favored a decentralized agrarian republic; Federalists called for the development of commerce and industry.

State legislatures still chose electors in most states, and there was no separate vote for vice president. Each elector cast two votes for president, with the runner-up becoming vice president.

The Federalists nominated Vice President John Adams and tried to attract southern support by running Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for the second post. Thomas Jefferson was the Republican standard-bearer, with Aaron Burr as his running mate. Alexander Hamilton, always intriguing against Adams, tried to throw some votes to Jefferson in order to elect Pinckney president. Instead, Adams won with 71 votes; Jefferson became vice president, with 68; Pinckney came in third with 59; Burr received only 30 and 48 votes went to various other candidates.

1800: Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams

The significance of the 1800 election lay in the fact that it entailed the first peaceful transfer of power between parties under the U.S. Constitution. Republican Thomas Jefferson succeeded Federalist John Adams. This peaceful transfer occurred despite defects in the Constitution that caused a breakdown of the electoral system.

During the campaign, Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, tainted by his sympathy for the increasingly bloody French Revolution. Republicans (1) criticized the Adams administration’s foreign, defense and internal security policies; (2) opposed the Federalist naval buildup and the creation of a standing army under Alexander Hamilton; (3) sounded a call for freedom of speech, Republican editors having been targeted for prosecution under the Alien and Sedition Acts and (4) denounced deficit spending by the federal government as a backhanded method of taxation without representation.

Unfortunately, the system still provided no separate votes for president and vice president, and Republican managers failed to deflect votes from their vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. Therefore, Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 votes each; Adams received 65 votes, and his vice-presidential candidate, Charles C. Pinckney, 64. John Jay received one. This result threw the election into the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote, to be decided by the majority of its delegation. Left to choose between Jefferson and Burr, most Federalists supported Burr. Burr for his part disclaimed any intention to run for the presidency, but he never withdrew, which would have ended the contest.

Although the Republicans in the same election had won a decisive majority of 65 to 39 in the House, the election of the president fell to the outgoing House, which had a Federalist majority. But despite this majority, two state delegations split evenly, leading to another deadlock between Burr and Jefferson.

After the House cast 19 identical tie ballots on February 11, 1801, Governor James Monroe of Virginia assured Jefferson that if a usurpation was attempted, he would call the Virginia Assembly into session, implying that they would discard any such result. After six days of uncertainty, Federalists in the tied delegations of Vermont and Maryland abstained, electing Jefferson, but without giving him open Federalist support.

1804: Thomas Jefferson vs. Charles Pinckney

The 1804 election was a landslide victory for the incumbent Thomas Jefferson and vice-presidential candidate George Clinton (Republicans) over the Federalist candidates, Charles C. Pinckney and Rufus King. The vote was 162-14. The election was the first held under the Twelfth Amendment, which separated Electoral College balloting for president and vice president.

The Federalists alienated many voters by refusing to commit their electors to any particular candidate prior to the election. Jefferson was also helped by the popularity of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and his reduction of federal spending. The repeal of the excise tax on whiskey was especially popular in the West.

1808: James Madison vs. Charles Pinckney

Republican James Madison was elevated to the presidency in the election of 1808. Madison won 122 electoral votes cast to Federalist Charles C. Pinckney’s 47 votes cast. Vice President George Clinton received six electoral votes for president from his native New York, but easily defeated Federalist Rufus King for vice president, 113-47, with scattered vice-presidential votes for Madison, James Monroe and John Langdon of New Hampshire. In the early stages of the election campaign, Madison also faced challenges from within his own party by Monroe and Clinton.

The main issue of the election was the Embargo Act of 1807. The banning of exports had hurt merchants and other commercial interests, although ironically it encouraged domestic manufactures. These economic difficulties revived the Federalist opposition, especially in trade-dependent New England.

1812: James Madison vs. DeWitt Clinton

In the 1812 contest, James Madison was reelected president by the narrowest margin of any election since the Republican Party had come to power in 1800. He received 128 electoral votes to 89 for his Federalist opponent DeWitt Clinton, the lieutenant governor of New York. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts won the vice presidency with 131 votes to Jared Ingersoll’s 86.

The War of 1812, which had begun five months earlier, was the dominant issue. Opposition to the war was concentrated in the northeastern Federalist states. Clinton’s supporters also made an issue of Virginia’s almost unbroken control of the White House, which they charged favored agricultural states over commercial ones. Clintonians also accused Madison of slighting the defense of the New York frontier against the British in Canada.

In the Northeast, Madison carried only Pennsylvania and Vermont, but Clinton received no votes south of Maryland. The election proved to be the last one of significance for the Federalist Party, largely owing to anti-British American nationalism engendered by the war.

1816: James Monroe vs. Rufus King

In this election, Republican James Monroe won the presidency with 183 electoral votes, carrying every state except Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware. Federalist Rufus King received the votes of the 34 Federalist electors. Daniel D. Tompkins of New York was elected vice president with 183 electoral votes, his opposition scattered among several candidates.

After the bitter partisanship of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Monroe came to symbolize the “Era of Good Feelings.” Monroe was not elected easily, however; he barely won the nomination in the Republican congressional caucus over Secretary of War William Crawford of Georgia. Many Republicans objected to the succession of Virginia presidents and believed Crawford a superior choice to Monroe. The caucus vote was 65-54. The narrowness of Monroe’s victory was surprising because Crawford had already renounced the nomination, perhaps in return for a promise of Monroe’s future support.

In the general election, opposition to Monroe was disorganized. The Hartford Convention of 1814 (growing out of opposition to the War of 1812) had discredited the Federalists outside their strongholds and they did not put forth a candidate. To some extent, Republicans had siphoned off Federalist support with nationalist programs like the Second Bank of the United States.

1820: James Monroe – unopposed

During James Monroe’s first term, the country had suffered an economic depression. In addition, the extension of slavery into the territories became a political issue when Missouri sought admission as a slave state. Also causing controversy were Supreme Court decisions in the Dartmouth College case and McCulloch v. Maryland, which expanded the power of Congress and of private corporations at the expense of the states. But despite these problems, Monroe faced no organized opposition for reelection in 1820. The opposition party, the Federalists, ceased to exist.

Voters, as John Randolph put it, displayed “the unanimity of indifference, and not of approbation.” Monroe won by an electoral vote of 231-1. William Plumer of New Hampshire, the one elector who voted against Monroe, did so because he thought Monroe was incompetent. He cast his ballot for John Quincy Adams. Later in the century, the fable arose that Plumer had cast his dissenting vote so that only George Washington would have the honor of unanimous election. Plumer never mentioned Washington in his speech explaining his vote to the other New Hampshire electors.

1824: John Quincy Adams vs. Henry Clay vs. Andrew Jackson vs. William Crawford

The Republican Party broke apart in the 1824 election. A large majority of the states now chose electors by popular vote, and the people’s vote was considered sufficiently important to record. The nomination of candidates by the congressional caucus was discredited. Groups in each state nominated candidates for the presidency, resulting in a multiplicity of favorite son candidacies.

By the fall of 1824, four candidates remained in the running. William Crawford of Georgia, the secretary of the treasury, had been the early front-runner, but severe illness hampered his candidacy. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts had a brilliant record of government service, but his Federalist background, his cosmopolitanism and his cold New England manner cost him support outside his own region. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who owed his popularity to his 1815 victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, were the other candidates.

With four candidates, none received a majority. Jackson received 99 electoral votes with 152,901 popular votes (42.34 percent); Adams, 84 electoral votes with 114,023 popular votes (31.57 percent); Crawford, 41 electoral votes and 47,217 popular votes (13.08 percent) and Clay, 37 electoral votes and 46,979 popular votes (13.01 percent). The choice of president, therefore, fell to the House of Representatives. 

Many politicians assumed that House Speaker Henry Clay had the power to choose the next president but not to elect himself. Clay threw his support to Adams, who was then elected. When Adams subsequently named Clay secretary of state, the Jacksonians charged that the two men had made a “corrupt bargain.”

The Electoral College chose John C. Calhoun as vice president by a majority of 182 votes.

1828: Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams

Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 by a landslide, receiving a record 647,292 popular votes (56 percent) to 507,730 (44 percent) for the incumbent John Quincy Adams. John C. Calhoun won the vice presidency with 171 electoral votes to 83 for Richard Rush and seven for William Smith.

The emergence of two parties promoted popular interest in the election. Jackson’s party sometimes called the Democratic-Republicans or simply Democrats developed the first sophisticated national network of party organizations. Local party groups sponsored parades, barbecues, tree plantings and other popular events designed to promote Jackson and the local slate. The National-Republicans, the party of Adams and Henry Clay, lacked the local organizations of the Democrats, but they did have a clear platform: high tariffs, federal funding of roads, canals and other internal improvements, aid to domestic manufactures and development of cultural institutions.

The 1828 election campaign was one of the dirtiest in America’s history. Both parties spread false and exaggerated rumors about the opposition. Jackson men charged that Adams obtained the presidency in 1824 through a “corrupt bargain” with Clay. And they painted the incumbent president as a decadent aristocrat who had procured prostitutes for the czar while serving as U.S. minister to Russia and spent taxpayer money on “gambling” equipment for the White House (actually a chess set and a billiard table).

The National-Republicans portrayed Jackson as a violent frontier ruffian, the son, some said, of a prostitute married to a mulatto. When Jackson and his wife, Rachel, married, the couple believed that her first husband had obtained a divorce. After learning the divorce had not yet been made final, the couple held a second, valid wedding. Now the Adams men claimed Jackson was a bigamist and an adulterer. 

More justifiably, administration partisans questioned Jackson’s sometimes violent discipline of the army in the War of 1812 and the brutality of his invasion of Florida in the Seminole War. Ironically, Secretary of State Adams had defended Jackson at the time of the Seminole War, taking advantage of Jackson’s unauthorized incursion to obtain Florida for the United States from Spain.

1832: Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay vs. William Wirt

Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832 with 688,242 popular votes (54.5 percent) to 473,462 (37.5 percent) for National-Republican Henry Clay and 101,051 (eight percent) for Anti-Masonic candidate William Wirt. Jackson easily carried the Electoral College with 219 votes. Clay received only 49, and Wirt won the seven votes of Vermont. Martin Van Buren won the vice presidency with 189 votes against 97 for various other candidates.

The spoils system of political patronage, the tariff, and federal funding of internal improvements were major issues, but the most important was Jackson’s veto of the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. National-Republicans attacked the veto, arguing that the Bank was needed to maintain a stable currency and economy. “King Andrew’s” veto, they asserted, was an abuse of executive power. 

In defense of Jackson’s veto, Democratic-Republicans labeled the Bank an aristocratic institution–a “monster.” Suspicious of banking and of paper money, Jacksonians opposed the Bank for giving special privileges to private investors at government expense and charged that it fostered British control of the American economy.

For the first time in American politics, a third party, the Anti-Masons, challenged the two major parties. Many politicians of note participated, including Thaddeus Stevens, William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed. The Anti-Masonic Party was formed in reaction to the murder of William Morgan, a former upstate New York Freemason. Allegedly, some Masons murdered Morgan when he threatened to publish some of the order’s secrets. The Anti-Masons protested Masonic secrecy. They feared a conspiracy to control American political institutions, a fear fed by the fact that both the major party candidates, Jackson and Clay, were prominent Masons.

The Anti-Masons convened the first national presidential nominating convention in Baltimore on September 26, 1831. The other parties soon followed suit, and the convention replaced the discredited caucus system of nomination.

1836: Martin Van Buren vs. Daniel Webster vs. Hugh White

The election of 1836 was largely a referendum on Andrew Jackson, but it also helped shape what is known as the second party system. The Democrats nominated Vice President Martin Van Buren to lead the ticket. His running mate, Col. Richard M. Johnson, claimed to have killed Indian chief Tecumseh. (Johnson was controversial because he lived openly with a black woman.)

Disdaining the organized politics of the Democrats, the new Whig Party ran three candidates, each strong in a different region: Hugh White of Tennessee, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Gen. William Henry Harrison of Indiana. Besides endorsing internal improvements and a national bank, the Whigs tried to tie Democrats to abolitionism and sectional tension, and attacked Jackson for “acts of aggression and usurpation of power.” Democrats depended on Jackson’s popularity, trying to maintain his coalition.

Van Buren won the election with 764,198 popular votes, only 50.9 percent of the total, and 170 electoral votes. Harrison led the Whigs with 73 electoral votes, White receiving 26 and Webster 14. Willie P. Mangum of South Carolina received his state’s 11 electoral votes. Johnson, who failed to win an electoral majority, was elected vice president by the Democratic Senate.

1840: William Henry Harrison vs. Martin Van Buren

Aware that Van Buren’s problems gave them a good chance for victory, the Whigs rejected the candidacy of Henry Clay, their most prominent leader, because of his support for the unpopular Second Bank of the United States. Instead, stealing a page from the Democratic emphasis on Andrew Jackson’s military exploits, they chose William Henry Harrison, a hero of early Indian wars and the War of 1812. The Whig vice-presidential nominee was John Tyler, a onetime Democrat who had broken with Jackson over his veto of the bill rechartering the Second Bank.

Studiously avoiding divisive issues like the Bank and internal improvements, the Whigs depicted Harrison as living in a “log cabin” and drinking “hard cider.” They used slogans like “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” and “Van, Van, Van/Van is a used-up man,” to stir voters. Harrison won by a popular vote of 1,275,612 to 1,130,033, and an electoral margin of 234 to 60. But the victory proved to be a hollow one because Harrison died one month after his inauguration. Tyler, his successor, would not accept Whig economic doctrine, and the change in presidential politics had little effect on presidential policy.

1844: James K. Polk vs. Henry Clay vs. James Birney

The election of 1844 introduced expansion and slavery as important political issues and contributed to the westward and southern growth and sectionalism. Southerners of both parties sought to annex Texas and expand slavery. Martin Van Buren angered southern Democrats by opposing annexation for that reason, and the Democratic convention cast aside the ex-president and front-runner for the first dark horse, Tennessee’s James K. Polk

After almost silently breaking with Van Buren over Texas, Pennsylvania’s George M. Dallas was nominated for vice president to appease Van Burenites, and the party backed annexation and settling the Oregon boundary dispute with England. The abolitionist Liberty Party nominated Michigan’s James G. Birney. Trying to avoid controversy, the Whigs nominated anti-annexationist Henry Clay of Kentucky and Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. But, pressured by southerners, Clay endorsed annexation even though he was concerned it might cause war with Mexico and disunion, thereby losing support among antislavery Whigs.

Enough New Yorkers voted for Birney to throw 36 electoral votes and the election to Polk, who won the Electoral College 170-105 and a slim popular victory. John Tyler signed a joint congressional resolution admitting Texas, but Polk pursued Oregon and then northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War, aggravating tension over slavery and sectional balance and leading to the Compromise of 1850.

1848: Zachary Taylor vs. Martin Van Buren vs. Lewis Cass

The election of 1848 underscored the increasingly important role of slavery in national politics. Democratic president James K. Polk did not seek reelection. His party nominated Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, who created the concept of squatter, or popular, sovereignty (letting the settlers of a territory decide whether to permit slavery), with Gen. William O. Butler of Kentucky for vice president. 

Antislavery groups formed the Free-Soil Party, whose platform promised to prohibit the spread of slavery, and chose former president Martin Van Buren of New York for president and Charles Francis Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams, of Massachusetts for vice president. The Whig nominee was the Mexican War hero Gen. Zachary Taylor, a slave owner. His running mate was Millard Fillmore, a member of New York’s proslavery Whig faction.

Democrats and Free-Soilers stressed their views on slavery and Whigs celebrated Taylor’s victories in the recent war, although many Whigs had opposed it. For his part, Taylor professed moderation on slavery, and he and the Whigs were successful. Taylor defeated Cass, 1,360,099 to 1,220,544 in popular votes and 163 to 127 in electoral votes. Van Buren received 291,263 popular votes and no electoral votes, but he drew enough support away from Cass to swing New York and Massachusetts to Taylor, assuring the Whigs’ victory. 

With the Taylor-Fillmore ticket elected, the forces had been set in motion for the events surrounding the Compromise of 1850. But Van Buren’s campaign was a stepping-stone toward the creation of the Republican Party in the 1850s, also committed to the principle of “Free Soil.”

1852: Franklin Pierce vs. Winfield Scott vs. John Pitale

The 1852 election rang a death knell for the Whig Party. Both parties split over their nominee and the issue of slavery. After forty-nine ballots of jockeying among Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, former secretary of state James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the Democrats nominated a compromise choice, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, a former congressman and senator, with Senator William R. King of Alabama as his running mate. T

he Whigs rejected Millard Fillmore, who had become president when Taylor died in 1850, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster and instead nominated Gen. Winfield Scott of Virginia, with Senator William A. Graham of New Jersey for vice president. When Scott endorsed the party platform, which approved of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Free-Soil Whigs bolted. They nominated Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire for president and former congressman George Washington Julian of Indiana for vice president. Southern Whigs were suspicious of Scott, whom they saw as a tool of antislavery senator William H. Seward of New York.

Democratic unity, Whig disunity and Scott’s political ineptitude combined to elect Pierce. “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” outpolled “Old Fuss and Feathers” in the electoral college, 254 to 42, and in the popular vote, 1,601,474 to 1,386,578.

1856: James Buchanan vs. Millard Fillmore vs. John C. Freemont

The 1856 election was waged by new political coalitions and was the first to directly confront the issue of slavery. The violence that followed the Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed the old political system and past formulas of compromises. The Whig Party was dead. Know-Nothings nominated Millard Fillmore to head their nativist American Party and chose Andrew J. Donelson for vice president. 

The Democratic Party, portraying itself as the national party, nominated James Buchanan for president and John C. Breckinridge for vice president. Its platform supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act and noninterference with slavery. This election saw the emergence of a new, sectional party composed of ex-Whigs, Free-Soil Democrats and antislavery groups. The Republican Party opposed the extension of slavery and promised a free-labor society with expanded opportunities for white workers. It nominated military hero John C. Frémont of California for president and William L. Dayton for vice president.

The campaign centered around “Bleeding Kansas.” The battle over the concept of popular sovereignty sharpened northern fears about the spread of slavery and southern worries about northern interference. The physical assault by Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate heightened northern resentment of southern aggressiveness.

Although the Democratic candidate, Buchanan, won with 174 electoral votes and 1,838,169 votes, the divided opposition gained more popular votes. The Republican Party captured 1,335,264 votes and 114 in the Electoral College, and the American Party received 874,534 popular and 8 electoral votes. The Republicans’ impressive showing–carrying eleven of sixteen free states and 45 percent of northern ballots–left the South feeling vulnerable to attacks on slavery and fearful the Republicans would soon capture the government.

1860: Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas vs. John C. Breckenridge vs. John Bell

At the Republican convention, front-runner William H. Seward of New York faced insurmountable obstacles: conservatives feared his radical statements about an “irrepressible conflict” over slavery and a “higher law” than the Constitution, and radicals doubted his moral scruples. Hoping to carry moderate states like Illinois and Pennsylvania, the party nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for president and Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for vice president. The Republican platform called for a ban on slavery in the territories, internal improvements, a homestead act, a Pacific railroad and a tariff.

The Democratic convention, which met at Charleston, could not agree on a candidate, and most of the southern delegates bolted. Reconvening in Baltimore, the convention nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for president and Senator Herschel Johnson of Georgia for vice president. Southern Democrats then met separately and chose Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon as their candidates. Former Whigs and Know-Nothings formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominating Senator John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Their only platform was “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it is.”

By carrying almost the entire North, Lincoln won in the Electoral College with 180 votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell and 12 for Douglas. Lincoln won a popular plurality of about 40 percent, leading the popular vote with 1,766,452 to 1,376,957 for Douglas, 849,781 for Breckinridge and 588,879 for Bell. With the election of a sectional northern candidate, the Deep South seceded from the Union, followed within a few months by several states of the Upper South.

1864: Abraham Lincoln vs. George B. McClellan

The contest in the midst of the Civil War pitted President Abraham Lincoln against Democrat George B. McClellan, the general who had commanded the Army of the Potomac until his indecision and delays caused Lincoln to remove him. The vice-presidential candidates were Andrew Johnson, Tennessee’s military governor who had refused to acknowledge his state’s secession, and Representative George Pendleton of Ohio. At first, Radical Republicans, fearing defeat, talked of ousting Lincoln in favor of the more ardently antislavery secretary of the treasury Salmon P. Chase, or Generals John C. Frémont or Benjamin F. Butler. But in the end, they fell in behind the president.

The Republicans attracted Democratic support by running as the Union party and putting Johnson, a pro-war Democrat, on the ticket. McClellan repudiated the Democratic platform’s call for peace, but he attacked Lincoln’s handling of the war.

Lincoln won in a landslide, owing partly to a policy of letting soldiers go home to vote. But the military successes of Generals Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia and William T. Sherman in the Deep South were probably more important. He received 2,206,938 votes to McClellan’s 1,803,787. The electoral vote was 212 to 21. Democrats did better in state elections.

Lincoln would not live to complete his second term, however. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, who fatally shot him inside Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. The President died of his wounds the next day. Vice President Andrew Johnson served out the remainder of Lincoln’s term.

1868: Ulysses S. Grant vs. Horace Seymour

In this contest, Republican Ulysses S. Grant opposed Horace Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York. Their respective running mates were Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana and Francis P. Blair of Missouri. The Democrats attacked the Republican management of Reconstruction and black suffrage. 

Grant, a moderate on Reconstruction, was accused of military despotism and anti-Semitism, and Colfax of nativism and possible corruption. Besides criticizing Seymour’s support for inflationary greenback currency and Blair’s reputed drunkenness and his opposition to Reconstruction, the Republicans questioned the wartime patriotism of all Democrats.

Grant won the popular vote, 3,012,833 to 2,703,249, and carried the Electoral College by 214 to 80. Seymour carried only eight states, but ran fairly well in many others, especially in the South. The election showed that despite his popularity as a military hero, Grant was not invincible. His margin of victory came from newly enfranchised southern freedmen, who supplied him with about 450,000 votes. The Democrats had named a weak ticket and attacked Reconstruction rather than pursuing economic issues, but revealed surprising strength.

1872: Ulysses S. Grant vs. Horace Greeley

President Ulysses S. Grant ran against New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in 1872. Greeley headed an uneasy coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans. Despite Greeley’s history of attacking Democrats, that party endorsed him for the sake of expediency. The vice-presidential candidates were Republican senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and Governor B. Gratz Brown of Missouri.

Disaffected by Grant administration corruption and the controversy over Reconstruction, Greeley ran on a platform of civil service reform, laissez-faire liberalism and an end to Reconstruction. The Republicans came out for civil service reform and the protection of black rights. They attacked Greeley’s inconsistent record and his support of utopian socialism and Sylvester Graham’s dietary restrictions. Thomas Nast’s anti-Greeley cartoons in Harper’s Weekly attracted wide attention.

Grant won the century’s biggest Republican popular majority, 3,597,132 to 2,834,125. The Electoral College vote was 286 to 66. Actually, the result was more anti-Greeley than pro-Grant.

1876: Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden

In 1876 the Republican Party nominated Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio for president and William A. Wheeler of New York for vice president. The Democratic candidates were Samuel J. Tilden of New York for president and Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana for vice president. Several minor parties, including the Prohibition Party and the Greenback Party, also ran candidates.

The country was growing weary of Reconstruction policies, which kept federal troops stationed in several southern states. Moreover, the Grant administration was tainted by numerous scandals, which caused disaffection for the party among voters. In 1874 the House of Representatives had gone Democratic. Political change was in the air.

Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, receiving 4,284,020 votes to 4,036,572 for Hayes. In the Electoral College, Tilden was also ahead 184 to 165; both parties claimed the remaining 20 votes. The Democrats needed only one more vote to capture the presidency, but the Republicans needed all 20 contested electoral votes. Nineteen of them came from South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida–states that the Republicans still controlled. Protesting Democratic treatment of black voters, Republicans insisted that Hayes had carried those states but that Democratic electors had voted for Tilden.

Two sets of election returns existed–one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans. Congress had to determine the authenticity of the disputed returns. Unable to decide, legislators established a fifteen-member commission composed of ten congressmen and five Supreme Court justices. 

The commission was supposed to be nonpartisan, but ultimately it consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The final decision was to be rendered by the commission unless both the Senate and the House rejected it. The commission accepted the Republican vote in each state. The House disagreed, but the Senate concurred, and Hayes and Wheeler were declared president and vice president.

In the aftermath of the commission’s decision, the federal troops that remained in the South were withdrawn, and southern leaders made vague promises regarding the rights of the four million African-Americans living in the region.

1880: James A. Garfield vs. Winfield Scott Hancock

The election of 1880 was as rich in partisan wrangling as it was lacking in major issues. Factional rivalry in the Republican Party between New York senator Roscoe Conkling’s Stalwarts and Half-Breed followers of James G. Blaine resulted in a convention in which neither Blaine nor the Stalwart choice, former president Ulysses S. Grant, could gain the nomination. 

On the thirty-sixth ballot, a compromise choice, Senator James A. Garfield of Ohio, was nominated. Stalwart Chester A. Arthur of New York was chosen as his running mate to mollify Conkling’s followers. The Democrats selected Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock, a man of modest abilities because he was less controversial than party leaders like Samuel Tilden, Senator Thomas Bayard or Speaker of the House Samuel Randall. Former Indiana congressman William English served as Hancock’s running mate.

In their platforms, both parties equivocated on the currency issue and unenthusiastically endorsed civil service reform while supporting generous pensions for veterans and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. The Republicans called for protective tariffs; the Democrats favored tariffs “for revenue only.”

In the campaign, Republicans “waved the bloody shirt,” ridiculed Hancock for referring to the tariff as a “local question,” and quite possibly purchased their narrow but crucial victory in Indiana. Democrats attacked Garfield’s ties to the Crédit Mobilier scandal and circulated the forged “Morey Letter” that “proved” he was soft on Chinese exclusion. Turnout was high on election day (78.4 percent), but the result was one of the closest in history. Garfield carried the Electoral College, 214-155, but his popular majority was less than 10,000 (4,454,416 to Hancock’s 4,444,952). Greenback-Labor candidate James Weaver garnered 308,578 votes. Outside the southern and border states, Hancock carried only New Jersey, Nevada, and 5 of 6 California electoral votes.

1884: Grover Cleveland vs. James G. Blaine

This race, marred by negative campaigning and corruption, ended in the election of the first Democratic president since 1856. The Republicans split into three camps: dissident reformers, called the Mugwumps, who were opposed to party and government graft; Stalwarts, Ulysses S. Grant supporters who had fought civil service reform and Half-Breeds, moderate reformers and high-tariff men loyal to the party. 

The Republicans nominated James G. Blaine of Maine, a charismatic former congressman and secretary of state popular for his protectionism, but of doubtful honesty because of his role in the scandal of the “Mulligan letters” in the 1870s. His running mate was one of his opponents, Senator John Logan of Illinois. This gave Democrats a chance to name a ticket popular in New York, where Stalwart senator Roscoe Conkling had a long-running feud with Blaine, and they took advantage of it. They chose New York governor Grover Cleveland, a fiscal conservative and civil service reformer, for president and Senator Thomas Hendricks of Indiana for vice president.

The campaign was vicious. The Republican reformers and the traditionally Republican New York Times opposed Blaine. When it became known that Cleveland, a bachelor, had fathered a child out of wedlock, Republicans chanted “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!” But the furor died down when Cleveland acknowledged his paternity and showed that he contributed to the child’s support. 

Blaine alienated a huge bloc of votes by not repudiating the Reverend Samuel Burchard, who, with Blaine in attendance, called the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Cleveland defeated Blaine by a very close margin, 4,911,017 to 4,848,334; the vote in the Electoral College was 219 to 182, with New York’s 36 votes turning the tide.

1888: Benjamin Harrison vs. Grover Cleveland

In 1888 the Democratic Party nominated President Grover Cleveland and chose Allen G. Thurman of Ohio as his running mate, replacing Vice President Thomas Hendricks who had died in office.

After eight ballots, the Republican Party chose Benjamin Harrison, former senator from Indiana and the grandson of President William Henry Harrison. Levi P. Morton of New York was the vice-presidential nominee.

In the popular vote for president, Cleveland won with 5,540,050 votes to Harrison’s 5,444,337. But Harrison received more votes in the Electoral College, 233 to Cleveland’s 168, and was therefore elected. The Republicans carried New York, President Cleveland’s political base.

The campaign of 1888 helped establish the Republicans as the party of high tariffs, which most Democrats, heavily supported by southern farmers, opposed. But memories of the Civil War also figured heavily in the election.

Northern veterans, organized in the Grand Army of the Republic, had been angered by Cleveland’s veto of pension legislation and his decision to return Confederate battle flags.

1892: Grover Cleveland vs. Benjamin Harrison vs. James B. Weaver

The Republican party in 1892 nominated President Benjamin Harrison and replaced Vice President Levi P. Morton with Whitelaw Reid of New York. The Democrats also selected the familiar: former president Grover Cleveland and Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. The Populist, or People’s party, fielding candidates for the first time, nominated Gen. James B. Weaver of Iowa and James G. Field of Virginia.