Home / General / Ten Presidential Election Shit Shows, Part I (1800-1876)

Ten Presidential Election Shit Shows, Part I (1800-1876)


Our long national cake fart is nearly over.

I was reflecting yesterday on the magic of the previous 18 months, and it occurred to me that history usually helps bring clarity to the present, except when it doesn’t, which is pretty much always the case. Can the elections of the past teach us anything? Probably not. Indeed, most of us will probably not live to comprehend the place of 2016 in the roster of American presidential shit shows. If Trump wins (an outcome I am not worried about at the moment, because I’m mildly drunk and limiting my reading to self-affirming Pantsuit Nation posts on Facebook), it will easily vault into the shit show top tier as the nation quickly degenerates into a eviscerating horror that will likely draw a curtain upon history itself. A Clinton win, by comparison, will almost certainly trigger a long spasm of misogynistic, xenophobic Trumpian reaction that will leave our civic life blighted and choking for oxygen. So as you can see, both sides do it, and there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the major parties.

All that aside, let’s take a few moments and soberly assess the ten greatest shit show elections in the whole stupid history of this country.

1800. The Original Shit Show.

Remarkably, it took a mere three presidential contests before Americans devolved into engorged, ragefully-partisan baboons. The election that year offered Thomas Jefferson, the sitting Vice President, and his Democratic-Republican coalition the opportunity to put a slaveholder back at the head of the executive branch, where everyone knew they properly belonged. Although the Federalist John Adams had emerged victoriously from a close 1796 election, its sequel largely took place amid a lingering, undeclared naval war with France, a conflict that Federalists had used as a pretext for cracking down on foreign rabble-rousers and the Jeffersonian press. As Federalists continued to warn that the Francophile Republicans would, if elected, lubricate their guillotines with the arterial blood of the well-born, their adversaries were equally convinced that John Adams, if re-elected, would continue to jeopardize the liberties of the people and steer the nation toward a diet of boiled vegetables and organ-meat pastries.

Because the Constitution incentivized slave ownership by granting additional representation to states where it was especially pronounced, Thomas Jefferson received eight more electoral votes than John Adams. And because Alexander Hamilton was a scheming, overly-clever hack who cocked up nearly everything he touched, his long-standing rivalry with Adams helped drag the party to defeat and eventual oblivion.

But because the Democratic-Republican electors failed to properly coordinate their efforts, Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 votes. After drinking away the early winter, members of the House of Representatives devoted a week in February 1801 to breaking the deadlock. Federalists in the House, behaving like defeated juveniles, refused to elect Jefferson and thus held the proceedings in limbo for 35 ballots. On the 36th try, however, key Federalists from Vermont and Maryland abstained from voting, giving Jefferson majority he needed and returning the presidency to a Virginian. As a reward for their abstention, Federalists insisted that Vice President Aaron Burr someday try to shoot Hamilton in the dick.

1824. Fuck your (Era of Good) Feelings.

After eight years of James Monroe, the nation’s political elites decided it was time to set everything on fire and start over. Without a logical successor to a third consecutive Virginia presidency, the election turned into a murderous free-for-all, with four presidential candidates (John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William Crawford) and six vice presidential candidates eventually earning electoral votes after a campaign that mostly oriented around important questions like, “Should the federal government spend money on roads?” and “Do you even tariff, bro?”

In the end, Jackson won pluralities in both the popular vote and electoral college, but nearly 3/5 of the electoral tally was cast for candidates who believed Jackson was a belligerent, half-literate, jingoistic cockfighter who ought sooner be tied to a tree than allowed to blow his nose on the tablecloths in the Presidential Mansion. And so the House of Representatives sorted shit out amongst themselves and awarded the executive branch to Adams, who had only just begun to cultivate the sideburns that would eventually govern his entire face. Jackson, convinced that Adams and Clay had engaged in CORRUPTION and RIGGERY, gave birth to a 9-pound baby grudge that suckled dryly at his shaved teat for the next four years until he avenged himself upon a hateful world.

1844. Birney or Bust!

Pulped from the offsourcings of various anti-Jackson coalitions of the 1830s, the Whig Party posed a credible challenge to the Democrats on a number of crucial economic issues during the late 1830s, including the highly important question of whether people enjoyed living in an era of soul-scraping depression. Unfortunately for the Whigs, however, the party was a highly unstable coalition that lacked a discernible ideological core — unlike the Jacksonian Democrats, whose ideological core was almost entirely comprised of racism and conspiracy theories about banks.

The Whigs would also prove incapable of electing presidents who might survive longer than a year in office. And thus it was, after a landslide win in 1840, the new President William Henry Harrison decided to plunge the country into turmoil by perishing and handing over the executive branch to John Tyler, an expansionist, pro-slavery Southerner who wanted few things more than to inflict Texas statehood upon the union. Though Whigs might have entertained opinions on controversial issues like slavery and territorial expansion, they preferred not to discuss them openly. Belonging to the Whig Party, then, was much like eating an awkward Christmas dinner with your alcoholic relatives every day of your goddamn life.

Expelled after five months from a party he never truly belonged to, Tyler focused all of his attention on securing an annexation treaty with the erstwhile Americans running the Texas Republic. The fight over Texas emboldened Southerners like Secretary of State John Calhoun, who defended slavery as a positive good and promised to expand its reach as far as humanly possible. Heading into the election of 1844, these sorts of pronouncements would have been good news to Whigs (both North and South), who believed Manifest Destiny was a stupid fucking notion that would lead inevitably to war with Mexico. The Democrats, who eventually unified behind James Polk, were openly promising to fight everyone in the bar if that’s what it took.

Sadly, the Whig nominee Henry Clay — the Buffalo Bills of 19th century presidential politics — refused to just shut the fuck up and eat his baked ham and boiled corn like a good boy and STOP ASKING DADDY ABOUT HIS FEELINGS. After ferociously denouncing annexation earlier in the year, Clay wrote a pair of conciliatory letters to a newspaper in Tuscaloosa. Worried that Southern Whigs might confuse him with an abolitionist, Clay’s “Alabama Letters” explained that he had no personal thoughts about the annexation question and would be “glad to see it” so long as the nation was united in its favor and nothing bad ever came of it — something that Clay could, of course, safely assume would never happen.

Recoiling from Clay’s campaign, however, tens of thousands of northern snowflakes turned to James Birney, a reconstructed slaveholder-turned-abolitionist who headed the obscure Liberty Party ticket. A vote for Birney was important for them, because it eased their consciences and made them feel special, and it meant that their tummies did not hurt from casting a strategic vote against a party clearly in the grips of its belligerent, pro-slavery Southern faction. Alas, support for Birney in New York and Michigan likely cost the Whigs 41 electoral votes, more than enough to deliver the presidency to Polk.

Without Polk, we don’t get war with Mexico; without a war with Mexico, our border with Mexico looks different and we don’t have a pile of real estate over which the nation can argue about the extension of slavery; without the argument over slavery’s extension, we don’t get the Civil War; without the Civil War, we don’t get the Klan; and without the Klan or a long Southwestern border with Mexico, we don’t get Donald Trump. So fuck off, James Birney.

1860. Lincoln defeats every swinging dick.

The election of 1860 gave the nation one of its greatest presidents and set into motion a series of events that obliterated slavery from the ground up. That’s super. But it also gave birth to the stem cell lines of white grievance that animate Trumpism, and since you can’t spell “Neoconfederate” without “Confederate,” this election has a well-earned place on the list.

Had the Democratic Party remained even nominally united behind Stephen Douglas, it might have stood a modest chance of retaining the presidency within the custody of slave-defenders, slave-apologists, and the merely slave-curious. Their chances would have improved had the Republicans nominated William Seward, which they would quite likely have done if the Democrats had not shit their pants in Charleston, tossed their underwear in a rubbish bin, and gone home early. Instead, Lincoln and the Republicans carried the reliably Democratic Illinois by a mere 12,000 votes, while in Pennsylvania (also carried by Democrats four years earlier) Lincoln won 56 percent of the vote in races against Not Lincoln, because the state parties were simply unable to decide which of the other three major candidates (Douglas, John Breckenridge, and John Bell) ought to be on the ballot. This paved the way for Lincoln’s ascent and the treasonous bloodbath that followed, opening a slave-sized wound in the hearts of degenerate racist throwbacks ever since.

After the contest was over, Douglas — exhausted and demoralized by the campaign and life itself — redoubled his efforts to drink himself into an early grave, a goal he accomplished within three months of Lincoln’s inauguration. In so doing, he set an example that we can only hope Donald Trump will emulate with a winter diet of KFC Bucket Meals and raw cookie dough, eaten directly from the freezer and over the kitchen sink with his bare, tiny hands.

1876: The beard prevails, but for how long?

The presidential election of 1876 was about more than monetary policy or government corruption, or whether the Catholic Church was conspiring against the republic’s public schools, or whether white people would be allowed to murder and terrorize freedpersons with impunity to win elections in the South. It was — in addition to these other things — a struggle over the next generation of presidential facial hair. Abraham Lincoln had introduced the chin curtain to the White House, shocking the sensibilities of a nation unable to imagine anything beyond the billowy horizon of Martin Van Buren’s sideburns. After the smooth-shaven, race-baiting catastrophe of Andrew Johnson’s administration, Ulysses S. Grant restored the nation with eight years of bearded but scandal-ridden glory.

In 1876, the Republican field boasted an array of contenders, including three beards (Rutherford Hayes, James Blaine, and Roscoe Conkling), two goatees (Benjamin Bristow and Marshall Jewell), two mustaches (Oliver Morton and the impossibly-named John Hartranft), and two suspiciously smooth faces (William Wheeler and Elihu Washburn, the latter of whom at least had the decency to sport a mullet). The Democrats, by contrast, fielded only a single mustache (Winfield Scott Hancock) and a lone chin curtain (from Joel Parker) out of a field of seven aspirants. After careful deliberations, the party nominations went to Hayes for the Republicans and Samuel Tilden (who was rumored never to have sported facial hair) for the Democrats.

The stakes of the campaign were immense. Among other things, the future of Reconstruction policy (or what was left of it) hung in the balance. The Hayes campaign reminded voters that Democrats had launched the Civil War and routinely shaved Union faces at Andersonville Prison; for their part, the Democrats enlisted the aid of racist militias to discipline black voters, and they reminded whites that abolitionists had once used their beards to smuggle fugitive slaves into Canada.

When the votes were at last counted, three states — Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina — provided two sets of contested returns, with Democrats and Republicans each claiming victory. With the addition of a disputed electoral vote in Oregon, the votes from all three former Confederate states would have been enough to elect Hayes and the Republicans to a third consecutive term in the White House. Leading 184-165, however, Tilden and the Democrats needed only one more vote to restore the party of treason and disunion to the White House. To resolve the disputed electoral votes, Congress designated the task to an ad hoc Electoral Commission comprised of beards, mustaches, goatees, neck beards, and clean shavens. Divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, the Commission also included a lone independent, the chin-curtained Illinoisan David Davis. Davis, however, quickly resigned his commission when offered the opportunity to take a seat in the US Senate. He was replaced by the smooth-faced Republican Joseph Bradley, who ultimately followed his party rather than his straight razor; with the rest of the Commission voting along partisan lines, Bradley ruled that all 20 disputed electoral votes properly belonged to Rutherford Hayes’ beard.

Following the 1876 contest, Republicans all but abandoned their Southern Black constituents to the peculiar whims of Southern white Democrats, who took power in the states they’d momentarily lost in that election year. The great political debates that followed in the 1880s — consisting mostly of arguments over tariff policy, the proper methods for murdering union organizers, and whether the Pope was in fact the Antichrist — offered little room for a healthy discourse about black civil rights. Meantime, facial hair ceased being a partisan matter; for the next two decades, every presidential candidate from every major (or third) party endorsed to the consensus. Was this ultimately good for the nation? Views differ.

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