© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bitter And Contested Elections In America's History


Earlier this week, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in Las Vegas, Nev., for their final debate before the election, which is just over two weeks away now. And perhaps the biggest news out of the exchange came when Fox News moderator Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump if he would accept the outcome of the results regardless of the winner.


CHRIS WALLACE: That the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together, in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?

DONALD TRUMP: What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense.

MARTIN: Trump has since amended that statement to the following.


TRUMP: That I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election if I win.


MARTIN: Since then, you've heard public officials and analysts from across the political spectrum expressing shock about this, many saying they've never heard a candidate expressing this kind of sentiment in their lifetimes. But we wanted to go deeper and ask an historian if contentious elections have played out this way in the past. So we called Thomas Schwartz, presidential historian at Vanderbilt University, and he's with us now from Nashville, Tenn. Professor Schwartz, thanks so much for joining us.

THOMAS SCHWARTZ: Oh, well, thank you for having me on the program.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, let's - give us a primer on the transfer of power in U.S. election history. You know, how was this precedent established?

SCHWARTZ: Well, if you know, the Constitution has no provisions for political parties in it. And it was very difficult, at first, to establish that precedent. The original Electoral College was simply whoever got the most electoral votes became president and the second-most was vice president. That worked all right with George Washington. He was the consensus choice. But in 1796, you had a very bitter election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in which Adams only narrowly squeaked out a victory.

But the real precedent for the peaceful transfer of power comes in 1800 - also a very, very bitter, contested election in which the supporters of both candidates said all sorts of very nasty personal things about both. In the end, Jefferson got more electoral votes than Adams, but he was tied with Burr, and the election actually had to go to the House of Representatives. But Jefferson did win. Adams did not stay for the inaugural, so you can see the bitterness that was there.

But then Jefferson struck a note of conciliation in his inaugural by talking about we are all Republicans, we were all federalists. And I think in that sense, it was the first peaceful transfer of power. Jefferson later wrote about it as a mark of the American system. And it began the process of establishing the idea that there can be a peaceful transfer of power not by the sword, as Jefferson wrote, but by the ballot. And this was the way the United States should be.

MARTIN: Now, you heard Hillary Clinton respond during the debate by saying that she found Donald Trump's comments horrifying. And she went on to say that the peaceful transition of power is the mainstay - one of the mainstays of our 240-year history as a democracy. But there was an exception. Can you talk about that? I mean, thinking...


MARTIN: ...During the Civil War.

SCHWARTZ: Yes, and that's the election of 1860. And that's the exception that has made challenging the legitimacy something of a taboo in American political history because it was challenged in 1860. Abraham Lincoln got no votes from seven Southern states. He was not accepted as legitimate by many of the Southern politicians, particularly the Southern Democratic Party. The Democratic Party had split.

Now, Stephen Douglas, actually, who ran as a Democrat and got the second-most number of popular votes, did concede and accept the legitimacy of Lincoln's election and was very patriotic. And in fact, Al Gore, when he conceded to George Bush in 2000, quoted Stephen Douglas' famous statement that he conceded for the importance of that, for the safety of the country.

But the other candidate, particularly John Breckinridge from the Southern secessionists, saw in Lincoln's election an illegitimate seizure of power. And they refused to accept it because they saw Lincoln as attacking the institution of slavery. And they proceeded to secede even before Lincoln was inaugurated as president.

MARTIN: And is that why you say it's now taboo? It's because the Civil War is understood to have followed that? Is that why we don't talk about it?

SCHWARTZ: I think that is lurking in the background. It doesn't mean that we haven't had bitter, contested elections and had recounts and had situations such as in 1877, when they had to appoint a congressional committee to look at the electoral votes of the states, or in 1916, where the California results weren't known for several days before we knew that Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected, or in 2000, when you had the results so close in Florida.

We've had bitter elections, but the process itself has been established as absolutely fundamental. And I think that is, in part, because the great national tragedy of American history is the Civil War and the almost 750,000 people killed in that conflict. We've come to terms with it because it ended slavery, but it still was a disaster for the country, and it's not something anyone wants to see repeated.

MARTIN: That's Thomas Schwartz. He's a historian of U.S. foreign relations and the presidency at Vanderbilt University. He was kind enough to join us from the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville. Professor Schwartz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you for having me on the program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More On This Topic