The Strangest Election Cycles In US History

At the time, the 2016 presidential election often felt like the last 10 minutes of a slasher movie. America thought the strange figure slaughtering everything in its path would probably be defeated by the plucky final girl with the bob. Then it got weirder. But not quite as weird as some of the most insane election cycles in US history. It may not seem possible, but there have been many tough-to-explain elections, and at least one of them ended with a candidate being murdered in front of multiple witnesses. Keep reading to find out about the nastiest elections ever.

Most of the craziest US elections happened in the 19th century, before extensive voting reform happened, when it was easy to suppress votes in radical ways. But that doesn’t mean the 20th century didn’t play host to some of the weirdest elections ever. We’re willing to be the phrase “hanging chad” still sends a chill down many spines. Continue reading to see if your candidate took part in any of nastiest US elections, and remember – your vote counts (unless you’re voting for the Whig party).

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  • The Presidential Election In 1864: Civil War? No Problem!

    The Presidential Election In 1864: Civil War? No Problem!
    Photo: William Waud / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    By the middle of 1864, the country had been embroiled for three years in an unimaginably bloody civil war. The insurgent Confederacy, despite severe losses the previous year at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, did not seem ready to give up, and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was fighting Ulysses Grant’s current advance into Virginia with astonishing tenacity, extracting heavy casualties in battle after battle. The outcome of William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was uncertain, and in the North, both the draft and Emancipation remained highly controversial issues.

    Against this backdrop, it was far from certain that Abraham Lincoln would win a second term in the upcoming election. In August, Lincoln himself wrote in a blind memo that “it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” In an added dramatic twist, the Democratic Party nominated as Lincoln’s opponent General George B. McClellan - the very man who had commanded Union forces in 1861-62 until he was fired by Lincoln for moving too slowly in pursuit of the Rebel armies. It was never clear the extent to which McClellan - who had, after all, fought the Confederates for months, however imperfectly - shared his party’s desire “that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities.” But Lincoln feared that any Democratic victory would have been secured “on such ground that [the new President] can not possibly save [the Union] afterwards.”

    Despite these concerns, there is no evidence that Lincoln ever considered advocating a suspension of the election. To do so, after all, would have been highly hypocritical: one of his arguments for prosecuting the war in the first place was that Southern states couldn’t simply secede because they had disagreed with the outcome of the 1860 election. Because of the large number of men deployed in various Union armies, Republican-friendly states allowed their citizens to cast absentee ballots from their military camps. Democratic-controlled states like Indiana did not follow suit, but Army commanders were generous with furloughs allowing residents of those states to go home and vote.

    Fortunately for Lincoln, Sherman captured Atlanta in September 1864, providing a much-needed boost to Union morale. The Republicans won the 1864 presidential election handily, effectively sealing the Confederacy’s fate. Two days later, Lincoln said: “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

  • The Presidental Election of 1800: A Godless Jacobin vs. The Wannabe Monarch

    The Presidental Election of 1800: A Godless Jacobin vs. The Wannabe Monarch
    Photo: James Akin / WIkimedia / Public Domain

    By the time 1800 rolled around, Thomas Jefferson really wanted to be president. He spent the four years previous stewing about his loss to John Adams as vice president, and used the country's growing resentment of Adams's federal tax policies as a tool to paint himself as a voice for change.

    While Jefferson was doing his best to distinguish himself from Adams, the Federalists took every chance they could get to call Jefferson a godless Jacobin. One paper even promised that if Jefferson were elected President, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." 

    An opposing paper spread a rumor that John Adams was planning to create a new dynastic monarchy by marrying one of his sons to a daughter of King George III. According to this unsubstantiated story, only the intervention of George Washington, dressed in his Revolutionary military uniform, and the threat by Washington to use his sword against his former vice president, stopped Adams's scheme.

    When the votes came in at what was essentially a tie, the election was turned over to the Federalist-controlled Congress which, after some convincing by Hamilton, named Thomas Jefferson the President of the United States of America. 

  • The New York Gubernatorial Race of 1804 Ends in a Duel

    The New York Gubernatorial Race of 1804 Ends in a Duel
    Photo: Illustrator Unknown / Wikimedia / Public Domain

    After a decade of arguing with each other in a variety of political circles, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr finally just decided to shoot at each other until one of them was dead. Their rivalry might not have come to such a deadly end if Burr hadn't published Hamilton's private essay, "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States," a document that was highly critical of the then-president, and helped widen rifts in the Federalist Party.

    Four years later, when Burr was running for Governor of New York as an Independent, Hamilton convinced the state's Federalists not to vote for him. Burr lost. In order to exact revenge, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel that ended with Hamilton bleeding out on the ground and Burr charged with two counts of murder. Thus ended the life of the man on the ten dollar bill. 

  • 1876: The Presidential Election That Set America Back 100 Years

    1876: The Presidential Election That Set America Back 100 Years
    Photo: Illustrator Unknown / Internet Archive Book Images / Public Domain

    Leading up to the election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican with a long history of civil service, and Samuel Tilden, a Bourbon Democrat who was very pro-slavery, America was at its ugliest. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated by a southern actor, and federal troops were stationed across the south. Try as they might, the federal troops couldn't stop roving gangs of white supremacists from suppressing votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, which led to Tilden winning the popular vote.

    However, as the country went into 1877 without a president, and threats of a second secession became louder, a compromise was reached between Hayes and Tilden; Hayes would receive the 20 electoral votes needed to become president if he withdrew federal troops from the south, effectively leaving black citizens to fend for themselves and ending the short-lived Reconstruction era. 

  • The Presidential Election in 1860: Dude, Where's My Country?

    The Presidential Election in 1860: Dude, Where's My Country?
    Photo: Currier & Ives / Wikimedia / Public Domain

    There was perhaps no more contentious an election in the history the United States than the presidential contest of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas and some other yahoos. One of the only reasons Lincoln was in the election is incumbent James Buchanan, a Northern Democrat who urged the Supreme Court to vote in favor of slavery in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which blew up in his face. Republicans took control of the House and Senate, and Buchanan bowed out of the race because he didn't want to get assassinated.

    Buchanan's disastrous decision allowed Lincoln to hoover up votes from the divided Northern Democratic and Southern Democratic parties. He won all northern states except Delaware and Maryland, and also took California and Oregon. Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge won most southern states, Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas won a single state (Missouri), and the exceedingly cranky-looking John Bell, of the Constitutional Union party, stole three southern states from the Democrats. Lincoln won 40% of the vote, more than enough to defeat his three opponents. 

    Between Election Day and Lincoln's inauguration, seven slave-holding Southern states declared their secession from the Union and formed the Confederacy, precipitating the American Civil War. 

  • Almost Everyone Wanted to Run in 1948

    The 1948 presidential election was a free for all, with candidates coming out of every nook and cranny of American politics to take on Harry Truman, who had taken over in the White House after FDR passed away. The most popular Republican nominee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, didn't even want to run, but was entered into every state holding a Republican primary, and polls gave him a significant lead against all other contenders (including General MacArthur). Eisenhower finally refused to run, disappointing the conservative base, and leaving the field wide open. 

    On the other side of the ticket, Truman was performing so poorly in the polls Democrats were trying to find a way to oust him from the ticket and nominate someone more electable. When that didn't work, candidates threw support behind independent candidates like the Progressive Party, and the States' Rights Democratic Party. All of this margin walking about the various candidates ended in a election between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey, with pollsters and political theorists basically handing the election to Dewey. Some of Truman's staff even accepted new jobs before the election was over, and Dewey all but had the presidency sewn up

    Until election day, when Truman beat Dewey by nearly 2 million votes, that is.