Weird History

Historic US Election Cycles That Might Have Been Crazier Than 2016  

Jacob Shelton
16k views 15 items

The 2016 Presidential election is like the last 10 minutes of a slasher movie. You know the seemingly unstoppable nightmare slaughtering everything in its path will probably be defeated by the plucky final girl with the bob. It’s been weird. But not as weird as some of the most insane election cycles in US history. It may not seem possible, but there have been much crazier elections than 2016, 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 some our readers’s 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 1860: Dude, Where's My Country?
The Presidential Election in 1... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Historic US Election Cycles That Might Have Been Crazier Than 2016
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. 

The Presidental Election of 1800: A Godless Jacobin vs. The Wannabe Monarch
The Presidental Election of 18... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Historic US Election Cycles That Might Have Been Crazier Than 2016
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 Rac... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Historic US Election Cycles That Might Have Been Crazier Than 2016
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 Electio... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Historic US Election Cycles That Might Have Been Crazier Than 2016
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.