Crazy Presidential Elections Throughout U.S. History

Hair splitting, mudslinging, and duels, oh my! History reveals the craziness of Presidential elections is nothing new.

If the 2020 election season has you tired out, know that muckraking and mudslinging have been par for the course as U.S. voters battled to elect the president for over 230 years.

Crazy Presidential Elections Throughout U.S. History

Here’s a look at a few of the craziest presidential elections in U.S. history.

1789 – No Contest

Vintage drawing of white house in washington

Nobody stood in the way when the father of our country, George Washington, ascended to the presidency. Founding father Alexander Hamilton was reluctant to seek the job — he and other potential candidates persuaded Washington to run.

The election ran from December 15, 1788, to January 10, 1789, and there were no political parties or campaigns involved. States were allowed to appoint a handful of electors, and Washington was the only possible candidate that fit the bill. Only Pennsylvania and Maryland held elections to choose presidential electors; other state legislatures chose electors themselves, and the New York legislature was so divided that it didn’t name any!

Each elector cast two ballots. Washington took all 69 votes for president, and John Adams was selected vice president with 34 votes.

1800 – And the Tie Goes to …

Aaron Burr, vintage illustration
Aaron Burr

The U.S. Constitution has always been a work in progress and nothing proves that more than the 12th amendment, which requires the president and vice presidents to be elected on separate ballots. Congress had to make this new rule after presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson, and his vice-presidential running mate, Aaron “Trigger Finger’’ Burr, tied for the top spot with 73 Electoral College votes each. What started out as an ugly battle of name calling between Jefferson and the incumbent, John Adams, wound up being decided by a vote between Jefferson and Burr in the House of Representatives, which went through 26 ballots before choosing Jefferson. Of course, Jefferson went down in history as a great statesman and inventor, while Burr was given nothing to do as vice president and is most remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

1836 – Four Whigs Walked Into a Voting Booth …

The upstart Whig party coalesced over a hatred for outgoing President Andrew Jackson. They couldn’t agree on a candidate to run against Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, so they chose four —William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, Hugh White, and Willie Mangum.

The Whigs would run separate regional campaigns in hopes that no single candidate would collect enough Electoral College votes to win. That threw the decision to the House of Representatives, who then choose from among their ranks. Van Buren narrowly beat the four in popular votes, with enough Electoral College votes to prevail. This contentious battle was a continuation of the wild 1824 and 1828 elections, during which John Quincy Adams accused Jackson of being a ruffian and a bigamist. Jackson accused Adams of finding prostitutes for a Russian czar and blamed Adams for Jackson’s wife’s death before the inauguration of 1828.

A tragic postscript to the 1836 election: Whig Candidate Harrison was elected in 1840, but caught a cold during his inauguration speech and died 31 days later.

William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office and the shortest-serving president in U.S. history—just 31 days.

1872 – How Hard Is It To Beat a Dead Man?

Ulysses S. Grant’s election to a second term was ensured when his Democratic opponent, Horace Greeley, died on November 29 before the Electoral College votes were counted. The “Go West Young Man” muckraking newspaper publisher is the only presidential candidate to die before an election was final to this day. Not that it mattered much, as the incumbent was winning by a 286-66 margin in electoral votes.

Another candidate from the Equal Rights Party was also making history in the 1872 campaign. Historians believe Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to officially run for president, and she chose the first African-American vice presidential candidate in abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In those straight-laced Victorian times, it’s interesting to note Woodhull was part of the free-love movement who supported sex education and legalized prostitution.

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Jim Kneiszel

Jim Kneiszel is a freelance writer based in De Pere, Wisconsin. He edits a number of trade publications and runs The Word House with his wife, Judy. His article, Infuriating and Frightening Invasive Species appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac.

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Linda Davis

Why are we told to get out & vote if our vote doesn’t elect the President? This has always baffled me!


Voters do not elect the presidential candidate. Voters vote for a set of representatives in the Electoral College. I didn’t know this until college political science. My brain is fuzzy but if there is a tie within the Electoral College, the House of Representatives choose the President and the Senate choose the Vice President by ballot. Seek out the 12th Amendment online. Politics contradict “by the people,” “for the people,” and “of the people.”

Doris Spedding

This isn’t directly related to the article, but is a question: If the United States of America is supposed to be “by the people”, why have the electoral votes at all? I’ve never understood this.

Susan Higgins

Hi Doris Spedding, here’s a great article on the topic:

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