History

The strangest elections in U.S. history

Elections have real-world implications that can impact everything from the economy to healthcare to the cost of milk at the grocery store. Throughout the nation’s history, there have been more than a handful of presidential elections that produced unexpected results or involved a few underhanded tricks. These are a few of the craziest elections to have ever happened in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams (1800)

Back of two dollar bill featuring Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
Credit: Voinakh / Shutterstock

Imagine if the runner-up for president would then be your vice president? Once upon a time, this was the case in the United States. This just sounds like a bad idea in general, but it all came to a head during the 1800 election. Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr earned 73 votes in the electoral college while John Adams earned 65. However, this wasn’t considered a clear majority.

It fell to Congress to break the tie, with Alexander Hamilton (yes, that Hamilton of Broadway musical fame) lobbying for Jefferson as the most palatable of the three men he couldn’t stand. He detested Burr, viewing him as a self-important politician who would use the office only to enrich himself. Jefferson won the election, and Burr served as his vice president. And if that’s not dramatic enough, three years later Hamilton and Burr would stand off in an old-fashioned duel with Burr emerging as the victor after fatally shooting Hamilton.

John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson (1824)

Statue of Andrew Jackson on horse in Lafayette Square, Washington DC
Credit: Gary Blakeley / Shutterstock

Just like in modern times, the candidate who earned the most votes won the presidency. But what happens if neither one wins the majority? Well, we know the answer because, in the 1824 presidential election between John Quincy Adams (son of John Adams, our nation’s second president) and Andrew Jackson, this exact scenario occurred. Neither man had the majority, and it fell to the House of Representatives to pick the next president. In what can only be called a partisan move, Henry Clay, who served as Speaker of the House, went on an internal campaign to increase support within Congress for Adams.

Adams was a member of the Democratic-Republican party (there were a lot of different parties back before the U.S. narrowed it down to the present two-party system), and it just so happened that Clay was too. After winning the presidency, Adams appointed Clay as the Secretary of State, infuriating Jackson, who claimed it was all an underhanded trick. But don’t cry for Jackson. He went on to be our seventh president after his own “no holds barred” campaign during the 1828 presidential election.

Abraham Lincoln vs. William Seward (1860)

Lincoln Memorial at night showing statue and dedication, Washington DC
Credit: Tom Hillmeyer / Shutterstock

These days, people usually look at Abraham Lincoln fondly as a great orator, a paragon of statesmanship, and proof that it’s possible to lead under the worst conditions. But in 1860 when he was running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, politicians outside of “the Land of Lincoln” weren’t too hyped on the tall lawyer and statesman. Lincoln had to face off against William Seward, a political insider from New York who was well known for his speeches, connections and experience.

Knowing that they were somewhat outmatched, Lincoln’s backers decided to fight as dirty as is humanly possible. For the nomination convention, they printed fake tickets and gave them out to as many Lincoln supporters as possible. Back then, admission was handled differently as was the nomination process. Lincoln swept the Republican nomination convention since it was packed with supporters.

Harry Truman vs. Thomas Dewey (1948)

Up close view of U.S. currency and Harry S. Truman golden dollar coin
Credit: prim91 / iStockPhoto

Do you remember that historic photo of a man holding up a newspaper featuring the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”? Well, if ever there was a cautionary tale for media outlets to not jump the gun with reporting, this is it. During the summer leading up to the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey continued to poll ahead of Harry Truman with a double-digit lead — until just before election night.

Thanks to hardcore campaigning, Truman managed to narrow that lead and clinched the win. Unfortunately, the "Chicago Tribune" (a pro-Dewey newspaper) was swayed by early results, and thanks to a printer’s strike, printed the election outcome before the results were completely tabulated. They decided to run with the infamous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” And if you don’t know what Truman looks like, that’s him in that iconic photo holding up the incorrect headline.