America’s History of Nasty, Tumultuous, and Strange Presidential Elections

Partisan rancor. Conspiracy theories. Disenfranchised voters. Foreign meddling. Contested results. Maybe it’s not exactly a comfort, but the United States has seen it all before. Dive into the history of contentious presidential elections that rival 2020 for drama and intrigue, including the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824 (when a popular-vote loser squeaked into the White House for the first time), the 1864 election (held during the middle of the Civil War), and, yeah, the last one.

The Immigration-Obsessed, Polarized, Garbage-Fire Election of 1800Title

A. Roger Ekirch • Longreads

A madman versus a crook? Unexpected twists? Fake news? Welcome to the election of 1800.

When American Politicos First Weaponized Conspiracy Theories

Mark R. Cheathem • Zocalo Public Square

Outlandish rumors helped elect Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren and have been with us ever since.

Election Day 1860

Harold Holzer • Smithsonian Magazine

As soon as the returns were in, the burdens of the presidency weighed upon Abraham Lincoln.

How the Union Pulled Off a Presidential Election During the Civil War

Becky Little •

Fearing Abraham Lincoln would lose reelection, some wondered if the country should delay the election.

The Last Time a Contested Presidential Election Nearly Tore the Country Apart

Ed Kilgore • New York

If you want an example of a real nation-rending, Constitution-bending contested presidential election that might have conceivably led to a second Civil War, you have to go back to the U.S. Centennial Year of 1876.

The Vote That Failed

S.J. Ackerman • Smithsonian Magazine

Old style ballots cast illegally in Indiana helped President Grover Cleveland in 1888.

The Last Russian Leader to Mess With a US Election? Josef Stalin.

Will Moreland • Vox

Though the election of 1948 is best remembered for the Chicago Tribune newspaper’s embarrassing, incorrect “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, its forgotten story is of Henry Wallace, a liberal dreamer who became the Kremlin’s unwitting pawn.

When a Candidate Conspired With a Foreign Power to Win An Election

John A. Farrell • Politico Magazine

It took decades to unravel Richard Nixon’s sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968. Now, the full story can be told.

The Bush-Gore Recount Is an Omen for 2020

Ena Alvarado-Esteller, David A. Graham, Cullen Murphy, and Amy Weiss-Meyer • The Atlantic

An oral history of the craziest presidential election in modern history.

The Untold Stories of Election Day 2016


What really happened?

Bonus Read: How We Used to Vote

Jill Lepore • The New Yorker

Voting in America, it’s fair to say, used to be different. The founders didn’t anticipate that voting would be done in secret. And, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, eighty-nine Americans were killed at the polls during Election Day riots.

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