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A Historical Look At Contentious Elections & The Importance Of Concessions

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Former President George H.W. Bush delivering his concession speech in 1992 after losing to Bill Clinton.

Throughout the history of our nation, outgoing presidential candidates have set aside party differences to accept the result of elections — even contentious ones.

President Donald Trump, so far, has not conceded to President-elect Joe Biden and continues to fight the results of the election. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have failed to say that they’ll accept the will of the voters. The president began making those statements months before people went to the polls.

“There’s nothing that actually states that a losing candidate has to concede the election or make a statement acknowledging defeat, it’s just supposed to happen,” writer David Priess says.

He's the chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute and also served during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush admininstrations as a CIA officer.

In light of this breaking of political norms, Priess revisited other contentious election results in an article that he wrote for the Lawfare Institute. From just before the Civil War to Hillary Clinton’s concession, some of the elections Priess highlighted had the potential to create more damage than simply dividing the country.

Election of 1824

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Credit AndyHogan14 / Wikimedia Commons
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Wikimedia Commons
The electoral map of 1824, which saw no candidate receive a majority of electoral votes and led to the only candidate to win the presidency without winning the most electoral votes.

The election of 1824 made history for many reasons, but one was that once the votes were all counted, there was no winner. Four candidates ended up receiving electoral votes with Andrew Jackson leading in the end with the most electoral votes and highest popular vote count, Priess explains. But no one had a majority, so according to law, every state’s House of Representative delegations got to cast one vote and the candidate with the most votes in this election became president.

Priess says that despite being fourth in both electoral and popular vote, candidate Henry Clay used his sway in Congress to rally support not for Jackson but for John Quincy Adams who had come in second.

John Quincy Adams ended up receiving 13 states, Andrew Jackson received 7, and William H. Crawford received 4. Making Adams the first person to become president without winning the popular vote.

“This is the kind of thing Andrew Jackson, a man of much passion and ire, probably could have taken to the streets and gotten his supporters to use violence but he definitively did not. He actually stepped back and said he did not want to get in the way of the pure principals of our institutions,” he says.

Election of 1876

Once ballot counting started in 1876, people realized this was going to be an extremely close election between eventual winner Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, Priess says. Tilden went on to win the popular vote and had appeared to win the electoral vote but then state officials in the Hayes’ party decided to try and invalidate votes for Tilden in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina which led to some officials from those states declaring Tilden the winner and some officials declaring Hayes the winner.

Congress appointed a commission to investigate the result and decided in favor of Hayes and awarded him the presidency. Even despite calls from his own supporters and a popular slogan “Tilden or Blood," Tilden did not call for violence.

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Credit Thomas Nast / Wikimedia Commons
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Wikimedia Commons
A political cartoon published in Harper's Weekly about Tilden's desire to quell violence amongst his supporters during the aftermath of the 1876 election.

"His supporters wanted to use force to take the office they thought was rightfully his but [Tilden] dampened that and he told his supporters no. Again, essentially saying the institutions and the country matter more than this particular fight,” Priess says.

Incumbent Losing

Neither of these elections featured a sitting president running for reelection and losing like in the case of the most recent election, but the U.S. has had several sitting presidents lose and gracefully begin the transition of power. It even happened twice in a row when Jimmy Carter unseated Gerald Ford in 1976 but then lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. In all of these cases candidates who lost put their own feelings aside and tried to bring some unity to the country, and Priess says the country is better off when that happens.

Watch Jimmy Carter's concession speech from 1980.

“Much of the credit for this actually goes to losing presidential candidates, who for the greater good have communicated their acceptance of outcomes they didn’t like and agree with. The concession speech means nothing legally but it means a whole lot for the health of the country,” he says.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
Jack Hurbanis started as the WUWM Digital Intern in January 2020, transitioning to Assistant Digital Producer in July.