Multiple presidential candidates is not a new phenomenon in American history. In fact, there were four U.S.presidential elections in which four major candidates competed.
The years of four presidential candidates were 1824, 1860, 1912, and 1948. Four president candidate years are fascinating because they mark the beginning of major political upheavals in America.
For instance, 1824 marked the end of the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” and the demise of America’s first party system. Notably, the election of 1860 sparked the Civil War, destroyed the South, and caused one million deaths.
The Election of 1912 marked the end of the 19th Century political system and the triumph of progressivism. Additionally, the Election of 1948 was the end of the New Deal, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement and the start of the modern American party system.
The Electoral Insanity of 1824 and the Corrupt Bargain
I think 1824 was the strangest American Presidential election because there were four major candidates from one party. Moreover, a candidate who won a clear majority of both the popular vote and the Electoral College lost the presidency.
To explain, all four 1824 candidates Andrew Jackson (Tennessee), John Qunicy Adams Massachusetts) William H. Crawford (Georgia) and Speaker of the House Henry Clay (Kentucky) claimed to be members of the National Republican Party. In reality, there were vast political, ideological, philosophical, and sectional differences between the candidates.
Additionally, Jackson won a clear majority of the Electoral College (99 votes) over Adams (88 votes), 24toWin reports. Plus Jackson also won a clear majority of the popular vote; 153,544 to 108,740 for Adams. However, under the system in place in 1824, the U.S. House of Representatives decided the election.
Adams became President because of the Corrupt Bargain with Henry Clay. Incredibly, Clay offered to use his power as Speaker of the House to make whoever appointed him U.S. Secretary of State President. Adams took Clay up on the offer and became President.
To modern political junkies the concept of dumping the Speakership for Secretary of State is bizarre. In the early 19th Century, the cabinet was more prestigious than the Speaker’s chair. However, today no American politician would abandon the Speaker’s post for any job but the presidency.
The roots of the 1824 Electoral Chaos were in the so-called era of Good Feelings. The Era of Good Feelings (1812-1824) was the only period of American history with one major political party; the National Republicans, or Jeffersonian Republicans. The Era began with the collapse of the Federalists during the War of 1812.
The Era of Good Feelings ended in 1824 when many new states entered the union. To explain, the new Western states were not part of the old political system dominated by East Coast elites. Instead, new popular elections allowed self-made Westerners such as Clay and Jackson to rise to power.
The Corrupt Bargain destroyed the early 19th Century electoral system by creating demands for a new order. Interestingly, 1820s reaction to the Corrupt Bargain resembled the reaction of voters to Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s (D-Minnesota) presidential nomination in 1968.
In both cases, voters were angry because party elites ignored their votes. In 1968, U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota) won the Democratic primaries, but party leaders gave the presidential nomination to Humphrey.
Both screwjobs led to popular anger and demands for reform. Ultimately, 1824 and 1968 created new electoral systems. 1824 led to the popular election of Electoral College members while 1968 gave rise to modern presidential primaries.
Anger over the Corrupt Bargain led Jackson’s supporters to walk out of the National Republican Party and form the Democrats in 1828. In reaction, Clay and Adams’ supporters organized the Anti-Jackson Whig Party in the 1830s. Thus, 1824 led to the Jacksonian Revolution, the Second Party System, and populist democracy.
1860 Prelude to Civil War
The Election of 1860 was about one issue: slavery. The Era of Good Feelings was pleasant because America’s leaders successfully ignored slavery.
However, the rise of the Southern Slave Power or Slaveocracy, new media, and growing radicalism brought the issue to the forefront of American politics. In particular, Northerners’ resented the Slave Power’s ability to seize new territories. Meanwhile, Southerners’ resented Northerners’ ability to keep slavery out of new territories.
Many Northerners came to believe the Slave Power; the South’s slave-owning plutocracy, owned the Federal government. Some Northerners tried to break the Slave Power with the Free Soil Movement.
The Free Soil Movement was an effort to prevent the creation of new slave states from territory America conquered in the Mexican War. The success of the Free Soil Movement prompted Southern radicals to call for succession from the Union and an independent Southern Confederacy.
To explain, the Southern radicals hoped to conquer new slave territory in Cuba, Mexico, and Central America. However, Congress refused to conquer new slave territory.
During the 1850s, politicians; such as U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois) and Presidents Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire) and James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania), made the situation worse by trying to appease Southern radicals. Douglas, for example, inflamed passions with the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
To explain, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a federal law that gave Kansas the right to enter the Union as a slave state. The act outraged Northerners, who considered Kansas a slave-free territory. Pierce’s backing of Southern efforts to organize a slave state in Kansas led to violence and open fighting between slave and free forces in Bleeding Kansas.
One result of the Kansas-Nebraska crisis was the split of both major U.S. political parties: the Democrats and Whigs, into Free-Soil and Slave factions. When Free Soil Democrats and anti-slavery Whigs came together to form the Republican Party, they set the stage for the electoral chaos of 1860.
1860 led to Civil War because the Democratic Party broke into two factions. At the first 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston, South Carolina, between 23 April and 3 May slavery and free-soil factions could not agree on a candidate.
Instead, pro-slavery and Free Soil Democrats held rival Democratic Conventions in June in Baltimore. The Slavery Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge (D-Kentucky) for president. Meanwhile, Free Soil Democrats nominated U.S. Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois), who had cynically embraced their cause.
To increase confusion, a group of pro-slavery Whigs organized a new party they called Constitutional Union. Constitutional Union nominated John Bell (W-Kentucky) for president.
Consequently, Republican Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) won the presidential election with 180 Electoral College Votes and 1.867 million popular votes. Southerners; refused to acknowledge the Election results and began succeeding from the Union. Lincoln’s refusal to accept secession sparked Civil War.
The Election of 1860 because it marked the end of the Second Party System and the beginning of the end of slavery. Moreover, 1860 sparked a Civil War that transformed America from a quasi-aristocratic agricultural country into a capitalist industrial nation.
1912 The Triumph of Progressivism
The Election of 1912 was the high-tide of the Progressive Movement. The Progressive Movement was a popular revolt against the perceived domination of government by Big Business, Big Money, and the Robber Barons.
The Progressives wanted a proactive government running on behalf of the common people. The main goals of the Progressives were to get money out of politics and restrict the power of Big Business.
The Electoral Chaos of 1912 began with the radicalization of former President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York). After leaving office in 1909, Roosevelt embraced several radical European policies including Social Security and Single-Payer Health Insurance. This put Teddy in conflict with the Republican Party’s conservative pro-business leadership and his hand-picked successor; President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio).
Roosevelt challenged Taft in the Republican nominating process but found himself shut out by the Grand Old Party (GOP) Establishment. An angry Roosevelt left the GOP and formed his own Progressive or Bull Moose Party.
Sensing an opportunity, the Democrats nominated their own progressive; Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey), for president. Additionally, a prominent Third-Party Candidate Socialist Eugene Debs threw his hat into the ring.
The Election of 1912 was chaotic and contentious. An assassin shot and injured Roosevelt on the campaign trail. Thus Roosevelt became the first Presidential candidate shot on the campaign trail.
Dramatically, Roosevelt received more Electoral College votes than Taft, the Republican standard bearer. In detail, Roosevelt got 88 Electoral College votes and Taft won just eight.
However, Wilson won the Election with a huge Electoral College Majority of 435 votes. Thus, Wilson became the only Democratic President elected in the 40-year period between 1892 and 1932.
1912 was important because it marked the end of the boss-dominated 19th Century Party system. Instead of bosses, professional politicians and larger-than-life personalities dominated 20th Century politics.
Notable events in 1912 included the first Presidential primary. 1912 was also the last time a third-party candidate received more votes than one of the two major parties.
The major result of 1912 was that Progressivism of one form or another would dominate American politics for the next 60 years.
1948 Cold War, Civil Rights, and Dixiecrats
The 1948 Presidential Election was the last time four major candidates faced each other. Interestingly, 1948 marked the Beginning of the End of the New Deal and the beginnings of modern American conservatism.
There were four candidates in 1948 because two big issues nearly split the Democratic Party. First, President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) enraged Southern Democrats by embracing equal rights for African Americans.
In particular, Truman desegregated the U.S. military and organized a civil rights commission. Second, Truman enraged many Leftists by actively prosecuting the Cold War and opposing Communist expansion in Europe.
Consequently, both racists and leftists challenged Truman with third party runs. First, former Vice President Henry Wallace (D-Iowa) ran on the pro-Communist Progressive ticket. Next, Governor J. Strom Thurmond (D-South Carolina) challenged Truman on the Dixiecrat or States’ Rights Democratic Ticket.
Ironically, neither Wallace nor Thurmond expected to win the election. Instead, both men hoped to sabotage Truman and elect Governor Thomas E. Dewey (R-New York).
The voters; however, had other ideas. They reelected Truman with a clear Electoral College Majority of 303 to 189. Importantly, neither Thurmond nor Wallace received enough votes to affect the election’s outcome. In detail, Thurmond received 39 Electoral College votes and Wallace received no Electoral College votes.
1948 was important because it gave a clear popular mandate to the Cold War and Civil Rights. Consequently, both policies became the dominant American political agenda for the next 60 or 70 years.
One interesting result of 1948 was that the Dixiecrats combined with so-called Movement Conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s. Once united, the two movements took over the Republican Party and created modern American conservatism. This formed the basis of the modern American party system of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.
Moreover, 1948 was the last time third parties played a serious role in an American presidential election. After 1948, insurgent U.S. political movements focused their energies on the two major political parties.
Since 1948, the rise of primary elections has channeled American political energies in other directions. Therefore, it is doubtful we will see an American presidential election with four major candidates again.
Instead, the process will contain the electoral chaos to the primaries. Therefore, I predict future U.S. presidential elections will look like 2016 with a chaotic primary followed by an ugly general election in the fall.