Disputed Elections

by Jamie H. Eves

    Most of the time, elections in the United States go pretty smoothly. One candidate wins, the others concede with at least a modicum of grace, and the public accepts the results. But sometimes an election is disputed, meaning either that one or more of the candidates questions the results of the election and the outcome becomes uncertain, or that the supporters of one or more of the candidates refuses to accept the results. Disputed elections undermine both republicanism and democracy. Because the public cannot be sure who won, or cannot accept the policies of the winner or their own side’s defeat, people begin to reject the legitimacy of the electoral system itself. If not resolved quickly and fairly, disputed elections can lead to protests, turmoil, tumult, and even civil war. Nevertheless, disputed elections can be resolved, either when the two sides work out a compromise that allows one of the candidates to assume office but also assures that issues important to the other side are resolved in a way that it finds acceptable, or when one of the candidates simply decides to concede gracefully, either for the good of the republic or because they conclude that winning is impossible, and persuades their followers to accept the loss. Six U. S. presidential elections (1800, 1824, 1860, 1876, 1960, and 2000) were disputed, along with scores of state and local elections.  This article summarizes the results of the six disputed presidential elections, along with a disputed gubernatorial election in Connecticut. I wrote it in the Fall of 2020 for the students in my first-year U. S. History classes at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut (Hartford), and the University of Connecticut (Storrs), to help them understand what might happen if President Donald J. Trump decided to dispute the results of the 2020 United States presidential election.

     A few quick points before getting started: Nothing in the Constitution or in law requires losing candidates to formally concede defeat in an election, although there are good public policy reasons for doing so. Losing candidates and their followers remain Constitutionally and legally free to organize against the policies and programs of the winners, and to contest future elections. Nothing in the Constitution or law prohibits former Presidents or Governors from criticizing their successors, although tradition holds that they should attempt not to do so. Asking for a recount of the ballots, to the extent that it is allowed by law, is normal and not the same thing as disputing the results of the election. Peacefully disputing an election is neither unconstitutional nor illegal, but it may have serious and unintended consequences for the republic. And finally, attempting to overturn the results of an election by force or other means that violate both law and the Constitution threatens the very existence of democratic and republican government.

Connecticut’s 1890 Crowbar Election

     Connecticut first: In 1890 Connecticut’s Republican Governor Morgan C. Bulkeley chose not to run for a second two-year term, so Republicans nominated Samuel E. Merwin as their candidate to replace Bulkeley, while Democrats chose Luzon B. Morris. At that time, the Connecticut Constitution required that a winning candidate receive not just a plurality of the votes cast, but an absolute majority. (A plurality means receiving more votes than any other candidate, while a majority of the votes cast means receiving more than 50% of all of the ballots, including those cast for third parties.)  If no candidate received a majority, the General Assembly (the state legislature) was to choose from among the top two finishers, with both the State House of Representatives and the State Senate required to be in agreement. This sounds simple, but in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s partisanship was high, the two major parties – Republicans and Democrats — were about even in strength, and third party candidacies were commonplace, all of which increased the odds that no candidate would receive an outright majority and the final choice would be left to the General Assembly. Indeed, in 1888 Bulkeley himself, although winning more votes than his opponent, had failed to win an outright majority and had become governor only when voted in by both branches of the Assembly. But unlike 1888, in 1890 the Assembly was divided, with Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans in charge of the House.

Above: Connecticut Governor Morgan C. Bulkeley, the “Crowbar Governor.” All images in this post are from Wiki Commons.

     Moreover, in those days the state did not print election ballots. Rather, ballots were printed by the political parties (although under guidelines set by the state), which handed them out to voters at the polls. One rule was that ballots could not contain any “stray marks.” On election night, Democrats in some of the state’s larger cities challenged hundreds of Republican ballots on the grounds that they exhibited “stray marks,” with the result that local election officials invalidated many of them. Morris – the Democrat – then won by a mere 26 votes statewide. Outraged Republicans accused the Democrats of excluding valid ballots and also noted that Morris had not won a majority of all the votes cast. When the General Assembly subsequently met to choose from among the top two finishers, predictably the Democratic-controlled Senate voted for Morris and the Republican-controlled House chose Merwin. Full of fury and thunder, neither side backed down.

Above: Luzon B. Morris

     Bulkeley decided that, since the Assembly seemed unable to choose a governor, he would remain Connecticut’s de facto governor until the situation was resolved, an outcome that pleased the Republicans, as it meant that they would retain control. Now it was the Democrats who were outraged, and they convinced a janitor to change the locks to the Governor’s office. The next morning Bulkeley took a crowbar to the door to get inside, earning himself the nickname “the Crowbar Governor.” Talk began to  swirl that angry mobs might march on Hartford to install Morris by force.

     The situation was resolved when Morris calmed his partisans and agreed to submit the dispute to the Connecticut Supreme Court for resolution. The Supreme Court ruled that, in instances where the two branches of the legislature were unable to agree about who was to be governor, the previous governor would remain in office for the remainder of the term. Morris accepted the result. Bulkeley thus stayed in power for two more years, a situation that pleased Republicans but rankled Democrats. Morris ran for governor again in 1892, his partisans were fired up and turned out en masse, and this time he won an outright majority. In 1901 Connecticut amended its Constitution to provide that henceforth governors would only need to win a plurality of the votes cast, not a majority.  

     The consequences of Connecticut’s “Crowbar Election” were not as significant as if had been a presidential election, of course, but the episode does illustrate some themes that often occur in disputed elections. The election was hyper-partisan and close. There were accusations of chicanery (real or imagined) at the polls. There was a possibility of violence. The Constitution was flawed in the sense that its framers had anticipated neither the level of partisan strife, nor what would happen if the two branches of the legislature failed to reach an agreement. One of the candidates – Luzon Morris – decided, for the good of the state, to back down and concede rather than escalate the situation further. And the two sides agreed to an extra-constitutional compromise by submitting the dispute to the State Supreme Court, which itself reached beyond the “plain language words” of the Constitution in settling the case. Of the United States’ six disputed presidential elections, five would have similar resolutions. The sixth resulted in the Civil War.

1800

     It did not take the new United States long to experience a disputed presidential election. The first two presidential elections – in 1788 and 1792 – had gone off smoothly as the Electoral College unanimously chose George Washington. But Washington declined to seek a third term, so 1796 brought the country’s first contested, partisan election, as Federalist John Adams squared off against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. The vote was close: Adams won with nine states and 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s seven states and 68 electoral votes. (It would not be until 1828 that every state chose its Electors by popular vote; until then, state legislatures usually chose them.) Despite the closeness of the vote, there was no dispute: Jefferson conceded, and Adams became President. Four years later came a rematch. As with 1796, the 1800 election was characterized by hyper-partisanship and a close outcome, but this time Jefferson won nine states and 73 electoral votes to Adams’s seven states and 65 electoral votes.

Above: Thomas Jefferson as President

     However, an unexpected problem arose. In those days, the Constitution required each Elector to cast two votes for two different candidates, but without differentiating which was to be President and and which was to be Vice President. Instead, the candidate who received the most votes became President, while the candidate who received the second-highest total became Vice President. To increase his chances of defeating Adams and the Federalists, Jefferson had formed a “ticket” with New York Senator Aaron Burr, a fellow Democratic-Republican – the first time that this strategy was used. The plan was that Jefferson’s and Burr’s supporters in the Electoral College would name both men on their ballots, making Jefferson President and Burr Vice President. The idea of the “ticket” worked, and the Democratic-Republicans won a slim majority of the Electoral College. Unfortunately, each Democratic-Republican Elector cast one vote for Jefferson and one vote for Burr, which meant that the two men ended up tied. (Why no one seems to have realized that this might happen remains a mystery.) The Constitution said that if a tie occurred, the House of Representatives would decide which of the two would be President and which would be Vice President. However, each Representative did not get a vote – rather each state got a vote, with the Representatives from each state caucusing to decide how their state’s vote would be awarded. At this point, Burr should have withdrawn as a candidate for President and accepted the Vice Presidency (since that had been the arrangement), but he thought it over and decided to make a bid for the Presidency himself. He went to the Federalists in Congress and urged them to vote for him, indicating that he would be amenable to working with them and would support at least some of their positions on the issues.

Above: Aaron Burr as Vice President

     As a result of Burr’s machinations, the whole thing quickly became a hot mess. Predictably, those states where the Democratic-Republicans held a majority of the Congressional delegation cast their states’ votes for Jefferson. Equally predictably, those states where the Federalists were in the majority cast their states’ votes for Burr. Also predictably, the two states with delegations that were equally split between the two parties (Maryland and Vermont) tied and were forced to abstain. And there was one other hitch: the Constitution required that the House of Representatives choose a President not by a plurality but by a majority of the states. Since there were 16 states, the winner had to receive the votes of nine states, but with two states abstaining, neither Jefferson nor Burr could get to nine. The House took vote after vote but could not reach a decision.

     As the House continued fruitlessly to hold vote after vote, plots were hatched. Some of the Federalists argued that, if the House could not resolve the election, then Adams could simply stay on as President, much as “Crowbar” Bulkeley would do in Connecticut decades later. Let’s just continue to stall, many Federalists told themselves, and keep Adams as President. They defended this strategy by arguing that Jefferson was a notorious political radical who had threatened to abolish the Bank of the United States, slash military spending, reduce the protective tariff, and remove Federalist officeholders. For their part, Democratic-Republicans began to talk darkly about organizing an armed mob in Virginia, marching on Washington, and installing Jefferson by force. Either one of those actions would have destroyed the republic, replacing it with an authoritarian dictatorship.

     Two things happened that saved the republic. First, Adams refused to go along with the plot to keep him in office as President indefinitely. He wasn’t happy about having lost the election, and he agreed that most of Jefferson’s political ideas were radical, but he knew that Jefferson had won – and even more, he believed that, for the republic to endure, its leaders had to accept the results of elections. Adams deserves credit for putting the republic ahead of himself and his party. Not all leaders would have done that. Adams was far from perfect, and he made many mistakes in his life and as President. But he was also capable of moments of courage and integrity. This was one of them.

Above: John Adams as President

     Second, the Federalists approached Jefferson with a deal: if he promised to keep the Bank of the United States, promote manufacturing and commerce, and retain many of the Federalist officeholders, they would vote for him to be President. Jefferson rejected the deal, but the Federalists offered it again. Although Jefferson always insisted that he did not accept the Federalists’ deal, the evidence is that he did. With Jefferson’s old enemy Alexander Hamilton (one of the Federalist leaders) vouching that (unlike the mercurial Burr) Jefferson could be trusted to keep his end of the bargain, several Federalist Representatives switched to Jefferson and broke the tie. Jefferson became President. And indeed, the Bank was not abolished, the federal government continued to promote manufacturing, and many Federalist officeholders kept their jobs. Taking the oath of office, Jefferson delivered a written address to Congress (Jefferson was a poor public speaker did not like to give speeches) in which he urged both parties to work towards compromise and cool down the hyper-partisanship. “We are all federalists, we are all republicans,” he wrote in what would become a famous phrase, a phrase that would prefigure Senator (later President) Barrack Obama in 2004 — “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America” — and President Elect Joseph Biden in 2020 — “No red states, no blue states, just the United States.” Partisanship did not disappear, of course, but the constitutional crisis was over and – for the time being – the republic was saved. Shortly afterwards, Congress and the states amended the Constitution – the 12th Amendment – changing the way the Electoral College functioned so that Electors henceforth designated one candidate for President and another for Vice President. For his part, Jefferson presided over two terms of moderate change and reform, eschewing the radical revolutionary actions that the Federalists had feared.

     The presidential election of 1800 helps us understand disputed elections and why they happen. Like Connecticut’s “Crowbar” election, the election of 1800 occurred in an environment of hyper-partisanship and close elections in which each side “demonized” the other. In 1800, hyper-partisanship was fueled by fear. Democratic-Republicans like Jefferson were terrified that Federalists like Adams and Hamilton were really closet monarchists. Adams was indeed thin-skinned, unable to accept criticism, and took disagreements personally. He tended to be arrogant and adverse to taking advice, even from members of his own party. He and Hamilton both were frankly elitist and deeply distrustful of democracy. They thought that most people were too ignorant, too easily inflamed, and too poorly educated to hold major office or even vote in major elections. Adams and the Federalists had outraged Democratic-Republicans by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had jailed newspaper editors that criticized them. Jefferson viewed the Federalists as dangerously anti-republican. But at the same time, the Federalists feared Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. They viewed Jefferson as a dangerous radical, a “leveler” and democrat who would extend political and economic power to the common man. They also considered him a hypocrite, a slave-owner who talked a good game about equality while all the while subjugating masses of people in bondage. It is no wonder, given their intense partisan feelings, that each side would resort to drastic measures to keep “the enemy” out of power, to protect the republic as they understood it. The wonder is that the thin-skinned Adams found the strength to put his resentment of Jefferson aside, and that the self-righteous Hamilton and Jefferson found the courage to compromise. As 1800 showed, in times of constitutional crisis, leadership matters.

1824

     The next disputed presidential election came under very different circumstances. In 1824, hyper-partisanship was no longer the dominant characteristic of American politics. Just the opposite: the old Federalist Party had disintegrated during the War of 1812 and the United States had become temporarily a one-party state. Politicians who hoped to have any chance of winning office now all belonged to the Democratic-Republican Party, which meant that the Party had lost its ideological identity. Indeed, in 1820 President James Monroe had won reelection as the only candidate running, an apparent national unity that was dubbed “the Era of Good Feelings.” Under the surface, however, lurked churning ambition and potential discord; young politicians like Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay were hungry for personal advancement, while “old Republicans” like New York Senator Martin Van Buren pined for the lost ideological purity of Jefferson’s day. The elderly Monroe did not seek a third term, and four younger Democratic-Republicans jockeyed for position, hoping to succeed him: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts (a former Federalist who had converted to Democratic-Republicanism for expediency’s sake), Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford of Georgia, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Speaker of the House Clay. Adams and Crawford were the early front runners, with strong support in the Northeast and South, respectively. Calhoun eventually dropped out and ran for Vice President, but Clay hung in, hoping to win the support of the West. A resident of Kentucky, Clay looked to find votes in neighboring Tennessee, but discovered to his dismay that Crawford had gotten there first and sewn up the support of most of the local movers and shakers. Seeking to stop Crawford at any cost, Clay convinced several of his friends in Tennessee to put forward favorite son Andrew Jackson as a
“stalking horse” candidate, with the result that Jackson, not Crawford, got Tennessee’s electoral votes. (In 1824, there was no single national election day, and different states chose their Electors at different times. Tennessee’s Electors were chosen by the state legislature, not by popular vote.)

Above: Henry Clay in 1818

Above: John Quincy Adams as President

Above: William Crawford

     Clay’s scheme worked too well. The result was that Jackson, who hitherto had not seen himself as a viable candidate, now decided that he, too, wanted to be President. A military hero from the War of 1812, Old Hickory had many admirers – and also not a few enemies. Jackson particularly disliked Clay and Crawford. The enmity stemmed from the 1818 Seminole War, in which Secretary of War Calhoun had ordered Jackson, then a military commander, to lead a raid across the border from Georgia into Spanish Florida in pursuit of Seminole warriors. Jackson had disobeyed orders and also seized several Spanish towns, threatening war with Spain. Calhoun and Secretary of State Adams had backed Jackson, but Clay and Crawford had criticized his actions as illegal. War with Spain had been averted when Adams as Secretary of State negotiated a treaty with Spain that resulted in the American purchase of Florida — a purchase, admittedly, at the point of a gun. Part of the reason the hot-tempered Jackson now coveted the Presidency was to get even with Clay and Crawford for their earlier criticism of him, although a larger part doubtless was his desire for popular acclaim. Now a candidate, Jackson quickly won support in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Indiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Meanwhile, Crawford suffered a massive stroke that left him incapacitated; in the end, he carried only Georgia and Virginia. Had Clay been patient, he rather than Jackson might have picked up much of Crawford’s support. When the Electoral votes were counted, Jackson led with 99, Adams had 84 (mostly from New England and New York), Crawford 41, and Clay 37. As nobody had a majority, the House of Representatives had to choose from among the top three finishers: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford (although everyone understood that the ailing Crawford would not be the choice). Jackson expected that, as the leading vote getter, he would get the nod. But Clay (who was still Speaker of the House) called in some favors and steered the choice to Adams, in return for which Adams named Clay Secretary of State.

Above: Andrew Jackson as a general.

     Jackson was furious that his two opponents had made a deal, especially as one of them was his old foe Clay. He didn’t march on Washington with an army of Tennessee sharpshooters, but he did spend the next four years raging against the “corrupt bargain” that had put Adams in the White House, undermining the legitimacy of Adams’s administration. Indeed, the shadow of illegitimacy hung over Adam’s Presidency for his entire term in office, undermining his ability to get his programs passed by Congress. Four years later, in 1828, in a two-way race, Jackson defeated Adams handily, 178 Electoral votes to 83, and became President.

     One result of the 1824 election was that Adams became, in the eyes of many Americans, an illegitimate President, which severely weakened his effectiveness. Another consequence was the collapse of the old Democratic-Republican Party, which split into two, smaller parties: the more-or-less Hamiltonian National Republicans led by Adams and Clay (which a few years later metamorphosed into the Whig Party) and the generally Jeffersonian Democratic Party led by Jackson and Van Buren. Two-party politics was restored. The 1824 election was a disputed election in the sense that Jackson never graciously accepted defeat and continued to rail against Adams and Clay, but it differed from the 1800 election in that it originated from personal ambition and grievance rather than hyper-partisanship, and there was never any real threat of violence. Like other disputed elections, it was resolved with a political deal, although not one that Jackson and his supporters accepted, and therefore not one that lasted beyond Adams’s Presidency. And, like most disputed elections, it had unexpected consequences, ushering in a new political era of Democrats vs. Whigs.

1860

     The next disputed presidential election was in 1860 and it resulted in the Civil War (1861-65). The 1860 election combined the hyper-partisanship of 1800 with a political realignment reminiscent of 1824. The United States had never been more divided by politics. While over the years Whigs and Democrats had been able to craft compromises on issues like tariffs, they had been unable to resolve the thorny issue of slavery. That was partly because slave labor was integral to the Southern economy, while free labor was central to the Northern economy, and so each region viewed challenges to its system as tantamount to assaults on its “way of life,” making the political disputes of the 1850s a kind of “culture war.” It was also partly because an ever-increasing number of Americans (although still a minority) was coming to view slavery as a moral evil. And it was partly because slavery was intertwined with so many other divisive issues: war with Mexico in the 1840s; the addition of new states, especially after 1849 when the Missouri Compromise broke down; the fairness of the Electoral College (long a sticking point with many Northerners, who believed that the system favored the South); the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives (in which the Southern states’ strength was boosted by a Constitution that counted enslaved people as 3/5ths persons, even though they were afforded almost no human rights); the right to trial by jury (threatened by the Fugitive Slave Act); the citizenship of free Blacks; censorship of the U. S. mails; and violence in the Kansas Territory and on the floor of the Senate – all of which bubbled noxiously out of the dispute over slavery and poisoned the rest of American politics. New conspiracy theories fed into a growing tendency for the two sides to demonize each other. Increasingly, White Southerners came to believe that Northerners were complicit in an “abolitionist conspiracy” to arm slaves and encourage a slave revolt that would cost them their lives, while Northerners came to believe that White Southerners were complicit in a “slave conspiracy” to force a system of slave labor on the North and West. The gulf between the two sides grew so great that it caused the old, national parties – the Whigs and the Democrats – to break down. In the 1850s, the Whig Party completely disintegrated, while in 1860 the Democratic Party divided into two wings, a radically pro-slavery Southern wing and a more moderate Northern wing that sought to find middle ground. As the Whig Party collapsed, three new parties rose in sequence to take its place: first the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, then the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic American (or Know-Nothing) Party, and finally by the end of the 1850s the new Republican Party. The Republicans were a broad coalition of Northern Whigs, Know Nothings, Free Soilers, and anti-slavery Democrats – and by 1860 they were the majority party in the North, a strong minority in the border states, and practically nonexistent in the South.

     Because of this political realignment, the 1860 presidential election featured four major candidates, not the usual two: Republican Abraham Lincoln (a former Illinois Whig Congressman), Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (an Illinois Senator), Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge (the current Vice President and a former Congressman from Kentucky), and John Bell (a former Tennessee Whig Congressman and Speaker of the House). In fact, the election was not one race, but three: Lincoln vs. Douglas in the North, Breckinridge v. Bell in the South, and all four candidates in the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri (the “purple states” of the era). Lincoln swept the North, winning every free state. Breckinridge swept the South. And Bell, Breckinridge, and Douglas split the border states. No one won a majority of the popular vote: Lincoln captured 39.8%, Douglas 29.5%, Breckinridge 18.1%, and Bell 12.6%. But because hyper-partisanship gave Lincoln victories in every free state, he captured 180 Electoral votes compared to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and only 12 for Douglas, winning a majority in the Electoral College.

Above: A political cartoon showing the four candidates in 1860: Bell, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Lincoln — playing “baseball”

     The consequences of the election of 1860 were, as Lincoln would later say, “fundamental and astounding.” Although his victory in the Electoral College was clear, most Southern Whites refused to accept it; after all, he had won less than 40% of the popular vote and not carried even a single slave state. One by one, Southern states seceded from the Union, touching off the Civil War. Unlike 1800 and 1824, there would be no deal, no compromise, to save the republic. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that compromise was even possible. There were attempts: Lincoln offered to preserve slavery in the South while forbidding it in the North and West, but Southerners rejected it. Breckinridge (now a Senator from Kentucky) advocated drawing a horizontal line across the Western territories to create a “slave south” and “free north,” but Northerners rejected that. The hyper-partisanship that had spawned such intense fear, mistrust, and fabulous conspiracy theories had made it impossible for the two sides to trust each other enough to compromise. (Since both compromises would have maintained slavery for decades to come, succeeding generations must ask if either would have been worth the cost.) It was not the losing candidates, but rather their allies and supporters that drove the United States into civil war. When war did come, Douglas sided with the North and offered Lincoln his support (but died of illness in 1861 before the war ended), while Bell and Breckinridge each joined the Confederacy. (As most Kentuckians were Unionists, Breckinridge was forced to flee his own state. Arriving in Tennessee, he joined the Confederate army as an officer, rose to the rank of General, became part of the Confederate Cabinet as Secretary of War, fled the United States at the War’s end, and lived several years in exile until President Andrew Johnson issued a blanket pardon for Confederate officers and office holders.) Douglas accepted Lincoln’s victory in the election of 1860, but Breckinridge and Bell did not. Although not the organizers of the Confederacy, they were willing ultimately to join it in waging war rather than accept a Republican Presidency.

     The contrast between 1800 and 1824 on the one hand and 1860 on the other is stark. Instead of a deal or compromise, there was a Civil War in which hundreds of thousands perished. The outcome fundamentally altered the American political system. It brought the new Republican Party to power as the majority party for decades to come. It led to three transformative Constitutional amendments that (legally, although not always in practice) ended slavery, granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States, and extended voting rights to all adult male citizens. It established that the Union was “perpetual,” meaning that no state could secede. But 1860 did have one thing in common with 1800: the outcome of both disputes ended up reinforcing the key republican principle that the party that wins the election must be allowed to hold office – or, as Lincoln put it, “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

1876

     With the misery and bloodshed of the Civil War still fresh in their minds, Americans experienced a cold shiver of terror when another disputed election occurred only sixteen years later, in 1876. Although the Republican Party was still the majority party in the North, Democrats had reunited and held power in most of the South as well as in Northern cities, where they were bolstered by the votes of immigrants. Partisan feeling, stoked by the recent Civil War, still ran high. Know-Nothingism was still part of the Republican coalition, directed against urban immigrants. Hyper-partisanship caused Republicans and Democrats to cast each other as false caricatures of “the enemy.” Republicans viewed Democrats as Confederate traitors, slaughterers of Union soldiers, aided and abetted by uneducated, un-American immigrants. Democrats saw Republicans as sly Yankee carpetbaggers, uneducated former slaves, and rapacious robber barons. Both parties pushed racist tropes, Republicans decrying Democrats as hard-drinking, unlettered, unrepublican, Catholic Irish immigrants, and Democrats depicting Republicans as uneducated Blacks and avaricious Yankees.

     The election was close: the Democratic candidate, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, won 50.9% of the popular vote, while the Republican, Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, won 47.9%. Even closer was the Electoral College: Tilden won 184 Electoral votes (one short of a majority), Hayes captured 165, and 20 Electoral votes from four states were in dispute. Each party claimed to have won Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and one of the Electors from Oregon appeared to have been “illegal” because he was an “elected or appointed official.” The crux of the issue in the three disputed Southern states was that Tilden had won the most votes, but Democrats had engaged in wholesale voter suppression by threatening and intimidating Republican voters, most of whom were African Americans. In Florida and Louisiana, Republican governors faced off against Democratic legislatures and election officials, each claiming victory for their candidate. Partisans on both sides threatened to resume the Civil War if they didn’t get their way.

Above: Rutherford B. Hayes

Above: Samuel J. Tilden

     This was a new type of dispute, one where the Constitution gave no guidance. Rival sets of Electors claimed to represent the “real” winners. While the Constitution did provide that the House of Representatives (voting by state) would choose the President from among the top three vote getters if no candidate received a majority of the Electoral votes, it said nothing about what would happen if the Electoral votes themselves were in dispute, a circumstance that had never occurred to the founders when they wrote the Constitution in 1787, nor to Congress when they had passed the 12th Amendment a few years later.

     The disputed election of 1876 was resolved by an extra-legal compromise. Although the Constitution did not authorize it, Republican and Democratic leaders formed a bipartisan committee to decide which candidate had won. Republicans had one more person on the committee than the Democrats, so it is no surprise that the committee found in favor of Hayes. But with the threat of civil war hanging in the air, a quiet compromise was reached: Hayes would become President, but in return Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction, cease the occupation of Southern states by the Union army, and accept the reestablishment of white supremacist rule in the old Confederacy. As has often been the case in American history, White Americans resolved disputes among themselves by sacrificing the interests of people of color, who as a consequence would endure another century of Jim Crow, discrimination, lynching, and peonage. Tilden agreed to step aside – he deserves some credit for sacrificing his own political interests for the good of the republic, but truth to tell, he didn’t really have a choice. Once his party had reached a compromise, he had no leverage anyway.

     As was the case with previous disputed presidential elections, the election of 1876 had major consequences, transforming the political environment of the republic. Reconstruction ended. White supremacism remained in force for another century. And a “Conservative Coalition” of Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats now controlled Congress for decades to come. Southern Republicans – who were mostly African Americans – and Northern Democrats – who were mostly immigrants and children of immigrants – were marginalized for a generation or more.

     In addition, Americans seem to have learned that disputing presidential elections was not worth the cost. One dispute had resulted in a Civil War, and all of them had altered the political system in ways that had not been anticipated. For more than a century, the fear of civil wars and political realignments kept American leaders from disputing presidential elections. The Gilded Age – the period from 1876 to 1896 – was, like 1800, 1860, and 1876, characterized by hyper-partisanship, extremely close elections, elections where no candidate received 50% of the popular vote, elections where the leader in the popular vote lost in the Electoral College, inflamed passions, and the propensity to caricature opponents and truck in conspiracy theories. Yet not once did losing candidates seriously raise the specter of civil war, riots, or other forms of violence – not at the presidential level, anyway. And the 20th century saw fewer close elections. Indeed, it would not be until 1960 that a losing candidate seriously entertained the possibility of disputing the outcome of a presidential election.

1960

     The 1960 presidential election was the disputed election that wasn’t. It pitted the sitting Republican Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, against the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. It was close: Kennedy won 49.72% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55%. And although the Electoral College seemingly gave Kennedy a big victory with 303 Electoral votes to Nixon’s 219 (and 15 for Dixiecrat Harry Byrd), had Nixon carried the states of Illinois and Texas, he – not Kennedy – would have eked out a narrow Electoral win. Nixon, as he admitted in his autobiography, Six Crises, believed that the Kennedy campaign had cheated in both states. Yet, ultimately, Nixon decided not to dispute the election. He always claimed that his decision was because he had put the republic before his own personal ambition, but the real reason was probably because he had no choice. He could not credibly have raised the specter of civil war. President Eisenhower would not have subverted the Constitution to hand the election to him. While Illinois state law did provide him with an appeal process, Texas law did not, and he would have had to have captured both states to have won the election. Nixon could have attempted to challenge Texas law in federal courts on Constitutional grounds, but it was not likely that he would have prevailed. Such a challenge would have wound up before the Supreme Court, which had never before inserted itself into a presidential election, especially not in a way that would have changed the outcome. The Court strove to stay above politics, and such a move would have politicized the Court and diminished public confidence in its nonpartisanship. Besides, most of the Justices were Democrats and not inclined to be on Nixon’s side, anyway. So, Nixon chose to appear magnanimous, bragged about it so as to appear magnanimous, and then ran for President again in 1968.

2000

     But there would be a contested election in 2000, and the consequences for the republic would be significant. The election pitted sitting Democratic Vice President Albert Gore against the Republican Governor of Texas George W. Bush. Gore won the popular vote by a razor-thin margin, 48.4% to 47.9%. He also won 266 Electoral votes to Bush’s 246, but with the outcome in Florida in doubt Gore was four Electoral votes shy of victory. The lead in the Sunshine state seesawed back and forth between the two candidates, with the initial count showing that Bush won by fewer than 600 votes – which would have given him 271 Electoral votes and the presidency. Gore, however, requested a recount, which uncovered problems with the ballots and the ways in which they were counted. Gore then requested a hand recount, a laborious process. The recount got underway but was challenged in court by the state of Florida (then under Republican control) and Bush. The challenge soon reached the United States Supreme Court in the case of Bush v. Gore. For the first time in American history, the Supreme Court was faced with deciding a disputed presidential election. By a 5-4 partisan vote (five Republican justices vs. four Democrats), the Court sided with Bush and ordered the recount stopped. At that point, Gore conceded.

Above: George W. Bush as President

Above: Al Gore in 1999.

     In some ways, the election of 2000 resembled earlier disputed elections. The United States had entered an era of renewed hyper-partisanship where partisans increasingly believed that the opposition was a dangerous “enemy” whose ideas threatened the nation. Partisanship had been brought to a fever pitch by Congressional Republicans’ attempt to impeach and remove the previous President, Democrat William J. Clinton. The election was razor close. There were accusations of ballot tampering and election-day shenanigans. And the ultimate loser, Gore, helped dissipate partisan rancor on his side by accepting defeat, as John Adams had done in 1800 and Samuel J. Tilden in 1876.

     But 2000 also differed from previous disputed elections in three important ways. First, there were no threats of violence, riots, or civil war. And second, there was no compromise, no deal to resolve the dispute where each side could claim at least a partial victory. Because the Constitution did not and does not provide a mechanism for resolving disputed elections, the presidential elections of 1800 and 1876 had been resolved when the two sides had bargained compromises. In 1800, Jefferson got to be President, but certain Federalist programs and officeholders were left in place. In 1876, Hayes became President, but Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction. We can argue about whether or not the deals of 1800 and 1876 were “good” or “bad,” but we have to acknowledge that they gave each side something that it really wanted. The compromises established the principle that if a party won the presidency in a close election where the vote count was in doubt, it needed to behave in a conciliatory way towards the other party, to look for compromise rather than escalate partisan conflicts. But the 2000 election dispute did not end in a compromise. Republicans did not have to give up anything to achieve their victory. There was no need for them to be conciliatory.

     The third way in which the 2000 election differed from other disputed elections was that it was decided by the Supreme Court, and by a partisan vote. Before 2000, the Supreme Court had endeavored to stay out of presidential elections. Now, however, it was clear to leaders of both parties that close elections could, in the future, be decided by the Court, and that there was a good chance that the Court would rule on a party-line vote, as it had in Bush v. Gore. Having a safe partisan majority on the Court – with justices that could be trusted to vote for their party’s interest – could be a key to winning close elections. In a hyper-partisan era where presidential elections were expected often to be close, controlling the Court became of paramount importance. The Court became increasingly politicized. And parties that controlled the Court have more incentive to dispute close elections.

Conclusion

    It is possible to reach some conclusions about the history of disputed Presidential elections in the United States, based on the 1800, 1824, 1860, 1876, 1960, and 2000 elections. Four of the six elections (1800, 1860, 1876, and 2000) occurred during eras of hyper-partisanship, when partisan feelings were unusually high. Such hyper-partisanship led members of the two major parties to demonize each other. Viewing opponents as dangerous radicals justified taking extreme measures to prevent them from coming to power, including disputing the outcomes of elections. Four of the six elections (1800, 1876, 1960, and 2000) were extremely close, and a fifth (1824), while not as close, nevertheless had to be settled by the House of Representatives because there were more than two major candidates. And even 1860, although not especially close in the Electoral College, saw the winning candidate receive less than 40% of the popular vote. The combination of hyper-partisanship and close elections created political conditions that were ripe for disputed elections. In the worst-case scenario, hyper-partisanship degenerated into wild conspiracy theories. Different disputed elections were resolved in different ways, and the outcome was sometimes tragic. In the worst case, 1860, the disputed election led to civil war. In another case, 1824, the result was the the legitimacy of the winning candidate — John Quincy Adams — was severely undermined. But disputed elections can delegitimize more than a Presidential administration — they can lead to a public loss of faith in republican and democratic government. Lincoln thought secession undermined not just the Union but republican government generally, a point he made in the Gettysburg Address, when he maintained that the South’s failure to accept the results of the 1860 election could result in “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” perishing from the earth. Disputed elections can also lead to unanticipated political realignments, as happened in 1824. Two of the six disputed presidential elections (1800 and 1876) were settled by extra-constitutional compromises, and while the compromise in 1800 that made Jefferson President was a good one, the compromise in 1876 that made Hayes President in return for a return to white supremacy in the South was a terrible deal for African Americans. In only one case (2000) was the dispute resolved by the Supreme Court, but in a party-line 5-4 vote that threatened to politicize the Court. In four cases (1800, 1876, 1960, and 2000), losing candidates deescalated the crisis by conceding the election and — just as important — not spending the next four years sniping at the winner. (It is, perhaps, unfair to include 1960 in this category: after all, Nixon did try to “get credit” for his concession by continuing to point out that he thought that he had been robbed.) Credit should go, though, to John Adams, who refused Federalist plans to keep him in the Presidency by stalling a resolution to the 1800 election, and to Al Gore, who stepped back from partisan politics and declined to openly criticize President George W. Bush. Indeed, the decisions of Adams, Tilden, Gore, and perhaps Nixon to deescalate and concede were keys to peaceful resolutions.

     Does the history of disputed elections provide guidance for 2020, when one of the candidates – Republican incumbent Donald J. Trump – has threatened to dispute any result in which he does not win? Would such a dispute be likely to end in a compromise, or in a partisan Supreme Court verdict? How likely are riots, unrest, or civil war? We can look at the conditions under which election disputes have been peacefully resolved – either the losing candidate accepts defeat, or some sort of compromise is reached between the two parties, or both. Reaching the compromise has not always involved the candidates – party leaders can step in and work out the deals and bargains that prevent violence and tumult. Could a compromise, deal, or bargain be reached in 2020, if necessary? If so, what would it be? Or does the ability to appeal to the Supreme Court make compromise unlikely?

Bibliography

John Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Edward B. Foley, Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Michael F. Holt, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (University of Kansas Press, 2017).

Lynn Hudson Parson, The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Charles G. Sellers, Jr., “Jackson Men with Feet of Clay,” American Historical Review, v. 62, no. 3, (April 1957), pp. 537-551.

Peter T. Zarella, “’Crowbar Governor’ Played Key Part in Connecticut History,” Journal Inquirer, 27 July 2008, updated 6 March 2013, https://www.journalinquirer.com/living/crowbar-governor-played-key-part-in-connecticut-history/article_05c8c18b-85d0-5902-aab1-94c21b0cdb41.html.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

I am thinking a lot lately about civil wars and divisions within nations. One reason for this is that my freshman United States History classes at Eastern Connecticut State University and the University of Connecticut have been examining — this year via COVID-created distance learning — the causes of the American Civil War (1861-65). But the fact that today’s American body politic is also so deeply divided has added an additional urgency to their study. The students have all written essays (which they have just submitted to me online) where they discuss the two leading schools of thought among historians about what caused the Civil War. The so-called “fundamentalist” historians see secession and the Civil War as the inevitable result of a long-term process (beginning perhaps during the Revolutionary War) in which Northern and Southern society and culture grew increasingly further and further apart from each other, with slavery as by far and away the most important “wedge issue,” until by 1860 the United States was essentially two countries, not one, trapped together in a Union that served neither fully. The so-called “revisionist” historians, however, see secession and the Civil War as essentially a short-term failure of political leadership in the 1850s, as an inept generation of politicians (Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Preston Brooks, Jefferson Davis, and others) who, faced with the problem of slavery, were unable to come up with the kind of broadly acceptable compromises that leaders in previous generations had found — compromises like the Constitution of 1787-88 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The revisionists view the problem as having been short-term and primarily political, and blame the politicians for their failure. The fundamentalists see the problem as long-term and primarily social, and thus blame society as a whole. When deciding which of these schools of thought makes the most sense to them, I challenge students to think about it by asking questions. Was the Civil War (or secession without war, if that were possible) inevitable, as the fundamentalists believe? Should we ever look at war or secession as inevitable? If, as the revisionists believe, with the right leadership compromise is always possible, what compromise would have held the Union together without also prolonging slavery? Would such a compromise have been justifiable?

I don’t tell them — until after they have written their essays — what Abraham Lincoln thought, for not surprisingly he had strong views on the subject. Lincoln’s own understanding on slavery, secession, and the Civil War changed over time, as he responded to the whirl of secession, war, emancipation, and suffering. By the time he embarked on his second term in office in March 1865, Lincoln had come to view the Civil War in biblical terms, as God’s just punishment of America for the terrible sin of slavery, a sin in which not just the South but the entire nation was complicit. We know this from his Second Inaugural Address, one of the most remarkable Presidential speeches ever given. And perhaps also the greatest. It is a speech worth examining.

Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address before a large crowd of supporters — most of them Northern Republicans — in March of 1865 immediately after he took the oath of office for his second Presidential term. The photo above is from the Library of Congress, and it shows Lincoln speaking from a podium in front of the Capitol, surrounded by legions of supporters, most of whom probably expected a rousing partisan speech. Partisanship was not, as it turned out, on the President’s mind that day. Caught up in morbid thoughts of his own mortality (Lincoln suffered from clinical depression, and had frequent premonitions of his own death), Lincoln sought, for what he feared might be the final time, to explain to the country what he thought the war had been about. And he did it in his own unique way.

Historians often say that the Second Inaugural Address is unlike any other Presidential speech. For one thing, it is short, only a few paragraphs. It is a bit longer than Lincoln’s more famous Gettysburg Address, but not by much. Another thing that makes it different from most Presidential speeches is that, also like the Gettysburg Address, it is more poetry than prose. It is sometimes maintained by modern Presidents (President Obama being one) that Presidents should campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. Lincoln, however, did just the opposite. His campaign oratory was generally quite prosey — a combination of humor and logical argumentation, as with the famous debates with Stephen Douglas, or the Address at Cooper Union, which took the form of a well-argued (and brilliant) legal brief. Yet the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, both delivered while he was President, are manifestly poetical. That Lincoln would sometimes turn to poetry when he had something especially important to say is not hard to understand. Growing up on the frontier, he had had access to only a few books, but those books included the King James Version of the Bible and several volumes of British poetry, which he had read over and over, until the cadences of poetry ever after ran through his head. Poetry communicates big thoughts in just a few words, but those words have to be the right words, words that are capable of evoking strong emotions. In Lincoln’s mind, truth was spoken in poetry.

A final reason that the Second Inaugural Address is different is that it was overwhelmingly honest. Lincoln answered the question of what caused the Civil War with something his supporters did not want to hear. We caused it, Lincoln said. We Americans. All of us, collectively, as a nation. The war was caused by slavery, and we are all responsible for slavery. To be clear, Lincoln did not mean that all Americans were guilty individually. African Americans, for example, were obviously blameless. Rather, he was saying that we were all responsible as a nation. If America is our country, then we as Americans are responsible for what it does, and for paying the price if what it does is wrong, regardless of what each of us did as individuals. If we want to claim the benefits of citizenship — the Bill of Rights, republican government — then we have own up to the responsibilities. Hundreds of African American soldiers had died in combat fighting for their country, although not one of them was individually responsible for slavery, which Lincoln believed was the cause of the war.  (The illustration below shows African American soldiers marching at the inauguration.)

So, here is the text of the Address, with some commentary:

Fellow countrymen: at this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then, a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is I trust reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

This first paragraph was just an introduction. In it, Lincoln tells he audience that he will be making only a short speech. Everyone knows how the War is progressing. The Union is winning, and Lincoln hopes the struggle will end soon.

Then, in the second paragraph, Lincoln switches gradually from prose to poetry.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago [meaning when he delivered his First Inaugural Address, in 1861, before the war began] all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it ~ all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place devoted altogether to saving the Union without war [in 1861, Lincoln had offered the South a desperate compromise — a Devil’s bargain, if you will — that if the South remained in the Union, slavery would be protected and maintained in the slave states] insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war ~ seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

In the second paragraph, Lincoln noted that, four years earlier when he gave his First Inaugural Address, everyone was worried that there might be a civil war, but everyone also hoped that it might somehow have been avoided. Lincoln argues that his goal had been to save the Union and prevent secession without fighting a war. Secessionists, he argues, had hoped to secede without having to fight a war. But the secessionists were willing to fight a war in order to get what they wanted, and Lincoln would go to war if it were the only way to save the Union. And so, as he says, “the war came.”

Then, in the third paragraph — the meat of the Address — Lincoln explains what had caused things to reach a situation where war had been the only option. And he does it with the powerful cadences of biblical poetry, the language of Truth.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the union but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. [Here Lincoln does not mean that the slaves themselves were a “powerful interest,” which would have been ludicrous. He means that slavery as an institution — and the slave owners and their allies who protected it — was a powerful interest. Lincoln is using a term from the 1850s, when many Northerners (including Lincoln himself) had referred to a “slave conspiracy” — meaning a conspiracy of those who benefited from slavery — not only to preserve slavery in the South (which Lincoln himself had accepted) but also to expand it into the North and West (which Lincoln had always opposed).] All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. [This is straightforward: slavery was the cause of the war.] To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict [i.e., slavery] might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. [Here Lincoln admits that he and most of his supporters had not originally intended to end slavery in the South, but had been willing to accept its continued presence there, if that was what it cost to keep the Union together. Thus he admits his own guilt — and that of his fellow Republicans — for being willing to pursue “an easier triumph,” to continue the sin of slavery if doing so would preserve the Union without war.]  Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. [Here Lincoln expresses his belief that Southerners and Northerners were culturally one people, not two, and that each side believed that it was in the right, that it represented the true America.] It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. [Here Lincoln both acknowledges the awful sinfulness of slavery, but also acknowledges that both South and North were guilty. Northerners should not “judge” Southerners, as they, too, had sinned, by allowing slavery to continue to exist for so long.] The prayers of both could not be answered ~ that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses, for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him. [This is an incredibly powerful passage. Lincoln comes right out and says that slavery was a sin, and since America as a whole committed the sin, then, God, who punishes sin, has brought the war as His just punishment upon all of America for its collective sinfulness. And that the punishment was a just one.] Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. [This line is clearly poetry.] Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [In this powerful line, Lincoln says that, while he hopes the war will end soon, if God thinks that sinful America has not yet suffered enough, the war might go on. Indeed, it would be just if it continued until every last penny stolen from enslaved people by forcing them into bondage was paid back. It would be just if every drop of blood drawn by generations of cruel treatment was matched with blood shed on the battlefield. The war has been terrible, Lincoln says, but it is no more than we deserve. Indeed, it has been far less than we deserve.]

Having used stern biblical language to establish America’s collective guilt in the sin of slavery, Lincoln suddenly pivots from punishment to forgiveness, for the same God who punishes sins also forgives them.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. [In this last paragraph, Lincoln’s conclusion, he expresses his hope for the future. He has just told an assembled crowd made up mostly of his fellow Northerners that the North as well as South was complicit in the sin of slavery, and thus bears equal responsibility for the Civil War. Both sides have shared in God’s punishment for that sin, for both sides have suffered. But punishment and forgiveness are always linked. Any “just and lasting peace” — and both the “just” and the “lasting” parts were important — must combine “malice toward none” (Northerners should not seek revenge against Southerners for their suffering) and “charity for all” (everyone involved should be treated with compassion and kindness, regardless of which side they were on) with “firmness in the right” (slavery and the mistreatment of African Americans must end). A victorious North should not punish a defeated South. But neither should the injustice of slavery be perpetuated. A righteous peace required “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds” — i.e., healing the rift between North and South — and “car[ing] for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan,” a reference to the soldiers and their families who had already done their penance, but which also could be understood to mean those who had suffered from the sin of slavery in other ways. Lincoln thus called for tempering justice with forgiveness, and also for tempering forgiveness with justice. In a civilized nation, he believed, one is impossible without the other. 

As I think about the rifts, angers, rages, animosities, and seemingly uncompromisable issues that divide us today, I wonder if we will ever find a way to temper justice with charity, and forgiveness with righteousness.

Elementor #4912

Paul Revere’s Ride: A Requiem for Nation?

On a cold April 5, 160 years ago today, a despondent Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the burying ground of the Old North Church in Boston, and the genesis of a poem began to emerge in his mind. “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” would not see print until almost a year later, in the January, 1861, edition of The Atlantic Monthly, shortly after South Carolina seceded from the Union and the Civil War began. For many years, historians derided Longfellow’s famous poem (by some accounts the best known American poem) for its historical inaccuracies, especially when they realized that Longfellow had been aware all the time that the poem was not good history. Such criticisms, however, fail to understand the true meaning of Longfellow’s masterpiece, and are an object lesson in why it is important to evaluate historical literature in terms of the times in which it was written, not the date in which it was set. For “Paul Revere’s Ride” was never about the Revolution. It was instead all about the impending Civil War, a war that Longfellow desperately hoped his country could avoid.

“Paul Revere’s Ride” is set during the American Revolution, in April of 1775. The poem describes Revere waiting with his horse across the Charles River from Boston, in Charlestown, for a signal—lanterns hung in the belfry of the Old North Church – from a “friend” in Boston. When two lanterns appear, Revere learns the route that British troops are using in their raid on Concord, Massachusetts, and sets out to spread the alarm. Until Longfellow published the poem, most Americans were unfamiliar with Revere as a historical character and with his now-famous ride. The poem transformed Revere from a secondary figure of the American Revolution into a national hero.

But the poem is historically inaccurate. Revere did not ride alone, as the poem implies; there were others – William Dawes and Samuel Prescott – also on horseback that night. Revere never made it to Concord, although the poem flatly says that he did; like Dawes, Revere was captured by a Redcoat patrol less than halfway there, and only Prescott succeeded in making the complete journey – not that it mattered, for once word of the raid had been carried to Lexington, Colonial leaders alerted the Minutemen in Concord with a chain of prearranged musket fire. Longfellow refers to Revere’s horse with a masculine pronoun; the horse was a mare. Revere did not row across the Charles River by himself; he was transported by three others. Revere did not refer to the Redcoats as “the British” (before the Revolution, they were all British), but as the “regulars.” What is more, Longfellow was aware of all these inaccuracies. Seemingly, he deliberately fictionalized a historic event in order to transform the little-known Revere into a famous hero. Because the poem begins with the line, “Listen my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” the assumption has arisen that Longfellow, like Mason Weems (who wrote the hagiographic biography of George Washington that contains the fictional cherry tree caper), had primarily sought to make Revere into a hero for the benefit of uplifting the country’s youth.

However, that was not at all what Longfellow was doing. For one thing, despite its opening lines, the poem was not written for children, but for adults. Despite its easy-to-read meter, it is complex, rife with symbolism and imagery. The “children” to whom Longfellow referred were the children of the Revolution, those Americans born and raised in the years after the events of 1775, and who had no personal memories of the struggle for independence. Longfellow makes this clear when he writes, “Hardly a man is now alive, who remembers that famous day and year.” Longfellow was concerned that Americans had forgotten something, and the poem was a reminder of what that something was.

Harvard professor Jill Lepore has defended “Paul Revere’s Ride,” arguing that it should be read primarily as an anti-slavery poem. There is some sense in her argument. Longfellow had been an abolitionist since the 1840s. In the poem, he refers to the British warship in Boston harbor past which Revere rows, the Somerset, symbolically recalling the well known Somerset case, an English trial that had challenged the legality of slavery. Longfellow compares the reflection of the masts of the ship to prison bars. And he was aware that many of those buried in the graveyard of the Old North Church, described in the poem, had been slaves. Certainly, it wouldn’t be surprising that Longfellow had slavery on his mind when he worked on his poem in 1860. Lepore’s essay led one critic to conclude that the poem was essentially a Unionist call to arms, spurring Northerners to march into battle to end slavery.

More likely, however, the poem was intended not as a call to arms, but as a plea for peace. Far from welcoming the Civil War as an opportunity to end the slavery that he abhorred, Longfellow dreaded it. Civil wars are terrible things. Passions inflame. Hatred grows. People die. Nations are torn apart. Longfellow’s own son, Charles, was of military age. Indeed, Charles would join the Union army and suffer life-threatening wounds, something that Longfellow had feared. (His later poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” spoke to his anguish about his son.) The best interpretation of “Paul Revere’s Ride” is that it was not an attempt to canonize Revere, but a cry for reason, a plea for Americans to remember who they were, what they had been – that once, in a time of desperation and need, they had united in a common cause (historians know this was not true, that Americans had been as divided about the Revolution – itself a civil war – as they were about the Civil War, but that was not how Longfellow saw it), that working together they had achieved something glorious, and that events now boded to destroy all that had been accomplished. 

The poem can be divided into four parts. The first part is the introduction, where the narrator announces that he is going to tell a story about something important that has been forgotten, but which needs to be remembered. The second part, which is quite long, describes the events just before Revere begins to ride: the quiet city, peaceful in the moonlight; the stately church, almost empty at night; the stillness of the graveyard; Revere rowing slowly across the Charles River; his confederate placing the two lanterns in the church belfry, “one if by land, and two if by sea.” The chief images in this part of the poem are ominous quiet, shadow, moonlight – a suspenseful calmness that builds tension.

Then, in the third part, the climax of the poem, the tempo explodes. The horse thunders into the darkness, its great strides eating up miles of country road. Iron horseshoes pound the gravel, striking stone after stone, each strike generating a spark, until the sparks become so numerous that they seem to flow through the night as a great river of fire. Longfellow draws our attention to the sparks that, lit that night, generated the flame that would be the Revolution and the new nation. Revere rides from town to town, uttering “a cry of defiance, and not of fear” — the battle cry of a new nation. Revere’s alarm symbolizes Longfellow’s own alarm, his warning about the impending Civil War.

The fourth and last part of the poem is the conclusion, where Longfellow sums up its meaning: that the poem is really not about the Revolution at all, which is why Longfellow felt himself free to fictionalize it; that it is rather about the looming threat of a divisive, horrific Civil War. It is Longfellow’s own “cry of defiance” into the gathering gale of secession, his frantic and ultimately futile urging that Americans must remember what they have in common and work together to solve their problems, as one nation.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

In 1860 Longfellow hoped that Americans would be able to set aside their disagreements and hatreds and find common ground. He was, it turned out, too optimistic. Can we do better, today?

Here is a link to a recording of “Paul Revere’s Ride”: https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search;_ylt=AwrC_BxHTIpe5CMANSoPxQt.;_ylu=X3oDMTByMjB0aG5zBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzYw–?p=paul+revere%27s+ride&fr=yhs-sz-001&hspart=sz&hsimp=yhs-001#id=13&vid=443aa1090e33412e4dfdf862f4a1ed0a&action=view.

Elementor #4686

Samuel Huntington and the Articles of Confederation

I am “distance teaching” during the Coronavirus / COVID-19 Crisis, and so am corresponding with students in writing. That means that I am writing essays on topics that I would normally cover verbally in class. In one class, we were cut off before we able to have a class discussion of the Article of Confederation, the United States’ first constitution. So I wrote this instead. 

March 1 marks the anniversary of the formal ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States. The Articles are on my mind: I am teaching three sections of United States History I (1607-1877) this term (two at Eastern Connecticut State University and one at the University of Connecticut), and we have been discussing the American Revolution, including the Articles. The Articles were adopted by the Continental Congress on 15 November 1777, but they technically did not become official until 1 March 1781, when they had been ratified by all thirteen states. Nevertheless, the Continental Congress acted as if they were in effect immediately following adoption, making the Articles the de facto constitution from 1777 until 4 March 1789, when they were replaced by the present Constitution, a period of more than eleven years. The Articles were a radical republican document, providing for an extremely decentralized government in which most power was placed in the states. Still, the Confederation (central) government did have some powers, including the sole authority to conduct diplomacy, enter into treaties, declare war, and maintain an army and navy. The Confederation government had only one branch – a unicameral Congress in which each state had one vote – with no independent executive or judiciary. Although the Articles proclaimed the new United States a “league,” it also made it clear that it was creating a country, not a mere alliance: it created the name “United States of America,” and declared it to be a “perpetual union” – meaning that the individual states could not chose to withdraw, as they could if it were simply an alliance.

The Confederation did have a President, but one that acted only as the presiding officer (chair) of Congress. The President of Congress on the day the Articles were ratified was Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, hence the claim by Conneticutters that Huntington was actually the first President of the United States. Huntington, however, was not the first President of the Continental Congress (which became simply Congress – or the Congress of the Confederation – upon the Articles’ ratification). Three Presidents served even before the November 1, 1777, passage of the Articles by the Continental Congress: Peyton Randolph of Virginia (twice, in 1774 and 1775), Henry Middleton of South Carolina (1774), and John Hancock of Massachusetts (1775-1777). Hancock was President when the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which is why his signature on that document is so large. Henry Laurens of South Carolina became President on November 1, 1777, the same day that Congress passed the Articles, so South Carolinians sometimes claim Laurens as the first President of the United States. (It was the Articles, after all, that established “United States of America” as the name of the new country.) Laurens served through 1778, when he was succeeded first by John Jay of New York (1778-1779), and then by Huntington (1779-1781). Huntington was followed by Thomas McKean of Delaware (1781), John Hanson of Maryland (1781-82), Elias Boudinot of New Jersey (1782-83), Thomas Miflin of Pennsylvania (1783-84), Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (1784-85), John Hancock again (1785-86), Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts (1786-87), Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania (1787), and Cyrus Griffin of Virginia (1788). Marylanders sometimes argue that Hanson was the first President of the United States, as he was the first President to serve a complete one-year term under the Articles.

Should any of these Presidents truly be considered the “first President of the United States”? Yes and no. They did have the title, but none of them held any formal executive authority — although some (like Huntington) did, along with committee chairs, exercise some de facto executive powers during the Revolutionary War, when quick decisions had to be made. But neither should they be forgotten, and Connecticutters are right in remembering Huntington, as Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward did in his daily blog, https://todayincthistory.com/…/march-1-samuel-huntington-b…/.

Here is the language in the Articles of Confederation that established the office of President: “The United States, in Congress assembled, shall have authority to appoint a committee, to sit in the recess of Congress, to be denominated, ‘A Committee of the States,’ and to consist of one delegate from each State; and to appoint such other committees and civil officers as may be necessary for managing the general affairs of the united states under their direction – to appoint one of their number to preside; provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years.”

The Articles is rightly viewed today as a radically republican document, a pronounced contrast to the largely unwritten constitution of British Empire as it existed in the 18th century. While the imperial government was fairly centralized, concentrating much of the political authority into the Cabinet (appointed jointly by the King and the majority in the House of Commons), the Articles created an extremely decentralized government, with political power largely dispersed to the states. While the King and Lords served for life, and Members of Commons served many years between unscheduled elections, under the Articles the President and Delegates to Congress served only one-year terms. Moreover, there was also a strict rotation in office: Presidents, for example, could only serve for one year in a three-year period. Although the Articles gave Congress the authority to levy a head tax (i.e., a tax based on the number of free adult white males living in each state), it was not given any effective means to enforce such a tax, meaning that taxes were in fact voluntary on the states. And without the power to effectively collect taxes, Congress did not really have the power to maintain a standing army in peacetime. Congress also lacked the authority to establish tariffs or regulate commerce, powers also delegated to the states. With the relatively minor exception of admiralty law, the central government lacked any kind of independent judiciary. Military power was also dispersed. The President was not given the powers of commander-in-chief of the Continental Army; instead Congress appointed a separate Commander-in-Chief (understood to be someone with military experience), meaning the President could not command the army to do his bidding. And the states maintained their militias, which could act as state armies, if needed.

It is sometimes tempting today to consider the Articles of Confederation to have established a libertarian form of government. However, many libertarians today root their beliefs in the Positivism of Ayn Rand, a 1950s philosopher. And central to Rand’s philosophy was the idea of the great leader, an especially talented and capable person who rises through his or her merit and abilities and naturally assumes authority. The Articles, however, were constructed in such a way as to prevent such authoritarian great men from coming to power, regardless of their abilities. The Articles may have been libertarian (a word not yet invented in the 1700s) in some senses, but was not a Randian or Positivist libertarianism.

Finally, since the Articles left most political power to the states, it is important to look at the kinds of governments the states had. With the exception of Connecticut, which continued under its old colonial charter, each of the states drafted constitutions of their own. Although each state government was republican, some were moderate and others radical. While some states, like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, extended voting rights to all adult white males, other – Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia among them – only permitted men with property to vote. None of the new states was a democracy, but some were less oligarchical – in other words, more radical – than others.

Therefore, the Articles of Confederation created a government that, on the whole, was more radically republican than either the unwritten constitution of the 18th-century British Empire, or the current American Constitution that replaced it.

Elementor #4582

Revolutions

I have been thinking a lot about revolutions lately. Partly, this is because I am teaching the American Revolution — we got it in before the crononavirus crisis switched us from classroom-based to distance learning — in my three freshman Early United States History classes, two at Eastern Connecticut State University and one at the University of Connecticut. But it is also because my Facebook feed is alive with calls for revolution from many of my virtual colleagues, deeply disillusioned with the world as it is.

I begin my university classes on the Revolution by playing a YouTube clip of the Beattles song “Revolution,” written in 1968 by John Lennon. I was born in 1955, so I experienced the 1960s firsthand. And in 1968, it seemed that revolution was indeed in the air in many parts of the world, including the United States. The 1968 Presidential election was my introduction to American politics, and even though I was only thirteen, I chose up sides and proudly wore a Eugene (not Joe) McCarthy button. I remember the television coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago: the floor fight over which Mississippi delegation to seat (the white supremacist old guard, or the mostly African American Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party contingent, which I rooted for), the gruff face of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and the disappointment of McCarthy’s reform-minded followers when Vice President Hubert Humphrey (whom I would later discover once had been a staunch progressive, and who played a major role in the Senate passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964) secured the nomination. But mostly I remembered the spirited protests outside the convention hall, as legions of young reformers demanded change, and Daley’s Chicago Police Department sought to disperse them with tear gas.

Because the Beatles, like McCarthy, are associated with 1960s/70s youth culture, my students therefore expect Lennon’s song “Revolution” to be pro-revolution. But in fact, it is not. Although Lennon was a strong advocate of social reforms, he nevertheless was afraid of revolutions, afraid that they were too violent, that too many people would be hurt. “Revolution” is actually a plea for gradual change (“evolution”) rather than revolutionary upheaval. The lyrics make Lennon’s feelings clear, but he also went on record as confirming that he intended the song to be pro-reform but anti-revolution.

REVOLUTION

You say you want a revolution. / Well, you know, / We all want to change the world. / … / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.

You say you got a real solution. / Well, you know, / We’d all love to see the plan. / … / But if you want money for people with minds that hate, / All I can tell you, brother, you have to wait.

So, I ask my students, was Lennon right? Are revolutions by definition violent? Is gradual change better? Do revolutions unleash forces that are too destructive, too unexpected, to make them justifiable?

One place to go to begin to address such questions is the work of the historian Clarence Crane Brinton (1898-1968). One of the 20th century’s most important historians, Brinton was a child of Connecticut, born in Winsted. His family moved to Massachusetts when he was young — we can perhaps forgive him that — and he eventually went to Harvard, earned a Ph.D. in history in 1923, remained there to teach, and became a world authority in French History, especially the tumultuous history of the French Revolution. Brinton wondered whether all revolutions were similar, or was each one unique? And if they were similar, in what ways? In 1938 he published his classic Anatomy of Revolution, a comparative analysis of the English, American, French, and Russian Revolutions. Brinton concluded that similarities indeed existed, that all four degenerated into violence, and that three of the four — the American Revolution being the exception — had resulted in dictatorships. Brinton’s book is dated, but it is amazing how many of his insights still hold. Indeed, most historians of revolution continue to follow his broad outline.

(During World War II, Brinton — an accomplished linguist — served as Chief of Research and Analysis of the London office of the O.S.S., the forerunner of the C.I.A.)

According to Brinton, revolutions follow a common pattern. They begin as “revolutions of rising expectations,” with a disgruntled middle class pushing for change. The rich and powerful rarely support revolution, Brinton wrote, because they prosper under the old order. But neither, he argued, are they begun by the most oppressed, most exploited people in society. The downtrodden, he wrote, lack the time or resources to organize revolutions. Instead, it is the middle class — often the upper middle class — that takes the lead. Unlike, the poor or working class, the middle class has the education to produce revolutionary literature. It has the leisure time to debate social improvement. And it holds at least some leadership positions in society. The middle class becomes revolutionary, Brinton believed, when its members, who had expected their lives to get better — that their economic situation would improve as they aged, that they would be respected by the upper classes, that an era of peace and prosperity was at hand — find those expectations dashed. Their disappointment is usually exacerbated by a government crisis of some sort — an argument between king and Parliament over taxes to fight a foreign war, a large debt left by a previous war, or the failure to successfully fight a current war. But the underlying cause is middle-class disappointment that they have less than they believe they deserve. Is it true that all revolutions have been such middle class-led revolutions of rising expectations? Not quite. A good example of a revolution led by the most oppressed people in society is the Haitian Revolution, which was actually a slave revolt. Despite what Brinton thought, revolution can come from the bottom as well as from the middle. But most often he was right; most revolutions do indeed begin with the unmet rising expectations of a disgruntled middle class.

Another aspect of Brinton’s theory of revolutions is that revolutions tend to occur in three stages. They begin with a moderate stage, in which the disgruntled middle class organizes for reform. In the American Revolution, this stage was characterized by the colonial leaders’ attempts to persuade Parliament to repeal various laws they opposed: the Sugar Act (which lowered tariffs on imported molasses), the Proclamation of 1763 (which forbade settlement of the Ohio Valley), the creation of Vice Admiralty Courts (which did not have juries), the Stamp Tax, the Townshend taxes, the Tea Act (which lowered taxes on some teas), the Coercive Acts, the Quartering Act, and the Quebec Act (which established a government for the new colony of Quebec that did not have an elected legislature). Colonial leaders also sought to reshape the structure of the British Empire by giving colonial legislatures more authority to establish colonial laws.

When Parliament and King George III at last refused to grant the reforms colonial leaders sought (Parliament had twice backed down repealing first the Stamp Tax and then the Townshend taxes), the struggle passed from a moderate, reform stage to a radical stage. Convinced that it was not possible to achieve the reforms they sought by working within the system, American leaders resolved instead to overthrow the system. They now espoused independence, a republic rather than a monarchy, and — under the United States’ first constitution, the Articles of Confederation — a radically libertarian form of government that was extremely decentralized, had very short (one year) terms of office, and strict rotation in office. Under the Articles, the new central government had no real executive or judicial branch, could not tax without the states’ consent, and had no practical way to maintain a standing army without the support of all of the states. The radical stage also saw the passage by the Continental Congress of the (probably unintentionally) radically egalitarian Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed all people equal, and averred that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were universal rights. The radical stage also saw the first concerted efforts to end slavery in the northern states.

Indeed, in order to win, it had been necessary for the Patriots (the reformers who now became revolutionaries) to create a broad coalition of about 2/3 of Americans. The coalition included poor white men, free men of color, women, and even enslaved people. And in order to form this coalition, it had been necessary to offer everyone in it something they wanted.

I ask my students to imagine a scene. It is 1776, the British Army has arrived by ship at New York City to seize the port. George Washington and his small, untrained, ragtag army prepares for a desperate defense of the city. Seeking to fire up morale, Washington has the newly enacted Declaration of Independence read to his assembled troops. Imagine this motley army, drawn up. There are the officers, mostly well educated men of wealth, resplendent in their crisp blue uniforms. If Washington himself is horsed, the bridle is held by one of his slaves. Other enslaved men are present. The ordinary soldiers are poor men, most of them lacking uniforms. They include landless whites, free blacks, some Native Americans, and even some enslaved men from New England, promised their freedom in return for their service. And behind the men stands a phalanx of women, so-called camp followers, the nurses, water carriers, and cooks of the army, who themselves will come under fire in battle. As they hear the words, “all men are created equal,” what do those words mean to each of them? Do they dismiss it as just so much talk? Or do they consider it a promise?

Revolutions, Brinton believed, are inherently violent. Men and women fight and die. And revolutions have a great potential to end badly. The English Revolution produced the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, the French Revolution the imperium of Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution the trauma of Lenin and Stalin. And had Brinton in 1938 been able to examine the German Revolution that created the Weimar Republic but culminated in the Nazi Third Reich, or the Chinese Revolution that led to Mao Zedung, he would have found dictators even more the rule. And every revolution, Brinton believed, had its counter revolution — the Restoration of the English monarchy, the monarchical rule of Napoleon followed by the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, and the rule of Stalin not so different from that of the tsars. The counter revolutions did not always produce dictatorships, but they always undermined the revolution’s goals. Eventually, Brinton argued, the moderates find themselves unable to tame the whirlwinds they unleash. First radicals (the left) and then reactionaries (the right) seize power, a political whipsaw that leaves everything in flux. Even in America, which at first seems the exception, the radical Articles of Confederation was ultimately replaced by the more reactionary Constitution, which (contrary to the goals of the radicals) strengthened rather than weakened central government, ensured that the elite would control most branches of government (thus establishing on oligarchy, not a democracy), and protected slavery in the South. Old radicals like Sam Adams went to their graves bemoaning that the true revolution had been co-opted and betrayed, that it was not the radicals but the counter revolutionaries who ended up in power.

More than 80 years ago a Connecticut-born historian began an academic discussion about the meaning of revolutions. Are they always violent? Are they always co-opted? Is there always a counter revolution? Do they always end badly? Historians still wrestle with these questions, just as John Lennon wrestled with them thirty years after Brinton, and more than fifty years before us.

Elementor #4524

Connecticut as a Maker State: The Smith and Winchester Company of South Windham, Part III

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University. He has served on the Boards of Directors of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History and the Connecticut League of History Organizations, and is a member of the Connecticut Coalition for History. He has written public history columns for the CLHO Bulletin and the Willimantic Chronicle. 

This blog concludes our examination of A Century of Pioneering in the Paper Industry. Published in 1928, the book is a short, illustrated history of the Smith and Winchester Manufacturing Company of South Windham, CT, published by the company itself. The book was a gift to the Museum from Pat Abbe, whose family had once been involved with the Company. Unfortunately, Smith and Winchester, founded in 1828, closed later in the 20th century. Yet for a hundred years it was a pioneer in manufacturing paper, a history worth remembering. Typically, the story of Smith and Winchester began with the invention of new technology in Europe, the transplantation of that technology to Connecticut, the application of Yankee ingenuity and Connecticut waterpower, and proximity to New York and Boston markets. Here are some more excerpts from the book. We pick up in 1876, as a new generation prepares to take over control of the Company, new products were being created, and electricity was being installed.

“A catalog published in 1876 states … that ‘Smith, Winchester & Company, Manufacturers of paper Machinery of Every Description, oldest and most extensive establishment of the kind on this continent,’ had developed ‘Many NEW AND VALUABLE IMPROVEMENTS, making the most complete and extensive variety of machinery produced by any manufactory in our line of business.'”

“Charles Smith’s son, Guilford, was now fast becoming a force in the concern. Many years before, as a young man of nineteen, he had entered the employ of Smith, Winchester & Company as a clerk. Gradually working his way up, he was winning, in his own right, the ability and judgment which would fit him for future leadership.”

“Arthur S. Winchester, son of Harvey Winchester, had also become associated with the concern and had risen to a position of great responsibility in connection with the financial side of the firm’s interests.”

“Nor was progress at Smith, Winchester & Company entirely a matter of personnel. Electricity had come to take the place of flickering lamps, turbines supplanted older types of water wheels. Things moved faster and faster through the world in general and (it seemed) at South Windham in particular.”

“Excellence in one line of work suggests ability in another. When laundry machines came into prominence, Smith, Winchester & Company were called upon to produce the necessary machinery for their work. The result was the Annihilator mangle (the annihilation referring to difficulties, not to clothes). This mangle, first produced in 1891, was an efficient single-cylinder machine for the ironing of flat work.”

“Subsequently this Company produced the Royal Calendar, an improved two-cylinder dryer which, with improvements in design, is now functioning efficiently in laundries throughout the country….”

“On April 6, 1896, the death of Charles Smith, long the guiding genius of the Company, necessitated a readjustment of the concern’s affairs. … The organization, which had been known since 1893 as the Smith & Winchester Company, went forward….”

“In 1899, Smith & Winchester Company absorbed an organization of high standards, devoted to the manufacture of paper cutters and paper-bag-making machinery.”

“In this purchase of the bag-making machine business of the Frank A. Jones Company of New York, Smith & Winchester Company gained control of important patents covering the inventions of the Jones Company’s former owner, Mr. Charles Cranston….”

“In 1905 the Company was incorporated as The Smith & Winchester Manufacturing Company, as at this time Guilford Smith bought out the interest of his partner and assumed control of the Company’s affairs.”

This concludes our examination of the history of Smith & Winchester, a company that flourished in an era when Connecticut was a maker state. There is, however, more in the book, which the Mill Museum will place in its library for access by the general public.

 

Elementor #4516

Connecticut as a Maker State: The Smith and Winchester Company of South Windham, Part II

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University. He has served on the Boards of Directors of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History and the Connecticut League of History Organizations, and is a member of the Connecticut Coalition for History. He has written public history columns for the CLHO Bulletin and the Willimantic Chronicle. 

As I wrote in a previous blog, a package arrived at the Mill Museum recently, containing a historical treasure: a copy of A Century of Pioneering in the Paper Industry. Published in 1928, it is a short, illustrated history of the Smith and Winchester Manufacturing Company of South Windham, CT, published by the company itself. The book was a gift from Pat Abbe, whose family had once been involved with the Company. Unfortunately, Smith and Winchester, founded in 1828, closed later in the 20th century, yet for a hundred years it was a pioneer in manufacturing paper, a history worth remembering. Typically, it begins with the invention of new technology in Europe, the transplantation of that technology to Connecticut, the application of Yankee ingenuity and Connecticut waterpower, and proximity to New York and Boston markets. Here are some more excerpts from the book. We pick up in 1830, shortly after the Company’s founders, James Phelps and George Spafford (the Company was originally called Phelps and Spafford), along with their foreman Charles Smith and a crew of workers, built and sold the first Fourdrinier paper-making machine manufactured in America. They quickly assembled and sold more machines, making technological improvements as they went along.

“A second machine, equally successful, was completed and sold, two years later, to Henry Hudson of East Hartford, and a third, built for the mill of W. I. C. Baldwin, near Bloomfield, N. J., was soon to add to the fame of Phelps and Spafford.”

“In 1830 George Spafford invented the first cylinder dryers, which performed, in a few minutes, work which had previously taken hours, even days. he was was first, too, to devise cutters which divided the continuous web into sheets of uniform size.”

“These improvements made possible the first complete paper-making machine in history, built by young Charles Smith and his men. The machine comprised the Fourdrinier part press rolls, steam-drying cylinder, reels, and cutters, operating as a unit. It was now possible for the pulp to be taken in at one end of the machine, the manufacturing process completed, and the sheets in the desired sizes, ready for finishing or packing, turned out at the other end of the machine.”

Phelps and Spafford thus prospered for several years, manufacturing Fourdrinier machines in their little factory in South Windham, Connecticut. Then, in 1837, disaster struck, in the form of America’s first industrial age depression, the Panic of 1837. Sales dropped, and Phelps and Spafford closed their factory. It would be left to their overseer, Charles Smith, to rescue it.

“Charles Smith, however, had faith in the future of the business, and with Harvey Winchester bought out the concern and reorganized as The Smith, Winchester, & Company. The new concern, guided by the maturing mechanical genius of Charles Smith, .. weathered the financial depression….”

“By 1840 the new company had developed a line of stuff pumps and beaters, and in 1854 obtaining the patents of Joseph Jordan and Thomas Eustice, introduced the Jordan and Eustice refining engine…. This machine has been adopted by the paper industry and is in universal use throughout the country….”

“By 1853 the fame of Smith, Winchester & Company had, literally, spread from Maine to California. Oxen had hauled one of the earliest Smith, Winchester & Company machines to Maine. Shortly after, the gold fever … attracted thousands to … San Francisco … and the Pioneer Paper Mill of the west coast came into being.”

“[A] machine went by boat to the Isthmus of Panama and was shipped on skids across the Isthmus. Then schooners took it to [California].”

“Demand for Smith, Winchester & Company machines grew and grew. they were installed in England, Cuba, Mexico, and South America.”

“[By the time of the Civil War], Charles Smith and Harvey Winchester looked back over the years. their bustling plant was somewhat different from the little schoolhouse where they had begun their enterprise, thirty years before.”

In a future blog, I’ll continue the story of Smith and Winchester into the next generation, continuing the story of how Connecticut became a “maker state.”

Elementor #4476

Connecticut as a Maker State: The Smith and Winchester Company of South Windham, Part I

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University. He has served on the Boards of Directors of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History and the Connecticut League of History Organizations, and is a member of the Connecticut Coalition for History. He has written public history columns for the CLHO Bulletin and the Willimantic Chronicle. 

A package arrived in the mail recently, containing a historical treasure: a copy of A Century of Pioneering in the Paper Industry. Published in 1928, it is a short, illustrated history of the Smith and Winchester Manufacturing Company of South Windham, CT, published by the company itself. The book was a gift from Pat Abbe, whose family had once been involved with the Company. Unfortunately, Smith and Winchester, founded in 1828, closed later in the 20th century. Like so many Connecticut manufacturers, it fell victim to globalization, unable to compete with larger, overseas corporations that hired cheap labor. Yet, for a hundred years, Connecticut was a pioneer in manufacturing paper, a history worth remembering. Typically, it begins with the invention of new technology in Europe, the transplantation of that technology to Connecticut, the application of Yankee ingenuity and Connecticut waterpower, and proximity to New York and Boston markets. Here are some excerpts from the book.

 

“The greatest discovery in the history of paper making … was in 1799, at the mill of St. Leger Didot at Essonnes, France, that an ingeniuous workman, Nicolas Louis Robert, made the first successful attempt to produce paper in an endless web, instead of making it a sheet at a time.”

“Messrs. Henry & Sealy Fourdrinier, wealthy stationers and paper manufacturers of London, purchased the patents of the machine, and it was because of their improvements and extensive manufacture (the first machine was made in 1804) that this type of machine has come to bear their name.”

“The first Fourdrinier to come to America was imported in December, 1827, by one Joseph Pickering. It was to be set up the next month in his shops at North Windham, Conn., under the direction of George Spafford of South Windham, know throughout the countryside as a machinist ‘of great mechanical insight.'”

“George Spafford arrived at the Pickering Mills. The tedious task of making necessary changes in the shop’s layout was at last complete. Then came the fascinating work of setting up the new machine and putting it into operation. And, for Spafford, this great machine from across the sea was a revelation — putting it into action was an adventure.”

“It was with regret that Spafford left the Pickering Mills.”

“And as he drove slowly back to Windham through the winter’s night, looking up at the clear stars through the black umbrage of the drooping Connecticut elms, he was pondering the things he had seen, and wondering.”

“‘It is a wonderful machine, this Fourdrinier,’ thought Spafford. ‘It is certain to supersede the inadequate paper-making process now in use. yet few people will import these machines. The distance is too great. The business arrangements are too difficult to establish.'”

“‘But if a similar machine — a better machine, were made in America….'”

“Thought was turned into action. Spafford, with an experienced paper-mill builder, James Phelps, formed the firm of Phelps & Spafford to build, in America, an improved Fourdrinier machine. Associated with them, and in charge of their working force, was Charles Smith, a boy of nineteen, whose mechanical talent and executive ability had already marked him for leadership in the great task which was to be undertaken.”

“There was, in South Windham, a considerable stream of water, falling rapidly over the ledges of a rocky glen. Near this stream a site was selected, and an old building, originally a country schoolhouse, was moved from its foundation to a position below a small dam erected to conserve the flow of the stream. Here was installed a single crude power lathe which, with hand tools, formed the total of the shop’s equipment.”

“And here, in secrecy, beneath the flickering light of fish-oil lamps, the first Fourdrinier in America was designed and built. Measurements of parts were made with simple calipers. Drawings, made on smoothed pine boards, were pland away, as soon as the pattern was complete, that there might be room on the same board for the next drawing.”

“Cold rolled steel was unknown. Every shaft had to be forged and turned on the lathe.”

“Castings formed a momentous problem. The nearest foundry of any size was at Stafford, some twenty miles away, and there the patterns were cast and then hauled, by ox team, back to South Windham.”

“But ingenuity triumphed over obstacles, and the completed machine proved an excellent performer, a vast improvement over the original Fourdrinier. It was sold to Amos D. Hunnard and put into successful operation in May, 1829, at his mill at Norwich Falls, Conn., a plant famous as the first paper mill in Connecticut, founded in Colonial days by the distinguished Christopher Leffingwell.”

For how this small operation evolved into the successful Smith and Winchester Company, see the next installment of the Mill Museum’s blog.

Charlotte Waldo, Connecticut’s First Woman Mail Carrier

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University. He has served on the Boards of Directors of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History and the Connecticut League of History Organizations, and is a member of the Connecticut Coalition for History. He has written public history columns for the CLHO Bulletin and the Willimantic Chronicle. 

One of the great things about working at a history museum is that people are always showing (or giving) you artifacts, stories, and information. You never stop learning. A friend from Ashford, CT, recently gave me a faded photocopy of a tattered newspaper clipping from an 1894 issue of the Hartford Times. It was a story about Charlotte Waldo,  at the time the only woman mail carrier in Connecticut. In a one-horse mail coach, Waldo drove the route from Ashford to Bolton Notch, delivering mail sacks to post offices along the way. I transcribed the article and it is reprinted below.

In the 19th century, most Americans regarded carrying and delivering the mail — and driving a stage coach — as masculine activities not suited to women. The Post Office did not appoint any female postmasters until the mid-1800s, and then only grudgingly and under the idea that running a small rural post office was mostly sedentary work acceptable for middle-class women. (Nineteenth-century working class women did all sorts of hard physical labor, but were not regarded as “ladies.”) Even then, in 1900 women made up only 10% of American postmasters. Carrying the mail and driving horses generally was viewed as too strenuous, unseemly, or dangerous for “ladies.” (Rural post offices were often located in taverns, off limits to middle-class women.) It was only in the 1880s that Susanna Brunner in New York and Minnie Westerman in Oregon became the first female mail carriers, joined in 1895 by Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, the first African American woman mail carrier. In 1899 there were 11 woman mail carriers, most of them emergency substitutes for a male relative. Like Waldo, they delivered the mail to rural post offices, not door-to-door. Ethel Hill is usually credited with becoming the first woman mail carrier in her own right, in 1899, but Waldo seems to have come earlier. Women were not allowed to deliver mail in urban areas until 1917. Folks in Canterbury, CT, claim that Frances Vadavik was Connecticut’s first woman mail carrier, beginning in 1942. But if the story in the Hartford Times is correct, Waldo was actually first, delivering mail to rural post offices (but not to homes) as early as 1894.

The anonymous reporter (probably a man) who wrote about Waldo claimed to be a supporter of women’s rights and wanted to portray her as both competent and feminine. Although reporting that Waldo had some “masculine” traits, the author decided that it was her femininity that was her greatest strength. Waldo was tough, courageous, determined, and wore men’s shoes — traits normally ascribed primarily to men in the 1890s — but also empathetic and a non-drinker, supposedly feminine attributes that made her stand out. She didn’t drink while driving. She took good care of her horses. She stopped and broke up a fight between two men. And she wore a dress. 

Unfortunately, the article also demonstrates the pervasive racism of the era. The author quotes Waldo using a racial slur, common at the time. Both Waldo and the author regarded African Americans as “other,” fundamentally different from whites — as indeed, the middle class in the 1890s generally considered itself fundamentally different from the working class and immigrants.

Charlotte Waldo was a real person, not the figment of a log-ago newspaper reporter’s imagination. She is buried in the North Ashford, CT, Cemetery. Her stone says she was born June 9, 1849, and died March 9, 1910. There are no other Waldos buried in that cemetery. I invite you read the entire article below, to see what you think about Waldo — and about rural Connecticut in the 1890s. I used ellipses […] where the original clipping was so tattered that the text was unreadable. I edited out the racial epithet, but indicated its location in the text.

ONLY WOMAN MAIL CARRIER

Manages the Worst Route in the State

It Lies Between Ashford and Bolton

On Time Without Regard to Weather

Charlotte Waldo Faithfully Performs the Duties of Several Kinds of Mail Service. – A Resolute Woman, “Not Afraid of Any Man Living.”

Correspondence of the Hartford Times.

Rockville, August 14, 1894

Women have taken up almost every kind of occupation and trade formerly pursued exclusively by the sterner sex, but probably for novelty as well as for a total apparent unfitness, the woman stage-driver leads the van. It was while I was spending my vacation this summer away from all thought of “assignments” or “scoops,” drinking in the pure, invigorating air which the healthy town of Willington is so noted for, that I first heard of the woman stage-driver as a reality, and not as the heroine of fiction, existing in some imaginary “town of C—–“ in a far-away western State. I immediately made up my mind that the route on my return to the city should take in a trip on this stage with this woman driver. An early ride of a few […] brought me to the […] Town of Ashford, in Windham County […] the post-office, from which […] starts, there is a sturdy old […] under whose spreading branches Washington and his staff stopped to eat their dinner while on a hurried journey to Boston. The gallant General Lyons of Revolutionary fame, and his tired Continentals, also camped out over night on this spot, and in an ancient dwelling-house near by, there is a small, old-fashioned pane of glass of a deep greenish tinge bearing some initials which the wife of General Lyons is said to have scratched on there with her diamond ring.

Shortly before 6 the woman driver, Charlotte Waldo, drove up in a carriage and went into the office, appearing a minute later with a United States mail pouch on her arm. She was of medium height, and although not fleshy, her entire build suggested great strength and endurance. Her face and hands were as red as a boiled lobster, from the exposure to all kinds of weather. Her hair cut short and parted in the middle, huge black eye-goggles, a black sailor hat with a white ribbon and a huge bow much the worse for wear, a pair of large men’s shoes upon her feet, and the resolved, determined look on her face, all gave her a decidedly masculine appearance as she stood there with one hand on the carriage, merely to get in, and the other holding the mail bag. But the dress, a gingham with a huge plaid, made plain and loose, instantly declared her sex. Starting promptly at 6, we had gone probably about a quarter of a mile when a came out of a house and handed her a […] place, where he was burned to a crisp.

“You see that old barn there?” my companion asked suddenly, after a climb of a particularly long hill made up of a series of little steep pitches. I nodded in the affirmative as I gazed at the building, a little low shed, with the roof terribly sagged and full of great holes, and the sides braced up together by means of fence rails placed against them and a general suggestion about the entire structure of the old one-horse shay on the morning of its dissolution. “Well, the man that owns it lives in that house there,” nodding towards a small three-room house in a bad state of repair. “He’s a hermit, and he ought to be complained of to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. You see, he keeps a cow in that old shed and in the winter the poor thing suffers terribly from the cold. The building becomes half filled with snow at every snow-storm and twice last winter it nearly blew over and had to be pushed to place and braced up. Then, what little hay it holds, besides the cow, becomes soaked with every rain and is not fit to eat. When that is gone, he takes a wheelbarrow and goes up on that side hill and wheels down those tumbles, one by one, and feeds her. These lie out, with no protection from the weather all winter.” With this final outburst my entertainer relapsed into silence, having shown her tender regard for animals.

After sorting the mail at North Coventry, where we stopped long enough to get a light lunch at the hotel, we pushed on. Taking out her watch at the top of the hill, she informed me we were just a minute ahead of time. From the top of this hill it was straight down for quite a distance; then from the bottom there was a climb up a hill of apparently the same height and grade, the road being perfectly straight and the two hills resembling the sides of a broad-topped V. A country grocer’s team was lazily crawling up the last pitch on the summit of the opposite hill, and I was asked to guess the distance between our team and that. “A quarter of a mile,” suggested I, thinking that I had probably greatly overrated it. “Just one mile,” said she with a triumphant smile at my failure to anywhere near approximate the distance. It seemed almost incredible at first, the clear morning air making the team appear so near that I fancied I heard it rattle as it moved slowly along over the stony road. But the time that it took us to reach the top of the hill proved to me that it must be fully a mile. On this hill she pointed out the spot where, as she tersely expressed it, she “stopped a couple of [here the author quotes the driver as using a familiar racial epithet] from fighting.” I remembered then the account I had seen in a paper about the affair. One of the colored persons, becoming partially intoxicated, had called upon the other, a very steady old gentleman owning a small farm on the hill, and for a slight grievance had knocked him down and beat him unmercifully, bruising and cutting his head and reducing him to a state on insensibility, when a woman appeared on the scene and drove the intoxicated man away and had the injured man cared for. The assailant was afterwards arrested and committed to jail. The paper had spoken in high terms of the brave act of the woman. [….]

[…] me, every man driver, after he has been on a little while, takes to drink and ultimately becomes unfit for the position, while she never takes liquor in any form. Her calling, to say the least, is most eccentric, and uncommon, and one that very few women would have the rigid constitution and courageous determination to carry out. Her route lies over the old turnpike between Boston and Hartford, the larger part of it lying in the Bolton Mountain region and being made up almost entirely of long, steep hills with very few level stretches. Every other day she changes horses, and the good care she takes of them keeps them looking in good shape, in spite of the many miles of hills which they climb […] a week.

At Quarryville, the last sorting of the mail took place, and we drove along past the lower end of Bolton reservoir, and by the old burying ground with many of its quaint old tomb stones bearing dates back into the beginning of the seventeenth century. Bolton Notch, the end of our journey, was reached at 9:25, after having traversed across six towns and covering a portion of Windham county, the entire distance across Tolland county, and had we covered three miles more, we should have been in Hartford county. As the train came along three minutes later, I left the woman driver, after having had a most interesting ride with her. Although her exterior was rough and masculine in appearance, there was the woman there just the same, and although to the casual observer she appeared unfeminine in the extreme, in talking of the ills of human beings and the abuses to which the brute creation are subjected, she displayed a rare sympathy and depth of feeling which surprised me. Disappointed in early life, knocked about by the world ever since, and with no one to care what becomes of her, she has become hardened in manner and appearance, and has learned better than to wear her heart on her sleeve. But at heart, pure and simple, she is a woman still. As the train pulled out, just before entering the Notch, standing on the rear platform of the last car, I caught a last glimpse of her as she sat bent over the reins guiding her horse as he lazily moved up to the barn where she would take care of him and make her preparations to return in a short time over the long lonely road. With the utmost feelings of respect toward the woman and her occupation, I became a convert to Woman’s Rights on the spot, and, turning, I entered the car.

COMMENT From Drew:

This article can be recovered from the Ashford Historical Society. I had the Barbara Metsack from Historical Society talk about this recently at my installation on May 31st, 2019 as the Postmaster of Ashford. There surprisingly a lot of history in that town. Awesome to see this story shared.