Well, we have survived another intense presidential election — my second since moving here in 2009 and voting in the 2012 election having achieved citizenship just weeks before — and my goodness was it an experience (or as my husband would say “boy, was it was a doozy”).
At the time of writing, the results of this election are not known and I never comment in print on political views. It all made me wonder, however, if this election represented a new high (or low) in terms of drama, divisiveness, hard feelings and claims of media bias...didn’t it?
Well, no. America has a long history of all these and more.
For instance, did you know that the outcome of a presidential election once led to a sitting vice president challenging a rival and former cabinet secretary to a duel with pistols at dawn? And, yes, he killed him.
Early in the country’s history, the election rules were different: the candidate with the most electoral votes became president, and second highest number of votes became vice president. The election in 1800 resulted in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, a senator from New York, and it was up to Congress to decide. They chose Thomas Jefferson — one of my personal heroes — in part due to Alexander Hamilton’s support. Having previously served as the first Secretary of Treasury and a signatory to the Constitution, Hamilton’s opinion carried a lot of weight.
The animosity between Burr and Hamilton grew and they engaged in a very public feud. Finally, emotions got so high that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, a practice that was being outlawed in a number of states but had not yet completely disappeared. On July 11, 1804, they left Manhattan by separate boats, arrived on the banks of nearby Weehawken, N.J., and duelled. Hamilton fired first and aimed well above Burr’s head, wasting his first shot in a symbolic gesture called a “delope,” probably to indicate that he was not afraid to duel but did not believe the dispute worth killing his opponent. Burr, on the other hand, also relied on a basic premise of the well-known rules of duelling, namely that once fired upon, you may shoot back with deadly intent. He shot Hamilton, who died the next day. Burr was tried for murder, but ultimately the charges were dismissed or acquitted.
A more recent example of wild and unpredictable presidential race took place a few years after the end of WWII. In 1948, incumbent Harry Truman was trailing in every opinion poll. A Gallup poll taken a couple of weeks before the election showed him trailing by a decisive 5 percent to challenger Thomas Dewey, governor of New York. Truman’s popularity in ending WWII by making the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945 had been short lived, and the media, pollsters and pundits all seemed to be hard at work trying to demonstrate that he was not fit to continue as president. The Chicago Daily Tribune declared Truman to be a “nincompoop.” There was even a significant “Dump Truman” movement within the Democratic Party, which only dissolved after other candidates fell away or withdrew.
When Truman won the three-way race (South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurman had also run as a “Dixiecrat”), the media and establishment were shocked. The Chicago Daily Tribune had been so surprised that they had already printed their morning edition with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” There is a famous picture you may have seen with a victorious Truman gleefully holding that newspaper the day of his victory.
The anonymous English writer known only by his pen name “Junius” said in the late 1700s that “The right of election is the very essence of the constitution.” I couldn’t agree more.
God bless America!