GLENN: In this series, we're talking about crazy elections. And one of the more crazy elections happened in the 1800s. They were turbulent. It was an amazing century for the United States. The nation was discovering who it was, what it was. It was growing exponentially. It was assimilating tens of millions of new immigrants, and it was expanding. It was discovering, flexing its muscle. It had captured the imagination of the entire world.
But it was also the time when it was finally forced to confront the evil that it didn't end on its inception. The Founders had laid the groundwork. They stopped the importation of slaves, but the ending of slavery itself had to wait for the right leader at the right time in order to see the country safely through to the other side.
That is why the election of 1860 was so critically important. The two-party system at the time was just comprised of the Democrats and the Whigs. And the sitting Democratic president James Buchanan was so unpopular, that he wasn't even brought up by his party to be nominated to run for reelection.
They made the frontrunner, Democratic Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. John Breckenridge, the vice president from Kentucky, he was representing the Southern Democratic Party. John Bell from Tennessee was the constitutional Union Whig Party candidate. And then representing a new 4-year-old Republican Party was an awkward, lanky Abraham Lincoln.
Here's the question I ask: Where there Americans in 1860 that were saying, you know, if you vote for Abraham Lincoln, you're just wasting your vote? Or that a vote for Lincoln is actually a vote for Breckenridge? Because Lincoln was the third party candidate in 1860.
And the country was a mess. Many Southern states were already threatening to secede in the lead-up to the election. And one of the things that was well-known in the South about Lincoln was that he hated slavery. And many in the South, especially the deep South, hated him for it.
At the time, Lincoln had no intention of going to war with the South, if elected. Which in part, won him the Republican nomination. But those in the South, they didn't believe him. Lincoln had an interesting strategy for the campaign which was very different from the plan that Douglas had.
VOICE: Photographs played a vital role in the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th US president.
In the final weeks of the campaign, instead of giving speeches, Lincoln took every available opportunity to pose for photographers and sculptors. Simultaneously, his old rival Stephen Douglas made the critical mistake of hitting the campaign trail.
In the 1800s, a presidential nominee who actively campaigned was ridiculed for seeming so desperate. And this is exactly how the public reacted to the Douglas whirlwind tour. Lincoln was campaigning just as hard, but not by making visits and giving speeches. Instead, by having his photograph show up everywhere in his place.
GLENN: Actively campaigning was seen as desperate in the 1800s. Oh, if we could only get that desperate part of our country back.
A lot of secession talk from the South. Rumors were swirling and scare tactic rhetoric was abundant, that if Lincoln won, there would be secession in war.
But Lincoln and his team ignored that. He carried the North and did well enough elsewhere to win the presidency by a significant margin, taking the popular vote 39.8 percent to 29.5 percent for Douglas and the electoral vote 180 to 72 over Breckenridge.
But by the time Lincoln was inaugurated, six states had already seceded from the Union. Nine more would follow, as well as the bloodiest war in American history.
Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the man born to see America through its most perilous period. In 1875, Ulysses S. Grant, the two-term president of the United States, about to attempt to become America's first three-term president ignoring the tradition set by George Washington to self-limit to two, Grant himself, despite the terrible economy -- in fact, a three-year depression that had left 3 million Americans unemployed and being bogged down in corruption and scandals, Grant was ready to go for the presidency again, as were his advisers.
But then Congress passed a resolution by a vote of 233 to 18 stating that Washington started the two-term tradition to avoid a dictatorship. And apparently, that helped sway the American public as it turned the tide in the thinking and the plans of Ulysses S. Grant.
In the end, he finally decided against running for a third term. That left the election to the eventual Republican nominee, Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York.
After winning the Republican nomination on the seventh ballot, political writer Roy Morris Jr. explained that Hayes...
VOICE: In his acceptance letter to the Republican convention -- nominees didn't appear at the convention in those days -- he promised a return to good honest government, a reform of the civil service system, and an elimination of bribery and corruption in Washington. Compared to the other Republican candidates such as Blaine and Conklin, he was squeaky clean. So was his wife, a tireless temperance crusader known as Lemonade Lucy, for her refusal to serve alcoholic beverages at official state functions.
GLENN: Tilden, on the other hand, presented by newspapermen at the time in a rather unusual way.
VOICE: He was a lifelong bachelor. And during the ensuing campaign, there were several cartoons ran showing him wearing a dress. Which was a not so subtle suggestion that he was gay.
GLENN: Even with the insinuation of Tilden being gay -- keeping in mind this is 1876 and a very different mindset -- still Samuel Tilden won the popular vote for presidency 51-48. Oh, we were such haters. He also won the electoral college vote, 184-165, with 20 electoral votes unresolved. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Yeah, you heard me right. I did just say that: Sam Tilden won both the popular and electoral vote. But we don't have President Sam Tilden anywhere. What happened?
Well, two days before inauguration day, March 2nd, 1877, facing a constitutional crisis the likes of which the nation had never experienced, Congress created a temporary group called the Electoral Commission, which superseded the electoral college. You want to talk about an election being stolen: They wanted to determine what to do with the 20 unresolved, uncommitted electoral votes.
The Democrats threatened to filibuster through Inauguration Day, in order just to get their nominee the necessary votes. But instead, a deal was struck with the Democrats. By the electoral commission, they would accept Republican Rutherford Hayes as president. And in exchange, they would withdraw the northern occupation troops from the South.
This turned out to be a really bad thing because it ended reconstruction, enabled the South to reenact all the laws that were discriminatory against the blacks. So, yes, once again, the Democrats and all the weasely politicians in Washington made a deal that somehow worked out for them, but not so much for the American people.
The 20 unresolved votes all went to Hayes, giving him the closest margin of victory in American history, 185 to 184 electoral votes. It was also the election with the highest percentage of voter turnout in American history. 82 percent. It was also the only time in American history where a candidate received more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but was denied the presidency.
It kind of puts the whole election mess of 2000 into perspective, doesn't it? The elections of 1912, progressive versus progressive. For the first time in American history. And the election of 1948 in the next episode.