The Ones Who…Lost: Part One, 1796-1836

The United States has been privileged to call a number of men (sorry ladies, for now) “President.” As stipulated in the Constitution, written in 1787, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected.” George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Titans of America who shaped the world around them. Yada yada yada.

But what about the men (and sometimes animals) who strove to gain the highest office and lost? What about those campaigns that failed to convince the American public that this one man could lead a nation? Well, with a little help from the Library of Congress, we present a five part series on the candidates who fell short.

1796: Thomas Jefferson

1789 Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
image source: Library of Congress

Wait, you burst out, George Washington was the first President of the United States! And if the Constitution was written in 1787, then why is Thomas Jefferson kicking this thing off nine years later?

Well my friend, Georgey boy has the privilege of being the only president to unanimously be elected by the electoral college. Twice. Being who he was, there was little doubt in the minds of the electors that Washington was the best fit for the job. He rewarded the electors by serving fine Barbados rum at his first inauguration.

After serving two terms, Washington decided it was time to call it quits, leading to the first contested election. Washington’s vice President, John Adams, threw his hat into the ring with the Federalist Party, while Jefferson and ever popular bastard Aaron Burr ran under the currently impossible Democratic-Republican party.

It is important to note that for the 1796 and 1800 elections, normal Americans were not involved in voting. The electoral college was made up of wealthy, educated men from each state. They could not be members of Congress and when the election came around, these men met in their respective states to cast their votes. Thus, the campaigns themselves were limited to wooing these prospective voters.

In the end, Adams won 53% of the vote. Jefferson’s consolation prize was the vice-presidency, though I imagine it was a rather awkward first few weeks for the two of them.

1800: Aaron Burr

1800 Aaron Burr edited

Portrait of Aaron Burr
image credit: Library of Congress

The man who killed Alexander Hamilton and who has a rather grumpy portrait was the second loser for president, this time to resilient Thomas Jefferson. Aaron Burr served as an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and served under Benedict Arnold.

After the war Burr took on a career of law in New York. He believed, rather progressively, in equality of the sexes and mandated that his daughter be educated. She became famous for her education and was killed by pirates (perhaps).

Burr became a member of the New York State Assembly and welded considerable influence. He used the social club Tammany Hall to win the selection of New York Electoral College electors from his own party, much the the chagrin of Andrew Hamilton.

For the 1800 election, Burr was placed on the Democratic-Rupublican ballot with Jefferson. When the votes were counted, there was a 73-73 vote tie. Following some wrangling, Jefferson was voted into office after 36 tie-breaking ballots cast by the House of Representatives.

Burr became vice president, but Jefferson never trusted the man. However, as President of the Senate, Burr established many principles that remain today, such as judicial independence.

1804 and 1808: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

1804 Chales Pinckney

Portrait of Charles Pinckney
image credit: Library of Congress

Born in South Carolina in 1746, Charles Pinckney moved to England at the age of seven. His father was a wealthy man who served as a lobbyist for the colony’s interests. For the next twenty years, Pinckney attended school in England, studied law in Oxford, chemistry and botany in France, and even attended a French military school.

Surprisingly enough, after returning from England to South Carolina, Pinckney sided with the American revolutionaries and served as a captain in the army. He was a prisoner of war for two years and was instrumental in keeping the spirits of fellow captives high.

After the war, Pinckney served as ambassador to France, where he became one of the central figures in the XYZ Affair. Pinckney refused to pay the bribes demanded by French agents, leading to the short lived and oddly named Quasi-War.

Due to his fame and skill set, Pinckney was nominated for candidate for president by the Federalist party. Sadly for him, his opponent in 1804 was Thomas Jefferson, who had recently completed the Louisiana Purchase and was enjoying enormous popularity. He won only 27% of the vote.

In 1808, Pinckney ran again for the Federalists, but was defeated this time by James Madison.

1812: DeWitt Clinton

1812 DeWitt Clinton

Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
image credit: Library of Congress

The man responsible for the Erie Canal, DeWitt Clinton was defeated in 1812 by James Madison.

Clinton’s uncle was governor of New York and Clinton began his political career servings as secretary for his dear relative. Soon after, in 1798, Clinton was elected to the New York State Senate and quickly moved to US Senate in 1802.

While living in Washington, D.C., which had recently been built, Clinton found his surroundings to be rather unpleasant. He disliked the city so much that he resigned from the Senate and became Mayor of New York City.

In 1812, the Federalists put forward Clinton as candidate against Madison, an intriguing pick as his uncle, the former governor of New York George, had been Madison’s vice president.

By this election the 12th Amendment allowed for the common man (sorry ladies) to vote and influence their Electors. Madison won 50.4% of the popular vote to 47.6% to Clinton. Clinton was undaunted by the loss and served as Governor of New York for eight years, during which he secured funds for the building of the Erie Canal.

1816: Rufus King

1816 Rufus King

Portrait of Rufus King
image credit: Library of Congress

Rufus King was born Scarborough, Massachusetts, which later became part of Maine, and even later hosted a fair that Simon and Garfunkel sang about. His father was a wealthy merchant who endured the wrath of neighbors after the ever-unpopular Stamp Act. Their house was destroyed and barn burned down, but still, the King boys all became patriots.

After the Revolution, King was sent to Philadelphia to be part of the Constitutional Convention and became comrades with Alexander Hamilton. He moved to New York where our friend from above, Governor George Clinton, supported King’s push to be elected to the US Senate.

King served as US Minister to Great Britain from 1796 to 1803 and became a respected politician for his work abroad. For this, he was nominated by the Federalists for president. (They gave up after this election.)

In the 1816 election, King faced James Monroe who had served as Secretary of State and was a favorite of both Jefferson and Madison. King didn’t have a chance. Monroe won in 16 of the 19 states, with an overwhelming 183 to 34 electoral vote differential.

After the failed campaign, King went back to political life in the US Senate, where he was an opponent to the slave trade.

1820 and 1828: John Quincy Adams

Portrait of John Quincy Adams image credit: Library of Congress

Portrait of John Quincy Adams
image credit: Library of Congress

Okay, the 1820 election doesn’t really count. James Monroe ran unopposed as the incumbent and won all but one electoral vote. William Plumber of New Hampshire cast one vote for John Quincy Adams, ensuring that George Washington would be the only unanimously elected president.

Adams must have been slightly taken aback by the singular vote, but by 1820 he had been immersed in politics since his birth in 1767. Adam’s father, John Adams, served as a diplomat in the early years of the nation, so John Quincy spent a great deal of time overseas. He spoke great Dutch and French and dabbled in German and other languages he came across. Back in America he graduated from Harvard in 1787 and began practicing law in 1891.

Washington appointed Adams minister to the Netherlands at the tender age of 26, and collected the minister positions to Portugal, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. The man was the obvious choice to be Secretary of State in 1817.

In 1824, Adams defeated Andrew Jackson for the presidency, even though he did not win the popular vote. More on that election in a bit.

In 1828, running as the incumbent, Adams lost to Jackson in both the popular and electoral vote. After the failed election, Adams worked tirelessly for the rights of slaves. He spoke for four hours during the Amistad Case, arguing that the slaves who rebelled should be freed and allowed to return to Africa. Later Adams spoke, in the face of a gag rule, against slave holders and slave trade.

1824: Henry Clay (also lost in 1832 and 1844), William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson

1824 Henry Clay

Daguerreotype of Henry Clay
image credit: Library of Congress

1824 William Crawford

Portrait of William Crawford
image credit: Library of Congress

1824 Andrew Jackson

Portrait of Andrew Jackson
image credit: Library of Congress













This triumvirate of losers in 1824 were all candidates for the Democratic-Republican party, the Federalists having finally thrown in the towel and given up. After the election, Andrew Jackson’s faction splintered into the Democratic Party while the Whigs arose around John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay.

Henry Clay lost three presidential elections but was greatly admired by Lincoln and considered by many one of the greatest members of the US Senate. He was born into a moderately wealthy slave-holding family in Virginia in 1777 and began practicing law at the age of 22. He was elected into the US Senate at the age of 29, below the required age of 30, but no one seemed to have noticed. In 1811 he was elected to the House of Representatives and was chosen to be Speaker of the House on the first day he was in office. Clay became famous for being a “war hawk” and for passing protectionist tariffs. In 1824, though he lost the election, he managed to transfer his electoral votes to John Quincy Adams, a deal known later as the “corrupt bargain.” In 1832, Clay lost by a substantial margin to Jackson, leading him to create the Whig Party. We’ll get to his 1844 campaign in the next edition.

William Crawford was born in 1772. His ancestor John Crawford died while taking part in Bacon’s Rebellion. By the age of 31 Crawford was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. He served as US minister to France, Secretary of War, and Secretary of the Treasury. Though he was a front-runner for 1824 election, he suffered a stroke due to medication prescribed by an incompetent doctor and slipped to third in the election.

Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory, Expeller of Indians, Fatal Dueler, Hater of the National Bank, Supporter of Slavery. Also winner of the popular vote in 1824 but one of the many who lost the election.

1836: William Henry Harrison

1836 William Harrison

Portrait of William Harrison
image credit: Library of Congress

It was a common trend in the early years of the nation that the losers of presidential elections went on the win one. However, after 1840, when Harrison would claim victory, it took another 44 years until Grover Cleveland ran, lost, then ran again and won.

William Henry Harrison established himself as a frontier leader, fighting for lower land prices and an easier process to buy land. He was appointed governor of the Indiana Territory in 1800 by President John Adams, a tract of land that consisted of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota — that’s 259,000 square miles to govern. During that time, Harrison wasn’t content enough to control the land, but negotiated treaties with Indians to purchase 60 million additional acres of land.

In 1811, Harrison became a national hero after the Battle of Tippecanoe then went on to serve as general in the War of 1812. However, after 40 years of public service, Harrison retired in 1829 to his farm in Ohio where he grew corn and distilled whiskey.

The Whig Party, eager to end the string of victories by the Democratic Party, decided it would behoove them to run multiple candidates in the 1836 election. Harrison and Hugh White ran against Martin Van Buren, the Vice President under Andrew Jackson. Van Buren won 50.8% of the popular vote, but Harrison had his revenge four years later.

Next time: The Losers from 1840-1880