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CONNECTIONS: Unpopular presidents

All five received mixed reviews, but possibly all presidents do. What they accomplished and how their terms were characterized varied.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Of 45 presidents of the United States, five did not win the popular vote. Four won the Electoral College, and one, John Quincy Adams, won in the House of Representatives after a tie in the Electoral College. Three were presidents in the 19th century and two in the 21st century.

According to historian and author Martin Kelly, the five were:

  1. Donald J. Trump, who lost by 2.9 million votes to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election;
  2. George W. Bush, who lost by 543,816 votes to Al Gore in the 2000 election;
  3. Benjamin Harrison, who lost by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland in 1888;
  4. Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost by 264,292 votes to Samuel J. Tilden in 1876; and
  5. John Quincy Adams, who lost by 44,804 votes to Andrew Jackson in 1824.

None of the three 19th-century presidents won a second term. In the 21st century, George Bush was elected to a second term. Two of the five, Adams and Bush, were the sons of former presidents. Only one, Harrison, was the grandson of a former president. All five received mixed reviews, but possibly all presidents do. What they accomplished and how their terms were characterized varied.

Adams focused his domestic agenda on the promotion of the national economy. He was the builder of interstate roads, canals, and rails. He favored selling land to fund construction rather than raising taxes or incurring debt. He favored central planning, a national university, national observatory, and establishment of a uniform system of weights and measures.

As most presidents, Adams had a pet. Unlike any other president, the pet was an alligator. They say he kept it because it was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette.

Former President Rutherford B. Hayes. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Rutherford B. Hayes supported Republican Reconstruction policies only to end Reconstruction as one of the first acts of his presidency. Although Hayes vetoed a bill designed to prevent Blacks from voting, informal, violent groups in the South successfully attacked and frightened Black voters away from the polls, suppressing their vote.

In his diary, Hayes wrote: “My task was to wipe out the color line … To do this, I was ready to resort to unusual measures and to risk my own standing and reputation within my party.” Hayes tried, but his efforts were in vain. He was more successful reorganizing the civil service, and sadly unsuccessful in settling the railroad strike. Hayes was not re-elected.

Former President Benjamin Harrison. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Benjamin Harrison was the first presidential candidate to conduct a “front porch” campaign, and the last. He sat on his porch in Indiana and spoke briefly to whoever stopped by.

Once elected, Harrison focused on shaping foreign policy. The first Pan-American Congress met in 1889. It was later known as the Pan-American Union. He was very interested in annexing Hawaii. He submitted a bill to the Senate, but his successor, Grover Cleveland, withdrew it.

Domestically, Harrison signed bills for internal improvements, naval expansion, and subsidies for steamship lines. For the first time, Congress appropriated $1 billion. When critics attacked “the billion-dollar Congress,” Speaker Thomas B. Reed replied, “This is a billion-dollar country.”

Former President George W. Bush. Photo: Eric Draper

Harrison also signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act “to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies.” It was Harrison, not the Trust-buster Roosevelt, who signed the first federal act attempting to regulate trusts.

President Donald Trump. Photo: Shealah Craighead)

The Bush administration was shaped by crises: domestic terrorism, natural disasters and wars. 9/11 was followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hurricane Katrina traumatized New Orleans, and apparently the population has been permanently depressed. Nevertheless, Bush was elected to a second term. His second term was ended with the beginning of the longest recession in American history.

Trump lost the popular vote by the largest number of votes — 2.9 million — 1.4 million more than the Bush loss. Trump’s first three years have been tumultuous, and his term may end precipitately. He may be the third president in our history to be impeached. Will he be the only one removed from office? Will he be the second of the five to win a second term? For now, we can only say he is one of five presidents to occupy the office without winning the popular vote.


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