20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History
20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History

20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History

Steve - June 5, 2019

20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History
Photographic print of Martin Van Buren, by
Mathew Brady (c. 1855-1858). Wikimedia Commons.

5. Despite winning his initial election in 1836 in favorable circumstances, Martin Van Buren subsequently lost by a landslide four years later and spent the next eight years fruitlessly trying in various forms to regain the White House

One of the founders of the Democratic Party, after serving as the Governor of New York, Secretary of State, and Vice President under Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren was selected as his party’s replacement for the retiring “Hero of New Orleans” in 1836. Winning with the endorsement of the supremely popular Jackson, and aided by divisions within the Whig Party who fielded multiple candidates, Van Buren became the first President to have been born in the United States. Failing to select a nominee for Vice President at the Democratic National Convention, Van Buren contested the 1840 election as the only individual in history from a major party without a running mate.

Losing to a united Whig Party led by William Harrison by 234 to 60 electoral votes, largely as a result of his economic mismanagement, Van Buren sought his party’s nomination four years later to regain his position. However, angering Southerners by his opposition to the annexation of Texas, Van Buren was overlooked. Growing increasingly opposed to slavery, he left the Democratic Party, becoming the presidential nominee for the Free Soil Party in 1848. A single-issue platform opposing the expansion of slavery into the western territories, Van Buren won no electoral votes, but likely stole enough votes from Democratic candidate Lewis Cass to ensure a Whig victory in the election.

20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History
Vice President Walter Mondale (c. May 13, 1977). Wikimedia Commons.

4. Offering a poorly received and executed campaign, Walter Mondale’s dire performance in the 1984 presidential election has yet to be replicated by any candidate in the three and a half decades since

Serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Walter Mondale was appointed to fill the vacant seat of Hubert Humphrey as a Senator from Minnesota in 1964 following the latter’s ascendance to the vice presidency. Winning re-election twice, serving from 1964 to 1976, Walter Mondale himself later became the forty-second Vice President of the United States under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. Defeating several candidates, notably Gary Hart, in the Democratic primaries, Mondale emerged as the party’s nominee against Republican Ronald Reagan in 1984. Campaigning on a platform of tax increases, debt reduction, and a nuclear freeze, Mondale made history in his choice of Geraldine Ferraro as the first female to share a major party’s presidential ticket.

However, becoming one of the most controversial aspects of his campaign, his choice of the unpopular Ferraro under pressure from women’s rights groups quickly rendered a public perception of Mondale as weak and pliable. Failing to resonate with voters, in contrast to the highly skilled and effective Reagan campaign, the Democratic Party’s efforts faltered. Losing just a single state and the District of Columbia – Mondale’s home of Minnesota – Reagan won a landslide victory with five-hundred-and-twenty-five electoral votes, with no candidate in the decades since matching the Republican’s vote share or electoral count.

20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History
Portrait of Hugh Lawson White, one of the four Whig candidates in the 1836 presidential election, by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (c. pre-1830). Wikimedia Commons.

3. One of the most bizarre occurrences in American political history, the Whig Party put forward four separate and competing presidential tickets in the 1836 election, consequently losing to Democrat Martin Van Buren

Emerging in during the 1834 mid-term elections as the primary opposition to President Jackson and the Democratic Party, formed from members of the National Republican Party, Anti-Masonic Party, as well as the remnants of the Federalist Party and unhappy Democrats supportive of states’ rights, the fledgling Whigs approached the 1836 presidential election in nonsensical fashion. Rather than holding a national nominating convention, instead individual state conventions put forward their own candidates. Proposing four separate individuals – Tennessee Senator Hugh Lawson White, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, South Carolina Senator William Person Mangum, and, by Pennsylvania, General William Henry Harrison – the party remained unable to come to an agreement.

As a result, the Whig Party inexplicably put forward competing tickets in the 1836 presidential election. Despite garnering 48.2 percent of the popular vote collectively, the endeavor was doomed to fail by dividing the spoils between the various candidatures. Whilst Harrison received the most electoral votes, carrying seven states and earning seventy-three electoral votes, White’s campaign took a further twenty-six, Webster fourteen, and Mangum eleven. Although not enough on their own to have won, the Whigs, who would win as a united party in 1840, were destined for failure given their insane strategy.

20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History
Photograph of James G. Blaine, by Matthew Brady and Levin Corbin Handy (c. between 1870 and 1880). Wikimedia Commons.

2. Stealing the nomination from President Chester A. Arthur at an acrimonious nominating convention in 1884, James G. Blaine subsequently lost the election to Democratic Party candidate Grover Cleveland

A charismatic speaker and early supporter of Abraham Lincoln, James Gillespie Blaine represented Maine in the House of Representatives from 1863 to 1876, serving as its Speaker for six years between 1869 and 1875. Serving also in the Senate for a single term from 1876 to 1881, as well as Secretary of State under three separate presidents across two periods, Blaine unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in both 1876 and 1880. Becoming the last individual to successfully overcome a sitting president for their party’s nomination, in 1884 Blaine won on the fourth ballot at a fractious nominating convention to dethrone the incumbent President Chester A. Arthur.

Despite entering the election in good standing, Blaine’s image quickly became tarred by accusations of corruption in connection to his prior business involvement with the railroads. Suffering the abandonment of a group of reformist Republicans – the Mugwumps – the dissatisfied collective was comprised chiefly of supporters of President Arthur embittered by their champion’s defeat in the primaries and the ill-grace of Blaine and his supporters in its aftermath. Unable or unwilling to seek to appease the unhappy faction, the group threw their weight behind Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland and Blaine lost the election by 219 to 182 electoral votes.

20 Ill-Fated Powerful Men in U.S. History
Photograph of Henry Clay, by either Julian Vannerson or Montgomery P. Simons (c. 1848). Wikimedia Commons.

1. Attempting to win a presidential election on three separate occasions, Henry Clay failed in 1824, 1832, and 1844, representing different parties on each flawed effort

Representing Kentucky in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives, interrupting these positions with a single term as Secretary of State from 1825 and 1829, Henry Clay Sr. was a widely celebrated politician of his age. Chosen as Speaker of the House on three separate occasions, holding the title for a combined total of ten years, his capacity for mediation and defusing crises earned him the affable moniker of “Great Compromiser”. Finishing fourth on his first attempt to become president in 1824, carrying only three states and winning thirty-seven electoral votes, it has been alleged Clay’s support for John Quincy Adams during the resultant contingent election in the House was won as part of a “corrupt bargain” for his subsequent cabinet position.

Running against Jackson in the 1832 presidential election as the National Republican candidate, although performing marginally better among an equally crowded four-way slate, Clay likewise lost. Claiming just six states and forty-nine electoral votes, Clay, however, was not to be dissuaded. Trying for a final time in 1844, Clay successfully won the Whig nomination in the absence of John Tyler, meeting Democratic nominee James K. Polk in the general election. Offering his best performance, albeit not enough, Clay lost by 170 to 105 electoral votes, winning eleven states to Polk’s fifteen.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Changed America”, David Pietrusza, Union Square Press (2011)

“Truman Defeats Dewey”, Gary A. Donaldson, University of Kentucky Press (2000)

“We Almost Made It”, Malcolm D. MacDougall, Crown Publishing (1977)

“Presidential Elections, 1789-2008: County, State, and National Mapping of Election Data”, Donald Richard Deskins, Hanes Walton, and Sherman Puckett, University of Michigan Press (2010)

“Encyclopaedia of American Political Parties and Elections”, Larry Sabato and Howard Ernst, Infobase Publishing (2007)

“The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War”, Michael F. Holt, Oxford University Press (1999)

“Presidential Also-Rans and Running Mates: 1788 Through 1996”, Leslie Southwick, McFarland Publishing (1998)

“Truman’s Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America”, Andrew E. Busch, University of Kansas Press (2012)

Harry Truman and the Election of 1948: The Coming of Age of Civil Rights in American Politics”, Harvard Stitkoff, Journal of Southern History (November 1971)

“Horace Greeley and the Politicians: The Liberal Republican Convention in 1872”, Matthew T. Downey, The Journal of American History (March 1967)

“Grant or Greeley? The Abolitionist Dilemma in the Election of 1872”, James M. McPherson, American Historical Review (1965)

“Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past”, Ray Raphael, New Press (2004)

“The Eagleton Affair: Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern, and the 1972 Vice Presidential Nomination”, James N. Giglio, Presidential Studies Quarterly (2009)

“Right from the Start: A Chronicle of the McGovern Campaign”, Gary Hart, Quadrangle Publishing (1973)

“Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: Founding Father”, Marvin R. Zahniser, University of North Carolina Press (1967)

“Adlai Stevenson: Television, and the Presidential Campaign of 1956”, Douglas Slaybaugh, Illinois Historical Journal (1996)

“The Election of 1860 Reconsidered”, James A. Fuller, Kent State University Press (2011)

“The Election of 1860: A Campaign Fraught with Consequences”, Michael F. Holt, University Press of Kansas (2017)

“Henry A. Wallace: His Search of a New World Order”, John Maze and Graham White, University of North Carolina Press (1995)

“The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election”, Zachary Karabell, Vintage Publishers (2001)

“Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s”, Tyler Anbinder, Oxford University Press (1992)

“Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President”, Robert J. Rayback, Pickle Partners Publishing (1959)

“Liberalism’s Last Hurrah: The Presidential Campaign of 1964”, Gary Donaldson, M.E. Sharpe Publishing (2003)

“To Defeat a Maverick: The Goldwater Candidacy Revisited, 1963-1964”, Jeffrey J. Matthews, Presidential Studies Quarterly (1997)

“Free Soil: The Election of 1848”, Joseph G. Rayback, University Press of Kentucky (2014)

“Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics”, Joel H. Silbey, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (2002)

“The 1984 Election in Historical Perspective”, William E. Leuchtenburg, Baylor University Press (1986)

“The Return of the Democratic Party to Power in 1884”, Harrison Cook Thomas, Forgotten Books (2018)

“Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman”, Harlow Giles Unger, Da Capo Press (2015)

“Henry Clay and the Election of 1844: The Limits of a Rhetoric of Compromise”, David Zarefsky, Rhetoric and Public Affairs (2003)

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