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Lewis Morris / Oct. 29, 2020

The Most Important Election in History?

We hear this every four years, but when has it actually been true?

We’re just a few days away from the 2020 presidential election, a contest that some are calling the most consequential presidential election of our lives. Then again, we’re told the same thing every four years. It’s a well-worn political cliché designed to motivate citizens to exercise their constitutional right and civic duty.

The whole idea of elections is to get as many people to the polls as possible. It’s nice when a candidate can do that by virtue of their ideas and their character. Short of that (and our candidates are often short of both these days), voters can always be motivated by being frightened into believing that not voting means the downfall of the Republic. Naturally, this is not always the case. In fact, it rarely has been. But let’s face it: You’re never going to hear a campaign manager tell voters, “The stakes are medium. Feel free to vote or to sit this one out.”

Of the 58 presidential elections that have taken place in American history, only a handful can truly qualify as being transformational.

The election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson proved that candidates from opposing parties could fight tooth and nail for the presidency without resorting to violence and civil strife. The election of 1824 was the first in which the winner of the election did not win the popular vote. It was a bitter contest, but the Republic persevered.

The election of 1860 was a monumentally consequential election, perhaps the most consequential in American history. Republican Abraham Lincoln was pitted against Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckenridge, and Constitutional Unionist John Bell. The future of the Union was at stake, and this was not hyperbole. Southern states vowed to secede if Lincoln won, fearing he would abolish slavery, even though the Republican candidate had made no such pledge to that point. The crowded field worked to Lincoln’s electoral advantage but led to secession and war.

The 1864 contest was no less important. It was only the second election in history to take place during wartime, the first being James Madison’s bid for reelection during the War of 1812. There was talk of postponing the election because of the war, but Lincoln insisted it must go forward. “We cannot have free government without elections,” Lincoln said, “and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” It was an ugly contest filled with racist attacks and misinformation, but Lincoln handily won reelection.

The election of 1876 was consequential in that it may have been the most openly corrupt presidential contest in American history. Ballot stuffing, unfaithful presidential electors, voter intimidation, and open violence were all employed to sway a contest whose outcome was ultimately decided in a back room among high-placed Washington power brokers. The result of the election was the premature end of Reconstruction and the establishment of institutionalized racism across the South that would last for a hundred years.

The election of 1896 between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan led to a major political realignment in which the Republican Party dominated the political landscape for the next 36 years. This was a period in which significant changes took place, including the establishment of the federal income tax, the direct election of U.S. senators, the battle with corporate trusts, and women’s suffrage.

1932 also led to a monumental shift in American politics. Franklin Roosevelt won the first of four presidential elections, ushering in an era of unprecedented government growth that we still live with today. Roosevelt’s 12 years in office led to an activist government mindset that conditioned Americans to believe that the government could achieve any public goal and be counted on to solve any public problem.

The election of 1980 reintroduced the concept of limited government. Republican Ronald Reagan’s sound victory over Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter led to a return to the traditional ideas of capitalism that left the private sector free to pursue new ideas and innovate. Reagan’s adherence to a stronger, more committed foreign policy led to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Only history will tell whether next Tuesday’s election will rise to the impactful level of those listed here. We naturally tend to believe that the current election is the most important of our lives because we are living in this moment. Our nation’s sad lack of historical perspective doesn’t help. The fact that Donald Trump was labeled the worst president in American history before he was even inaugurated in 2017 proves not only this dearth of context but also the bitter rancor that pollutes our ability to view history objectively. Go vote; just maintain perspective.

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