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May 11th, 2019

As 2020 will be, the election that happened two centuries before was also an election with an incumbent. But that's probably where the similarities will end. The election of 1820 wasn't really much of an election. Incumbent President James Monroe almost won by acclamation with only one "faithless elector" refusing to make it unanimous.

Monroe decided to run for President in the 1816 election after proving himself a star in the cabinet of James Madison, especially during the War of 1812. During the war, Monroe held two cabinet posts as Secretary of State and Secretary of War, picking up the latter post after General John Armstrong proved to be a complete bust. Monroe's war-time leadership established him as Madison's heir apparent. He had strong support from many in the party, but his candidacy was challenged at the 1816 Democratic-Republican congressional nominating caucus, mainly by Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford of Georgia, who had the support of numerous southern and western Congressmen. Crawford decided to defer to Monroe and Monroe won his party's nomination. Monroe received 183 of the 217 electoral votes, winning every state but Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware.

Monroe's presidency is associated with the "Era of Good Feelings", but that name is somewhat misleading. Monroe had to deal with the Missouri Compromise in February 1819, when the people of the Missouri Territory sought to draft a constitution and form a government preliminary to admission into the Union came before the House of Representatives. Congressman James Tallmadge Jr. of New York tried to derail the Era of Good Feelings by offering the Tallmadge Amendment, which prohibited the further introduction of slaves into Missouri and required that all future children of slave parents therein should be free at the age of twenty-five years. After three days of rancorous and sometimes bitter debate, the bill, with Tallmadge's amendments, passed. The measure then went to the Senate, where both amendments were rejected. The ensuing debates pitted the northern antislavery legislators against southern proslavery legislators. The conflict was resolved by allowing Missouri into the union as a slave state and admitting Maine as a free state. A second amendment was adopted on the motion of Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois, excluding slavery from the Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north (the southern boundary of Missouri), except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri. The House then approved the bill as amended by the Senate. The legislation passed, which became known as the Missouri Compromise.

Monroe also faced an economic crisis known as the Panic of 1819. This was the first major depression to hit the country since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. As global markets transitioned to peacetime production and following the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars, the nation experienced an economic downturn, made worse by excessive speculation in public lands. Monroe lacked the power to intervene directly in the economy, as banks were largely regulated by the states. When Congress finally reconvened in December 1819, Monroe requested an increase in the tariff, but Congress would not do so. The panic resulted in high unemployment and an increase in bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Monroe pursued improved relations with Britain following the War of 1812. In 1817 the United States and Britain signed the Rush–Bagot Treaty, which regulated naval strength on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain and demilitarized the border between the U.S. and British North America. The Treaty of 1818 fixed the present Canada–United States border from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains at the 49th parallel and established a joint U.S.–British occupation of Oregon Country for the next ten years. These treaties allowed for greater trade between the United States and the British Empire and kept the peace in the Great Lakes region.

Monroe also too action in Florida, then a Spanish colony. With only a minor military presence in Florida, Spain was not able to restrain Seminole warriors who routinely crossed the border and raided American villages and farms, as well as protected southern slave refugees from slave owners and traders of the southern United States. Monroe ordered a military expedition led by Andrew Jackson to cross into Spanish Florida and attack the Seminoles. The expedition exceeded its orders and seized the Spanish territorial capital of Pensacola. With the capture of Pensacola, Jackson established de facto American control of the entire territory. While Monroe supported Jackson's actions, many in Congress harshly criticized what they saw as an undeclared war. With the support of Secretary of State Adams, Monroe defended Jackson against domestic and international criticism, and the United States began negotiations with Spain. On February 22, 1819, Spain and the United States signed the Adams–Onís Treaty, which ceded the Floridas in return for the assumption by the United States of claims of American citizens against Spain to an amount not exceeding $5,000,000.

It is surprising that on the heels of an economic recession and the polarizing issue of slavery to confront, Monroe ran for re-election in 1820 virtually unopposed. But in the aftermath of the War of 1812, the Federalist Party had essentially collapsed. The party was very unpopular for its lack of support for the War. Late victories in the war at the Battle of New Orleans increased support for the war and for Monroe's party.

Monroe's re-nomination was never in doubt. Few Republicans bothered to attend the nominating caucus in April 1820. Only 40 delegates attended, with very few from the large states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. With so few attendees, the caucus declined to make a formal nomination. The following resolution was passed by the caucus: "It is inexpedient, at this time, to proceed to the nomination of persons for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States." What this really meant was that, after the resolution was unanimously adopted, and the meeting adjourned, Monroe and Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins remained candidates for re-election.

Vice-President Tompkins had made another run for his former post of Governor of New York, fueling speculation that a replacement for the number two spot on the ticket might be required. But when Tompkins lost the election shortly before the nominating caucus took place, the matter was not considered important enough to be worth a formal nomination process.

Voting took place from Wednesday, November 1, to Wednesday, December 6, 1820. There was no election campaign to speak of, since there was no serious opposition to Monroe and Tompkins. The Federalists did not hold a nominating convention and there was no one running against Monroe. Even the ongoing debate over the Missouri Compromise did not lead to the creation of any opposition to Monroe. It did cause an issue about whether or not the state's electoral votes should be counted in Monroe's final tally. On March 9, 1820, when Congress had passed a law directing Missouri to hold a convention to form a constitution and a state government, this law stated that "the said state, when formed, shall be admitted into the Union, upon an equal footing with the original states, in all respects whatsoever." But when Congress reconvened in November 1820, the admission of Missouri became an issue of contention. There was a debate over whether Missouri had fulfilled the conditions of the law and if it was technically a state. Opponents claimed that certain provisions of the Missouri Constitution violated the United States Constitution.

When Congress met to count the electoral votes from the election, this dispute was unresolved. If Congress counted Missouri's votes, that would count as recognition that Missouri was a state; on the other hand but if Congress failed to count Missouri's vote, it would count as recognition that Missouri was not a state. Knowing that Monroe had won in a landslide and that Missouri's vote would therefore make no difference in the final result, the Senate passed a resolution on February 13, 1821 stating that if a protest were made, there would be no consideration of the matter unless the vote of Missouri would change who would become president. Instead, the President of the Senate would announce the final tally twice, once with Missouri included and once with it excluded. The resolution passed. During the counting of the electoral votes on February 14, 1821, an objection was raised Representative Arthur Livermore of New Hampshire. The votes were tallied in accordance with the resolution.

The Federalists received a small amount of the popular vote despite having no electoral candidates. Even in Massachusetts, where the Federalist slate of electors was victorious, the electors cast all of their votes for Monroe. This was the first election in which the Democratic-Republicans won in Connecticut and Delaware. Monroe received 87,343 votes (80.61%) and 228 electoral votes, not including the three disputed votes of Missouri. There were 17,465 votes (16.12%) cast for "no candidate".

Only 15 of the 24 states chose electors by popular vote. Monroe won all of the electoral votes, but when the votes were counted, one "faithless elector" cast a vote against Monroe. That elector was William Plumer of New Hampshire, a former United States senator and New Hampshire governor. Plumer cast his electoral ballot for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. It was believed that this was done to ensure that George Washington would remain the only American president unanimously chosen by the Electoral College, but Plumer stated otherwise. He said that he simply thought that Monroe was a mediocre president and that Adams would be a better one. Plumer also refused to vote for Tompkins for Vice President, who he called "grossly intemperate", and who he said lacked "that weight of character which his office requires, because he grossly neglected his duty" in his role as President of the Senate by being "absent nearly three-fourths of the time". Plumer voted for Richard Rush for Vice-President.

Even though every member of the Electoral College was pledged to Monroe, a number of Federalist electors voted for a Federalist vice president rather than Monroe's running mate Daniel D. Tompkins. A scattering of votes were cast for Richard Stockton, Daniel Rodney and Robert Goodloe Harper. These were not enough to deny Tompkins a substantial electoral victory.

Monroe's share of the share of the electoral vote has not been exceeded by candidate other than Washington, who won the vote of each presidential elector in the 1789 and 1792 presidential elections. Don't expect anything close to this in 2020.


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