In 1824, John Quincy Adams became the first president to win the presidential election, but lose the popular vote. It would not be until 52 years later in 1876 with Rutherford B. Hayes when this would happen again. Then, it would happen again 12 years later in 1888 with William "Benjamin" Harrison. A president would not lose the popular vote again for more than 100 years when in 2000 George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Then, just 16 years later, the elected president Donald Trump would lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

I was just about to turn 12 in 2000, and while I had heard of the electoral college before, I never understood it until then. Then, in 2016, Hillary was the first candidate I ever voted for in an election, and while 2.9 million more Americans voted for her than Trump, she lost the election. So, twice in my generation the electoral college has gone against the popular vote subverting the will of the people. I have also noticed that it has become popular to question the usefulness of the electoral college. The New York Times has run an article on it after the 2016 election. The Washington Post ran an article on it in 2020. The Wall Street Journal ran an article. The Los Angeles Times also ran an article. As did the Chicago Tribune on several occasions, and here's a third. And if you still don't believe me that the issue is actively debated the Houston Chronicle, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), the Tennessean, the Statesman (Boise, ID), the Albuquerque Journal, the Denver Post, and even the Herald Dispatch out of West Virginia have all posted articles on the electoral college.

So, if this issue is so hotly debated in my lifetime, after two presidents lost the popular vote, I think it's probable it was debated back then. What was the public's general feel towards the electoral college? Were their arguments any different from today's? For an added bonus, include some old newspapers from back in the day.

To be clear, I am looking for any sort of debate on the electoral college, whether for or against, in relation to the elections of Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. This could come in the form of old newspaper articles from the era, congressional debates, speeches from prominent people, even diary recordings. I'm sure most of you reading this are clever enough to think of more possible avenues of evidence, so don't limit yourself to those mentioned. ANY evidence is better than what I currently have. Thank you.

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    Remember that we didn't have anything like scientific opinion polling before 1936 or so. Consider editing this to ask something like if we have any recorded opinions on the matter, or if the results of those elections in particular were used to call for changes.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 4, 2021 at 23:51
  • I wasn't asking for a scientific poll. I am looking for ANY evidence that people can provide regarding the feelings of the electoral college. A much better resource for this question would be the "Chronicling America" collection of the Library of Congress. They have A LOT of old newspapers. People could find articles about the electoral college. Or maybe political speeches in Congress. Or speeches in general of the time. I imagine, SOMEWHERE there is an article talking about how the electoral college overruled the popular vote. Mar 8, 2021 at 19:40
  • People were very vocal about this after the 1824 election. I don't think you need polling data to answer this question. Mar 8, 2021 at 22:58
  • The 1876 election was controversial for other reasons than a statistical fluke of the popular vote loser "winning" the Electoral College.
    – dan04
    Sep 5, 2023 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


Depends on the power of presidency

During the time of John Quincy Adams Federal government was mostly tasked with foreign relations and interstate commerce. Quincy was not even elected in electoral college, there was contingent election in House of Representatives. As we look at his presidency, we could see that he could not obtain Congressional support for some rather basic things (from today's perspective) like federal naval academy, national university, national observatory, uniform system of weights and measures across US etc ... Biggest accomplishment were some infrastructural projects like railroads and canals. This goes with the mandate of controlling interstate commerce. It should be noted that in his time there was no federal income tax, which was introduced only in Revenue Act of 1861. Federal government was funded mostly by import tariffs and excise taxes on certain goods like tobacco and sugar. Average US citizen would not travel that much, and was likely more concerned who is his town sheriff (or county and state officials) than who is US president. As said before, Federal government could influence price of his tobacco and sugar and not much more unless he joins U.S. Army or Navy.

Election of Hayes was much more controversial because it happened after Civil War when Federal government had much more power (both officially and unofficially) . It also could not be resolved in electoral college. In fact, opponent of Hayes, Samuel J. Tilden probably won elections as he has the support of Southern Democrats and tactically approved their segregation agenda and end of Reconstruction. Not to got into much details, but whole affair could be resolved only after Compromise of 1877. This compromise allowed Hayes to be a president, but effectively ended Federal meddling in Southern affairs. Federal troops were recalled to their bases, and full rights were restored to all Southern states, creating essentially status quo ante bellum minus of course institution of slavery which was permanently abolished. System of electoral college was not much debated, because Tilden probably won both popular vote and electoral college. Hayes himself did try to protect voting rights of Blacks in the South, but because of aforementioned compromise he could not do much, as Federal government essentially didn't have jurisdiction over that. However, he and his administration did some important work considering monetary policy which was increasingly Federal domain.

Finally, we have victory of Benjamin_Harrison over Grover Cleveland (an incumbent) in 1888. What must be said about that election is that popular vote advantage of Cleveland was small (around 0.8%) and probably would have been erased had Blacks were allowed to vote for Republican Harrison in the South. In any case, Harrison had solid advantage in electoral college, in fact many people voted for him in protest over some of Cleveland's policies, especially proposed drastic cuts in tariffs and Federal spending. Harrison got the support of protectionists and also those depending on Federal budget. Cleveland was being accused of being to much pro-British. In any case, it is now widely considered that Harrison fumbled his presidency which allowed Cleveland to be re-elected in 1892, only president so far to serve two nonconsecutive terms. I could not find any information about some broad discussion about electoral college in aftermath of 1888 elections, probably because difference in votes was small and suppression of Black votes. Most likely both sides were satisfied with status quo - Republicans because they could win in electoral college, Democrats because they could retain control over South. In case of switch to popular vote Republicans would probably demand better protection for Blacks by Federal government, something that already happened in Reconstruction Era. Democrats didn't want that so they kept electoral college.

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    @MarkC.Wallace "vote for". Corrected, thanks.
    – rs.29
    Mar 10, 2021 at 18:48

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