Research News

Expert: Trump’s refusal to commit to honor vote has dangerous precedent

Thomas Schwartz Professor History Vanderbilt
Thomas Schwartz (Vanderbilt University)

Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the results of the presidential election does have a precedent – a frightening one, says presidential historian Thomas Schwartz.

“We’re talking about 1860, and it brought about the collapse of democracy and the Civil War. It is not a helpful parallel.” In that election Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates. It was the immediate cause of Southern resolutions of secession and then the Civil War.

Schwartz, a Vanderbilt University professor of history and political science, cites a number of elections whose results were accepted by the loser despite races that were very close and highly contested.

  • In 1800 Thomas Jefferson narrowly defeated John Adams. That contest also got personal, with supporters of Adams bringing up Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, and claiming Jefferson had offspring with Hemmings. The election ended up being thrown to the House of Representatives for resolution. Jefferson narrowly won. What’s additionally notable about that election is the way Jefferson attempted to unite the nation in his inaugural address. “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists,” Jefferson said.
  • In 1824 John Quincy Adams won after a deal made in the House of Representatives despite having lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson. The election went to the House of Representatives, where an earlier candidate in the race, Henry Clay, was speaker. Political maneuvering sent Clay’s supporters to Adams, allowing him to secure the presidency. Clay was subsequently appointed as secretary of state by Adams. Supporters of Jackson were outraged, but Jackson himself accepted the results.
  • As recently as 2000, George W. Bush’s close race against Al Gore resulted in an automatic recount in Florida, leaving the Supreme Court to decide the election. “People were quite angry,” Schwartz said. “But Gore conceded gracefully.”

Thomas Schwartz is a historian of U.S. foreign relations, with related interests in Modern European history and the history of international relations; the author of several books, on subjects including President Lyndon Johnson; and is currently at work on a biography of Henry Kissinger and a second book about the Cold War.