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The Contested Election of 1888

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience. She holds degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The last few elections cause quite a few of us to think that the country is falling apart. Our elections should be smooth, but the fact is that they don't always. The elections of the 21st Century aren't much different than they have been in the past. An example is the election of 1888 which might come as a surprise to you.


The Contestants

Grover Cleveland had won the 1884 election with talk of fraud at the polls. Talk of such today is nothing new and shouldn't be all that shocking. It has happened before. With the hints of scandal over his presidency, the Republican party put up the grandson of another president, Benjamin Harrison.

The election was heated with lots of dirt thrown. The two candidates didn't do much in the way of campaigns, but the parties did more than their share. Cleveland's illegitimate child haunted his political career as it was in a day where such relations were not spoken of especially in mixed circles. The rumors were that New York helped to push Cleveland's 1884 win as "New York City was controlled by the political machine of Tammany Hall, notorious for stuffing ballot boxes and altering election returns. One division of the city's sixth ward, for example, with a population of 850, once produced 934 votes." (

Harrison was a one term senator who did not win his re-election bid, but he was popular enough on the Republican side that he got the nod to run against the incumbent. Past sins and possible ones based on platforms was thrown out to the public and eaten up.

The Votes

Harrison won 49.5% of the popular vote and 58% of the electoral college.

"The election outcome gave President Cleveland approximately 90,000 popular votes more than Harrison, but Harrison carried the electoral college 233 to 168. Harrison's victory was based upon two swing states: New York and Indiana"(Miller Center).

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While Cleveland's supporters were rumored to have swung New York in his favor in 1884, Harrison's supporters were determined to do the exact opposite. Possible fraud in the other direction seems to have occurred to prevent fraud on the other side. Oh, the mess of politics.

The Results

Harrison won. Cleveland screamed, "Foul!"

The country began to see that under Harrison things were not much better. Corruption was not extent. sums it as:

"Among the major issues facing his administration were civil service reform, the administration of Civil War pensions and the regulation of tariffs. The spending policies of the federal government during Harrison's term earned the legislative branch the moniker "the Billion Dollar Congress."...The question of monetizing silver also demanded government attention. Although Harrison signed a compromise bill, the controversy over currency continued to rage throughout his presidency. He also attempted, unsuccessfully, to enact legislation protecting and extending the civil rights of Black Americans." (

Wounded Knee and the annexation of Hawaii blackened his term in office. While the Civil War was a couple of decades in the past, the country was still torn apart with no sign of direct healing.

The result? Cleveland was elected as the next president. All his sins were forgiven and seemed purer than that of Harrison.

The Impact of the 1888 Election Today

This election was not just something in the past and a topic to ignore as we deal with the politics of today. The truth is that a large part of our election process stems from this election and the scandals that surrounded it: "A ballot-reform landslide swamped the nation’s legislatures. By the 1892 elections, citizens in 38 states voted by secret ballot" (Smithsonian). When you go to the ballot box today, you can thank Cleveland and Harrison for the right of secrecy.

Also, we need to take away from this election the idea that the elections of today aren't any worse than those of bygone years. There have been elections full of scandal and rumors as well as fraud. Nothing is perfect, even in a democratic republic.

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