Four Fateful Elections

What if Lincoln had lost, or if Theodore Roosevelt had won? How did Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan emerge to lead a dispirited nation?

Among George Washington's many distinctions, one of the most enduring must be that he was twice elected president unanimously and without opposition. Only one of his successors came close to that feat: the unopposed James Monroe, who, in 1820, won every electoral vote except the one cast for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams by an elector from ever-unpredictable New Hampshire. (The prickly and reserved Adams, who wasn't even running for president, was embarrassed by the vote.) Since that time, every U.S. presidential election has not only involved multiple candidates but hinged on the choices of a broader public, as more and more states moved to elect rather than appoint their representatives in the electoral college.

And those choices, as Americans well know, can have fateful consequences. In the impassioned run-up to this year's presidential election—the 55th in our history—we asked four eminent historians to illuminate earlier contests that they felt were momentous: Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald on the election of 1860, historian and international affairs expert James Chace on 1912, FDR biographer Geoffrey C. Ward on 1932, and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon on 1980. In some, such as the election of 1860, the choices were especially stark: between freedom and slavery, unity and division, war and peace. In others, like the tumultuous four-way race of 1912 that charted the future of the Republican Party and set the high-water mark for America's Progressives and Socialists, the importance of the outcome became clear only with the passage of time. Of course, every American doubtless has his or her own ideas about which elections have done the most to shape our nation's history—for good or ill. But even a cursory reading of that history proclaims another underlying truth: that every election matters, and every vote counts.

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