President Benjamin Harrison Worries That the Democrats Will Try to Steal Electoral Votes in the Upcoming 1892 Election

He wants Republicans to concentrate on state legislative elections so that Northern states do not switch from the winner-take-all method of choosing electors to a method based on Congressional districts

In the decades after the Civil War, the Republican Party pretty much had a lock on the electoral votes of the North. But there was something of a Democratic resurgence in 1884, and Grover Cleveland carried New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Indiana and won the presidency. In 1888 the Republicans got...

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President Benjamin Harrison Worries That the Democrats Will Try to Steal Electoral Votes in the Upcoming 1892 Election

He wants Republicans to concentrate on state legislative elections so that Northern states do not switch from the winner-take-all method of choosing electors to a method based on Congressional districts

In the decades after the Civil War, the Republican Party pretty much had a lock on the electoral votes of the North. But there was something of a Democratic resurgence in 1884, and Grover Cleveland carried New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Indiana and won the presidency. In 1888 the Republicans got back New York and Indiana and their candidate – Benjamin Harrison – was elected. But although losing the presidency on the national level, the Democrats showed continued strength in state elections, and a number of state legislatures either fell to them (such as Michigan) or brought them within shouting distance of control (like Iowa and Ohio).

Their strength in the state legislatures brought the Democrats to a realization that if they shuffled the cards right, without actually changing any popular votes they could add 20 or 30 (or more) electoral votes to their column in national elections, which in a close election might make the difference. The way they did this was to change the basis of selecting presidential electors. Traditionally electoral votes were allocated on a winner-take-all basis, so if Harrison won Michigan he would receive all of its 11 electoral votes. But Michigan changed to the congressional district method (the winner in each of the nine congressional district won one electoral vote. Moreover, the state was also divided into two electoral districts, an Eastern and a Western, each comprising six congressional districts, and the voters of each electoral district chose one of the two remaining electors to which the State was entitled). Since some Congressional districts were Democratic, instead of being shut out, the Democrats had two chances of getting a portion of the electoral vote without having to add one more Democratic popular vote to their state total.

Cornelius N. Bliss was chairman of the Republican committee in New York in 1887 and 1888, and contributed much to the success of the Benjamin Harrison ticket in his state in the 1888 election. He remained one of the most powerful Republicans in the state and would serve as treasurer of the Republican National Committee from 1892 to 1904. He turned down the offer of becoming Secretary of the Treasury under President McKinley, but accepted the post of Secretary of the Interior, maintaining that position until 1899. While in office, Bliss focused on forestry and Indian affairs. Offered by McKinley the vice presidential slot in his 1900 reelection campaign, he declined, so the nod went instead to Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, Bliss was Roosevelt’s campaign manager.

The prospect of the Michigan situation snow-balling troubled Republican leaders and particularly President Harrison, who had his reelection bid coming up in 1892. He wanted his party to concentrate attention on vulnerable state legislatures, and wrote to Bliss urgently on the subject.

Letter signed, on Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, October 14, 1891, to Bliss, asking for attention to this potentially serious problem. “I see you have returned from your journey to Europe, I hope rested and refreshed and with good results to your family. You are doubtless full of business at this season, especially after an absence, and I do not want to put you to any serious inconvenience. I would like, however, to talk over with you the situation in New York after you have been at home long enough to get some impressions of the state of things. I do not believe our people appreciate the possible significance and results of the elections in Ohio and Iowa, especially of the legislatures. If they carry the legislature in either or both of those states they will adopt the recent Michigan movement and provide for the election of electors of President and Vice President by Congressional districts and gerrymander the states so as to give them a preponderance of the electoral votes.”

In the 1892 election, Harrison carried Michigan but the electors from the state were split between the Republicans and Democrats: 9 for Harrison and 5 for Cleveland. This was Harrison’s fear come to life. But Harrison lost the election to Cleveland by quite a large margin, so it made no practical difference. The Congressional method of choosing presidential electors never really caught on. Today only Maine and Nebraska utilize it.

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