Controversial Elections

2016 has seen its fair share of controversial election campaigns. Looking back a couple of centuries, we see a similar pattern of disagreement between candidates on both sides of the Atlantic.

The 1800 American presidential election campaign is considered one of the most fractious. The two main candidates were John Adams, the incumbent president and Thomas Jefferson. We know the two had been close friends, travelling together to Worcester in 1786 to visit the site of the decisive final battle of the English Civil War. But they had different visions for the future of the young United States and this led both they and their supporters to stoop to some base insults.

The President of Yale University, a John Adams supporter, declared that if Jefferson were to become the president, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” The Connecticut press followed this up with a description of a nation under Jefferson where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.

Journalist James Callender argued for Jefferson, saying that Adams was “a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow”; a “repulsive pedant” and a “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

Jefferson and Adams received the same number of electoral college votes, meaning that the House of Representatives had to resolve the election. It took them six days and thirty-six ballots to break the deadlock, with Jefferson finally becoming the 3rd President of the United States.


Worcester’s parliamentary elections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were frequently rife with venomous disagreement and accusations. The cartoon above from Worcester City’s collection refers to Thomas Rous’ campaign in 1773.

Throughout this period the power in Worcester was centred on the Corporation working in close partnership with the Bishop and Cathedral Chapter. The Corporation could create nonresident Freemen of the City and given that these made up a large proportion of eligible voters, it was a system open to corruption. The opposition party, or Independents, tended to simply have anti-Corporation policies.

For the 1773 election, the Corporation sponsored Thomas Rous, who had made a fortune in the East India Company and was a protegee of Lord Clive. Opposing him was William Kelly, an American merchant whose supporters described themselves as “labouring freemen of this city, who, though poor, are determined to vote for no man but what shall act independent.” Kelly withdrew a few days before the election day.

Rous claimed to spend £20,000 (some accounts say £10,000 but even this lower amount would be equivalent to £600,000 today) on his election campaign, some of which almost certainly came from the Corporation and possibly also from the Government of the day. Exactly how it was spent is unclear but the accusation both in this cartoon and a legal petition is that he was bribing the 1500 eligible voters and, it seems, his opponent.

Rous was forced to step down as MP for Worcester in February 1774 and a by-election was held in March. Rous was, however, successful in getting into Parliament again later that same year.


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