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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Controversial Elections

In Benjamin Harrison's 1889 inaugural address, the public oath of the president is defined as a mutual covenant between the person being sworn in and the public:

The officer covenants to serve the whole body of the people by a faithful execution of the laws . . . nor the power of combinations shall be able to evade their just penalties or to wrest them from a beneficent public purpose to serve the ends of cruelty or selfishness.

When a president takes the oath of office under a cloud of controversy, the public may have difficulty taking part in this covenant. The House of Representatives awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams in 1824 after no single candidate had enough electoral votes to win outright (including Andrew Jackson who earned fifteen more electoral votes than Adams). Adams addressed this conflict in his 1825 inaugural address: “Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence.”

  • Who is Adams appealing to?
  • How does Adams portray himself through this statement?
  • Why does he frame his inauguration and presidency in terms of “indulgences”?

Although Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote (4,300,000 to 4,036,000) in the 1876 election, a Congressional Electoral Commission awarded Republican Rutherford Hayes the presidency after the validity of electoral votes in a few southern states was called into question. In his 1877 inaugural address, Hayes called for unity:

Rutherford B. Hayes Taking the Oath of Office, 1877

Rutherford B. Hayes Taking the Oath of Office, the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, 1877.

The President . . . owes his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party . . . but he should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves the country best.

The fact that two great political parties have in this way settled a dispute in regard to which good men differ as to the facts and the law no less than as to the proper course to be pursued . . . is an occasion for general rejoicing.


A search on Hayes results in accounts of the inauguration such as a March 6, 1877 letter from John Cochrane to Carl Schurz and James Garfield's March 5, 1877 diary entry detailing the transition of power from President Grant to Hayes. Garfield's diary notes, “There were many indications of relief and joy that no accident had occurred on the route for there were apprehensions of assassination.”

  • How does Hayes attempt to disarm the tensions and animosity caused by his controversial election?
  • Why does Hayes consider the settling of this dispute to be “an occasion for general rejoicing”?

During the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore won the Popular vote but the winner of the electoral vote was not declared for weeks because the vote count in Florida was contested. Eventually, The Supreme Court ended the dispute, and George W. Bush won the electoral vote in Florida and thus the presidency. In his 2001 inaugural address, Bush thanked Gore “for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” He later called for an end to political and personal differences: “Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”

  • How did Bush and Hayes each attempt to handle the controversy surrounding his election? Compare the tone of each speech and compare Bush's pledge with Hayes's discussion of political parties.
  • Does the public view a president differently when an election is decided in opposition to the mandate of the popular vote?
  • What measures can a president take to counteract any negative attitudes toward his presidency?
  • Are Bush, Hayes, and Adams effective in addressing potential doubts and concerns?
  • Should they have said or done more? Why or why not?
  • Did their policies grow from the conciliatory statements made in their inaugural addresses?