Questions of legitimacy were first asked more than a century ago, in an election that turned on bicycles.
If you lose an election to an opponent because an interest group runs ads based on false information against you, is the election result legitimate?
The 2016 presidential election featured a Russian troll farm that used fake social media accounts to try to turn voters against Hillary Clinton in key swing states.
I’m a scholar of 19th-century American history and politics. Whether an election should be overturned because of the lies of a third-party group may seem like a very contemporary and topical issue, but in my research I have found that 2016 was not the first time the question arose.
Mudslinging from the Outset
In 1894, on the Lower East Side of New York, a congressional election between two famous men took a crazy turn because of bicycles in Central Park.
The election in the 12th District of New York pitted Republican Robert Augustus Chesebrough, the wealthy inventor of Vaseline, against equally wealthy Democrat George Brinton McClellan Jr., the son of the Civil War general and failed presidential candidate.
Throughout most of the campaign, Chesebrough thought he would have the upper hand by focusing on two issues: corruption and the economy. Helpfully, McClellan was a proud member of Tammany Hall, the New York Democratic organization renowned for political corruption.
Even better, from Chesebrough’s perspective, the national economy was in freefall. Since the Democrats were in charge in Washington, they owned the blame for it.
Understandably, McClellan did not want to discuss the national economy or his Tammany ties, so he sought desperately to change the story.
McClellan tried to paint his opponent as member of the out-of-touch elite while emphasizing his own patriotism. Most of his campaign literature emphasized his own personal integrity and his “honored name” in a shameless and seemingly successful attempt to woo the veteran vote. A Washington Post article after the election claimed that if not for McClellan’s famous last name, critical votes from members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest Union Army veterans organization in the country, “would otherwise have been cast in the Republican fold.”
But as election day grew closer, McClellan and his advisers knew they were still behind.
‘Wheelmen’ Join the Fight
Two days before the election, thousands of copies of a cheaply printed pamphlet flooded the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The pamphlet was issued by the Committee on Political Action of the Metropolitan Association of Cycling Clubs. It claimed that eight years before, Chesebrough had opposed allowing bicycles and tricycles to use the streets and paths of Central Park. The pamphlet called upon “all wheelmen to both work and vote against” Chesebrough.
The invention and popularization of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tires had produced what bicycle historians termed a bicycle boom in the early 1890s. By 1895, over 100,000 people had joined the League of American Wheelmen. Bicycle advocates became involved in social and political issues ranging from gender propriety to the morality of biking on the Sabbath.
Their focus at the time of the Chesebrough-McClellan fight, however, was good roads. Bicycle manufacturers and enthusiasts extensively petitioned and lobbied state and federal legislatures in support of better infrastructure for bicycles.
Eight years earlier, opposing bike access to certain roads would have been no scandal at all. But in the midst of the bike boom of the 1890s, it was a potent charge against Chesebrough.
Chesebrough knew that bicyclists were “opposed to the election to public office of all persons who object to the free use by their machines of public streets and places.”
The attack was expertly timed. Because it was distributed so close to the election, Chesebrough had no time to effectively rebut the accusation. He dashed off a response to the friendly New York Tribune, denying the charge and claiming that the “political committees of the said associated clubs, if they are in earnest, have been greatly deceived.”
Pamphlet Does the Job
Chesebrough’s denial was published the day of the election, but it was too late. McClellan won, 10,933 to 9,592.
In its sudden appearance, the bicycle ad differed from the contemporary Russian disinformation campaign. The Russian trolls’ interference was spread over years and was carefully concealed.
This made it difficult to determine the Russians’ effect in terms of votes. As political analyst Nate Silver wrote, “If it’s hard to prove anything about Russian interference, it’s equally hard to disprove anything.”
Chesebrough, however, was certain that the bicycle ad caused his defeat. He knew that the militant cyclists of New York were one-issue voters, and what’s more the charge was false. As far as he could remember he had never opposed bicycles in any way.
Chesebrough decided to contest the election. He brought his case to the House Committee on Elections, joining 37 other election cases alleging bribery, intimidation, fraud and every sort of shenanigan in between.
He met with the leaders of the Cycling Clubs, who admitted they had signed and distributed the ad “upon the statements and request of others.” But they refused to disclose who those others were.
Unable to prove his opponent colluded with the wheelmen, Chesebrough asserted that McClellan’s campaign had probably “instigated” its publishing. McClellan, he said, was responsible for the lies in the ad and thus the votes cast by the misled bicycle enthusiasts should be put in Chesebrough’s column.
A Novel Claim
Chesebrough was demanding something quite extraordinary: that Congress assess the accuracy and impact of campaign ads and reapportion votes after the fact to the wronged candidates.
The New York Times, which had supported McClellan in the campaign, dismissed the “novelty” of Chesebrough’s claim that he deserved to win because “a campaign publication used against him was effective.”
Chesebrough never got a chance to make his case before Congress. A few weeks after the election, McClellan – while still denying involvement in the ad – announced that he possessed a copy of an anti-bicycle petition that Chesebrough had signed eight years before.
Somewhat rashly, the Vaseline magnate publicly announced that if McClellan could “show me without delay my name subscribed to that petition… I will at once withdraw from the contest.”
McClellan was happy to oblige. And though Chesebrough claimed he had no memory of signing it, he could not deny that the heavily creased paper bore his signature.
Chesebrough’s withdrawal meant that the House did not have to face the question of whether lies uttered by a political opponent provided a basis to overturn an election.
As a historian of politics, I suspect that politicians have told lies to win elections for as long as there have been politicians and elections. Over the decades, the legality of false speech in campaigns has been debated. Laws have been passed criminalizing lies in political campaigns; many of those laws have been struck down as violations of free speech.