New Jersey’s Disputed Congressional Election of 1838

It’s a little quiet on the blog right now so let me bring you back to the exciting 19th Century.

I ran across another disputed election in American history that Blue Jersey readers might find interesting. This one is sometimes called the Broad (or Great) Seal War of 1838: Both political parties claimed to have won New Jersey’s Congressional Delegation. In turn, control of the House of Representatives rested on those disputed New Jersey votes. If you’re one of the people who think the elections in Florida (2000) or Minnesota (2008) were handled badly, wait til you see what was possible in the 19th century.

Let’s set up the political situation in 1838. New Jersey had six seats in the House but didn’t use districts. All six Representatives were chosen by statewide vote, and people got to vote for all six seats. There were no official government ballots then, either, as parties would print up ballots of their own candidates and distribute them, so most votes were party-line. The decade was dominated by Andrew Jackson, and America suddenly had two major political parties: The Democrats (often called “the Democracy” then) and the Whigs, who were opposed to Jackson. Six Whig Representatives were chosen by New Jersey in 1836 and were running for re-election. Jackson’s Vice President, Martin Van Buren, had been elected President despite losing New Jersey in 1936, and Democrats controlled the federal House and Senate. In 1837, the Whig William Pennington became Governor. The Panic of 1837 hit New Jersey hard so the economy was in a depression.

On election day, one of the Whigs, Joseph F. Randolph ran thousands of votes ahead. His victory was not disputed. But what about the other five seats? The Democrats claimed five of their candidates won, though the widest margin was only 159 votes and the closest was 60 votes. You know that statewide that’s not much of a lead, and indeed the official election returns instead found that the Whigs had won by a tiny margin.  

What was the discrepency? It turned out that in Middlesex County, the (Whig) County clerk said the South Amboy election results were not properly signed by an inspector. He therefore left that town out completely, costing Democrats a net 252 votes. Meanwhile, in Cumberland County, another Whig county clerk left out Millville’s (and partially Deerfield), moving that county from net +37 Democratic votes to net +169 Whig. These two clerks had thus stolen the election for the Whigs. There was no appeal process at that time, except that the Governor and Privy Council had to certify the final results with the “Great Seal of New Jersey,” and Democrats argued they should restore the missing towns’ votes.

Great Seal of New Jersey

The Whig Governor announced that he had no official evidence there had been any election in South Amboy or Millville(!), and therefore he was approving all six Whigs as victorious. The argument was that the Governor could only go by the forms the county clerks filled out. The “Great Seal” went on the Whig election certificates. The Democrats, however, created their own election certificates without the governor’s approval, apparently somehow including a copy of the Seal.

A year went by, because in those “simpler” days Congress didn’t meet until December 1839. Without the New Jersey seats, the House was divided 119-118, so the five New Jersey seats would decide which party was in control. The clerk of the House continued to serve from the previous (Democratic) Congress and he decided not to read out the New Jersey names in the first roll call, saying they were disputed. A meltdown followed. Some Congressmen walked out and left town. A Speaker could not be chosen. After a few days, John Quincy Adams (the former President but now a Representative) was chosen as a “temporary chairman.” Finally the House agreed to leave out the disputed five Representatives and a compromise Speaker was selected. In February 1840, the five Democrats were accepted by the House by a vote of 111-81. A committee report in July 1840 declared they had won the election and was also accepted by the House (102-22.) So in the end, in some sense, the votes of South Amboy and Millville were counted.

The sequel: In the election of 1840, the Democrats were defeated, and the very same six New Jersey Whigs were returned to Congress! The Whigs took a huge majority and the Presidency — but they had somehow chosen a Vice President who wasn’t a Whig. But that’s not State of New Jersey history anymore.  

Chapter XXI, The Great Seal War, in New Jersey as a Colony and a State, Vol. 3 by Francis Bazley Lee.

The Broad Seal War in Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

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