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The Election Case of James Harlan of Iowa (1857)

Photo of James Harlan

Conduct of election.

Credentials presented: Dec. 3, 1855
Referred to committee: Dec. 15, 1856
Committee report: Jan. 5, 1857
Senate vote: Jan. 12, 1857

Result: Unseated

Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act early in 1854 effectively opened territories to slavery and sparked a thunderous political explosion. Antislavery Whigs and Democrats combined with free-soilers and abolitionists to establish an anti-Nebraska party, which subsequently became the Republican party. The accompanying political shock waves were felt in numerous Senate election contests.

In Iowa thirty-five-year-old James Harlan (Free Soil party, later Republican) quickly emerged as a strong candidate in a crowded field to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator Augustus Caesar Dodge, whose term was to expire in March 1855. The politically astute Harlan avoided being pinned down on positions by the many factions that jockeyed for control within each party. Refusing to respond in writing to a questionnaire, he agreed to meet personally with anyone who wanted an elaboration of his views. He expressed his platform as follows: "If elected to the Senate of the United States, in all Constitutional questions that might arise, I would expect to be guided in my action by the decisions of the Supreme Court and the well settled principles of constitutional law--in all questions of Legislative Expediency, by the views and wishes of the legislature and people of Iowa--and in all questions of Conscience by the Bible."

The legislature of Iowa, which was required to elect senators in joint session, met on December 21, 1854, and January 5, 1855, and failed to make a choice. On Saturday, January 6, 1855, the state house convened and sent a message to the senate that it was ready to meet in joint convention to elect a senator but was informed that the senate had already adjourned to the following Monday. Since the session had been announced when the convention adjourned the preceding day, some senators, but not the senate's president, arrived in the house chamber ready to continue the election. The speaker of the house convened the joint convention, which elected new officers and sent the sergeant at arms to inform the absentees that the convention was ready to proceed with the election. A vote for U.S. senator was then taken, with a majority of the house and of the whole legislature present, but not a majority of the senate. Harlan received 52 votes--a bare majority of the votes cast--to win a seat in the United States Senate. When the Iowa senate met the following Monday, it protested that the election was not legal since a majority of senators had not been present.

Statement of the Case
Although Harlan's opponents in Iowa challenged the legality of his selection, the U.S. Senate on December 3, 1855, administered the oath to Harlan. Despite attempts by his Democratic Iowa colleague, George W. Jones, to call up the matter in August 1856, the Senate permitted the question to lie on the table for a year. On December 15, 1856, when Jones again moved to take up the petition challenging Harlan's election, Harlan offered records of the state legislature and letters from Iowa supreme court justices to support his claim to the seat. Convinced that the subject no longer generated any concern in Iowa, Harlan cheerfully accepted the reference of his case to the Judiciary Committee. He observed in passing, however, that the panel contained not one political friend, as each member opposed him on every current national issue. Although he hastened to soften the impact of that observation by adding that he never intended to question the impartiality of any committee member, for he had learned early in his Senate career that such cases were always adjudicated fairly, Harlan's remark irritated his opponents. Andrew P. Butler (Democrat-SC), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that, if the Senate had a Committee on Privileges and Elections composed of the oldest senators, such cases could be dispatched without these charges of bias. 

Response of the Senate
On January 5, 1857, the Judiciary Committee, having reviewed the proceedings of the Iowa legislature in 1854, returned a report recommending that Harlan's seat be declared vacant. The recommendation gave rise to lengthy partisan explanations of the fine points of the Iowa constitution. In supporting Harlan, William H. Seward (Whig, later Republican-NY) argued that the United States Senate required that a person's credentials show election by the state legislature, whose transactions, once it merged into a common body, superseded individual characteristics. The debate meandered through wordy definitions of "quorum," "majority," and "united votes," until a weary James A. Bayard, Jr. (Democrat-DE) remarked, "I am not sure that it would not have been wiser if it had pleased the convention that framed the federal Constitution to delegate the power to the respective states to elect their two senators by a popular vote instead of choosing them by the legislatures. I do not see any evil that could have followed from it."

In the face of the passionate exchanges, the initial good humor of the senators evaporated, replaced by heated clashes and near insults. The acrimonious debates concluded on January 12, 1857, when the Senate voted 28 to 18 to declare the seat vacant.

Five days after the Senate's action, the Iowa legislature elected Harlan as a Republican. Reelected in 1861, Harlan served as a delegate to the peace convention held that year as a last effort to avoid the coming war. At the close of the Civil War, he resigned from the Senate to become secretary of the interior for Andrew Johnson, returning in 1867 to serve a full term. Harlan died at his Iowa home in 1899.

Cases like Harlan's demonstrated the need for the federal law that was finally passed a decade later in 1866, setting forth procedures for state legislatures to follow in electing U.S. senators. That act specifically provided that, in the joint assembly of both houses, a majority of all votes of the joint assembly would be sufficient to elect if a majority of members of both houses were present, the condition that had existed for Harlan's 1855 election.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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