Historical Highlights

The First House-Contested Election

April 29, 1789
The First House-Contested Election Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The fourth President of the United States, James Madison of Virginia served in the Continental Congress as well as four terms in the House of Representatives. Madison is one of only a handful of Members who have become President.
On this date, the House Committee on Elections, a panel created on April 13, 1789, to render judgment on disputed elections in the House based on evidence and witness testimony, reported its first-contested election case, Ramsay v. Smith from South Carolina. David Ramsay contested the election of William Loughton Smith of South Carolina to the 1st Congress (1789–1791), arguing that Smith was not a citizen of the United States for seven years, a requirement set under the Constitution for election to the House. Though he was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1758, Smith had been educated and lived abroad from 1770 to 1783. The case gave the House an opportunity to establish precedent for handling future contested elections: the Committee on Elections gathered evidence and rendered a judgment after which the House determined if more evidence was needed and, if not, voted on the committee’s report. The committee and the whole House upheld Smith’s election, tacitly recognizing his citizenship, despite the fact that he lived abroad when the United States was founded. “It is an established maxim, that birth is the criterion of allegiance,” declared Representative James Madison of Virginia in his colleague’s defense during a debate later that May. “Mr. Smith founds his claim upon his birthright; his ancestors were among the first settlers of [South Carolina].”

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