No matter what verbal bombs loudmouth director Michael Moore throws at George W. Bush, it will never compare to the bunker busters the press dropped on Rutherford B. Hayes after he was declared the winner of the disputed presidential election of 1876. How about this one from the distinguished Civil War correspondent and The New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana:
“These are days of humiliation, shame and mourning for every patriotic American. A man whom the people rejected at the polls has been declared President of the United States through the process of fraud. A cheat is to sit in the seat of George Washington.” Hayes then had the word F-R-A-U-D spelled out on his forehead on the cover of the Sun. The Cincinnati Enquirer stated simply: “It’s done. And fitly done in the dark…the monster fraud of the century is consummated.”
Taking part of that latter line for the title of his new book, Roy Morris, Jr. re-examines the disputed and dishonest presidential election of 1876. There is no doubt that this election and how it was ultimately decided changed the direction of the country, especially in the South. It led to an immense struggle over civil rights, fairness in elections and the meaning of federalism (the latter still largely unresolved). Morris, a Civil War historian who wrote a splendid book on the poet Walt Whitman, tries to unravel this 19th century ball of confusion. The threads get pretty dirty.
In some ways, the similarities to the presidential contest of 2000 are uncanny: the Democratic candidate wins the popular vote by not an insignificant margin, votes are disputed in Florida and other states, the election is ultimately decided by the single vote of a Supreme Court justice and the electoral votes in question are awarded to the Republican candidate who is declared the winner. Yet the country was very different then and its resiliency far less certain.
In 1876, the country’s wounds from the Civil War had not been bound as Lincoln had wished. In the defeated South, a large federal army was still in place, overseeing the administration of local and state governments and grating on the temper of much of the population it was serving, save its newly freed slaves.
In many ways the election of 1876 was the final battle of the Civil War. Morris concludes it was won by the Democratic leaders of the South, despite the elevation of Republican candidate, Hayes.
Unlike the month of uncertainty following the election of 2000, the settling of the 1876 election took four months, with the possibility of armed insurrection at any moment. For example, the Democratic sergeant-at-arms of the House of Representatives threatened to deputize 100,000 men and bring them to Washington to assure a victory for Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden (N.Y.), the popular vote winner. President Grant thought enough of the threat to reposition artillery in Washington to make clear that any violence would be met with force.
Under these dicey circumstances, the real action shifted to a presidential commission tasked with finding facts. The deliberations of this commission — much of it in the backrooms of Washington — is where Morris shines light, examining the endgame that led to the final deal. When the electoral votes were finally counted at 4 a.m. on March 2, 1877, Hayes had won by one vote. Since the inauguration was scheduled for March 5 (March 4 being a Sunday) Hayes was secretly sworn in on March 3 to prevent any last minute surprises. At the same moment, federal troops were given the order to exit the South. The newly enfranchised African-American community is left to find its own way. After four years of Civil War and 12 more of Reconstruction, the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln championed at Gettysburg will now take another hundred years.
Morris’s description of this sad tale gets into the personalities of the major figures, including the enigmatic Tilden, who according to Morris, “acted nobly and decisively” when it became clear Hayes would ultimately prevail — “an act of supreme patriotism.” Hayes, too, receives at least a fairer hearing than by some accounts. The placid, outgoing Hayes handles the electoral struggle, as he did his soldiering during the Civil War, with “an inner strength” that proved him the far better politician than the aloof Tilden, who had prepared for the presidency for his entire life.
Unlike most stories of this tumultuous time, Morris does not leave the reader with the feeling that each side, more or less, contributed to a dubious yet ultimately practical conclusion. “Many wrongs do not make one right,” he notes.
Despite Hayes’s virtues as general and a president, Tilden won the election. The country paid a stiff price for the bargain that put Hayes in the White House and the lessons echo loudly. This detailed historical account casts a shadow on our historical claim as a model for democracy, but fascinates the reader who likes political fiction.
Too bad it isn’t.
John Kornacki is a contributing writer for The Hill.