Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876
By Roy Morris Jr. (Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $14)
In 1876, America was a nation on the verge of war. Appomattox was barely 10 years gone, and the threat of renewed hostilities was only thinly disguised beneath the seemingly benign face of politics. In the South, Reconstruction regimes still controlled public life, and conflict often flared between federal troops and increasingly organized white Southerners. In the North, congressional Republicans continued to wave the "bloody shirt" and advocate further punishment of the South.
Into this restive nation came the presidential election of 1876, which Chattanooga author Roy Morris calls "the last battle of the Civil War." The election was ostensibly a contest between Ohio's Republican Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, a former hero of the Union army, and Samuel Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York. But it was really about whether the Union could be reunited politically, sectionally and racially. And its long-term effects upon African Americans changed the nation as profoundly as the war itself had.
On election night in 1876, both Tilden and Hayes went to bed believing that Tilden had been elected. Tilden had in fact won the popular vote by a significant margin. But later that night a Republican operativea former Union Army general named "Devil Dan" Sicklessent telegrams to the Reconstruction Republican governors of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana instructing them to "Hold your state" for Hayes.
Each governor refused to certify the final vote tallies and directed his state's vote-canvassing boardsthemselves heavily weighted with Republicansto seek out "evidence" of voting fraud. For several tumultuous weeks after election day, the canvassing boards examined returns, took testimony from witnesses and endured the pressures of countless politicians who attempted to influence the reexamination. At the end of it all, the boards in each state threw out enough votes for Tilden, in some cases entire counties, to give their state's electors to Hayes (fulfilling Stalin's dictum that it matters less who votes than who counts the votes).
But the dispute had hardly begun. The elector certifications still had to be accepted and approved by the Senate, and in each of the three contested states, at least one and sometimes two additional electoral certificates were submitted to the Senate by Democratic partisans. In South Carolina, for example, Wade Hampton, a Democrat, had just been elected the state's new governor. He immediately certified the state's electors for Tilden, even though his term had not yet begun. In the meantime, the lame-duck governor, a Republican, challenged Hampton's apparent victory at the polls, held an impromptu inauguration of his own and certified the state's electors for Hayes. The experiences in Florida and Louisiana were much the same, complete with charges that the certificates themselves had been forged. Pressure in Congress over the certifications became so intense that legislators began arming themselves, and on one memorable occasion Sen. L.Q.C. Lamar of Mississippi pulled a pistol and brandished it in the face of a colleague on the Senate floor.
In most respects, this book is a page-turner, popular history at its most entertaining. Morris' writing is lucid and engaging and easy to digest. He delivers sharply etched descriptions of characters and includes telling details of the presidential nominating conventions during a time when party conventions contained drama, uncertainty and genuine consequence.
It is refreshing that Morris avoids the too facile comparison of 1876 with the contested election of 2000. He allows the story of 1876 to stand on its own, with its own implications, rather than reducing it to an ironic precursor of more recent events. If anything, the book suggests the ways in which today's political world is more open than it was in the 19th century. The press at the time was unabashedly partisan and forsook all pretense of fairness. When it appeared Tilden had won, the headline of the pro-Republican Chicago Tribune proclaimed, "Lost. The Country Given Over to Democratic Greed and Plunder." Today, sentiments of that sort are generally relegated to talk radio.
If the book has a shortcoming, it is that the profound effect of the 1876 election on the lives of generations of African Americans is only briefly sketched. "Vote As You Shot" Republicans displayed little loyalty to the former slaves, and during the election dispute they extended veiled assurances to Southern Democrats of reduced federal intervention in their affairs to blunt Southern support for Tilden in Congress. Soon after Hayes' election, the remaining federal troops withdrew from the South, and Reconstruction governments began to fail before the pressures of white Southerners. Within a very few years, the new white majorities began establishing the legal and social order that eventually evolved into Jim Crow. In that sense, perhaps Morris' "last battle of the Civil War" hasn't ended, even today.
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