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  • Brad Shen

The Centennial Confusion

In the aftermath of yet another messy US presidential election, it might be comforting to know that we are far from the first generation to experience this.

It was 1876—the centennial of the independence of the United States—and America was due for yet another presidential election. Rutherford B. Hayes, of the Republican Party went head-to-head with Samuel Tilden, of the Democratic Party.

Hopes were high that the Democrats would win this one; they accused the Republicans of being corrupt. The Republicans, for their part, accused the Democrats of having been behind the Confederacy, and thus that they were disloyal. The Democrats responded by coining the phrase “waving the bloody shirt”—using irrelevant but emotional appeals to distract from actual issues—to describe the Republicans.

The results were unclear on election day. A candidate needed 185 votes to win—Tilden was confirmed to have 184, Hayes, 165. 19 of the 20 electoral votes in dispute came from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, both of which transmitted two sets of votes, one all-Democrat and one all-Republican. The remaining vote came from Oregon, where a similar set of events took place after the Democratic governor of Oregon disqualified a Republican elector, and Oregon ended up submitting two sets of returns as well.

There was a great deal of crisis. “Tilden or Blood” was the slogan of many angry Democrats, some of whom even threatened to march on Washington with an army of 100,000 men to install Tilden. When Rutherford Hayes sat down for dinner at his home in Ohio, a shot was fired at his house. Given that the Civil War had only been over for just over a decade, the whole nation was on edge.

The Constitution wasn’t clear on how the presidency would be chosen if the electoral votes were in dispute. For the record, it still isn’t very clear. All it says is that the President of the Senate, or the outgoing Vice President, “shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted”. So, who would do the counting?

The Republicans wanted the Republican Vice President to do the job. They argued that the House and Senate were just there to watch him. Meanwhile, the Democrats wanted Congress to do the counting, and argued that the Vice President was just there to keep order. However, the House of Representatives had a large Democratic majority, and the Senate had a large Republican majority.

Eventually, though, they reached a compromise. An Electoral Commission consisting of 5 senators, 5 representatives, and 5 justices of the Supreme Court was appointed. The senators and representatives would be elected by the houses they were members of, while 4 of the justices (2 of whom had been appointed by Democratic Presidents and 2 by Republicans) were designated in the bill and they were to elect the fifth.

The justices had originally planned to elect David Davis to the post of fifth justice. He was a political wildcard. However, in those days senators were elected by state legislatures. The Democratic-controlled Illinois Legislature elected him as senator from Illinois, in the hope that he would rule in favor of the Democrats because of that. What he did instead was resign his post as justice to take up the seat of senator, which meant he couldn’t be elected to the commission at all. The justices then elected the most moderate of the rest, Joseph P. Bradley. Bradley was, however, a Republican appointee.

The Commission voted 8-7 on party lines to elect Rutherford B. Hayes as President of the United States. A vote of both houses of Congress was needed to overturn their decision. The Democratic House voted to overturn it; the Republican Senate did not. And so the decision stood. But behind it was another bargain that was for the longest time regarded as a conspiracy theory.

The Compromise of 1877 stated that Democrats would not resist the election of President Hayes in exchange for the Republicans ending Reconstruction--the occupation of the States of the former Confederacy by Union troops in order to guarantee rights to ex-slaves--and allowing Southern States to enforce civil rights by themselves.

Many Southern whites were unhappy with this and formed organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate black people into not voting or exercising their civil rights. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant had successfully suppressed the KKK. But by the time of this election, voters were too tired to care. A new organization, called the White Man’s League, had formed in their place to protect their “hereditary civilization” against “Africanization”. They had committed such “civilized” acts as the murder of a 17-year-old black schoolteacher named Julia Hayden.

Rutherford B. Hayes was peacefully inaugurated as President in 1877. He would not run for re-election despite the fact that he was reasonably popular at the end of his term. As for civil rights, the Compromise of 1877 had doomed the cause, and not until the 1960s would it return to the American public consciousness.

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