The Election from Our Past that Blares a Warning for 2020Roundup
tags: Reconstruction, elections, Electoral College, 1876
Richard Kreitner is the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union (2020), from which this essay has been adapted.
The possibility of an unresolved presidential election this fall giving way to a winter of uncertainty, chaos or even political violence has sent many Americans scurrying to the history books in search of a precedent.
Never before has an incumbent president sought to hold onto power despite an apparent loss in his bid for reelection, as President Trump has indicated he might. Yet there have on occasion been lingering doubts long after Election Day about who the winner actually was. Most recently, the 2000 election wasn’t resolved until mid-December, when five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court put a stop to the recount of votes in Florida, thus handing the election to George W. Bush.
But there is a more frightening example of a contested election: 1876. This deadlock came remarkably close to plunging the United States into another civil war, barely more than a decade after the close of the first one. It suggests that today we need not only fear potential violence but should also worry about what policies and principles even well-meaning political leaders might be willing to compromise on to avert it.
Just five weeks before Inauguration Day, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, pressured by business executives who disliked the uncertainty, agreed to form a 15-person commission — composed equally of senators, representatives and Supreme Court justices — to sort through the disputed votes. Tilden wondered whether the Democrats’ participation suggested preemptive capitulation. “Why surrender now?” he asked. “Why surrender before the battle, for fear you may have to surrender after the battle is over?”
In an 8-to-7 party-line vote, the commission gave every disputed vote to Hayes. Democrats in the House threatened to block certification of the results to force a new election. In a literally smoke-filled room at Wormley’s Hotel in Washington, party bigwigs agreed to a now-infamous compromise: Democratic submission to Hayes’s inauguration in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the last Republican redoubts in the South (Louisiana and South Carolina, where they were propping up besieged governors). The deal brought to a symbolic close the 15-year effort to enforce the Constitution in the South.
Wounded by war, devoted to profit rather than principle, grown “tired of the Negro,” as the New York Herald coldly stated, White Northerners were relieved to give up on Reconstruction and leave White Southerners in charge. They had fought once to save the Union but wouldn’t do so again to preserve the newly won rights of Black people.
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