The Election of 1876 was arguably the most contentious presidential election in American history. Unresolved for months, it was finally settled in March 1877 after Democrats and Republicans struck a Draconian Bargain calledThe Compromise of 1877. ‘Compromise’ is one way of putting it; an outrageous act is another. The parties put partisan interests before country and, in the process, dealt African Americans a vicious blow.
Hyperactive party politics and racial intolerance are as alive today as they were back then. So could America revisit history later this year? While the 2020 script won’t be written the same as it was a century and a half ago, there’s no question that America could be in store for a historically tumultuous experience. Before getting into how, and what can be done to avoid that happening, let’s summarize the raucous experience of 1876-77.
Emotions. Finger-pointing. ‘Hell will break out’ assertions. It’s all ‘identity politics,’ and it emboldens the parties. But there are things we can do to counter that stuff.
The Election of 1876 wasn’t resolved on Election Day because the vote was contested in three Southern states—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana—with one undecided Electoral vote in Oregon. A total of 20 Electoral votes were hanging in the balance, and electoral distribution would decide who would succeed Ulysses S. Grant (R) as president of the United States.
The Republican nominee was Rutherford B. Hayes (R), Ohio’s sitting governor. A dark horse candidate to win the Republican nod, Hayes was in fifth place after the first ballot and didn’t win the nomination until the 7th round of voting. Governor Samuel J. Tilden (D-NY), the Democrat nominee, was the odds-on favorite to be the Democrat’s choice, and he also had a good shot at winning the general election.
It was a tight race. Tilden won 51% of the popular vote nationally, but not enough Electoral votes to be declared the winner. For months, “dispute” was the watchword of the day.
In Oregon, Hayes won the popular vote by nearly 4%, but the South tilted heavily in Tilden’s favor. He delivered as expected, gathering the majority of votes in 13 Southern states from a low of 54% (North Carolina) to a high of 72% (Georgia). The story was different in the three contested Southern states. There, Hayes won Florida and South Carolina by roughly 900 votes each (11 Electoral votes combined). His victory margin was wider in Louisiana (about 5000 votes) with its eight Electoral votes.
Congress appointed anelection commission (five U.S. senators, five U.S. House members, and five members of the U.S. Supreme Court) to study the situation. Members voted 8-7 to award all 20 Electoral votes to Hayes. With that, Hayes went from trailing Tilden 184-165 to winning the Electoral College by the slimmest of margins, 185-184. In March 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in as the 19th president of the United States.
Was hanky-panky involved? Of that, there is no dispute. For example, more votes were counted in SC than there were registered voters, and each party ‘verified’ that its candidate had won the popular vote in each of the contested Southern states. That said, voter fraud wasn’t the primary factor. The Compromise of 1877 was. In exchange for securing the presidency, the Republicans gave Democrats something they wanted badly—the end of Reconstruction.
Championed by Republican-led Federal administrations, Reconstruction (to ‘reconstruct’ the Republic in the wake of the Civil War) was imposed on the South. But Southern states wanted to re-take control of their affairs—unfettered by Federal mandates and oversight when it came to the treatment of former slaves. The disputed 1876 election gave them leverage to do just that. Democrat leaders knew that Republicans valued retaining The White House more than they valued sustaining Reconstruction.
The resulting quid pro quo had disastrous outcomes for African Americans, who had been experiencing progress as a result of Reconstruction.In the wake of The Compromise of 1877, “Southern legislatures passed a series of laws requiring the separation of whites from ‘persons of color’ on public transportation, in schools, parks, restaurants, theaters, and other locations. Known as the ‘Jim Crow laws’ (after a popular minstrel act developed in the antebellum years), these segregationist statutes governed life in the South through the middle of the next century.”
For an extended period, the South remained steadfastly ‘Blue.’ For example, 80 years later (in the Election of 1956), Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) beat Adlai Stephenson (D) by 15% nationally and carried 41 (of the then 48) states … except for seven Southern states. In the contentious 1960 election (because of John F. Kennedy’s (D) Catholic affiliation), a victorious JFK won in nine Protestant-leaning Southern states.
But by the Election of 1968, Texas was the only Southern state in the ‘Blue’ column. What happened between 1956 and 1968? Just as in 1876, the answer was race.
This time it wasThe Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dismantled Jim Crow policies and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. As the New York Timesreported: “Some of President Lyndon B. Johnson's advisors recall how Democrats rejoiced at the thought that millions of grateful black voters would come flooding into the Democratic camp. But some also remember that Mr. Johnson was warned that southern whites would flee the (Democrat) party.”
They did. And as The Economist describes it, it has been “a long goodbye.” Thirty-five years after those laws went into effect, Al Gore (D) outpolled George W. Bush (R) nationally in Election 2000—but every Southern state went Republican. By 2008, in Barack Obama’s (D) initial win, only four Southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida) went ‘Blue.’ In 2016, Hillary Clinton won only a single Southern state (Virginia, the home state of her running mate).
There are at least two takeaways associated with what I’ve just described. First, race is a recurring theme in America’s narrative; arguably America’s #1 unresolved matter. I can only imagine what America would be like if Reconstruction had continued. The tragedy is that it didn’t. Second, hyperactive party politics is another American storyline. The major political parties not only rule America’s politics, but the country’s political divide is deeper and broader than ever.
Those takeaways left me wondering if we might be facing a political conundrum similar to what the country faced over 150 years ago. Eric Lach has considered that possibility in athoughtfully written piece published recently in TheNew Yorker. Lach chronicles a scenario-playing effort undertaken byThe Transition Integrity Project. As part of the project, “participants assumed roles as members of the Trump and Biden campaigns, state officials, and the media.” “One of the big takeaways,” a participant told Lach, “is (the possibility) that…neither side accepts a loss.”
As participants worked through possible scenarios, they identified multiple states where the final call couldn’t be made for more than a week following Election Day. They imagined Biden being encouraged to concede (on Election Night) because in-person election-day returns favored Trump. Then, they considered the possibility of the vote swinging toward Biden as absentee votes were counted.
As scenario-playing continued, Lach says, the circumstances became more unsettled. He writes: “The team playing as the Trump campaign called on the Justice Department to use federal agents to secure voting sites and tried to enlist state Republican officials to stop the further counting of absentee ballots. The Biden team…called for every vote to be counted and urged its supporters to attend rallies calling for the same….Trump’s people tried to federalize the National Guard, and both parties sought to block or overturn results in key states.”
Lach continues: “Eventually, North Carolina was declared for Biden, Florida was declared for Trump, which left Michigan as the deciding state. There, a ‘rogue individual’ destroyed ballots believed to be favorable to Biden, leaving Trump with a narrow lead. Michigan’s Republican-led legislature certified Trump’s victory, but the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, refused to accept the result, citing the sabotage, and sent a separate certification to Congress.”
When I shared the scenario-playing outcomes with a friend of mine, she expressed despair—not only about possible outcomes but also because she felt helpless. “Citizens will vote,” she replied, “but it’s out of our hands after that.”
“But what about before the election?” I asked. “Everyday people are engaging in pre-election behavior that makes onerous outcomes all the more likely.”
“For evidence, take a gander at your Facebook feed,” I continued. “Reasonable discussion about policy matters is limited. Heck, on some days, it’s difficult to find more than a handful of thoughtful, well-informed posts. And even worse, otherwise reasonable people eviscerate those who don’t share their political proclivities, acting as though they’re participating in a take-no-prisoners military operation. And in some ways, they are. Similar behavior is on display in Letters to the Editor, and in the slanted coverage that dominates the partisan news channels.”
“And so?” she asked. “All of it serves as tinder for the political parties,” I replied. “Emotions. Finger-pointing. ‘Hell will break out’ assertions. It’s all ‘identity politics,’ and it emboldens the parties. But there are things we can do to counter that stuff,” I continued. “We can focus on issues, issues facing the American people—issues that serve the public good.”
She chimed in: “One of my friends is devoted to the issue of outsized military spending, another is passionate about affordable rental housing and child care, and I have a bunch of colleagues who are involved in electoral reform efforts, like open primaries, to limit influence of political parties in America’s politics.”
1876 was a long time ago. At issue is whether back to the future is on tap for November
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