Current election shows parallels to 1876 crisis

Mike Wereschagin

This is not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has gotten involved in an election. This is not the first time states’ presidential races are too close to call. This is not even the first time Florida played a deciding electoral role weeks after the polls closed.
And last time, the United States nearly plunged into a second civil war.
The 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden mirrored the current political climate in many ways.
Republicans and Democrats chose their candidates in that election because the men could overcome the stigma of the Grant administration, which the public viewed as immoral.
President Clinton put today’s candidates in a similar situation after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gore distanced himself from his former running mate for much of his campaign.
In 1876, Tilden won the popular vote by about 250,000 votes. Today, Gore currently leads by about 335,000.
Florida, which then had four electoral votes, was one of the last undecided states in the 1876 election, where Hayes won the electoral college and the presidency by a single vote, despite losing the popular vote.
And, in the end, a concession by Tilden in January 1877 ended months of political feuding.
“The interesting thing in both elections is that there was just as much campaigning by the candidates after the election as there was during,” said U.S. Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “In fact, in 1876 there was actually more campaigning after the election.”
Considering the Civil War ended only 11 years earlier, it is easy to see why, Ritchie said.
Postwar animosity between the North and South re-emerged in a nation that seemed to finally be cooling down.
The Reconstruction, a period of Southern occupation by federal troops and politicians meant to “fix” prewar political ills, embittered many Southerners. Tilden used that bitterness as a cornerstone of his campaign.
Similarly, Hayes garnered votes by using fear tactics telling Northerners a Democratic administration would undo postwar unification efforts and put the country back where it was before the Civil War.
On Nov. 16, 1876, The Nation, a weekly news magazine wrote: “There is at this writing no perceptible change in the political situation. The contradictory telegraphing to the newspapers from both sides continues and makes the bulletin boards very amusing reading.”
But not everyone in the country was amused. Tensions flared into anger and both sides mobilized along party lines.
The situation deteriorated so far that, at this time in 1876, President Grant mobilized the army and navy to stand at the ready in case of “resistance too formidable to be overcome by the state authorities.”
The nation began to prepare for another war.
Like today, politicians tried to concentrate on the righteousness of their side, though the hostile undertones were barely concealed.
“As we look into the vat, we hear psalm-singing but we smell brimstone,” The Nation wrote on Nov. 7.
“There were many concerns that an attempt would be made on Hayes’ life,” Ritchie said. “They were so concerned that Hayes was actually sworn in privately before the public ceremony, just to be sure.”
On Jan. 4, 1877, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount because the circumstances of the first count were questionable.
Eventually, an unprecedented 15-member Election Commission was formed with five members each from the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Their charge was to decipher questionable ballots and ballot certifications to determine the election’s winner.
In the end, however, a compromise ended conflict. Prominent Democrats and Republicans met privately in a hotel room and agreed that Tilden would concede the election. In exchange, the federal government under Hayes ended the Reconstruction.
To win an election, Hayes sacrificed the civil rights of millions of blacks in the South.
“They ended civil rights for blacks in the South for another 100 years,” Ritchie said. “The compromise of 1877 launched the era of segregation in the South.”
Stephen Cresswell wrote in a 1997 article for Ballots and Buttons, “Both of the major political parties engaged in some dubious practices in Washington (D.C.) and the Southern state capitols. Neither … could have taken office with complete pride in his party’s methods of electioneering.”
The current battle for the White House shares much with that election, but there are also several important differences.
And no matter how long the current legal battles continue, there is one thing the election of 1876 proves:
Things could be worse.
— The U.S. Senate Historical Office contributed to this report.

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at (612) 627-4070 x3226. He can also be reached at [email protected]