The Crestone Eagle • February, 2021 

His Fraudulency, 19th President, Rutherford B. Hayes

by Mary Lowers

The post-Civil War election of 1876 was a nasty campaign which included voter intimidation and threats of violence. The whole nation was in turmoil. This election became a showdown between Governor Samuel Tilden, a Democrat from New York, and Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican.

 In the most recent presidential contest between Trump and Biden, according to a report by Jason Slotkin of National Public Radio, “a group of Senate Republicans said they would vote to reject electors from states which they considered disputed if Congress did not form a commission to investigate their claims of voter fraud.” This group of Repulican lawmakers in 2020 cite the 1876 election and the subsequent Compromise of 1877 as precedent for their threatened action.  In both 1876 and 2020 the two major political parties, but particularly the Republicans, thought they knew better than our Constitution the rules we are governed by. The Constitution, remember, must be amended to change the rules. 

In the U.S. centennial year of 1876 both parties were ready to clean up the federal government after the corruption-plagued presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Democratic candidate Tilden was referred to by historian Stacy Conradt as a “national player” active in state and national politics. He had been a key figure in helping to send corrupt New York Tammany Hall kingpin Boss Tweed to jail. Hayes, on the other hand, was little known nationally. He was a lawyer, having served in the US House of Representatives as well as Governor of Ohio. He was a hard and fast Abolitionist and he had defended refugee slaves in court.

The U.S. economy was suffering from the Panic of 1873. A Panic was similar to what we’d now call a Recession or Depression. Panics were a  problem in the financial sector and banking industry that caused a economy-wide business cycle contraction. These events were common during the 1800s and early 1900s and were the major source of downturns in the business cycle.

Racial tension, as after the Civil War, was still running high. Southern Democrats wanted the US military out of the southern states. Candidate Tilden and the Democrats wanted to limit the rights of former slaves and allow the south to be more independent from Washington’s reach.Candidate Hayes and the Republicans supported a strong federal government and a weaker state government and supported full rights for Black citizens. The campaign was contentious. Stacy Couradt says, “At one point, Hayes’s backers reportedly said Tilden had rampant syphilis and it had impared his mental capacity.”

Democrats encouraged well known militia, precursors to the Klu Klux Klan such as the Red Shirts and other racist groups, to make threatening appearances at party meetings and at polling places. The party tasked them with scaring Black voters. Each southern Democrat was told by the party, according to Stacy Couradt, “to seek to control the vote of at least one negro, by intimidation or purchase (bribery) keeping him away” from the polls.

At the time the Presidential race was thought to belong to the Democrats. Newspapers even pronounced Tilden victorious. On election night, Tilden won more than 250,000 popular votes. He was but a single electoral college vote away from the 185 votes he needed to carry the election. Stacy Conradt states, “Hayes went to bed figuring he’d lost.” He  told reporters at the time he’d ended election night thinking he’d lost and writing his concession speech. 

Four months later Hayes was ready to be sworn in as president. What follows tells the tale of the girations Republicans and Democrats in 1876/1877 went to, pursuing their personal and party agendas regardless of the parameters of the U.S Constitution. This document is the “rule book” for how things work. If you want to change things, you amend or change the Constitution publicly, not in some back room.

Recounting the votes was called for as the southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were said to be too close to call. If Hayes won in all three of these states he’d be President.

In Louisiana the Republicans controlled the election board for $1000 in bribes, bought an elector off, declaring that the vote had not been Tilden, the Democratic candidate’s, win. Stacy Couradt says, “It is speculated that South Carolina and Florida were made similar offers, but the Democrats refused to take the bait.” Votes in the three contentious states were voided for various reasons. An election judge in a Florida precinct got votes disqualified because he went to dinner leaving the ballot box unattended. These shenanigans succeeded in making Republican Hayes the clear winner.

Issue after issue came up and still no decision on who was the winner, Hayes or Tilden. There were months of uncertainty. The United States was divided. Many saw another civil war on the horizon. A period where normal government is suspended was instituted by a three quarters vote of the U.S. Congress.

Republicans in the Senate thought the Republican majority Supreme Court should decide who won the presidential election. The Democrats said no to this suggestion. After back room bargaining, both parties at last agreed on an electoral commission consisting of five members of the Senate, three Republicans and two Democrats and five members of the Supreme Court with two Democratic Justices and two Republican Justices. The four Supreme Court members of the commission would vote for a fifth Justice to be a commission member. It was intended that this fifth Justice would be David Davis who, Stacy Conradt comments, “was known for his independence.” Davis did not always vote with his party.

At the time this commission was constructed the Atlantic magazine said, “If the ideal were one half Democrat and one half Republican how could it have been more perfectly realised then by Davis.” However this perfect commission was not to be as Davis withdrew his  name from consideration for the commission. He was replaced by Justice Bradley who was a “party line” voting Republican. This gave the Republicans an eight-to-seven majority over the Democrats. Stacy Conradt commented, “deals were made behind the scenes.”

Presidential portrait of the 19th President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes.

Meanwhile, Republicans were trying hard to stop southern Democrats from blocking the electoral vote count. One of those back room deals  made at the time was if the southern Democrats would back down and allow Hayes to be elected the Republican Party would give the southern Democrats concessions on a number of issues. 

These concessions were on issues that impact the United States to this day. This agreement to get Hayes elected was later referred to as the Compromise of 1877. While secret, this agreement is thought by historians to include:

Removal of Federal troops from the south.

A southerner being appointed Postmaster General or a cabinet member.

Funds directed to rebuilding the south.

Racial issues would from now on be the job of state governments not the federal government.

So now that all the conditions had been put in place to get Republican Candidate Hayes into office, the commission by a majority of one decided that Hayes deserved all the votes in the three disputed states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Democrats were mad as hell and threatened a filibuster (action such as prolonged speech which obstructs legislative progress), that could kill the action. In long secret meetings behind closed doors politicians from both parties tried to come to an agreement. They came up with the Compromise of 1877 which through concessions to that party, stopped the Democrats from contesting the election results.

Civil Rights protestors in the the 1960-s fighting the Jim Crow laws which grew out of the back room politics in 1877.

Rutherford B. Hayes was secretly sworn in as the nineteenth President of the United States on March 3, 1877. He was then publicly sworn in on March 5, 1877. The disputes surrounding this election—if you want to call it that—haunted Hayes for his entire one-term presidency. He was referred to at the time as Rutherfraud and His Fraudulency. Hayes refused to run for a second term in 1881. Tilden the Democratic Candidate was actually  the  winner of the election of 1876.

Abiding by the secret terms of the Compromise of 1877, Hayes pulled all the Federal soldiers from the southern states. This led quickly to voter suppression, segregation and the so called Jim Crow South. Historian Eric Foner wrote, “The failure of the reconstruction for Black people, was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by genuine accomplishments that did endure.” The period of southern home rule which followed was as Nora McGreevy put it, “created a unfettered white supremacists rule which rose to power in many southern states.”

Foner argues that this failure to complete reconstruction in the south completely altered the development of the nation. Foner writes, “Reconstruction’s demise and the emergence of Blacks as a disenfranchised class of dependent laborers greatly facilitated racism, which further spread until by the early twentieth century it had become more deeply embedded in the nation’s culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our entire history.”

The compromise of 1877 set the stage for the Jim Crow era in the South.

I do wonder what the country would be like now if political party players had followed the rules laid out in the Constitution back in 1876.