It was America’s hundredth year of independence! How did the nation celebrate? With the most controversial election in American history!
The Last Four Years
President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term did not have as many highlights as the first. It kicked off with one of the coldest inaugurations of all time. At the inaugural ball, which was unwisely held outside in tents, it was so cold that food froze and birds (used for decoration) died in their cages.
Reconstruction continued to be highly controversial. Southerners decried “Carpetbaggers” from the North who came to take advantage of their recovering governments and economies. In contrast, they praised the “Redeemers” who wanted to restore power to native Southern whites. Violence against African Americans also rose during this time period. White supremacist riots and government revolts occurred all across the South. Grant did his best to protect the rights of former slaves. In 1875, he signed a Civil Rights Act, which protected African Americans’ right to public accommodations. A few years later, however, it was ruled unconstitutional.
Economically, Grant faced the Panic of 1873, once known as the “Great Depression.” Thanks to industrialization, the US economy was booming in the decade following the Civil War. But without the Federal Reserve System to provide regulation, the US was subject to intense boom-and-bust cycles. Although the Panic had several global causes, the main cause in the US was overuse of speculative investments, such as railroads. Congress responded with the Inflation Bill, which would have introduced millions of dollars in greenbacks into the economy. Grant unexpectedly vetoed the bill, siding with bankers, who favored hard-money, like gold and silver. Instead, he later signed the Resumption of Specie Act, which encouraged the use of gold and silver coins over paper money, something President Jackson would have loved.
And, last but not least, there were more scandals. Grant’s second term began with what became known as the “Salary Grab.” Grant and Congress increased the salaries for each of the three branches of government. It was not unwarranted. President Grant’s salary, for instance, was the same as George Washington’s. The real controversy, though, was that it also included retroactive payment for the previous years of each official’s term. This meant that congressmen were earning thousands of dollars for years already paid. Obviously, that did not sit well with the American public. In keeping with expectations, almost every level of Grant’s administration was involved in a scandal. Honestly, there were too many to describe them all. The Departments of Treasury, Interior, War, Navy, and Justice were all engaged in complex rings of bribes and/or extortion. One of the most famous scandals was the Whiskey Ring, wherein government officials took bribes to help distillers evade the high whiskey taxes. Rescinding his position of peace with Native Americans, Grant also allowed miners to break the Treaty of Fort Laramie when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of Great Sioux Reservation.
The multitude of scandals finally caught up with the Republican Party. They lost big to the Democrats in the 1874 midterms. Although the Spoils System was the driving force of their political machines, politicians from both parties demanded civil service reform. They called for a merit-based system of appointment that would help eliminate corruption.
Party Watch & The Candidates
President Grant actually considered running for a third term, but the weight of his administration’s scandals was too heavy to overcome. Going into the Republican convention, the favorite candidate was former Speaker of the House and now-Senator James Blaine from Maine (rhymes!). Unfortunately, Blaine was ALSO wrapped up in a scandal, having been accused of taking bribes from the Union Pacific Railroad company. After seven ballots, the delegation united behind the little-known ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes had once been a lawyer and abolitionist, known for defending slaves in court. He served in the Civil War and returned to ohio to become a congressman and then governor. Hayes was ultimately picked as the nominee for his reformists beliefs. In fact, the Republican platform directly called for the end of the Spoils System. Hayes’ running mate was William Wheeler, a New York representative who was surprisingly not entangled in the state’s corrupt political machine and had even refused his pay increase from the Salary Grab.
The Democrats needed to convey honesty to contrast the Republicans. They easily agreed to nominate New York Governor Samuel Tilden. Tilden was known as a “Bourbon Democrat,” for his focus on conservative economic values. Though he was anti-slavery, he had been a Democrat all his life. As governor, Tilden was best known for targeting Tammany Hall, a notoriously corrupt political machine in New York, and for ending the Canal Ring, a network of bribes behind the construction of the Erie Canal. Not every Democrat was a big fan of Tilden, but they all knew he was necessary to capitalize on their anti-corruption message. For vice president, the convention strategically chose a Midwesterner, Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks. Like their Republican counterparts, the Democratic leaders also called for an end to the Spoils System in their platform. The key difference, however, was their insistence on a quick end to Reconstruction.
The most notable third party in 1876 was the Greenback Party. This group, mainly composed of Midwestern farmers, supported, you guessed it, greenbacks over hard money. Their nominee was businessman and anti-shaving advocate, Peter Cooper.
Hayes’ and Tilden’s positions on the two biggest issues weren’t actually all that different. Both wanted civil service reform and removal of federal troops from the South. The difference, of course, was their ideal speed for Reconstruction’s end. Republicans still relied on the memory of the Civil War for support. They were often criticized for “waving the bloody shirt,” a reference to a speech given by a Radical Republican while waving the bloody shirt of a Northerner who had been attacked by the KKK. Republicans argued, “Not every Democrat was a rebel, but every rebel was a Democrat.” For their part, the Democrats had a lot to work with. From the Grant administration’s scandals, to the economic Panic, to Carpetbagging, there were a lot of ways to fire up their base.
Political Cartoons Pause!
If you have an mental image of a goofy, caricature-filled Nineteenth Century political cartoon, it probably comes from cartoonist Thomas Nast. Many of the era’s famous images come from Nast’s drawings in the magazine Harper’s Weekly. He is credited with creating the elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party and the modern image of Santa Claus. Though he did not invent them, he is also responsible for popularizing Uncle Sam and the Democrats’ donkey. Nast often used his cartoons to promote abolition and equality, though he had a mixed record on racial depictions, as you might imagine. He was a strong critic of the corrupt political machines of New York, as well. His cartoons could be so brutal, that many people erroneously credit his name as the origin of the word “nasty.”
Colorado joins the Union! Since they gained statehood so close to the election, they chose their presidential electors via the state legislature, the last state to do so. This election had the highest turnout of voting eligible population in US history.
Initially, it seemed like Tilden had won. He had a quarter of a million more votes than Hayes and his electoral score was 184-165, only one vote shy of the 185 needed to win. But there were four states in question, totaling twenty electors. For Hayes to win, he would need all twenty. The results in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida were disputed. Democrats claimed that the Carpetbagger governments had rigged the results, while Republicans pointed to the intimidation of African American voters by white supremacist groups. Both parties sent officials to investigate and both sent conflicting results claiming victory. The fourth state, Oregon, had one remaining vote up for grabs. Hayes had undoubtedly won the popular vote there, but the state’s Democratic governor claimed that one elector, whose day job was a postmaster, was technically a federal employee and thus ineligible for the position. He argued that the Democrats deserved one dubious claim to balance the fraud happening in the South.
With the election results contested, the decision fell to Congress, which was unfortunately split. The Democratic House didn’t want the Republicans Senate to have control, and vice versa. Eventually, an Electoral Commission was appointed. It consisted of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices, which contained seven Republicans and seven Democrats. The fifteenth member was meant to be Justice David Davis, who was considered to be independent. But before they could proceed, the Democratic Illinois state legislature tried to sway Davis by appointing him as their senator (senators were not yet chosen by the people), leading to his resignation from the commission. He was replaced by Justice Joseph Bradley, who leaned Republican but still claimed he would be nonpartisan. Well, that didn’t happen and he voted with the Republicans.
What the public didn’t know at the time, was that there were secret deals happening in the background of this commission. Southern Democrats agreed to accept Hayes as president in return for a swift end to Reconstruction. The deal became known as the Compromise of 1877.
Rutherford B. Hayes “won!” He became America’s 19th president, and the third bearded election winner in a row. The commission vote was 8-7, making the final electoral college results 185-184, the closest margin of all time. It is still the only time in US history that the electoral loser earned more than 50% of the popular vote. The results were announced on March 2nd, just two days before the inauguration.
Democrats, of course, were outraged. Some groups began arming themselves and warned of a second civil war. Surprisingly, Southern Democrats were the least worried, since Reconstruction was likely to end under either candidate. Tilden did not encourage resistance, but he remained adamant that he was the true winner for the rest of his life.
What Did It Say About America?
Reconstruction was over, along with the federal government’s concern for African American rights. The Republicans ultimately abandoned the newly freed populations in the South. Redeemers took over and the South was once again under the control of white supremacists. The entire South voted Democratic for the next twenty years, and no state that experienced extended federal occupation voted Republican again until 1928. Voters wanted a reform candidate, and they got one in the most corrupt way possible.
Was It The Right Decision?
Not like this! Hayes had a better vision for the country than Tilden, but his victory was won by trading the rights of African Americans. On top of that, as governor of ohio, Hayes helped create an ohio state university, and I could never endorse him for that.