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When American Democracy Was Worse

Media panic notwithstanding, 2020 doesn't hold a candle to an earlier era in which our virtues and vices both were more pronounced.

The election is over, and Donald Trump’s presidency is set to expire on January 20, but the hyperbole surrounding the outcome continues. Respectable opinion has switched rather abruptly from alarm about the integrity of the election to thundering outrage at the president for disputing its integrity. These reckless, unfounded accusations, we are told, have undermined, perhaps fatally, that most essential pillar of our constitutional democracy, the lawful and peaceful transfer of power. The spectacle is worse than degrading, they say. It is a dagger thrust wantonly at the heart of self-government.

A little perspective is in order. In that spirit, the election of 1876 is worth revisiting as a case study in what a truly dysfunctional democracy looks like.

For nearly two decades in the middle of the 19th century, Americans had spectacularly failed to settle any presidential election without resorting to military force. In 1860, the South seceded rather than accept the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. In 1864, 1868, and 1872, as C. Vann Woodward observes in his classic study, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction, “the election had turned in the last analysis on the employment of military force, or the threat of it … In the phraseology of the seventies, the question was, had American politics become permanently ‘Mexicanized’ since 1860?”

The election of 1876, which coincided with the centennial of the nation’s birth, supplied a mixed answer. The country renounced the dangerous habit of relying on federal bayonets to resolve presidential elections. But it did so at the cost of fraudulently reversing the result of that election and then callously sanctioning the brutal deployment of extralegal violence to reverse the advances African Americans had made toward equal citizenship.

Both the virtues and vices of that era were far more pronounced, recalling Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that we are both better and worse than our ancestors. The same is true of our political institutions, which have become more stable and more sclerotic. Strange as it seems, the golden age of American political history persisted alongside the haunting presence of civil war as a viable threat. Between 1776 and 1876, not a single decade was free from a political crisis that threatened the new nation’s very existence.

The centennial year marked the transition from the old order to the new. The republic was no longer tainted by slavery; it was vastly wealthier, more stable, and more powerful than ever before, yet somehow diminished. The heroic and tragic contradictions were gone, replaced by contradictions more subtle and sordid. Though no one at the time knew it, 1876 was the end of our formative era, the last great drama of our nation’s glorious and guilty youth.

* * *

By today’s standards, both Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, seem like heroic philosopher statesmen. By 19th century standards, both seemed forgettable—and they have been duly forgotten. Hayes was a decorated Civil War veteran whose other primary claim to the nomination was that he was untouched by the scandals that had tainted his party and its most capable and charismatic champion, James G. Blaine.

Tilden, a hypochondriac New Yorker who rose to fame and fortune in Manhattan, ran for president as an outsider crusading against a corrupt, self-serving political establishment. Naturally he later claimed the same corrupt establishment had robbed him of the presidency. Beyond that, the similarities with Donald Trump invert into the sharpest imaginable contrasts.

He was learned and brilliant, but totally lacking in charisma. Though better educated than any politician alive today, he lacked any fancy institutional degrees (he dropped out of Yale after a single term because he found the food intolerable). During the crucial months following the election, he holed up in his office to produce a magisterial study of election law that established his claims to the presidency, even as he disgusted his warmest supporters by his fastidious refusal to fight for what he had won. And Tilden never married, not even once, let alone three times. Critics assailed him for an evident lack of red-blooded American male interest in the opposite sex.

The presidential campaign in 1876 was enflamed by what are now known as “culture war” issues. The two parties studiously avoided substantive policy disputes. Both candidates were nominated to represent the issue on which nearly everyone agreed—the need for reform. Neither candidate represented a genuine alternative on the most divisive issue before the country—a deflationary return to the gold standard. Fiat money, so familiar to us today, was a novelty then, introduced only as an emergency necessity during the Civil War.

The inflationary effects of the so-called “greenbacks” were good for debtors, particularly numerous in the cash-poor regions of the West and South, and bad for wage earners and creditors clustered in the Northeast. Hayes, of Ohio, pretended to hate paper money. Tilden, the Manhattan Jeffersonian and self-declared scourge of “the capitalist class [and] modern dynasty of associated wealth,” actually hated it.

Even the culture war cleavage animating the campaign was mostly a farce. The midterm elections of 1874 had been a landslide in favor of the Democrats, the largest shift in Congress ever at the time. Republicans who survived the deluge recognized that their “bloody shirt” rhetoric was losing its magic. They needed a new issue, soon. But the party’s record on matters unrelated to the war varied between unpopular and criminal, so the bloody shirt came out for one final flap. Not for the last time, the failure of both parties to offer voters a compelling alternative only increased the rhetorical and ideological bitterness with which they assailed one another.

Presidential candidates did not campaign in this era. The best Republican orator of the era, Robert G. Ingersoll, provides an exemplary sample of campaign rhetoric: “The Republican party of the United States is the conscience of the nineteenth century,” Ingersoll boasted in a widely reprinted oration. “It is the justice of this age, the embodiment of social progress and honor.”

Many of the founding members of the Republican Party disagreed. Indeed, most of those who had played a prominent part in the party’s origins had since bolted in disgust. “The faithful planters,” George Julian, an early anti-slavery politician from Indiana, wrote in 1878, “have been driven from the garden, and, to secure their exclusion, self-seeking demons, with sword of corruption, keep watch at the gates.” Those clinging to power under the banner of the Republican Party’s past achievements were false to its original purpose, he wrote, corrupted by “the deforming hand of ambition.” The Republican Party “lies wallowing in the mire of its apostacy, the helpless victim of its leaders and the spectacle of the nation.”

The qualms of what President Grant called “the morbidly honest and ‘reformatory’” portion of the original Republican Party did not diminish the righteous bluster of Ingersoll and others who held high the old party banner. Nor did it stop them from pretending that every single opponent of the party was a traitor. “Every state that seceded from the United States was a Democratic state,” Ingersoll said. “Every enemy this great republic has had for twenty years has been a Democrat. Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat…Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat.”

Given this Manichean outlook, wouldn’t patriotism excuse, if not require, any measure that ensured the election results came down, as we say today, on the right side of history?

* * *

On election night, most Republican Party leaders went to bed defeated, including the future president-elect himself. Hayes joined his wife in bed after learning that Tilden had carried New York City by 50,000 votes. “From that time I never supposed there was a chance for Republican success,” he confided to his diary. Luckily for the Republicans, Daniel Sickles was more resilient.

Hayes and Tilden may deserve their obscurity. But it is an outrage that every schoolboy does not know the name Daniel Sickles. Sickles had been a rising Democratic congressman before the war, retiring briefly from public life after fatally shooting his wife’s lover in Lafayette Square in 1859 (he was exonerated on a plea of temporary insanity). Like many other political hacks, he adeptly switched parties during the war. He lost a leg and won a Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, even though his commanding general, George Meade, thought he deserved to be court-martialed and shot for his actions that day. After the war, he served as military governor of South Carolina and then President Grant appointed him minister to Spain, where he did his best to provoke a war and enjoyed a highly publicized affair with the Dowager Queen. And—and!—he met his wife while studying under her grandfather, Lorenzo de Ponte, a professor of Italian literature who had been friends with Casanova and wrote the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Around midnight following the election, Sickles dropped by the Republican Party campaign headquarters at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, only to find it virtually empty. The party chairman, Zachariah Chandler, had gone to bed, taking a bottle of whisky and leaving instructions that he didn’t want to see anybody, the lone remaining clerk informed Sickles. But the latest election returns were on Chandler’s desk.

Picking them up, Sickles quickly discovered a ray of hope. Tilden had 184 electoral votes in the bag, but 185 was the winning number. If the four remaining undecided states all went for Hayes, he would be president. Three of those states, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, were the last “unredeemed” states, i.e. states still under federal military control. Federal control meant Republican control. As Roy Morris Jr. relates in his excellent narrative history of the election, Fraud of the Century, Sickles instantly began writing identical telegraph messages to political functionaries in all the undecided states: “With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state.”

Over at the New York Times, John C. Reid, the managing editor, independently gleaned the same insight. Hard as it is to imagine, back then the Times was a nakedly partisan newspaper. Reid was woke before anyone had coined the term, “his angry little eyes of a disposition to tyrannize,” as another journalist described him. Democratic officials had telegraphed the Times office, anxiously inquiring about the returns from the three Southern states still under Republican control. If the Democrats were nervous, Reid reasoned, perhaps the Republicans were not without hope.

And so, the following morning, while other Republican newspapers announced calamity, the New York Times was sanguine. “Florida alone in doubt,” the paper reported. “If the Republicans have carried that state, as they claim, they will have 185 votes—a majority of one.”

With the new edition in hand, Reid rushed over to the Republican Party headquarters to insist that its contents, with an effort, might become true. After banging on the wrong door and frightening “two lonely old women nearly out of their wits,” Reid finally roused Zachariah Chandler and convinced him to do what the Times reported he was already doing. Later that morning, Chandler sent telegraph messages to the Republican governors of the three contested states, enjoining them to take control: “Troops and money will be furnished,” he added.

But no one had bothered to telegraph Hayes. “No further doubt of Tilden’s election,” Hayes wrote that same morning. President Grant was also convinced that Tilden had won, but that did not prevent him from sending the troops and funds his party had promised. A small auxiliary army of Republican officials descended on the three state capitols with carpetbags stuffed with cash.

* * *

The details of the sordid mess that followed need not detain us for long. Which of the two parties was guiltier is a metaphysical question, not a historical one. It was obvious that the electoral votes in all three states were for sale, that both parties were eager to buy them, and that the Republicans had more money to throw around. In Louisiana, to cite the most egregious example, the returning boards disallowed 15,623 votes, 13,211 of which were for Tilden. On the other hand, it was also true that Democrats had deployed terroristic violence to prevent Southern Republicans, mostly African Americans, from voting in the first place.

One side claimed voter fraud, the other claimed suppression, and they were both right. The most evenhanded assessment came from a politically independent Massachusetts congressman. “No facts were ever proved more conclusively than the fraud and corruption charged on one side and the intimidation and cruelty on the other. Which of the two sides went the further would be very hard to say.” Though the Republicans were guiltier of corruption and Democrats guiltier of cruelty, it is worth emphasizing these judgments were relative, not absolute. The postwar nihilism of the prostrated South affected everyone. Neither side committed any crime of which the other side was innocent.

Tilden easily won the popular vote by 4 percent, or more than 200,000 votes. No Democrat seriously doubted that their candidate had been lawfully elected as the next president. “Tilden or blood!” was their rallying cry. On December 6, Republican electors in the three contested states cast their ballots for Hayes while alternative Democratic electors gave the same states to Tilden. Both signed and certified versions went to Congress, where the Democrats controlled the House and the Republicans the Senate. Nearly four months after the election, it was not clear who would be inaugurated on March 4, 1877. Democrats in the House prepared to obstruct the official count of the electoral votes and thus the inauguration.

The bleeding had slowed after the Civil War but it had never stopped. Now it seemed the dreadful ordeal might begin all over again. Abram Hewitt, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, later claimed that in at least 15 states, Democratic militia forces, composed largely of veterans, were prepared to march on Washington and inaugurate Tilden by force. Wives who had lost their husbands during the war now feared for the lives of their sons.

And then, with a shudder, everyone stepped back from the abyss. Even the most hot-blooded Southern Democrats knew better than to trust the bellicose statements of their Northern counterparts. Only those who had avoided the last war seemed genuinely willing to repeat it.

“The Compromise of 1877,” C. Vann Woodward wrote, “marked the abandonment of principles and of force and the return to the traditional ways of expedience and concession.” The crux of the bargain, as advertised then and later, was that Republicans agreed to abandon Reconstruction and Democrats agreed to abandon their claim to the White House. This version of the compromise dramatically encapsulated the sectional truce that had already begun to emerge, but it also disguised the true nature of the political maneuvering that gave Hayes the presidency.

As Woodward pointed out, the official version of the compromise makes no sense. The Democrats, as we have noticed, controlled the House of Representatives. Well before they agreed to abandon Tilden, the Democratic caucus had resolved to make the withdrawal of federal troops from the South a condition of any military appropriation bill. The presidency was not then the imperial office it has become. If Congress did not appropriate the funds, the president would have no army. Hayes himself recognized he had no choice in the matter. “The House was against me and I had no army, and public sentiment demanded a change of policy.” So why would Southern Democrats exchange the presidency for a consideration that wasn’t remotely in doubt?

The condensed answer is that Southern Democrats were eager to get their share of what they called “the Great Barbecue,” the public spoils on which Republicans had been fattening themselves since the war. Southerners had arrived at the feast late, Woodward wrote, “hungry and perhaps a bit greedy and not a little angry at being uninvited—only to find the victuals just about cleaned up.”

Northern Democrats had campaigned promising honesty and economy, and an appalling fraction of them actually meant it. They were bent on declaring “the Great Barbecue” over just when Southern leaders were licking their chops, ready to partake. Meanwhile, Republican leaders quietly and belatedly declared themselves ready and willing to share with their erstwhile adversaries.

But voters tend to get angry when their congressman sells out his party’s presidential candidate for a hefty personal consideration. They needed a cover story, and “redemption” was it.

And so the contours of the postwar political order settled into place. White Southern politicians aligned their section with the monied interests of the Northeast in exchange for a junior partner’s share of the loot. The South became an economic colony of the dominant region while its leaders spuriously claimed to have “redeemed” their section from “Negro rule” that Republicans no longer had the slightest interest in maintaining.

“So long as the Conservative Redeemers held control they scotched any tendency of the South to combine forces with the internal enemies of the new economy—laborites, Western agrarians, reformers,” Woodward concludes. “Under the regime of the Redeemers, the South became a bulwark instead of a menace to the new order.”

The angry American rube may be complicit in the frauds and hustles by which he has been duped, again and again. But there is always a breaking point. It is apt to arrive around the time when sophisticated people begin to call him paranoid.

Adam Rowe is a historian in Dallas.



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