The Stolen Election

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Hayes and the Republicans argued that the votes certified by the sitting regimes in the disputed states had to be taken at face value and that Congress wasn’t authorized to go behind the results. If it had done so, it would have found Republican fraud balanced against Democratic intimidation, with the provable evidence probably in the Democrats’ favor. So the Democrats insisted on just such a scrutiny. Otherwise why would the Constitution provide for the ballot count under the eyes of House and Senate? The Democrats would not recognize a President chosen without such a review. And the Republicans would recognize no other.

Dangerous murmurs circulated in the deadlock. Some Democrats talked of having the House declare Tilden President if the Senate counted in Hayes—so there would be two Presidents trying to seize the keys to the White House. Some Republicans believed that if the issue was not settled by March 4, and there was no Vice-President, then Grant, backed by the Army, should simply remain in office. Slogans like Tilden or Blood were allegedly uttered. Ex-generals on both sides offered to raise armies of veterans and march on Washington.

In the end a curious, cumbersome compromise was reached. It was engineered by the businessmen of both parties, quintessential conservatives, who did not want the already struggling economy hit with political paralysis or renewed warfare. The votes would be reviewed by a special fifteen-member electoral commission of five representatives (two Republicans, three Democrats), five senators (two Democrats, three Republicans), and five justices of the Supreme Court (two Republicans, two Democrats, and one, Davis, considered to be an independent). Commission decisions would be binding unless rejected by both House and Senate.

Many a Democrat went to his grave grumbling about the election and complaining about “His Fraudulency” Rutherford B. Hayes.

But before the commission could begin to hear what one candidate called “the great lawsuit,” the Illinois legislature elected Justice David Davis to the Senate. The other four justices voted to fill his place with Justice Joseph Bradley, a known Republican, considered to be fair-minded. Perhaps he was. But as each set of Republican returns was presented to the commission during February, he voted with his fellow Republicans to accept them. By a straight 8 to 7 party-line vote, every disputed electoral vote went to Hayes to give him the needed 185.

A few outraged Democrats mounted a filibuster in the House to prevent final acceptance of the result before the relentlessly approaching March 4 deadline. But a majority of their colleagues deserted them, thanks to more dollar-conscious “unofficial” bargaining.

The final terms, secret but understood by the key players, were these: Hayes would not support the remaining Southern Republican machines with troops, so that they would soon collapse. A Southern Democrat would become Postmaster General in Hayes’s cabinet. Votes would be found on both sides of the aisle for more federal subsidies to the South. In a word, Southern Democrats, even more than Northern, had accepted national industrialization and wanted their cut of it. And the party of Lincoln was ready to call off the struggle for equality.

The final vote was reached at a bleary-eyed middle-of-the-night session on Friday, March 2. Hayes took the oath formally on Monday, the fifth, but for safety’s sake was privately sworn in on Saturday night. Some Democrats boycotted the public inauguration, and many a Democrat went to his grave grumbling about the “stolen election” and condemning “His Fraudulency” Rutherford B. Hayes.

So the revolution ended, and the transition to conservative rule took place. It was not violent on the national level. It was very much so within the states. It seemed a vindication of the American pattern of compromise, and so it was—among white Americans, who had finally decided that peace should take priority. The genuine political consensus without which elections are a meaningless form had finally been reached. But over the ensuing years the unconsulted Southern blacks paid the price.

One final irony is noted by the historian James P. Shenton. In 1860 a wrenching era began with the Southern refusal to accept the legitimate election of Abraham Lincoln. In 1877 it ended when the South surrendered what was very likely a legitimate mandate for Samuel Tilden.