Had a great conversation on radio yesterday AM with John Rothmann of station WKGBO-AM in San Francisco. We ranged far and wide over dirty American presidential elections, devoting special time to 1800, 1824, and 1876. The latter leads my Top Ten list of nasty presidential battles and is "the most stolen" election of any of the stolen presidential contests.
The above cartoon, by the famous Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast, shows the victorious but battered GOP elephant sitting at the grave of the Democrats, bemoaning: "Another victory like this and I am undone."
In 1876, Ulysses S. Grant was hungered for a third term, but the stench of scandal and cronyism hung so heavy over his administration that Republicans finally said no mas. Instead, in their convention in Cincinnati in mid-June, they chose Rutherford B. Hayes, Governor of Ohio, who would run on a platform holding elected officials to rigid standards of probity and responsibility. No one ever claimed the 53-year-old Hayes, was the most fascinating guy in the world. But he was a former Congressman and honest-to-goodness Civil War hero (four times wounded), the happily married father of seven, and just about as hard working and sincere as a politician can get and still be a politician. His running mate would be New York Congressman William Wheeler
1876 found the Democratic Party desperate for a presidential victory—after all, they hadn’t won in 16 years—and certain they could take advantage of a Republican party weakened by the series of corruption scandals that had rocked the Grant administration. They picked as their nominee Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York. Tilden was the Rudy Giuliani of his age–as a crusading Manhattan DA he had smashed Boss Tweed’s powerful ring of corruption and sent the Boss himself to prison. Tilden was brilliant, but you wouldn’t want him kissing your baby. He was an icy, aloof bachelor, whose penetrating intellect made even his friends uncomfortable, and who was prone to bouts of ill health. And when wasn’t really sick, he was imagining he was—he comes down in history as a man with intense hypochondria who once saw a doctor every day for a month. To make matters worse, he had taken no part in the Civil War—in fact, he had amassed millions from his railroad and iron mines during the conflict. His v-p would be the Indianan Thomas Hendricks.
Although the candidates were still not making public appearances, their political machines were percolating. Tilden began a public relations campaign to overcome his cold fish image. Hiring editors, writers and artists, he set up a “Newspaper Popularity Bureau” whose sole purpose was to manufacture a warm, loveable Samuel J. Tilden and sell him through press releases to newspapers all over the country. As the election heated up, he created a so-called “Literary Bureau,” in which teams of writers churned out anti-Hayes material, including a 750-page book which attacked Hayes for supposedly stealing money from Confederate war dead and for being a party to Grantian scandals—“wicked schemes for peculation.”
In all honesty, though, Tilden’s dirty tricks couldn’t hold a candle to those of Zachariah Chandler, the bewhiskered, bejeweled and often besotted Republican National Chairman who was also Hayes’ campaign manager. It all began with a fundraising letter sent by Chandler to Republican appointees currently holding office: “We look to you as one of the Federal beneficiaries to help bear the burden. Two percent of your salary is___. Please remit promptly. At the close of the campaign, we shall place a list of those who have not paid in the hands of the head of the department you are now in.”
After threatening his own party members, Chandler turned on Tilden, accusing him of everything from sympathizing with slaveholders to having a scheme to pay off the Confederate debt if he took office.
Naturally, the Democrats were not idle while all of this was going on—in fact, their smear campaigns showed a great deal of creativity. They accused Hayes, a genuine Civil War hero, of literally robbing the dead—of stealing 400 dollars from a Union solder executed for desertion. (Strangely enough, Hayes actually did take the money before the man was shot, but only to pass it on to his family members—a fact Hayes was unable to prove until after the election.)
But dirty tricks doesn’t even began to describe what both parties did in the South. The Republicans–the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln—wanted freed blacks to vote and thus prodded many of them to the ballot boxes at gunpoint. And the Democrats, particularly in South Carolina, started violent race riots, in some cases shooting and killing blacks who attempted to exercise their franchise. On both sides, men voted ten or twenty times, and local party bosses stood by ballot boxes, tearing up any votes for the “wrong candidate.”
In the end, however, it seems incontrovertible that Tilden won the popular vote by 250,000 (out of a total of 8,320,000 votes cast). But here the Republican political machine got to work, essentially demanding that the "returning boards" (those men who tabulated the electoral votes in each state) in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana "hold their state" for the Republican candidate. The struggle over the twenty remaining electoral votes lasted from November 8th to March 2nd, 1877. The returning boards simply threw out enough Democratic votes to swing Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina to Hayes. Democrats cried foul. Officials of both parties flocked to the South and President Grant sent Federal troops, just in case. In the end, an Electoral Commission was established, consisting of 5 U.S. Senators, 5 Congressmen, and 5 Supreme Court Justices, all of whom split evenly along party lines. With the Commission tied at 7-7, the Supreme Court Justice who had the deciding vote resigned—and a Republican justice took his place. Hayes was voted into office with 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184.
. In the end, fittingly enough, this dirtiest of all 19th century elections finished with a secret dirty deal. Southern Democrats promised not to contest the Election Commission’s results if Hayes, once in office, would pull Federal troops out of the South and appoint at least one Southerner to his cabinet. Reconstruction collapsed—and the future of civil rights was set back for decades—but Hayes was awarded the presidency. March 4th, 1877, was Rutherford Hayes inauguration day, but things had become so heated—someone had already fired a shot through the window of Hayes’ home—that he had to be secretly sworn in.