Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876

Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876

by William H. Rehnquist

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In the annals of presidential elections, the hotly contested 1876 race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden was in many ways as remarkable in its time as Bush versus Gore was in ours. Chief Justice William Rehnquist offers readers a colorful and peerlessly researched chronicle of the post—Civil War years, when the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was


In the annals of presidential elections, the hotly contested 1876 race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden was in many ways as remarkable in its time as Bush versus Gore was in ours. Chief Justice William Rehnquist offers readers a colorful and peerlessly researched chronicle of the post—Civil War years, when the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was marked by misjudgment and scandal, and Hayes, Republican governor of Ohio, vied with Tilden, a wealthy Democratic lawyer and successful corruption buster, to succeed Grant as America’s chief executive. The upshot was a very close popular vote (in favor of Tilden) that an irremediably deadlocked Congress was unable to resolve. In the pitched battle that ensued along party lines, the ultimate decision of who would be President rested with a commission that included five Supreme Court justices, as well as five congressional members from each party. With a firm understanding of the energies that motivated the era’s movers and shakers, and no shortage of insight into the processes by which epochal decisions are made, Chief Justice Rehnquist draws the reader intimately into a nineteenth-century event that offers valuable history lessons for us in the twenty-first.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It's fitting that Rehnquist, who as chief justice of the Supreme Court played his own role in the contested presidential election of 2000, would offer an account of a similar case 125 years earlier. But Rehnquist is a lesser narrator of popular history than he is a jurist; the only interest in this account may be his rueful regret over the lack of "tolerance" shown for political proclivities shown by the Supreme Court justices recruited to help resolve the disputed 1876 election. They were part of a commission appointed by Congress, which because of its own political division could not resolve the electoral impasse. Democratic presidential candidate Samuel Tilden won the popular majority nationwide, but fell a single vote short of the electoral majority of 185 needed to win. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes took 165 electoral votes, and 20 votes were disputed-19 from three states that still had Reconstruction governments (South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida), and one from Oregon. So Congress impaneled a commission of 10 congressmen and five U.S. Supreme Court justices who, voting along party lines, awarded the presidency to Hayes. Rehnquist narrates these well-known facts in a workmanlike but uncompromisingly dry manner, adding nothing new in fact or analysis. Readers interested in the election of 1876 would do better to consult Roy B. Morris Jr.'s critically acclaimed Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Disputed Election of 1876, published last year. Illus. not seen by PW. (Mar. 5) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Ghosts of campaigns past hover over this work on the disputed presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Rehnquist, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and an amateur historian (All the Laws but One), examines the 15-member electoral commission that was set up to resolve the issue. Tilden won the popular vote, but there was a tight race in the Electoral College owing to disputed votes in Louisiana, Oregon, South Carolina, and Florida. After the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate each selected five of the commissioners, the Supreme Court added five senior justices; two had been nominated by Democratic Presidents and two by Republican Presidents. Those four were to choose the fifth justice. When Lincoln appointee David Davis declined, Joseph P. Bradley, a New Jersey Republican appointed by President Grant, stepped up and cast the deciding vote. Challenging research done by historian Allan Nevins, Rehnquist defends Bradley's siding with Hayes. In the epilog, the conservative chief justice backs judicial intervention when he feels the republic is at risk. Regardless of political persuasion, readers should enjoy the clear writing and character sketches found in this popular history. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Provocative. . . . An engaging and precise account of the bewildering political episode at once remote in time and in culture from our own contested election but strangely familiar as well." —The Washington Post

"Highly recommended. . . . Rehnquist takes the reader through the major congressional and Supreme Court debates of the 1860s and 1870s . . . fill[ing] in this tumultuous background with brisk, confident strokes. . . . He has a keen eye for good stories and quirks of character, and a forceful expository style." —The New York Sun

“An immensely readable work. . . . Rehnquist makes a convincing case.” —New York Post

"In this terrific and valuable work, Chief Justice Rehnquist re-creates one of the most dramatic presidential elections in American history. The wealth of biographical detail and the superb discussion of the intriguing issues involved bring the principal actors in this fascinating controversy to vivid life." —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

“As a historian Rehnquist is first-rate. The story of the Hayes-Tilden square-off of 1876 is perhaps the most surreal political imbroglio America has ever produced. And this is the most literate, judicious, and wise retelling of that bizarre election ever written.” —Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans

"Speak[s] pointedly to recent and current events. . . . Rich with subplots and engaging characters." —Austin American-Statesman

"Rehnquist narrates [the] events [of the 1876 election] clearly . . . [and] offers colorful portraits of the two presidential candidates and members of the Court." —The Nation

"Rehnquist hits his stride here, explaining how the commission worked and how the dispute was influenced by the concept of state sovereignty . . . and insightfully delving into the mystery of why one of the justices on the commission may have changed his mind at the last minute." —Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"An earnest book . . . [about] an intensely interesting period in American history." —Los Angeles Times

"Rehnquist takes readers behind the scenes of the controversy." —Florida Times-Union

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Chapter 1

On May 10, 1876, the Centennial Exhibition, commemorating one hundred years of American independence, opened in Philadelphia-the logical place to hold such an exhibition. It was there on July 4, 1776, that the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming in Thomas Jefferson's stirring words that "these united colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States."

Philadelphia in 1776 was not only the seat of the rudimentary national government, but also the largest city in the country. After the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Philadelphia became the temporary capital of the infant nation, but in 1800 lost out to the new city of Washington as the site of the permanent seat of government. In time New York overtook Philadelphia as the most populous city, and both New York and Boston became more prominent centers of commerce on the East Coast. But Philadelphia rose to the occasion in 1876. Two hundred buildings were constructed in Fairmount Park, and on opening day more than 186,000 people visited the grounds. Many foreign nations took buildings to exhibit their cultures and accomplishments. Fukui Makota, the Japanese commissioner to the exposition, observed:

The first day crowds come like sheep, run here, run there, run everywhere. One man start, one thousand follow. Nobody can see anything, nobody can do anything. All rush, push, tear, shout, make plenty noise, say damn great many times, get very tired, and go home.

When the exhibition closed six months later, it had been visited by more than 10 million people. It was truly the first man-made tourist mecca in the United States.

Much had changed in the first century of America's existence. In the eighteenth century, travel by land was either on foot or horseback, or in a vehicle drawn by horse or oxen. Travel by water was accomplished by sailing vessels. But in 1806, Robert Fulton invented the steamboat, and by 1830 the first railroads were being built in the United States. Transportation was revolutionized. Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph in 1843; Cyrus McCormick followed with the mechanical reaper, and Elias Howe with the sewing machine. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed with the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah. And in the very year of the centennial, Alexander Graham Bell would patent the telephone.

The nation had also grown spectacularly in size. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added the territory between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and the cession following the Mexican War added the Southwest. Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876 as the thirty-eighth state; it would be known as the Centennial State.

On the exhibition's opening day President and Mrs. U. S. Grant, accompanied by the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro and his wife, Theresa, were among the notables present. At the scheduled time the President and the Emperor opened the valves that started a huge steam engine in Machinery Hall. The steam engine in turn supplied power to hundreds of other machines at the fair. When the wheels began to turn, guns roared, church bells pealed, and whistles blew. The fair, and the Centennial, had officially begun.

Grant was in the last year of his second term as President. Elected in 1868 and reelected in 1872, he was the second Republican President; Lincoln, of course, was the first. In the two decades since its founding, the party had achieved a remarkable success. The event that precipitated its founding was the enactment by Congress of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

In that year Stephen A. Douglas, an able and ambitious Democratic senator from Illinois introduced in the Senate a bill providing for what he called "popular sovereignty"-and what his opponents called "squatter sovereignty"-to determine whether or not the territories of Kansas and Nebraska should allow slavery within their borders. This bill aroused instant opposition among antislavery forces in the North, because it repealed a portion of the Missouri Compromise, which Congress had enacted in 1820.

The Missouri Compromise came about when both Maine and Missouri sought admission to the Union as states. Maine would be a free state with no slavery, and Missouri would be a slave state. The Missouri Compromise admitted both states, and went on to provide that thereafter slavery would be prohibited in all territories of the United States north of the southern border of Missouri. Since both Kansas and Nebraska were north of this line, Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal that portion of the Missouri Compromise.

After fierce debate, the bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Franklin Pierce. But the antagonism aroused in the North had a lasting effect on national politics. Douglas himself, after he toured the North following the adjournment of Congress, said he could have traveled from Boston to Chicago by the light of the fires kindled to burn him in effigy.

Early in 1854, a meeting was held in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, to oppose the extension of slavery. This led to a state convention in Madison in July which adopted the name "Republican" for the new party. A week earlier a state convention in Jackson, Michigan, adopted the same name for the new party in that state.

The fledgling party held a national convention in Philadelphia in 1856 and nominated John C. Frémont as its candidate for President. His Democratic opponent was James Buchanan, a long-time officeholder who had been absent as minister to England during the furor over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the election that fall, Buchanan carried every slave state but Maryland, together with Indiana, Illinois, and his home state of Pennsylvania. All of the other northern states voted for Frémont. He polled 1.34 million popular votes, losing to Buchanan, who polled 1.8 million votes.

Two days after Buchanan was inaugurated in March 1857, the Supreme Court handed down its ill-starred decision in the Dred Scott case, holding that the limitation of slavery effected by the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. This decision further inflamed northern opinion. The following year Stephen Douglas came up for reelection as United States senator in Illinois. He was opposed by Abraham Lincoln on the Republican ticket. They debated at seven different towns in downstate Illinois, thrashing out the question, among others, of the expansion of slavery. At that time senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote. The Democrats narrowly retained control of the Illinois legislature, and in January 1859, it duly reelected Douglas.

Two years later, Lincoln and Douglas again battled each other, but this time the prize was the presidency of the United States. Douglas was not sufficiently proslavery for the southern wing of the Democratic Party, and it nominated John Breckenridge on a ticket which ran only in the South. The northern Democrats nominated Douglas. A fourth party-the Constitutional Union party-sought to ignore the issue of slavery entirely and was on the ballot in only the border states. The Republican Party was almost entirely northern in its appeal, opposing as it did any further extension of slavery in the territories.

On election day-November 6, 1860-Lincoln was elected President with a majority of the electoral votes-all of them from northern states-but only a minority of the popular vote. Even before he was inaugurated the following March, the seven states of the Deep South seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. In April 1861, the Confederate shore batteries in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on the small Union garrison at Fort Sumter on an island in the harbor. The garrison surrendered the following day, and Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. The Civil War had begun.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, thirty-nine-year-old Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather store operated by two of his brothers in the Mississippi River town of Galena, Illinois. Grant had graduated from West Point with an undistinguished record, and served in the Mexican War and at Army posts in the United States until 1854, when he resigned his commission. For the next seven years, he was a farmer, a real-estate agent, a candidate for county engineer, and a clerk in a customs house. In none of these occupations was he particularly successful.

After Lincoln's call for volunteers, Grant was appointed by Illinois Governor Richard Yates to be a colonel in one of the Illinois volunteer regiments. Grant led the forces which successfully captured first Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and then Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. He commanded Union forces at the Battle of Shiloh, and then successfully invested the southern fortress of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, thereby cutting the Confederacy in two from north to south.

Grant was promoted to major general in the regular Army. After commanding Union troops at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, he was promoted to General in Chief of the Union forces. He devised a plan to employ all of his numerically superior troops against the enemy, correctly theorizing that if he could keep the losses even, the Union forces would prevail. Battling in Virginia from the spring of 1864 until Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, Grant was the Union hero of the Civil War.

During the summer of 1864, there was considerable war-weariness in states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. The war had lasted longer than most anyone expected, and Union losses were heavy in battles such as the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, mounted a stealthy but unsuccessful campaign to obtain the Republican presidential nomination himself. But Lincoln easily won renomination at the party convention in Baltimore in June. The Democrats met in Chicago in August and adopted a "peace plank" in their platform. This plank called for an immediate cease-fire and a negotiated peace. They nominated General George McClellan for President, whose first act after accepting the nomination was to repudiate the peace plank.

Fate smiled on the Republicans as the election drew closer. In September, the city of Atlanta fell to General William T. Sherman after a long siege. Admiral David Farragut won the important naval battle of Mobile Bay. In November, Lincoln was reelected by a margin of more than two to one in the popular vote.

Five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater. He was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson, with whom Grant had nothing like the close relationship that he had developed with Lincoln. Grant was now Commander in Chief of a rapidly demobilizing army, and a popular hero.

Johnson would try to carry out Lincoln's conciliatory approach to the seceded states, but soon ran into conflict with the Radical Republicans who would dominate Congress after 1866. He successively vetoed civil rights bills and Reconstruction bills, only to have his vetoes overridden by Congress. He was finally impeached in 1868 after he removed his disloyal Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, from office. The trial in the Senate in the spring of 1868 lasted many weeks; Johnson was finally acquitted by a margin of one vote. The proceedings in the Senate were adjourned to allow the Republicans to attend their national convention in Chicago.

At that convention, Grant's was the only name placed in nomination for President, and he was unanimously chosen on the first ballot. Up until the Civil War, he had led a largely apolitical life. The only vote he cast for President was in 1856; he voted for Buchanan because, he said, "he knew Frémont." He would now run against Horatio Seymour, the Governor of New York, who was chosen by the Democrats after twenty-one exhausting ballots.

Seymour had publicly sympathized with draft rioters in New York during the war, and he was thought to have close ties to Wall Street bankers. This double burden was too much for him in a campaign against a war hero. Seymour carried only eight of the thirty-four states, and lost in the Electoral College by a margin of 214 to 80.

At forty-six, Grant was then the youngest President ever elected. He entered the presidency beholden to none of the political interests which are usually involved in the nominating process. He therefore had no political debts to pay when it came to cabinet positions or other appointments. In some ways this was an advantage; in others it was not. The historian Paul L. Haworth, writing almost a century ago, observed:

Prior to [Grant's] nomination he had never held a civil office, and he did not really understand the workings of our political system. Starting out with the assumption that the Presidency was a sort of personal possession given him by the people to manage as he thought proper, he had, with the best intentions in the world, entirely ignored the party leaders in choosing his first cabinet.

The downside of Grant's political naïveté was illustrated by his choices for the two most important cabinet offices-Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury. Grant nominated Elihu Washburne, an Illinois congressman from Galena, to be Secretary of State. Washburne was instrumental in obtaining a commission for Grant when he reentered the Army in 1861 but had no experience in foreign affairs. As it turned out, the permanent post he wanted was that of American minister to Paris (his wife was French), but he asked Grant as a favor to first appoint him Secretary of State. Grant obliged this bizarre request, Washburne resigned after a week in that office, and was duly appointed minister to Paris. Grant then nominated Hamilton Fish of New York to succeed Washburne. This choice commanded widespread public support, and Fish rendered highly competent service in that office for the entire eight years of Grant's presidency.

The President chose Alexander Stewart, a leading New York retailer, as Secretary of the Treasury, but senators pointed to a statute, first drafted by Alexander Hamilton, which forbade any person carrying on a business or trade to hold that office. Grant requested that the Senate exempt Stewart, but Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Roscoe Conkling of New York both refused the request. Grant then acceded to Stewart's request that his name be withdrawn, and next selected Congressman George Boutwell of Massachusetts for the Treasury post.

Told that Pennsylvania, a populous and reliably Republican state, should be represented in his cabinet, Grant nominated Adolphe Borie of Philadelphia to be Secretary of the Navy. Borie's only connection with nautical matters was that he had retired from a successful career in the East India trade, but Grant had enjoyed his company while being entertained at Borie's Delaware estate.

The President chose Jacob D. Cox, ex-Governor of Ohio, as Secretary of the Interior, John Creswell of Maryland to be Postmaster General, and Ebenezer R. Hoar of Massachusetts to be Attorney General. All were recognized as able men and did not disappoint in their respective offices. Grant picked his longtime aide and military confidant General John Rawlins to be Secretary of War. Rawlins, however, was fatally ill with tuberculosis, and died within a few months.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

William H. Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in political science from Stanford University and a second M.A. from Harvard. He graduated first in his class at Stanford Law School in 1952. In 1969 Rehnquist became assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Council. He was confirmed by the Senate as an associate justice of the Supreme Court in December 1971, and took his place on the bench in January 1972. He became the sixteenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1986. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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