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Prologue: Election Night, 1876
The next president of the United States went to bed late on election night, November 7, 1876.
For New York governor Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic party's standard-bearer, it had been a particularly tiring day. Tilden's physical stamina, never very great to begin with, had been sorely taxed by a brutal political campaign that, for all its public obeisance to the new civic god of reform, had quickly descended into a vicious personal attack on the governor's honesty, patriotism, morals -- even his sanity. Now, thankfully, the campaign was over. After one last day of pressing the flesh, of seeing and being seen, Tilden shared a quiet dinner with friends in New York City and then made a quick visit to Democratic headquarters at the Everett House on Union Square. There, the sixty-two-year-old candidate heard the electrifying news that he had carried the toss-up states of Indiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut. With his own state safely in hand and a blizzard of electoral votes expected momentarily from the newly unreconstructed states down south, it now seemed increasingly likely that "Centennial Sam" Tilden, boasting a jaunty new nickname and an equally sportive red carnation in the buttonhole of his somber black suit, was about to exchange one executive mansion for another.
Certainly it seemed that way to Tilden's Republican rival, fellow governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. The politically astute if physically unprepossessing Hayes, a two-term United States congressman and three-term governor, had been sensing defeat for several days. Although publicly maintaining a confident front, in private Hayes had been acting very much like a beaten candidate. "The contest is close and yet doubtful with the chances, as I see them, rather against us," he confided to his diary on November 1. Fraud and violence, particularly in the South, were highly probable, Hayes believed, and "the chances are that we shall lose the election." A few days earlier he had given campaign workhorse Carl Schurz the meager assurance, "I shall find many things to console me if defeated." On the morning of the election, Hayes was still predicting that "Democratic chances [are] the best."
He had ample reason to be concerned. Gubernatorial elections a month earlier in Indiana and West Virginia had resulted in bellwether Democratic victories, and the victory of Hoosier populist James D. "Blue Jeans" Williams, in particular, seemed to presage an inevitable Tilden triumph. "Tilden is really going to be elected," Pennsylvania congressman Samuel Randall observed, a little wonderingly, after the Indiana vote. "I can see it all around me." Illinois state Democratic committeeman J. A. Mallory could scarcely contain his sense of joy. "After sixteen long years of darkness, daylight is at last breaking," he wrote. In the face of such discouraging portents, the one note of hopeful qualification that Hayes had allowed himself was the unlikely possibility that a close election might lead to a "contested result," which in turn could provoke "a conflict of arms." The former Union general had no doubt that he would meet such a challenge with courage and firmness, but "bloodshed and civil war must be averted if possible."
The possibility of bloodshed was no idle worry. For many, if not most, of the partisans on both sides of the political spectrum, the presidential election of 1876 represented the final act in a bitter conflict dating back to the election of Abraham Lincoln sixteen years earlier. The triumph of the fledgling Republican party and the almost immediate commencement of the Civil War had left the Republicans in complete control of the national government, and not even Lincoln's assassination four years later and the accidental interregnum of the much-despised Andrew Johnson had loosened the Republicans' hold on power. Congressional Reconstruction, the process by which the war-ravaged states of the former Confederacy were readmitted grudgingly into the Union, had extended the party's hold on the previously Democratic South, where newly empowered blacks had joined hands with white Republicans to take control of state governments from Virginia to Louisiana. Determined southern whites had fought back grimly, violently, and unremittingly to "redeem" their states from Republican rule; by 1876 all but three southern states had been redeemed.
To northern Republicans, the return to power of thousands of former Confederates represented an intolerable political affront and a rank betrayal of patriotic values. Equally bad, in their eyes, was the possibility of a Democratic president, particularly one who had stayed on the sidelines during the Civil War and given the Union war effort -- so they believed -- only scant and grudging support. A Tilden victory threatened to arrest, if not indeed reverse, the social, financial, and political advances the Republican party had made in the past two decades. Such an outcome was anathema to loyal Republicans, even as it was the fondest dream of Democrats on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The apparent closeness of the presidential race served, if anything, to heighten emotions in the days leading up to the election. Whoever won the White House would inevitably confront a phalanx of angry and disappointed losers.
Hayes, for his part, had some experience with close elections. While serving in the Union army in 1864, he had been elected to Congress by a less than overwhelming margin of 2,400 votes, in a wartime election that was tailor-made for Republicans. His first campaign for governor had gone down to the wire as well, with Hayes eventually winning by six tenths of one percent of the vote. His following two terms had been won by slightly larger, but scarcely landslide, margins. About the best that could be said for his vote-getting prowess was that he had never lost a statewide election, however close. Now even that modest distinction seemed to be coming to an abrupt, decisive end.
The small group of family and friends who gathered at Hayes's home in Columbus, Ohio, on that raw and windy election night found little to cheer about. The candidate was not doing as well as he had hoped in Ohio, and the news that Tilden had carried several doubtful northern states added another layer of gloom to an already sodden evening. Hayes's ordinarily witty and vivacious wife, Lucy, kept mostly to the kitchen, busying herself with refreshments, before disappearing upstairs with a headache. When word came that Tilden had carried New York City by fifty thousand votes, Hayes resigned himself manfully to defeat. "From that time I never supposed there was a chance for Republican success," he confided to his diary. Shortly after midnight he joined his wife in bed, consoling her with the thought that now, at least, their lives would be easier without the added burden of having to move into the White House. The couple, wrote Hayes, "soon fell into a refreshing sleep and the affair seemed over."
It was not. While Tilden, a bachelor, slept alone in New York and Hayes and his disappointed wife of twenty-three years cuddled together in far-off Columbus, others in the country had not yet gone to bed. One such night owl was former Union general Daniel E. Sickles. By election night 1876, "Devil Dan" Sickles was a man with a long and controversial career already behind him. Once a rising star in the Democratic party, the personal protégé of President James Buchanan, the thirty-nine-year-old New York congressman had effectively ruined his political career in 1859 by shooting down an unarmed man (Philip Barton Key, son of "Star-Spangled Banner" composer Francis Scott Key) who was having an affair with his wife. With the help of Abraham Lincoln's future secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, Sickles was acquitted of his crime by reason of temporary insanity, the first time such a legal defense had been used successfully in an American court of law. After a brief but comfortable exile in New York City, the disgraced politico successfully rehabilitated himself, raising and leading a Union brigade during the Civil War, losing a leg at Gettysburg but winning a Medal of Honor for his pains.
Having begun his political life as a Democrat, Sickles smoothly switched sides after the Civil War, becoming one of the leaders in the unsuccessful efforts by Radical Republicans to remove President Andrew Johnson from office. His sinuous political machinations, prompted more by self-preservation than by ideals -- Johnson had already removed him from military command of the Reconstruction district of North and South Carolina -- were suitably rewarded when Johnson's bitter rival Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1869. Ignoring Sickles's less than stellar reputation, Grant appointed him the American minister to Spain, where his notorious dalliance with that country's deposed queen, Isabella II, subsequently earned him the not entirely undeserved or unwelcomed nickname "the Yankee King of Spain."
By the time of the 1876 presidential campaign, Sickles had resigned his ministerial post to embark on an extended tour of Europe. He was in Paris that September visiting the American ambassador to Versailles when word came (erroneously, as it turned out) that Vermont, a state that was predictably Republican in its leanings, had nearly elected a Democratic governor. "That looks like the election of Tilden," Ambassador Elihu B. Washburne observed. "Yes," said Sickles, "I quite agree with you and as I don't want to see that 'copperhead' elected president, I shall take the steamer tomorrow for home and take part in the canvas[s]."
Not one to hesitate during times of crisis, Sickles rushed back to America and offered his services to the Republican party. Former New York governor Edwin D. Morgan, the party's national chairman, politely declined Sickles's help, but the general did make a brief campaign visit to Hayes's home state of Ohio, where he urged his former Union brother in arms to "rouse the old Republican war enthusiasm" by waving once more the bloody shirt. Hayes, locked in a tight race with a brilliant and resourceful opponent, did not need much convincing. Ever since the day in 1868 when Massachusetts congressman Benjamin F. Butler had flourished on the floor of Congress the torn and bloodstained shirt of a federal tax collector whipped by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, the bloody shirt had become the Republican party's most effective propaganda weapon. One month before Sickles's visit, another Union general turned politician, Judson Kilpatrick, had written to Hayes advising him to run "a bloody shirt campaign, with money." Sickles reiterated the point, warning Hayes that he was in danger of losing his home state if he did not step up his attacks. Sickles then returned to New York, convinced that he had done his duty. Thereafter, he "proceeded to take only a languid interest in the canvas[s], as I regarded the election of Mr. Tilden as inevitable."
On election night, still sensing a Democratic victory, Sickles sought to lose his political cares in the fleeting diversions of a Broadway play. Returning to his home at 23 Fifth Avenue around midnight, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drop by Republican party headquarters at the nearby Fifth Avenue Hotel, a six-story marble edifice overlooking Madison Square at the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, four blocks west of Gramercy Park, where Samuel Tilden was then in the process of drifting off to sleep. Sickles entered the headquarters expecting to find it a beehive of activity. What he found instead was more like a drafty funeral home after the mourners have left the wake and the corpse has been wheeled into cold storage for the night. A single diligent if disheartened clerk, M. C. Clancy, was still on duty, packing up the remnants of a lost campaign. Tilden, he said gloomily, had been elected. Undeterred, Sickles asked to see the latest returns. "You will find them on the desk of Mr. Chandler," Clancy said, referring to national party chairman Zachariah Chandler. "He retired an hour ago, saying he didn't want to see anybody." The clerk added, perhaps unnecessarily, that Chandler had taken a bottle of whiskey upstairs with him.
Sickles sat down at Chandler's desk and riffled through a stack of telegrams from Republican state headquarters across the country. What he saw on paper gave him hope. "After a careful scrutiny," Sickles recalled, "[I] reached the conclusions that the contest was really very close and doubtful, but by no means hopeless. According to my figures, based on fair probabilities, Hayes was elected by at least one majority in the Electoral College." Sickles's estimate assumed that Hayes would win the electoral votes of South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Oregon, giving him the 185 electoral votes he needed for victory. As subsequent events would demonstrate, that was a very large assumption to make, but Sickles followed up his intuition by drafting telegrams to leading Republican functionaries in the four questionable states, each containing the same urgent message: "With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state."
Sickles called Clancy to his side, showed him the telegrams, and asked the clerk to sign Chandler's name to the dispatches. Before Clancy could respond, Sickles heard the familiar voice of Chester A. Arthur, the longtime collector of the port of New York, outside in the hall. Sickles went to the door and asked Arthur to come into the room, where he showed him a copy of the election returns and the various telegrams. "If you advise it," said Sickles, "I have no doubt the chief clerk will feel authorized to send off these telegrams with the signature of the chairman." Arthur agreed, the telegrams were sent, and Sickles prepared to take his leave, having functioned for the better part of an hour as a one-legged, one-man Republican National Committee. Assuming wrongly that Arthur would want to stay behind and wait for an answer from the states in question, Sickles headed for the door. But Arthur, who owed his lucrative sinecure to the very sort of machine politics that Hayes had sworn to root out when he came into office, begged off the night watch. His own date with presidential destiny still five years in the future, Arthur went home to be with his conveniently sick wife, and Sickles sat back down at Chandler's desk to wait.
While the general conducted his lonely vigil at Republican headquarters in New York, morning newspapers across the country were coming to their own conclusions about the race. The vast majority followed the lead of the Chicago Tribune, a pro-Republican paper that despaired: "Lost. The Country Given Over to Democratic Greed and Plunder." The Democratic-leaning New York Tribune was terser, if no less convinced of the result. "Tilden Elected," it reported. The Democratic nominee's lead now topped 250,000 votes. Still, the slightest air of uncertainty lingered in the minds of some high-ranking Democrats. The party, after all, had been out of power for the better part of sixteen years, and had not won a presidential election in two decades. And even with a decidedly uninspiring candidate at the head of the Republican ticket and a sorry eight-year record of venality, corruption, and economic depression to defend, the party of Lincoln nevertheless had managed to carry, however closely, most of the northern and midwestern states. Despite Tilden's widening lead in the popular vote, his margin in the all-important Electoral College seemed to be shrinking. At 3:45 that morning, two jittery Democratic officials sought to allay their growing doubts. Unfortunately for them and their now sleeping champion, those doubts would prove to be both well founded and contagious.
The Democrats in question were Daniel A. Magone, an Ogdensburg, New York, lawyer who was Tilden's handpicked choice to succeed him as the state party chairman, and Connecticut senator William Barnum, a wealthy financier with a long-standing reputation for political chicanery. The two men, independent of each other, had taken it upon themselves to send telegrams to the New York Times, then a distinctly unfriendly Republican party organ, to inquire after the latest returns. "Please give your estimate of electoral votes for Tilden," Magone wired. "Answer at once." Barnum's telegram was more specific, asking about the returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, the last three southern states where Republican-led Reconstruction governments still remained in power.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the Times editor who received the requests was John C. Reid, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican partisan whose wartime exposure to southern Democrats, in the person of the Confederate cavalrymen who had captured him outside Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 1864 and carried him off to Andersonville Prison, had left him with a permanent hatred for all things Democratic. Reid, the Times's managing editor, was a difficult man to get along with in the best of times. A fellow journalist described him as "not a pleasant or popular person...[his] red, bloated features warned of his hot temper, his angry little eyes of a disposition to tyrannize." When Tilden's campaign manager, Abram S. Hewitt, had asked him cheekily, a bit earlier in the evening, how many states the Times was willing to concede to Tilden, Reid snapped, "None." He did not even bother to answer Magone's or Barnum's telegrams, but he did give their inquiries his personal attention. Why, he wondered, were the damned Democrats so worried?
Reid was engaged just then in an editorial discussion with his fellow Timesmen over how best to report the demoralizing election results. Of the five men involved -- Reid, editor-in-chief John Foord, political writers Edward Cary and George Shepard, and assistant editor Charles R. Miller -- only Miller was a Tilden supporter. There was never any question of following the Tribune's lead and conceding the election to the Democrats: not only was the Times too partisan for that, but Republican sources in Louisiana and South Carolina now were claiming those states for Hayes (perhaps in response to Sickles's earlier telegrams), and the Associated Press was reporting that both sides were declaring victory in Florida. Cary -- not Reid, as is usually claimed -- persuaded the others to hold off making a definitive call of the race, and instead prepared a lead editorial for the newspaper's first edition under the heading "A Doubtful Election."
Depending on one's political views, Cary's editorial was either a masterpiece of predictive powers or a ridiculous exercise in wishful thinking. "At the time of going to press with our first edition the result of the presidential election is still in doubt," he began. "Enough has been learned to show that the vote has been unprecedentedly heavy; that both parties have exhausted their full legitimate strength...and that in some of the states where the shotgun and rifle clubs were relied upon to secure a Democratic victory, there is only too much reason to fear that it has been successful." Cary conceded New York to Tilden -- no great stretch -- but Louisiana and South Carolina, the two southern states most notorious for their "rifle clubs," were listed arbitrarily in Hayes's column. New Jersey, already conceded to Tilden in most accounts, was still "in doubt." This left Tilden, by Cary's count, with 175 certain electoral votes, Hayes with 178. Oregon, whose initial returns indicated a slight lead for the Republican candidate, was too close to call. Florida, said Cary in a careful understatement, "is claimed by the Democrats."
The Times's second edition, which hit the streets at 6:30 A.M., was even more sanguine about Hayes's chances. In it, Cary removed the pessimistic sentence about shotgun and rifle clubs, returned New Jersey to Tilden's column, and credited Oregon definitely to Hayes. "This leaves Florida alone still in doubt," he wrote. "If the Republicans have carried that state, as they claim, they will have 185 votes -- a majority of one." As Cary well knew, a one-vote majority was all that was needed for Rutherford B. Hayes, once the darkest of political dark horses, to ascend the flag-draped reviewing stand outside the Capitol the following March and take the oath of office as the nation's nineteenth president. Stranger things had been known to happen.
With the Times's more optimistic estimates in hand, Reid hurried off to Republican headquarters to inform party officials of the news and stave off any premature concession statement. Gaslights across the city were flickering out as Reid made his way uptown from Printing House Square in the financial district to the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square. The red glow from dozens of Democratic bonfires flared against the inky sky. Early risers, or those who had not yet gone to bed, dodged horse-drawn delivery wagons and private carriages clattering down the rain-slick streets. Newsboys hawked conflicting results -- Tilden was elected, the Republicans were ruined, the race was still too close to call. Reid, for his part, paid them little mind. He was a man on a holy mission.
Pushing his way into the hotel through an immense throng of people milling about the 23rd Street entrance, Reid went immediately to party headquarters. No one was there but the cleaning staff; Reid had missed Sickles by half an hour. The indefatigable old lion had retired to his lair after receiving encouraging answers to his earlier telegrams from South Carolina governor Daniel H. Chamberlain and the chairman of the Oregon Republican party state committee. Chamberlain, who was seeking reelection and was in the political fight of his life with former Confederate general Wade Hampton, understood the stakes better than anyone. "All right. South Carolina is for Hayes," he had informed Sickles. "Need more troops." Sickles had duly forwarded the message under his own name to President Grant, who was staying overnight at his friend George W. Childs's Philadelphia estate prior to the formal closing ceremonies of the Centennial Exhibition. After sending follow-up telegrams to the four undecided states, Sickles had gone home at last for some well-deserved rest.
Reid headed toward the front desk to obtain Chandler's room number. Opening the door to the reading room, he ran -- literally -- into William E. Chandler (no relation to Zachariah), a battle-scarred Republican operative who was just returning to headquarters after an overnight train ride from his home in New Hampshire. Chandler, who suffered from weak eyesight, was wearing an immense pair of goggles, a hat pulled down over his ears, and a heavy military cloak. Recognizing Reid, who unsurprisingly did not recognize him, Chandler brandished the rolled-up copy of the New York Tribune he had been reading on the train. "Damn the men who brought this disaster upon the Republican party!" he cried.
When it came to party politics, William Chandler could speak with some authority. By the age of forty, he had already spent half his life in service to the Republican party, beginning as secretary of the first New Hampshire chapter of the Frémont for President club in 1856. Six years later he had been elected to the state legislature -- at twenty-seven he became the youngest speaker of the house in New Hampshire history -- before going on to serve as assistant secretary of the treasury under Andrew Johnson. Resigning his post in 1867, Chandler had become a well-paid lobbyist for the railroad interests. His time at the Treasury Department had brought him the friendship of a number of the nation's most powerful financiers, including Jay Cooke, the failure of whose banking empire, Jay Cooke & Company, had singlehandedly brought about the Panic of 1873 and crushed the fortunes of countless investors. Chandler himself had narrowly escaped ruin. He and his son were traveling in Europe when the crash occurred, and it was Daniel Sickles, ironically enough, who had provided him with an emergency letter of credit on which to get home.
While working as a lobbyist, Chandler had kept his hand in politics. As secretary of the Republican National Committee he had functioned as the de facto campaign manager for Ulysses S. Grant's two successful runs for the White House, a role he pointedly declined to play in Hayes's campaign, considering it, at best, a long shot to succeed. Nothing he had seen in the previous night's returns had led him to question that decision. His face as shrouded as his traveling clothes, Chandler unrolled the battered newspaper. "Look at this," he said to Reid, pointing to the headline announcing Tilden's election.
The fact that so experienced a hand as Chandler considered the election lost did not dissuade the implacable Reid. "The Republican Party has sustained no disaster," he insisted. "If you will only keep your heads up there is no question of the election of President Hayes. He has been fairly and honestly elected." Still skeptical, Chandler invited the newsman up to his room, where Reid, with mathematical logic and evangelical certitude, painstakingly explained the Times's position. Chandler permitted himself the slightest glimmer of hope. "We must go and see Zach," he said when Reid had finished.
After a brief, confused search that included knocking twice on the wrong door and "frighten[ing] two lone women nearly out of their wits," the pair succeeded in finding the chairman's room. They began pounding and kicking on the door. "It's me, Chandler. Open the door, quick," said William Chandler. After a brief pause the door swung open and Zachariah Chandler, wearing only a nightshirt and a befuddled expression, greeted his unexpected visitors. "Here is a gentleman who has more news than you have," William said, indicating Reid. "He has some suggestions to make." For the second time in ten minutes, Reid found himself explaining the election returns to a man named Chandler in the Fifth Avenue Hotel. "Very well," said Zachariah, after hearing Reid's analysis, "go ahead and do what you think necessary." He, on the other hand, was going back to bed.
Reid and Chandler hurried downstairs to the telegraph office. It was not quite seven o'clock; it would be another hour, at least, before the office reopened. "I'll have to take these messages to the main office of the Western Union," said Reid. Chandler ordered a carriage brought around to the 23rd Street entrance. While they were waiting, the pair dashed off another spate of messages to Chamberlain, Florida senator Simon B. Conover, Oregon senator John H. Mitchell, and Louisiana governor William P. Kellogg. The wording was identical -- hold on to your state.
Messages in hand, Reid jumped into the carriage and hurried off to the telegraph office. "Probably the quickest time ever made by a carriage from the Fifth Avenue Hotel to the Western Union was made that morning," he recalled. Upon arrival, Reid handed the telegrams to the overnight clerk and told him to charge them to the Republican National Committee. "The National Committee has no account here and we can't do it," said the clerk, who fortunately recognized the newsman by sight. "Why not charge them to the New York Times account?" "All right," said Reid. The telegrams went out.
As dawn broke westward over the troubled republic, the next president of the United States was still asleep.
Copyright © 2003 by Roy Morris, Jr.