White House theft: the 1876 election

February 16, 2003|By Jay Hancock | By Jay Hancock,Sun Staff

Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden and the Stolen Election of 1876. Roy Morris Jr., Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $27.

Five score years after the birth of the nation, in a fog of contested ballots, racial suspicion and a close popular vote, Republicans stole the presidential election from Democrats. So argues Roy Morris Jr. in Fraud of the Century, a rollicking portrait of electoral chicanery past.

Political junkies bored by the present GOP monopoly or just seeking escape from unsettling current events are advised to join Morris in 1876, when "his Fraudulancy, Rutherfraud" B. Hayes triumphed over "Centennial Sam" Tilden to extend post-bellum Republican rule.

Morris chooses the correct pen in drawing comparisons with the Bush-Gore contest of 2000. He notes the similarity: disputed presidential ballots in Florida, charges of racism and fraud, the deciding vote by one Supreme Court member and a Republican triumph despite a national popular majority for the Democratic candidate.

But then he wisely shuts up about it. The 1876 election is interesting enough, and its lessons obvious enough, that it doesn't need extended inter-century analysis.

New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden was the Democrats' best chance to win a presidential election since James Buchanan beat John C. Fremont in 1856. Democrat Andrew Johnson had succeeded to the presidency with Lincoln's assassination, but he did not run in 1868, when Ulysses S. Grant gained his first term.

As a Northerner, Tilden was clean of the secessionist stain that would prevent Southern Democrats from entering the White House for decades. As a reformer who had helped bust political racketeer William M. "Boss" Tweed, Tilden promised to scrub the filthy stables of the corrupt Grant administration.

Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was also a Northerner, the governor of Ohio and a former Union brevet major general who had been elected to Congress while he was still waging war against the South.

Hayes went to bed on election night thinking he had lost, and indeed he was beaten in the popular vote. But the tallies in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida were close enough that Republican authorities in New York, inspired by Democrat-hating editor at the then-Republican New York Times, thought it worth challenging the results. If they could somehow win all three states, Hayes would land in the White House by a margin of one electoral vote.

The ensuing dispute was a rowdy exercise in fraud, invective and confusion. Both sides contributed to all three elements, but Morris, who has done books on Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce and Gen. Phil Sheridan, makes a good case that the Republicans won the White House by winning the cheating contest.

The South was still under the press of Northern Republican carpetbaggers and sympathetic Southern scalawags, and canvassing boards in the disputed states brazenly certified dubious Republican ballots while tossing out entire counties of Democrats.

Morris sets the scene well, as the nation strove to recover from fraternal war and simultaneously celebrated its centennial. He is happily generous with the boisterous political jabber from a day of primitive libel laws. And he points to the consequences of fraud: President Hayes' necessary detente with outraged Southern Democrats, which ended reconstruction and began almost a century of Jim Crow.

Jay Hancock is a financial columnist for The Sun and was formerly the newspaper's diplomatic correspondent and, before that, its economics writer.

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