rutherford b. hayes -- 2/23/23

Today's encore selection -- from 1877: America's Year of Living Violently by Michael A. Bellesiles. The deadlocked presidential election of 1876, during the nation's centennial, pitted New York Democrat Samuel Tilden against Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. At stake was enough autonomy for Southern states to disenfranchise blacks -- and massive voting fraud in states like South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana gave Tilden the electoral edge. President Grant armed Washington against rumored attacks, and the crisis was not resolved until March of 1877 in a deal that gave Hayes the presidency in trade for the tacit authority these Southern states sought:

"As the new year of 1877 dawned, the nation appeared hopelessly deadlocked. Officially Tilden had 184 electoral votes and Hayes 165, leaving 20 votes up for grab. Hayes needed them all; Tilden required only a single vote to be president. The framers of the Constitution had not considered such a situation, simply stating that the electoral votes should be 'directed to the President of the Senate,' typically the vice president of the United States, who 'shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates and the votes shall then be counted.' But who decided which votes to open and read if there were two [different sets of votes] -- or, as with Florida, three sets? ...

"Congress struggled to find a solution, remaining in continuous session into March. In January, each house appointed a committee to investigate the election. The House committee, dominated by Democrats, discovered that corruption in the three questionable states meant that all three should go to Tilden; the Senate committee, dominated by Republicans, concluded that fraud and voter suppression in the three states meant that all should go to Hayes. This was not helpful. The House Judiciary Committee then suggested the appointment of a joint special commission, which, after some very careful negotiation, led to a commission of five House members, five senators, and five Supreme Court justices. Originally the five justices were to be drawn from a hat, but Tilden killed that plan with the bon mot, 'I may lose the Presidency, but I will not raffle for it.' While Tilden and many other political leaders doubted the constitutionality of the commission, a consensus emerged that there were so many recipes for disaster that some resolution was required as quickly as possible, no matter how tenuous the legality of the process. Hayes and Tilden reluctantly accepted the commission in order to avoid a civil war. When one of Tilden's advisers suggested publicly opposing the commission, Tilden shot back, 'What is left but war?'

"Tilden's fears found validation in the increasing calls for violence circulating through the country. It was a time of rumors, disturbing and bizarre -- and occasionally true -- as well as loud demands for violence. Reportedly, President Grant was planning a coup, while Confederate general Joseph Shelby supposedly announced in St. Louis that he would lead an army on Washington to put Tilden in the White House. Hearing this latter story, Confederate hero Colonel John S. Mosby, the 'Gray Ghost,' went to the White House and offered Grant his services to help ensure Hayes's inauguration. ...

"Troubled by the professed willingness of his fellow Americans to take up arms so soon after their devastating Civil War, President Grant prepared to defend the capital. Grant could call on only 25,000 unpaid troops, most of them in the West, and had to tread lightly. He could not afford to alienate the Democrats, but they gave every indication of deliberately weakening the ability of the federal government to protect its democratic institutions. Grant adroitly maneuvered his available units to send a message of resolve while not appearing aggressive, ordering artillery companies placed on all the entrances to Washington, D.C., the streets of which, as the New York Herald reported, 'presented a martial appearance.' Grant ordered the man-of-war Wyoming to anchor in the Potomac River by the Navy Yard, where its guns could cover both the Anacostia Bridge from Maryland and the Long Bridge from Virginia. Meanwhile, a company of Marines took up position on the Chain Bridge. General Sherman told the press, 'We must protect the public property, . . . particularly the arsenals.' There was no way Sherman was going to let white Southerners get their hands on federal arms without a fight, and his clever placement of a few units helped to forestall possible coups in Columbia and New Orleans." ...

"Members of Congress began bringing pistols to the Capitol, and in Columbus, Ohio, a bullet was shot through a window of the Hayes home while the family was at dinner."



Michael A. Bellesiles


1877: America's Year of Living Violently


The New Press


Copyright 2010 by Michael A. Bellesiles


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