Monday, November 7, 2016

Rutherfraud B. Hayes and the (S)election of 1876

U.S. Hotel - 1880 Built by George Holt for his fiancee Madame Jeanne De Reboam. The first guest was President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Courtesy Dolores Steele

This is the United States Hotel in Jacksonville, Oregon.  It was built in 1880 and one of its first famous guests was President Rutherford B. Hayes.  President Hayes, however, was one of the most infamous presidents in American history.  He only served one term, but it was how he became President that made him truly infamous.

The election of 1876 pitted Democratic Party nominee Samuel J. Tilden, the distinguished Governor of New York famous for exposing William "Boss" Tweed as a corrupt leader of the Tweed Ring within Tammany Hall, which was an engine for graft and corruption in New York City during the Gilded Age, against Republican Party nominee Rutherford B. Hayes, the Governor of Ohio who was the choice when the convention had stalled after six ballots.  According to historian Henry Adams, Hayes was chosen as, "a third rate nonentity, whose only recommendation is that he is obnoxious to no one" and "necessary for party harmony."  When all the votes were counted, Tilden had clearly won the popular vote, 4,284,000 to Hayes' 4,037,000.

But as anyone who followed the hanging chad cliffhanger in 2000 knows, U.S. Presidential elections are never decided by popular vote, but through the electoral college.  Tilden was ahead of Hayes in that arena, 184 electoral votes to 165.  However, there were 20 electoral votes unresolved.  In three southern states, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, each party declared that its candidate had won the state.  There was also a dispute in Oregon because one of the state's electors, deputy postmaster John W. Watts, had his vote declared invalid by Oregon Governor La Fayette Grover.  Grover, a Democrat, declared that Watts, a Republican Hayes supporter, violated the rule prohibiting electors from holding a federally appointed office.

So what does the U.S. Constitution say should happen when there is not a clear winner in the electoral college?  This was clarified by the 12th Amendment ratified in 1804, which states that if no candidate has a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives, with each state delegation having one vote, chooses the President and the Senate, with each Senator having one vote, chooses the Vice President.  But instead of following this Constitutional procedure, Congress passed a law on January 29, 1877 forming a 15-member commission to settle the result.

This commission consisted of five members each from the House, Senate and Supreme Court which resulted in seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent, Supreme Court Justice David Davis.  But at the same time, Davis was elected by the legislature of Illinois to the Senate.  While Democrats in the Illinois legislature thought they were securing Davis's support on the commission by voting for him, this backfired when Davis resigned from the Supreme Court (and the commission) to take his Senate seat.  The justices on the commission then chose Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican, as his replacement.

There were double sets of returns for each of the four states in dispute.  While Hayes probably did win South Carolina (by a razor-thin 889 votes) and Florida, Tilden won in Louisiana with a majority of 9,000 of 207,000 votes cast.  Matthew Josephson in his 1938 book The Politicos  wrote:  "Supported by Republican ‘visiting statesmen’, not to mention regiments of Federal soldiers, the Louisiana Returning Board proceeded to accept the testimony of perjurers, thieves and prostitutes, and to throw out the ballots of whole parishes, until over 13,350 Democratic votes were canceled and a Hayes majority of over 4,000 votes were produced."

Yet in spite of this evidence of fraud, Justice Bradley joined his seven other Republican members in a series of 8-7 votes that awarded all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes, giving him a 185-184 electoral vote victory.  How could Tilden and the Democratic Party have accepted this outcome?  A secret meeting was convened between representatives of both parties at the Wormley Hotel in Washington D.C. on February 26, 1877.  According to journalist Matthew Josephson, "Democrats would abandon presidential claims and Republicans promised federal troops, which enforced the constitutional amendment giving (African-Americans) full rights of citizens, would be removed from the South."  This is the real legacy of the election, or rather, the selection of 1876: the so-called Compromise of 1877, which was the end of Reconstruction and the entrenchment of white supremacy-fueled segregation that denied African-American civil rights through Jim Crow laws for generations to come.

Being the only president ever elected by congressional commission, President Hayes was given the nickname "Rutherfraud" Hayes.  While his tour of the western states including Oregon in 1880 may have been part of an effort to reach out to citizens who felt disenfranchised, the taint of the disputed election ultimately led Hayes not to seek re-election that year.

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