- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

By Roy Morris Jr.
Simon & Schuster, $27, 311 pages, illus.

Our presidential elections have rarely been squeaky-clean affairs. Throughout much of the 19th century, the blatant purchasing of votes, especially in cities, was common. And within the lifetimes of many of The Washington Times' readers, black voters in some states have been subject to intimidation. Still, the vital test of a democracy that its elections reflect the will of the people has usually been met. In only a few instances has the outcome of a national election been determined by fraud or the vagueries of the electoral college.
But there have been instances, and the most conspicuous example is the presidential campaign of 1876, in which vote theft and a corrupt bargain reversed an election that the Democrats had won in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Historian Roy Morris Jr. calls it the "Fraud of the Century," and his title is highly appropriate.
With the Grant administration tarred by scandals and the national economy weak, 1876 promised to be the year in which the Democrats would win back the White House for the first time in 20 years. Their presidential candidate, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, had gained a reputation as a reformer by his exposure of the notorious Tweed Ring. In contrast, the Republican candidate, Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, was a compromise candidate whom historian Henry Adams dismissed as a "third-rate nonentity."
In the campaign, the Democrats emphasized the need for reform, while their opponents refought the Civil War, warning against returning the "party of treason" to power. Tilden was a wealthy bachelor, and some Republican propagandists hinted that he was gay. Nevertheless, when the returns came in, Tilden had won the popular vote by 250,000 votes, and needed only a single electoral vote from any of four late-reporting states to achieve the 185 votes he required.
The Republicans, however, refused to give up. The four states Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon had submitted two sets of electoral votes. The three Southern states, still occupied by U.S. troops and administered by "carpetbag" governments, had election boards that threw out thousands of Democratic votes, prompting the Democrats to submit competing returns. To decide which tallies to accept, Congress set up a 15-man committee to look into the returns.
In February 1877, with inauguration day looming, the Electoral Commission awarded all four contested states to Hayes on a straight party-line vote. By then, in many a smoke-filled room, the two parties had reached an accommodation. In return for acquiescing in Hayes' election, the Democrats were promised that Hayes would remove the last Federal troops from the South, appoint a Southerner to his cabinet, and see to it that the South received an appropriate share of capital investment.
Hayes was duly inaugurated on March 5, but his reputation was already tarnished. Democrats spoke of him as "his fraudulency," and Hayes hurt his own cause by announcing that he would serve only one term. As Mr. Morris points out, the 1876 election was one that did little credit to anyone. In his view, the awarding of Louisiana to Hayes was "one of the most brazen political thefts in American history."
Conspicuously lacking in this sordid affair was any call to arms from the Democrats. Tilden chose to remain above the fray, once observing that "we have just emerged from one civil war; it will never do to engage in another." His withdrawn personality did not generate great personal loyalty, and his fellow Democrats seemed disposed to use him as a bargaining chip.
Some comparisons between the election of 1876 and that of 2000 are inevitable. In each case, the candidate with the greater popular vote lost. In each case Florida was at the center of controversy. But there are differences as well. Few valid votes went uncounted in 2000, and key decisions were made by the courts, not by an ad hoc Electoral Commission. And whereas the impact of President Bush's controversial victory is difficult to assess at this time, the repercussions of the election of 1876 were enormous.
As Mr. Morris writes, "The election and its aftermath gave rise in the South to the infamous … laws that officially sanctioned the social and political disenfranchisement of millions of southern blacks. The Republican party there was overthrown, and the unprecedented experiment known as Reconstruction came to an abrupt, if largely predetermined, end."
After Hayes' inauguration Tilden went into seclusion, much as Al Gore would do more than a century later. In contrast to Mr. Gore, however, Tilden announced that he would not accept renomination. This action reduced the impact of the "stolen election" as an issue and helped bring about a narrow Republican victory in 1880.
"Fraud of the Century" is an excellent book thoughtful and well researched. It may be the last word on America's most embarrassing election.

John M. Taylor is the author of a number of books concerning 19th-century politics, including biographies of William Henry Seward and James A. Garfield.

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