Party Like It’s 1876

The “secret inauguration” of Rutherfored B. Hayes

Today is Count Day. And Marsha Blackburn wants to party like it’s 1876.

Or so she professed last night on Fox News. I was channel surfing the Georgia Senate runoff election results. The coverage gets more sadly tribal with every cycle, but last night it was also oddly asymmetric; CNN and MSNBC hung on every precinct report, whereas Fox seemed to consider the accumulation of protesters in Washington more newsworthy than the accumulation of votes in Georgia. Thus I got a chance to listen to Sen. Blackburn of Tennessee explain why she and her colleagues are “completely within our rights under the Constitution to demand a commission to consider the electoral votes. We’re looking at Rutherford Hayes and James Tilden in 1876.”

I always think it’s a good idea to consider people’s words as clues to their motivations. The 1876 election isn’t remembered as one of the better moments in US history. But Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction 1863–1877” describes three aspects of that era which might appeal to Sen. Blackburn.

The first is party patronage. Back then, the ability to put “one’s people” into office “oiled the machinery of politics.” The perk of an incoming administration was to sweep from their jobs large swaths of the opposing party’s civil servants — the so-called “spoils system.” The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 put a stop to much of this, but 1876 was its last great hurrah, and a significant reason why elections back then were such high-stick hockey games.

The second is backroom crony capitalism. 1876 was the height of the “gilded age,” where northern politics was controlled by alliances between political machines run by the likes of “Boss” Tweed, railroad barons like Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, and newspaper publishers who manipulated popular sentiment to make these unholy alliances appear to be on the side of the working man. Corresponding coalitions of Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for power in the Reconstruction South to form alliances with the Southern Pacific Railroad interests. The actual wishes and desires of working-class whites and Black freedmen were a distant backdrop to these negotiations. There had been an actual election in 1876, and people had cast votes. But the precise tally was of little interest to those scrambling to form a “Commission” that would decide the election — in the words of the negotiators of the time, it was all about balancing the “mercantile and business interests” of the north,” the “firms doing chiefly southern trade” without creating the appearance that the Vice President would be simply “raffling off the Presidency.” Five Supreme Court Justices (partisan creatures in those days, rather like now) were added to the ten-member commission, to give it an icing of impartiality. There was never a pretense of determining the validity of the election. They simply bargained its outcome.

But the third — and by far the defining — feature of 1876 is race. That year marks the end of the Reconstruction era of American history and the beginning of Jim Crow. Tilden and the Democrats were on the side of abolishing Reconstruction-era reforms completely and returning the South as much as possible to the antebellum power structure. The old “radical” Republicans who had sought to transform the racist structure of southern society were now overtaken by the crony capitalist Republicans described above, and Hayes was their man. Although after the election, “well-armed” southern whites were prepared to descend on Washington in favor of Democrat James Tilden, both parties preferred to strangle Reconstruction quietly in the backroom rather than murder it publicly in the front yard. And so, on promises that Hayes would restore “Home Rule” to the South, the deal was reached, and his election was secured. One Democratic observer predicted that Hayes would “conciliate the white men of the South, carpetbaggers to the rear, and [Blacks] take care of yourselves.” Obviously, the original text did not use the word “Blacks.”

Summing up the transition ushered in by the Hayes election, Foner writes: “1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful nation state protecting the fundamental rights of Americans.” What, exactly, this history means to Marsha Blackburn and her Congressional colleagues is for them to explain. What it means to the rest of us, you can decide.

John Tweedy is a writer, mediator, and documentary filmmaker.

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