The classic political cartoon from the disputed election of 1876 is this Joseph Keppler piece in which NY Senator Roscoe Conking is seen blessing, in a Satanic sense, the union of Rutherford B. Hayes with Columbia, the symbol of the nation.
Since I’m working the polls today and don’t have time to post a contemporary blog, you’ll have to settle for a look at what I hope is a campaign completely different from our current one.
Thomas Nast took a less whimsical look at the results than Keppler, suggesting that the Compromise of 1877, which awarded the presidency to Republican Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden, had averted a second civil war.
It was a complex moment in our history, and how it is recorded has a great deal, unsurprisingly, with who did the recording.
The vote was close enough that the vagaries of the Electoral College came into play, and a major focal point was the state of Louisiana, in which things had less to do with how people had voted and more to do with how those votes were going to be counted and by whom.
I hope that doesn’t sound familiar.
A federal commission was established to look into things, and, as this not-so-neutral piece suggests, a state-level commission was set up in Louisiana.
There could have been all sorts of ways to sort it out, but the final solution was that the Democrats agreed to give Hayes the victory in return for a pledge to withdraw federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.
It would all be worth an in-depth analysis, but I haven’t done one and so can only point out that this brought Jim Crow to prominence, and I’d also point out that this outcome should not have been a surprise: There was already some nasty anti-Reconstruction business happening down there, well before the presidential elections.
The Compromise of 1877 simply normalised it, and erased it from the national conscience, though it did leave Hayes’ political opponents referring to him as “His Fraudulency.”
I doubt anyone could pretend they didn’t know the potential impact of selling out Reconstruction, which I would add got scant coverage in the school texts of my era. We weren’t subjected to the ghastly, overt racism of “Birth of a Nation,” but we did learn the terms “carpetbagger” and “scalawag” without a lot of focus on what those people may have been trying to accomplish, or what they had.
Well, whatever. Columbia took the arm of Mr. Hayes and the rest is history.
However, as I sit checking people in to vote today, I leave you with this story from William Hudson, less as an attempt to nail down the history as an example of the sort of odd encounters that happen from time to time when you are a reporter.
Hudson was a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a prominent Democratic paper, and his Random Recollections include a number of favorable portraits of Grover Cleveland, also a New Yorker and someone whose office was always open to Hudson.
His recollections of the Tilden/Hayes imbroglio is somewhat different, and note that, while it was no secret that he worked for a Democratic-based newspaper, he still tried to maintain some level of neutrality in what followed, though he didn’t pretend to be a big fan of Reconstruction.
To which I would add that his memoirs include several stories of the destruction of the Tweed Ring, which, as the corruption emerged, became less a partisan effort than you might expect.
His tale of New Orleans is mostly a footnote to the affair, but it’s an interesting insight into why some of us would pursue the profession for free.
You simply never know what odd moments are going to pop up, and how fascinating and amusing they will turn out to be. They are worth the price of admission, whether they become major news stories or are simply tales to be told over a beer long after.
Let’s hope for a little less fascinating intrigue in the days to come.
Hell, we haven’t recovered from that one yet.
And, by the way, if you haven’t voted, you’re still part of the problem.