And Know You Know More: The Election of 1876: Part I

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By Thomas Best

I know, you are thinking, I am already so tired of political ads and competing commentaries on partisan television stations, why would I want to learn more about a long-past historical election? Would you believe me when if I said that things could be worse, or perhaps instructive?  Let’s see what you can learn from these next four episodes.    

The election of 1876 was a pivotal event in our nation’s history.  Just a little over ten years removed from the most consequential test of our democracy, it was still an anxious time in the post-Civil War era. The most worrisome issue regarded Reconstruction: the attempt to rebuild the nation following the Civil War in terms of both physical rebuilding and the social evolution for freed slaves. Some, in fact, feared that if a resolution was not found to the increasing polarization of American political parties and regional interests that a new civil war might begin.

The two candidates were both governors.  For the Grand Old Party, it was Ohio’s three-time governor and decorated Civil War officer, Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a capable lawyer and good at making friends (some said Hayes was “abnoxious to no one. He had possessed strong anti-slavery ideals as a new Republican convert in the 1850s, but he was not categorized as a radical calling for full social equality. He served with distinction in the 23rd Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, where he was wounded five times. In the post-war era, Hayes won terms as a congressman and then a governor of Ohio.  Historian Ari Hoogenboom skillfully portrays Hayes in his biography as a political centrist, politically shrewd, and, not surprisingly—given his demeanor—someone who would rather quiet the political conflict of his day.

His opponent was a New Yorker and Democrat, Samuel Tilden. Called “Honest Sam Tilden,” he rose in society as corporate lawyer and local state assemblyman who was viewed as instrumental in cleansing the corruption within the New York Democratic Party after the Civil War. Specifically, he helped to expose “Boss” Tweed and his rule of the Tammany Hall political machine. Interestingly, Tilden’s politics in the Antebellum Period might have labeled him a “free soil” advocate insofar as wanting to keep slavery from spreading westward. Nevertheless, Tilden stayed loyal to the Democratic coalition and opposed the way in which the Civil War was fought and how politics had evolved into a corrupt institution under President Ulysess Grant. He pledged to clean up Grant’s mess as well. And with a newly elected Democratic House of Representatives in 1874, he was staged to win the election and carry out his agenda focused on improving the economy (a depression was now hurting the nation) and ending political corruption.

Next time, we will explore the events and controversies during the election. 

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