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

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By Thomas Best

Last time we were together, we began a look at one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. History: the election of 1876 between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. While economics was on people’s minds in the post-Civil War era—from a nagging depression and growing national debt to deciding what role the gold standard should once again play in assuring the solvency of our finances, the most contentious issue for most people was what how, and how much longer, and in what forms would the federal government’s policies on Reconstruction continue. Specifically, how should the ex-Confederate States be allowed to once again run their own state governments and what was to become of ex-slaves across the South.

As expected, the campaign was a tough one within the existing 38 states. While Hayes and Tilden, as tradition stood, did not go out on the stump themselves, their political acolytes and supporting newspapers hammered away. Democrats easily branded Republicans as corrupt in using the federal civil service and contracts to enrich themselves while a depression hit hard at people’s pocket books. It was likewise alleged that Republicans demanded civil servants—who wanted to keep their job—that they should give at least 2% of their salary to the Hayes campaign. The Republicans, rallied around the still-strongly held mantra that the Democrats were the party responsible for starting the Civil War. This commonly used strategy was called “waving the bloody shirt.” Voters were reminded that the Democrats had nearly destroying our democratic republic, killed your loved ones to maintain the scourge of slavery, and were now religiously repressing, brutalizing, and murdering freed slaves who only wished their rights to be respected. One alarming accusation was that if Tilden were elected, he and the Democratically-controlled House would give away their tax dollars in the form of pensions to traitorous Confederate veterans.  The Republicans also came out against the Catholic influence in the Democratic Party and rejected any notion of using public moneys to fund Catholic schools. Such nativist prejudices had an effect. To assure the public that he was more interested in helping to solve the nation’s problems than solidifying his power, Hayes said he would fight to see his platform achieved and then retire after just one term (which he did).

The public was also growing more aggravated about chances for the election to “be stolen” from them by way of dirty politics, election fraud, and corrupt bargains. The fact that 81% of eligible voters turned out to express their wishes says much about how much the public wanted a resolution to their anguish in these days of massively alleged corruption and economic hardships.  We will continue next week as you find out who won, how, and what can we learn of the consequences of the election of 1876.  

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