The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The election from our past that blares a warning for 2020

A contested presidential election in 1876 produced a devastating compromise

Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Donald Trump. (AP; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The possibility of an unresolved presidential election this fall giving way to a winter of uncertainty, chaos or even political violence has sent many Americans scurrying to the history books in search of a precedent.

Never before has an incumbent president sought to hold onto power despite an apparent loss in his bid for reelection, as President Trump has indicated he might. Yet there have on occasion been lingering doubts long after Election Day about who the winner actually was. Most recently, the 2000 election wasn’t resolved until mid-December, when five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court put a stop to the recount of votes in Florida, thus handing the election to George W. Bush.

But there is a more frightening example of a contested election: 1876. This deadlock came remarkably close to plunging the United States into another civil war, barely more than a decade after the close of the first one. It suggests that today we need not only fear potential violence but should also worry about what policies and principles even well-meaning political leaders might be willing to compromise on to avert it.

In 1876, the United States marked its 100th birthday. What ought to have been a moment of celebration instead turned into one of anxious hand-wringing and morose contemplation. Might the Civil War start again? Had constitutional breakdown become the new American normal? Despite heroic attempts to reconstruct it on a broader and sturdier foundation, the Union again seemed to totter. “The chances are by no means inconsiderable,” one Democrat mused, “that our form of govt may not survive another 4 of July without serious modification, the results of a perhaps bloody strife.”

Fatefully, the North had never managed to consolidate its victory. President Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee enslaver whom the late Abraham Lincoln had adopted as his 1864 running mate precisely to reward his wartime loyalty to the Union, now sided openly with those who had fought to destroy it and with the white supremacist principles they continued unapologetically to espouse. To guarantee the fruits of victory, and for the protection of formerly enslaved people, the Republican-dominated Congress imposed a strict military occupation of the rebel states. The South would be remade at the point of a gun.

Or not. Advances toward multiracial democracy were swiftly met with armed resistance by roving bands of murderers and marauders like the Ku Klux Klan, who preyed on Black politicians, voters or any formerly enslaved person who acted, as one woman put it, “like they thought anything of themselves.” Ulysses S. Grant, Johnson’s Republican successor, prosecuted some of the terror groups and drove them underground. But after a series of political scandals and a financial panic in 1873, Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives. Many White Northerners began to lose interest in Reconstruction, while White Southerners, back in control of the Democratic Party, redoubled their efforts to reclaim political power and racial dominance, including through increasingly vicious campaigns of anti-Black violence.

The 1876 presidential contest pit Samuel Tilden, New York’s Democratic governor and a wealthy corporate lawyer, against Rutherford B. Hayes, Ohio’s governor and a decorated Union general wounded five times in battle but a dull, uninspiring figure. Riding voter discontent with a still-sluggish economy and the Grant administration’s shameless corruption, Tilden won the popular vote and, seemingly, the electoral college. But when Republican officials in three Southern states ⁠ — Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida — invalidated Democratic votes because of outright fraud and violent voter intimidation, Hayes seemed headed for the White House.

Hardcore Democrats, especially those from the South, refused to accept the results and rallied around the ominous slogan, “Tilden or War.” Fifteen years out of power, the party was desperate to retake the presidency and return the country to the status quo antebellum: a federal union founded and perpetuated on the basis of white supremacy. Rumors circulated that if Hayes was declared the winner, Tilden would hold a counterinauguration in Manhattan, seize the federal treasury building and fund a shadow government through customs revenue. Democratic state militias would invade Washington and send Hayes back to Ohio to rule over a rump Midwestern republic.

Tilden had friends in high places, some of whom seemed willing to put such a wild plan into effect. George McClellan, the popular Union general and 1864 Democratic candidate, stumped the country for Tilden before Election Day and rallied veterans to support him. Any attempt to prevent Tilden from taking office would be “revolutionary + must be met by force,” McClellan told his mother. The general’s vast network of ex-military admirers encouraged him to take action. One suggested “a little bit of war to inaugurate Mr. Tilden would do us no harm.”

Hiding out in his Gramercy Park study, Tilden held aloof from such plans. He knew, however, as a supporter told him, that “well armed men” were ready to march on Washington and install him in the White House. Heeding his supporters (though he had his doubts), Tilden announced that the inauguration of a “usurper” as president would justify violent resistance.

Democrats weren’t the only ones preparing for war. A Hayes supporter from Texas pledged “hundreds + thousands” of ex-soldiers would fight for the Republican candidate. Grant, who feared his legacy of ending one civil war would be ruined by his failure to prevent another, ordered troops to surround the Capitol and restaffed Washington-area forts abandoned since Appomattox. William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant’s successor as top general, feared the military would “be put into a position to choose between two presidents.”

Just five weeks before Inauguration Day, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, pressured by business executives who disliked the uncertainty, agreed to form a 15-person commission ⁠ — composed equally of senators, representatives and Supreme Court justices ⁠ — to sort through the disputed votes. Tilden wondered whether the Democrats’ participation suggested preemptive capitulation. “Why surrender now?” he asked. “Why surrender before the battle, for fear you may have to surrender after the battle is over?”

In an 8-to-7 party-line vote, the commission gave every disputed vote to Hayes. Democrats in the House threatened to block certification of the results to force a new election. In a literally smoke-filled room at Wormley’s Hotel in Washington, party bigwigs agreed to a now-infamous compromise: Democratic submission to Hayes’s inauguration in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the last Republican redoubts in the South (Louisiana and South Carolina, where they were propping up besieged governors). The deal brought to a symbolic close the 15-year effort to enforce the Constitution in the South.

Wounded by war, devoted to profit rather than principle, grown “tired of the Negro,” as the New York Herald coldly stated, White Northerners were relieved to give up on Reconstruction and leave White Southerners in charge. They had fought once to save the Union but wouldn’t do so again to preserve the newly won rights of Black people.

Indeed, the new sectional bargain affirmed the South’s long-standing contention that union was possible on no other terms. Georgia’s Robert Toombs, a former Confederate general and Cabinet official, said he would “face thirty years of war to get rid of Negro suffrage in the South.” No white Northerner would endure the same to keep it in place. Even former abolitionists sighed that the “social, and educational, and moral reconstruction” so desperately needed in the South could “never come from any legislative halls.” The essence of the “devil’s compromise,” as some Black Americans called the deal, was a national recommitment to white supremacy, the oldest and strongest union bond of all.

The compromise of 1877 effectively voided the Union victory in the Civil War — except for the abolition of slavery, and even then, the system that replaced it often closely resembled actual bondage. Military withdrawal brought lynchings, voter suppression and segregation. Southern Blacks became ensnared in what historian Eric Foner, in his landmark history of Reconstruction, calls “a seamless web of oppression, whose interwoven economic, political, and social strands all reinforced one another.” That web, in a sense, was the Union itself.

The truly terrifying legacy of the 1876 electoral standoff isn’t only how close the crisis came to triggering a new outbreak of catastrophic violence but the solution American politicians came up with to avoid it: to avert another constitutional breakdown and resort to arms, the greatest advances for liberty and equality in human history were all but repealed. A renewal of the founding bargain — Northern silence in exchange for Southern allegiance — endured and underwrote America’s rise as a world power.

What deals might today’s political leaders ink to end a similar crisis this time around? It may not be too soon to ask. As in 1876, constitutional breakdown would be disastrous, but so would a desperate, panicked insistence on compromise at any cost.