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Repeating History: How the Presidential Election of 1876 May Inform the Outcome of the Current Presidential Race
Posted on October 16, 2020
by Rebecca S
Co-authored by Maddison Shutters
As Americans head to the polls, many historians and political pundits are drawing stark comparisons between what repercussive outcomes may occur come November 3rd. Because of Covid-19 and its impact on the United States, there is an expectation that more people will vote via Absentee/Mail-In than ever before. Increased absentee voting has been brought on, in part, by the pandemic, district gerrymandering and strict voter ID laws that have resulted in increased voter disenfranchisement. Also, unprecedented foreign and domestic misinformation campaigns are being waged against the validity of the electoral system through false and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. These issues foreshadow what could be a contested and disputed election that may drag on for days, and even weeks, after that magic date, November 3rd.
History, however, as it always does, can serve as a guide. Contested and inconclusive presidential elections have occurred before. One well within living memory is the Bush v. Gore election in 2000. In that election, Florida’s vote tallies were under scrutiny and the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on the decision. After the outcome of the 2000 election America found itself at war with Iraq and steeped in a deepening political divide at home, a U.S. presidential election that occurred earlier in America’s past produced results with consequences that still reverberate today.
The 1876 election between Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio ended with the electoral college in the balance as three states were in dispute. On election day Tilden led the race by over 260,000 votes and was on the verge of winning the electoral college majority. However, an issue arose when the 19 electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina brought inconclusive results, indicating that both candidates had won those states. This resulted in a partisan battle to decide whether the electoral votes of the selected states were valid.
After four months of decision-deadlock, the Electoral Commission was created. The goal of the commission was to install seven democrats, seven republicans and one independent onto a deciding body that would vote to determine the outcome of the election. However, when the independent choice (Supreme Court Justice David Davis) refused to serve, he was replaced on the commission with republican Justice Joseph P. Bradley. The imbalance between parties’ sway led to Hayes’ victory on March 2nd, 1877, with Bradley’s addition swinging the vote 8-7. Hayes was inaugurated two days later, on March 4th, 1877.
Although many similarities between this historic event and the current, and possible, election situation is relatively clear, both situations’ connections, in fact, run much deeper. Current racial tensions and social justice protests are a direct product of the 1876 election’s aftermath. Even though the 1876 election went to Hayes, Tilden and the Democrats did not walk away empty handed. During the proceedings of the Electoral Commission, high-ranking members of both parties had discussed the possibility of declaring Hayes the winner in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from the South, marking an end to the Reconstruction era that had been in place since the American Civil War. The Compromise of 1877 ushered in certain laws and customs associated with the Jim Crow era, an at-times violent system constructed on concepts of white supremacy and segregation that disenfranchised Southern Blacks and carved deep, still-healing wounds into American society.
Additionally, just as the Electoral Commission scurried to find a replacement for their independent representative – filled by Republican, Justice Bradley – today there is an urgent push to fill the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat prior to the election. Considering potential electoral disputes come November, those that could lead their way for resolution to the Supreme Court, these parallels further support ways in which history can and does, in various ways, repeat itself.
Although no one quite knows what to expect on and after November 3, 2020, history does provide possible clues. The 1876 election is much more than simply a moment in our nation’s collective past; if studied, it can inform our future by providing insight into our current moment and illuminating the possibilities of what could be.