Ghosts of 1876

The 1876 Presidential election is one little remembered today. Such is only natural—the election took place more than a hundred years past and turned on some rather quaint issues. History may repeat itself from time to time but lands grants for railroads and treaty protections for naturalized Americans who traveled abroad are hardly hot button issues today. But if there was one issue that transcended all the others in importance in 1876, it was the issue of the federal occupation of the South. 

The Civil War had ended eleven years before, but slavery had been re-established in many parts of the South via the Black Codes. The Klan Act had brought the worst paramilitary groups to heel in the South, but the Grant administration had yet to withdraw troops. Many urged him to reverse course, but Grant would not budge. Black Americans were still being persecuted and could not count on much assistance from state and local authorities; federal troops had to stay. 

Despite an economic slump and some embarrassing political scandals, liberals had good reason to feel confident about the outcome of the 1876 election. The conservatives were closely allied with violent white supremacists, and liberals assumed that would prove toxic with general election voters. After all, black Americans finally had the right to vote and they knew the danger of letting the Confederate sympathizers back into the Presidency better than any group.

Liberals, however, severely overestimated the electoral strength of their candidate and minority voters showed up at the polls in smaller than expected numbers. As a result, the conservative candidate, a colorful New Yorker with heterodox views, won a plurality of the votes in the Electoral College.     

The outcome shocked many, but neither candidate had enough votes in the Electoral College to claim outright victory. For the sake of peace, conservatives and liberals meted out the Compromise of 1877. Conservatives would agree to recognize Hayes as President, and Hayes would, in exchange, withdraw federal soldiers from the former Confederate states. Both sides kept their end of the deal, and Hayes gave the order to recall troops from the South shortly after taking office.

Following the withdrawal of troops, conservatives quickly established political dominion over the South. For generations to come, it persisted. Time and again, progressives impulses would be beaten back by conservatives from the South, dashing the hopes of activists and reformers. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Compromise of 1877 when it comes to the political trajectory of the South. This naturally begs the question: why did so many black voters avoid the polls in 1876?

There are a myriad of reasons of course but none can match the primacy of voter suppression. Liberals seriously underestimated the extremes conservatives would go to in order to prevent marginalized people from getting access to the ballot box, and paid a price for it at the polls. Black voters had good reason to like Hayes, he was an outspoken abolitionist and a Civil War hero, but paramilitary groups prevented many of them from being able to cast their votes in states like Louisiana and South Carolina. As a result, Hayes underperformed in the Electoral College and had to make a hideous deal to assume power. 

Thankfully, political violence is far less acceptable in American politics than it was in the era of Reconstruction. Black voters will be able to go to the polls without fear of lynching or torture, but it would be a mistake to think that voter suppression is no longer a fixture of American politics. CV19 has given the GOP a superb vehicle to suppress the vote, and the Trump administration seems intent upon taking full advantage of it. Democrats missed the chance to tie economic stimulus to voter protection measures, but Trump is desperate to keep unemployment from rising higher so they may get another chance. Let’s hope they remember the lessons of 1876. Otherwise, it may not be just black voters who end up being undercounted this November.