Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (left) defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden in the 1876 presidential race with parallels to 2020. Images via Wikimedia Commons

By Don Bauder

Charges of a rigged election. Widespread corruption. A deep recession. A nation so divided that some talk of another civil war. Controversy about the Supreme Court. Amid all this, a presidential election that is so close that national emotions are tied in knots.

I’m not talking about Biden vs. Trump in 2020.

I’m talking about Democrat Samuel J. Tilden vs. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.

Two things stand out about this election: 1. It was stolen. 2. Its consequence, called the Compromise of 1877, ended Reconstruction in the South, erasing any chance that African-Americans would retain most of the rights they had won after the Civil War, and left the South in the domineering hands of the Democratic Party — earning the name “Solid South” — until reform was finally launched in the 1960s.

Those are earthshaking consequences for a couple of non-earthshaking candidates. A famous writer remarked, “Hayes is a third-rate non-entity whose only recommendations are that he is obnoxious to no one.”

A journalist remarked acidly that Tilden “is a very nice, prim, little withered-up, fidgety old bachelor.”

Despite such invective, both Tilden and Hayes had excellent credentials. Tilden, governor of New York and distinguished lawyer, had played a major role in breaking up Boss Tweed’s corrupt ring in New York. Hayes, governor of Ohio, was a Civil War hero hailed for his honesty and abstemiousness.

The nation was trying to shake off the widespread corruption during the dirty reign of retiring Republican President Ulysses S. Grant. The recession that had begun in 1873 was still biting the citizenry. Thus, Tilden was expected to win.

Don and Ellen Bauder at their home in Salida, Colorado. Photo via Don Bauder

He did — until sticky Republican fingers got into counting ballots. On Election Day, Tilden led by 260,000 votes and had 184 electoral votes, which was one shy of an electoral college victory. Hayes was about to throw in the towel when an operative figured that if Hayes won all the rest of the electoral votes, he could squeak out a victory.

Then ensued a major political battle. Finally, a commission was appointed, with the intention that it be split between the two parties. But the Republicans managed to eke out an 8-7 edge on the commission. Three states, plus a slim corner of Oregon, were in dispute. Lo and behold, the commission by 8-7 votes gave all those votes to Hayes, who won by one electoral vote, and also won the lifelong epithets of “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.”

Now came the question of Reconstruction. Lincoln had set it in motion in 1863, before the war ended. After the war, the South was in rags, and some well-intentioned people wanted to give the freed slaves the ballot and full civil rights.

For a while, it seemed to work. But Southern white legislators and the United States Supreme Court kept eroding the African-Americans’ modest gains. Historians still argue over the value of Reconstruction. The Southerners didn’t argue: Northerners who went South during the period were branded as carpetbaggers and Southerners who sided with the Northerners were called scalawags.

The politicians’ battle was settled by the Compromise of 1877, drawn up in secrecy. The Democrats would accept Hayes’ victory if the last of the Northern troops would be removed from the South. They were. From then until the 1960s, the Southern African-Americans were in the filthy grasp of Jim Crow.

Don Bauder, formerly business editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, retired in September 2018 as a columnist for the San Diego Reader. He lives in Salida, Colorado.

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