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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #60: Fraud of the Century

Fear the beard.

The 2000 US presidential election looms large in our recent memory. Depending on your political ideology, it was either a blatant theft of the presidency, a befuddling miasma of incompetence, or the whining of a sore loser. I'm not interested in parsing that here, as I'm fairly certain people's partisan prism for viewing that seismic cycle are pretty well baked in at this point.

Instead, let's talk about a much older instance of electoral foolery at the highest level. In 1876 the United States was weary of Reconstruction, tiring of the hard and real work of re-integrating a nation that had very recently been shooting at each other. (Never mind the hard work that was progressing at expanding the franchise to black Americans in the South.) Two northerners would be the major party nominees that year for President - Ohio governor Rutherford Hayes for the Republicans and New York governor Samuel Tilden for the Democrats. It was a sensationally venomous campaign, with Republicans waging the Civil War all over again and framing Democrats as the party of disloyalty (they don't seem to get tired of that canard) and Democrats systemically working to suppress the black vote throughout the South (stop me if you've heard this one). Try to remember that at this point in time, Republicans were the party of civil rights and Democrats the party of entrenched racism. That flipped in the 1960s, a stubborn little piece of reality some try to ignore.

At any rate, the election was close and the results in doubt. It took 185 electoral votes to win in those days, and it was immediately clear that Tilden had won 184 to 165 for Hayes. Louisiana, South Carolina, Oregon, and Florida's votes were in doubt (fucking Florida). Of those 20 disputed electoral votes, Tilden needed only one to be the winner. Hayes needed them all. In the four months after election day, the smoke-filled back rooms went into overdrive, and the eventual resolution was the filthy Compromise of 1877. Hayes received all 20 disputed votes and the Presidency, while the Democrats received an end to Reconstruction and a free hand in the South for the next 100 years (during which time they did their best to strip black citizens of every iota of suffrage and advancement so hard won since 1865).

Tilden had ample opportunity to contest the results - in fact, the Democratic House of Representatives in March 4, 1877 passed a resolution declaring him the President of the United States. Tilden refused to do so, probably saving the United States from a second Civil War. Instead, he looked forward to renomination in 1880 (which never happened).

A couple of interesting facts about the 1876 election - it was the highest turnout in any presidential campaign, with 81.8% of eligible voters going to the polls. And while Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Grover Cleveland, and Andrew Jackson also lost the electoral vote while winning the popular vote, Tilden remains the only candidate ever to lose the electoral vote while winning a majority in the popular vote (nearly 51%).

For it's 100th birthday, America received the gift of the most corrupt presidential election in its history. It still is - until and unless we ever figure out what really happened in 2016.

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