Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Fraud of the Century - Roy Morris

My dad sent more books, so brace yourselves.

Fraud of the Century covers the extremely questionable election of Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden in 1876. Tilden by basically all accounts won the popular vote handily (by over 250,000 votes, in an election with roughly 8.5 million votes cast). Unfortunately, there were three Southern states where there were extensive claims of fraud, violence, and generally illegal activity, on both sides. The return boards were dominated by Republicans, and so threw out many thousands of votes for Tilden. The Democrats, who were winning most of the state offices, disputed this, it went to Congress, an Electoral Commission was formed, the attempt to make it even between Democrats and Republicans failed, the Republican majority voted to award all 20 of the electoral votes to Hayes, and he was given the Presidency, basically in exchange for the feds agreeing to back off and let the southern Democrats do whatever they wanted in their own states. "Whatever they wanted" translated to, "Oppress black people as much as they possibly could," which turned out to be quite a lot.

So it's all a massively depressing mess. There are some interesting parts, such as the fact Hayes won the nomination by being the potential candidate who had avoided making any enemies, even if he didn't necessarily stir strong passions, either. he was the candidate all the republicans could compromise on, just like Warren G. Harding would be 45 years later. In general, I don't think it's a good thing if you can apply the phrase, 'just like Warren G. Harding' to someone, but here we are. Tilden seemed unwilling or unable to use the passions of his voter base or the party. He was deliberate, calm, sensible, but he needed to rally support at key moments, and instead went about things at his own pace, which let key moments pass by. I kind of wonder if he really wanted to be President, or just felt it was a duty/burden he should take on. Credit to him for resisting the suggestions he rally armed supporters to him. That would have ended badly.

There is one thing about Morris' arguments that bothers me. He mentions early on that other recent histories of the election have argued that the Republicans were merely countering the southern Democrats' many violent efforts to suppress other voters, and that he doesn't truck with such 'moral relativisim: many wrongs do not make one right.' OK, fine, fair enough. But it feels at multiple points in the book as though he handwaves some of the violence that does occur. And some of it is probably made up by Republicans to give them excuses to question the voting results of particular districts, so those votes can be excluded. And some of them are by Republicans (white and black) against Democrats (white and black).

But it still has the feel of him dismissing all of it as paling before the actions of elected officials, especially when he argues that the numbers of votes lost as a result couldn't equal the number of Tilden votes thrown out by the return board in Florida, for example. But if the violence doesn't excuse the fraud, then by the same token, the fraud doesn't wipe away the violence. Also, it feels as though he's only counting votes that might have been lost to violence or intimidation during the actual 1876 election. But how many were lost to people being killed or bullied in all the years leading up to it. Morris discusses the actions of white Democrats in the south after the Civil War, the killings and intimidation, along with many states instituting Black Codes as a way to keep African-Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote. I don't know what all that adds up to, and no, it doesn't excuse electoral trickery, but it felt like it wasn't given the proper weight by the book.

'It was a coarse, even cynical reduction of the campaign to a single divisive issue, but Hayes had not won three statewide elections for governor and two terms in Congress by being overly subtle or idealistic. Besides, as his advisers told him, he had little hope of winning any southern states anyway. He would be better served by shoring up his base of support in the East and Midwest - and that meant waving the bloody shirt as long and hard as he possibly could.'

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