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Echoes of 1876 - Can We Learn from the Past?

At a time when our country feels so bitterly divided, it is instructive to recall a time when political conflicts were just as bad, and probably even worse. So hitch a ride with me back 142 years, to 1876.

In the electoral contest that year to succeed President Ulysses S. Grant, the Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, while the Democrats selected Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Back then, the Republican Party stood for the rights of African Americans, having spearheaded constitutional amendments to abolish slavery, preserve equal rights, and ensure the rights of all citizens to vote. During this period of Reconstruction, President Grant had sent federal troops to protect the rights of African Americans in the South, and had effectively destroyed the Ku Klux Klan.

However, many Americans were getting tired of Reconstruction. Democrats from both North and South had always opposed this policy, and even liberal Republicans were now more focused on economic issues, mainly the effects of a bank crisis dating from 1873. This was the background to the 1876 election, which turned out to be the closest presidential contest to date.

While Democrat Tilden, who had a popular vote majority, appeared to have just enough electoral votes to win the election (185-184), it was evident that three southern states (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) had experienced substantial voting irregularities. Mobs of armed whites intimidated Black voters in these states. In South Carolina, rival slates claimed victories--racist, obstructionist Democrats put their gubernatorial candidate in place and sent their slate of electoral votes in to Washington. Republicans did the same. All three disputed southern states sent two sets of votes to Washington. It appeared very possible that the country would have two rival presidents, each claiming to have won the election.

To forestall this, Congress named an electoral commission with 15 members, seven Democrats and seven Republicans. The 15th member was the Supreme Court Justice, a Republican. The commission voted along party lines, and Hayes was declared to be president.

Rather than contest this decision, the Democrats agreed to back the commission’s decision. Though many Democrats were outraged by this, party leaders were able to elicit two key compromises: Hayes agreed to give Democrats a say in cabinet appointments. And most significantly, he agreed to end Reconstruction, removing federal troops from Southern states and thus guaranteeing white control of the South.

The 1876 election and its aftermath are notable for the deep conflicts that it exposed: Republican vs. Democrat, North vs. South, White vs. Black. Violence and outright fraud prevailed in many areas of the South, with many Black voters being murdered or otherwise intimidated, and thus prevented from voting. Political mistrust at the national level was high. It was not out of the question that the country would experience an irrevocable split. The compromises reached in Washington at least avoided this outcome.

In light of this history, our current political conflicts are neither unprecedented nor uncommonly divisive. So if 1876 illuminates a sharp point of strife in our history, how did we respond to that crisis? Sadly, not very well. Late 19th century government proved ill-equipped or incapable of dealing with the issues of the time, leading to ongoing inequality and injustice.

The industrial revolution that occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century brought overall wealth to the country, but at the cost of severe economic disparities. Following the 1876 compromise, presidential power shrank in comparison to Gilded Age robber barons, who took advantage of lax laws and regulations to amass influence at the expense of competitors, laborers, and consumers. And worse, the end of Reconstruction ushered in 90 years of state-sponsored terror in the South, in which the old slavery structure was recast into a violent, exploitative, and genocidal system known all too benignly as Jim Crow.

Historical parallels are never exact, but they can provide useful guideposts. When political conflict is most heightened, the winners tend to be rich corporate interests, who create and benefit from their own rules, while ordinary citizens and workers fight for a shrinking piece of the economic pie. In the midst of such conflict, racism also becomes more pronounced, as citizens of color are scapegoated, attacked, and abused. As it was following 1876, so it is today. Inequality and injustice reign.

With hindsight, we can look to the 19th century and see things that were clearly wrong. Many Americans defended slavery. Now, it is agreed (except by a benighted few) to be a moral horror. Similarly, the political choices of the late 19th century--allowing rich corporate titans to gain greater power, and enabling a racist society to flourish in the South--were similarly misguided.

So it is that some things are clearly wrong in the wake of today’s political divides. Future generations will take a dim view of our policies privileging corporate power and scapegoating minorities, even if such judgments are not evident to everyone today.

Can we do anything now to reverse current trends? As a first step, we need to VOTE in large numbers for Democrats across the spectrum--from social Democrats to moderates--who can stand up to Republican ignorance and malfeasance. Then, our elected politicians need to advocate policies that undo those which echo the mistakes of the late 1800s:

If and when our current conflict recedes in memory, what will we have to show for all this aggravation? Will this experience, like that of 1876, lead to another missed opportunity? Or will we take the initiative to create a better, more just society? It is up to us.

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