(November 14, 2016.) About four o’clock on the morning following Tuesday’s Presidential election The New York Times received a request from two prominent Democrats for an update on the Electoral College vote. Nobody ever replied. Instead the editors and political writers sensed the Democrat victory that most everyone—including both candidates—had assumed, was actually in doubt. If leading Democratic politicians were privately uncertain, they reasoned, perhaps the Republican-loyal Times could transform their fears into a reality through creative reporting in the morning’s first edition.
A once insane Republican leader may have indirectly provided the basis for partial newspapermen to rationalize putting a biased interpretation of the front page. Years earlier Daniel Sickles was the first person to win acquittal for murder by using a temporary insanity defense after killing his wife’s lover. Shortly before midnight of Election Day he sent telegrams to Republican-controlled machines in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, which were the only three Carpetbag regimes remaining. He emphasized that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes would win the 1876 election against Democrat Samuel Tilden if each of the three delivered their electoral votes to Hayes. Tilden would lose the Electoral College despite holding a 51% to 48% popular vote majority.
Perhaps due to Sickles’ earlier telegrams, The Times learned of rumors that the returns from the three Southern states might be contested. As a result, the first edition declared the election to be in doubt. A front-page editorial arbitrarily put South Carolina and Louisiana in the Republican column thereby giving Hayes the lead. Thus began America’s most notorious election fraud.
Regardless of the true vote, the returns from each of the Carpetbag states would be determined by Republican-controlled “returning boards,” which launched investigations into the legitimacy of popular votes in the applicable states. Although fraudulent votes were cast on both sides it was nearly certain that the boards would throw out enough Democratic votes to provide a fabricated Republican majority in each state thereby giving the election to Hayes.
The eventual fraudulent electoral vote was 185 for Hayes and 184 for Tilden. Thus, Tilden needed only one of the disputed states. He probably should have had all three, but most certainly Louisiana. According to historian Roy Morris, “The actions of the returning boards…would not bear close scrutiny; any reasonably impartial board was likely to reverse the findings, particularly for Louisiana…”
Since the electoral vote roll call was postponed until days before the new President’s inauguration, Democrats threatened to filibuster before the roll call was completed, thereby Preventing Hayes from taking office. Anticipating the maneuver, Republicans responded by secretly hinting to take two actions that would provide Southern Democrats incentives to stay out of a filibuster.
First, was to withdraw federal occupation troops from the three Carpetbag states. From one perspective the action removed federal military protection for black voters. From another it denied Carpetbag rulers an arbitrary tool for blocking Democratic white voters. Regardless of whether or not it was secretly a promise, Hayes removed the federal troops during his first year in office.
A second incentive was to provide more federal public works spending in the South, particularly for railroads. From 1865 to 1873, for example, the states of the former Confederacy received less than 10% of federal public works spending. Massachusetts and New York alone got more than twice as much as all of the former Rebel states. Whether or not such action was a second secret promise, it was never fulfilled. Southerners were told that “the Great Barbecue” originating with the 1863 Pacific Railroad Act was over. They were told it had to be ended because of the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1873, which was partially caused by liberal government railroad subsidies elsewhere.
Democratic governors soon replaced Carpetbag Republicans in the three disputed Southern states but Hayes arranged appointments of their former GOP governors and other state officials who helped him win the election. Louisiana’s 1876 gubernatorial candidate became the U. S. Counsel to Liverpool and the outgoing governor who signed the returns sent to Washington moved up to the U. S. Senate in a deal arranged by Ohio Senator John Sherman, who was a brother of General William T. Sherman.
The four—two white and two black—members of Louisiana’s election board were given federal posts. One of the white men was appointed the chief customs collector in New Orleans and the other became his assistant. (Tax collection posts were notoriously corrupt.) One of the blacks became a deputy naval officer at the port and the other got a customs house post for his brother. In total, sixty-nine men involved in the Republican-winning Louisiana count got federal appointments. In all, some fifty relatives and friends of the Louisiana Returning Board got positions at the New Orleans custom’s house.
After Hayes’s 1876 election, Washington Republicans virtually ignored the black electorate until the eve of the tightly contested reelection campaign of President Benjamin Harrison against Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1892. Anticipating a close vote, in 1890 Massachusetts Representative Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a “Force Bill” to empower the federal government to supervise elections in the South once again under the glitter of bayonets thereby optimizing Republican election prospects in the region. The bill, however, was dropped when the Republicans traded it away for Southern support of the McKinley Tariff, which raised import duties about 50%. Although Republicans claimed the Lodge Bill underscored the Party’s determination to protect black voters, the motive was evidently less powerful than their hunger for higher tariffs.
But that’s another story, and a good one.