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Disputed U.S. elections – an old story

Although slavery was endemic in American society from the very first settlements in the 17th century the Civil War of 1861-65 promised a new beginning. The slave-owning Confederate states of the South surrendered to the Northern armies in 1865. Slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment to the constitution in 1863. The 15th Amendment in 1869 prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race, colour or previous condition of servitude. The former Confederate states were occupied by Northern armies and administrators determined to enforce racial equality. Black candidates were elected to local offices and even to Congress in Washington. A new era in race relations seemed to have dawned. But this period, known as Reconstruction, came to a shuddering halt in 1876, with consequences still being played out to this day.

On 7th November 1876, the rival candidates in the 23rd election for President of the United States were Rutherford B Hayes (Republican) and Samuel J Tilden (Democrat). It was one of the most contentious and controversial in U.S. history. After a turnout of 81.8% of the all-male electorate, 165 electoral college votes (47.9% of the popular vote) went to Hayes and 184 (50.9%) to Tilden. The remaining 20 electoral college votes (from 4 states, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon) were disputed as both parties claimed victory. The ensuing controversy and its resolution were to determine the course of race relations in the U.S. for almost 100 years.

President Rutherford B Hayes

The Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, respectively President and Commanding General of Northern forces in the Civil War 1861-65. Grant went on to become President 1868-76. The defeated South (Confederacy) was occupied by Union forces after 1865. Freed slaves were elected to political office, which in turn prompted a violent reaction from Southern whites, particularly veterans of the Confederate Army, determined to maintain White supremacy. Hence the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Northern officials sent to administer the South became known as “carpetbaggers” and their Southern collaborators as “Scalawags”. This period of U.S. history is known as Reconstruction, the domination of the defeated South by Republicans and their collaborators determined to enforce racial equality.

The Democratic Party was opposed to Lincoln but its Northern component supported him with some reluctance after South Carolina and other Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 and started the Civil War by firing on Federal troops on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Their candidate in the Presidential election of 1864 favoured a compromise peace. Democrats were broadly in favour of lenient treatment of the defeated South after 1865 and opposed Reconstruction.

Samuel Tilden

The disputed Presidential election was resolved as follows. The Democrats agreed to award the disputed electoral college votes to Hayes in return for the withdrawal of Republican forces and officials from the South, thus bringing Reconstruction to an end. The Southern Democrats were now free to enshrine White Supremacy by disfranchising black voters and enforcing racial segregation, thus enabling Democrat domination of the South down to the 1960s.

By the 1890s the Republicans had become identified with the interests of big business. The Democrats became an uneasy alliance between Southern segregationists and Northern Trade Unionists, which made possible, for example, Franklin Roosevelt`s New Deal in the 1930s. As Civil Rights developed as an issue, however, this alliance came under increasing strain and a segregationist candidate ran against Truman (a Democrat) in 1948 (unsuccessfully, despite carrying 5 Southern states). Democrat support for Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s finally forced a rupture with the white supremacists of the South, who turned increasingly to the Republicans from 1968 onwards.

Ironically, therefore, the Republican Party which had supported black rights during Reconstruction is now the party of choice for Southern whites. Every state of the old Confederacy except Virginia (swamped by suburban Washington) and Georgia (on a knife-edge because of the development of Atlanta) in 2020 voted for Donald Trump.

By Henry Falconer

Picture credits: President_Rutherford_Hayes_1870_-_1880.jpg: Mathew Bradyderivative work: UpstateNYer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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