The beautiful thing about history is learning how current events are the equivalent of remakes of past historical horrors. Take the current Presidential election and compare them to two excellent books on past Presidential predicaments at the polls, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign and Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 

The 2020 Presidential Election shitshow has people losing their minds (and understandably so) as accusations fly of voter fraud and people being denied their chance to have their vote counted. Regardless of how you feel, it’s important to remember that this is nothing new to American politics.

While many people recall the 2000 election debacle between George W. Bush and Al Gore, they may not know about the 1800 and 1876 Presidential elections that threatened to tear the country apart. Like the 2000 election, there were claims of skullduggery by political operatives looking to rob one candidate of the election. However, as we’ll see, 2000 was a picnic compared to the President elections of 1800 and 1876 and the historical events happening at the time.

A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign (Magnificent) covers the election between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the unbelievable contentiousness between Adams’ Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. If you think partisan politics are ridiculous now, read this book and its discussion about how the Federalists wiped their asses with the U.S. Constitution in their efforts to suppress dissenting voices (the Republicans were no angels either).

Edward J. Larson’s 352-page book shows the inherent design flaws in the process for picking a President that led to the stalemate of 1800. As you may recall from history class, the members of the Electoral College each cast two votes for a Presidential candidate. When the votes were tallied, the man with the most electoral votes became President and the runner-up became Vice-President. In 1800, this led to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each receiving 73 electoral votes while incumbent John Adams came in third with 65. Per the Constitution, the tie forced the House of Representatives to vote on who would become President and who would become Vice-President. Since Congress was composed of men from the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, there was plenty of room for behind-the-scenes deals to garner votes. After repeated votes in the House, it looked like there might never be a compromise and that the nation might tear itself apart over who had actually won. Legend has it that Federalist politician Alexander Hamilton wheeled and dealed to get some of his friends in the House to vote for Jefferson rather than Burr (who Hamilton despised). As history shows, Jefferson won the vote in the House, becoming President while Burr got the Vice-Presidency, a meaningless post that John Adams famously described to his wife Abigail as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 (Fraud) discusses the Presidential power struggle that concluded with the Compromise of 1877, where Congress voted in Rutherford B. Hayes (or Rutherfraud as he later became known due to the circumstances of him taking office) in exchange for an end to Reconstruction and the removal of federal troops from the post-Civil War South.

Much like today, the 1876 election saw the United States at a boiling point. The Civil War had ended but the policy of Reconstruction designed to help guarantee African-Americans’ rights in the South was beginning to fade away as federal officials enforced it less and less. African-Americans found themselves terrorized by whites determined to somehow return the South to its Antebellum days and African-Americans who did fight back often found themselves facing a justice system that denied them due process. The North and the South had officially been at peace since 1865 but things seemed ready to erupt into a second Civil War. That was the last thing the nation could afford given the destruction of the first, but the 1876 Presidential election appeared to be the catalyst needed to push the U.S. over the brink.

As Roy Morris Jr. explains in Fraud, the election broke down in a dispute over which candidate had the most electoral votes. Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won the most popular votes, but as we’ve seen in past elections, it’s the electoral votes that count. Tilden had 184 electoral votes compared to his Republican opponent Rutherford B. Hayes’ 165 electoral votes. Here, there were still 20 electoral votes at stake with Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina being the key states with these essential votes.

Morris details the many activities happening behind the scenes that not only affected who won the key electoral votes, but the fraud involved at the polls, including voter suppression. There’s also discussion of how both sides threatened violence depending on the election’s results (where have we heard that before?)

While there have been some sketchy Presidential elections, the 1876 campaign remains at the top when it comes to the sleaziest outcome. Not only did Hayes win, but his victory removed the government’s Reconstruction efforts and gave the South carte blanche to enforce an era of systematic racism that would last for decades (some would argue it still exists).

If you want to see how our current election compares to other election nightmares, check out either (or both) of these books. I’d recommend Fraud of the Century first given its historical importance, but Magnificent Catastrophe stands out as a reminder of how partisan politics have been with us since the earliest days of the Republic.


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