Challenging Exceptionalism: The 1876 Presidential Election, Potter Committee, and European Perceptions

Challenging Exceptionalism: The 1876 Presidential Election, Potter Committee, and European Perceptions

In May 1878, the House of Representatives appointed Representative Clarkson N. Potter (NY-12) to investigate claims of fraud during the 1876 election. The commission, as Adam Fairclough untangles in his new book, uncovered massive wrongdoing on both sides, including so-called bulldozing by Louisiana Democrats, Republican election theft, and attempts to buy off the individuals in charge of the vote count. Designed to embarrass President Rutherford B. Hayes, Democrats’ efforts backfired as neither side emerged unscathed in the final report.[1] However, this was not the first or the last time elections in the United States were fraught with violence, corruption, and bribery.[2]

Europeans were well-aware of how “democracy” worked in the North American republic. Many, even those who favored electoral reforms, were often torn about using the United States as an example because of that well-known stigma. Nevertheless, and despite its transnational turn, the Civil War has retained an exceptionalist character, even among scholars who wish to internationalize the conflict. The notion that the war, in some form, was to safeguard republicanism continues. As one recent scholar terms it: “Were southern secession to succeed, slavery would be preserved, the republican experiment discredited.”[3] As I have shown elsewhere, Europeans were wary invoking the U.S. experiment when calling for electoral reforms at home.[4] The coverage of the 1876 election and Potter Committee investigation certainly did not aid the standing of the republican experiment’s cause among Europeans. Europeans’ views of the contested Election of 1876 and the Potter Committee further challenge the exceptionalism myth of the United States and the American Civil War as safeguarding republicanism.

Henry Ogden, “Washington, D.C. – The Potter Investigation Committee in Session in the Basement of the Old Capitol,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 22, 1878.

European newspapers always paid close attention to the events in North America, especially U.S. presidential elections. With the transatlantic cable in place, news arrived fast. On November 16, 1876, the Neue Freie Presse, an Austrian newspaper, briefly reported that the election was called in favor of President Hayes, but that both parties had sent influential members to Louisiana to check on the vote counting.[5] Die Presse voiced a similar concern and questioned whether additional scrutiny would reveal serious electoral trickery. Reporting some of the initial issues with the vote, the editors worried of a new civil conflict.[6]

As more detailed news of the elections in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina arrived, the newspapers added their editorial spins. By December, Die Presse expressed its disbelief over the lack of a clear winner. The paper highlighted that the election board in Louisiana had thrown out the democratic election results in eight parishes. Die Presse editors blamed the corruption of the outgoing Grant administration for causing some of the fraudulent activities in Louisiana. The newspaper editors worried that the situation was so tense that any misstep could bring about a dramatic escalation.[7]What message about democratic government did such news send to Austrian readers?

Meanwhile, Das Vaterland ran a lengthy article on the contested election in mid-January. The newspaper also worried that the election could easily result in another civil conflict as the U.S. Constitution offered little guidance for resolving a tie in the electoral college. Explaining the complicated presidential electoral system and the issues of 1876 to its readers, Das Vaterland wondered if the two major political parties could find an agreement as to whose electors would be counted. While remaining hopeful that a peaceful transfer of power was possible, there was an undertone in the article that alluded to the unexpected disaster of the 1860 election.[8] The Austrian media expressed disbelief at what transpired in Louisiana.

The French press did not cover the presidential election in great detail but observed pointedly that the election of 1876 in Louisiana involved, in the words of Le Figaro, “gigantic fraud.” The news coverage also highlighted that the election had involved intimidation and other irregularities.[9]

Among the Austrian and French press, the Potter Committee did not receive extensive coverage, but a few brief mentions did occur. The Wiener Zeitung briefly noted the creation of the Potter Committee and its initial focus on John Sherman and other Republicans associated with Hayes and the election in Louisiana and Florida.[10] The committee was likely to find issues as the Neue Freie Presse reported because recently witnesses had stepped forward who had taken part in the manipulations of the votes. The editors assumed Democrats had reopened the question to benefit their political chances in the upcoming mid-term elections.[11] Austrian readers could read into these brief reports what they wished, but the indication of a fundamental flaw in the U.S. election system was obvious.

The British Press also reported on the Potter Committee and the voting fraud of 1876. The testimony of James E. Anderson drew great interest as he illustrated how much fraud and corruption were part of the Louisiana election and how many influential politicians were involved in the efforts to make Hayes president.[12] However, all these reports were minor in their open criticism of the United States to what the Pall Mall Gazette said.

On September 6, 1880, the Pall Mall Gazette fired a devastating broadside against the U.S. electoral system. (Note that this is after the change of ownership at the Gazette and its new editorial policy aligning closer to the Liberal Party.) In the lead up to the election of 1880, the paper revisited the previous presidential contest and observed that Hayes was the “legally elected” president, but that his election was made possible by fraud. The paper dismissed some reports detailing the intimidation and violence directed at Black voters. At the same time, the editors reminded their readers that both sides in the political contest engaged in significant voter fraud and manipulation. The choice between armed military despotism and fraud was an easy one in the United States—fraud was more agreeable. At the same time, the editors contended that most people did not pay attention or care much about politics. Frequent elections were cited as a cause of the disinterest.

However, the paper offered the clearest indictment of the U.S. political and electoral system. Comparing the United States to Napoleon III’s France, the paper wondered how democratic the United States truly was. Worthy of quoting in full, the British newspaper concluded: “Thus there is the most singular toleration of acknowledged foul play by both the players; and this is all the more noteworthy because communities and Governments, far less scrupulous on the whole, have proved extremely intolerant of electoral fraud. If ever there was a Government which might be supposed capable of it, it was that of the Second French Empire. The Ministers and prefects of Napoleon III did not indeed neglect some American precedents; to use the American phrase, they often ‘gerrymandered’ the constituencies by grouping them so as to produce a favorable result; but they never ventured to tamper with the ballot-box.”[13] In other words, even the often vilified Emperor Napoleon III did not engage in activities done by U.S. politicians. Nor did he, as Louisiana politicians in 1876, outright manipulate the vote. How could the United States be an example for democratic elections if it did not respect the voice of the voters?

While some exceptionalist-minded scholars continue to view the victory of the United States and its political system in the American Civil War as one safeguarding democracy and republicanism, the reality was very different. For the surveyed European newspaper editors, the United States contributed to that reality. The many reports of fraud, violence, and corruption of antebellum elections had already made the United States a less than desirable example for those wishing to bring about democratic reforms. The coverage of the 1876 election and Potter Committee, even if limited, drove further home that very point. How much would anybody wish to mimic a system where violence, intimidation, corruption, and the political wishes of a few people could turn the ballot voice of voters around? And as the Pall Mall Gazette observes, if the villain of some U.S. scholarship, Napoleon III, did not even engage in such outright voter fraud as practiced in Louisiana, how much can we truly view the United States as the beacon of republicanism everybody looked up to, especially after the Civil War?

 

[1] Adam Fairclough, Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Election of 1876 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021).

[2] Frank Towers, The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004).

[3] Joseph A. Fry, Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relation in the Civil War Era (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), 188.

[4] Niels Eichhorn, “Democracy: The Civil War and the Transnational Struggle for Electoral Reform,” American Nineteenth Century History 20 (2019): 293-313.

[5] Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), November 16, 1876.

[6] Die Presse (Vienna), November 20, 1876.

[7] Die Presse (Vienna), December 3, 1876.

[8] Das Vaterland (Vienna), January 17, 1877.

[9] Le Figaro (Paris), December 29, 1876.

[10] Wiener Zeitung (Vienna), May 14, 1878.

[11] Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), May 17, 1878.

[12] “The American Election Frauds,” The Freeman’s Journal, June 17, 1878; “The Election Frauds in America,” Birmingham Daily Post, June 11, 1878; “The Alleged Electoral Frauds in America,” Daily News, June 27, 1878. Special thanks to John Legg for helping me locate British newspaper sources for this project.

[13] The Pall Mall Gazette (London), September 6, 1880.

 

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

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