Conveying the 1876 Election to the Public in an Era of Diminishing Democratic Norms

Conveying the 1876 Election to the Public in an Era of Diminishing Democratic Norms

At the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, we work to stay on top of the historiographical treatment of the 19th president. As you might expect, the controversial election of 1876 takes up the lion’s share of our efforts. It is the best known aspect of Hayes’s legacy, and its historiographical treatment matches its popularity with the public. The most prevalent question regarding this election, as you might guess, is did Hayes trade away Reconstruction to become president? This well-beaten path has been exhausted by many historical interpretations; relaying this information to the public can be difficult. On one hand, we do not want to be apologists seeking to absolve Hayes from the Reconstruction fallout. On the other, we do not want to feed any misconceived notions the public may bring about voting in modern politics, a concern that has been heightened since January 6, 2021.

Since so many visitors arrive with a belief that Hayes exchanged military troops in the South for the presidency, it surprises many to learn that if Black men were given unintimidated access to the polls Hayes would likely have won the election and the popular vote. Why would Black southerners vote for the man who (benefitting from hindsight) would betray them? The answer is obviously answered by the chronology of the events; but it becomes confusing to the public to then discuss how Republicans attempted to “right” the wrong of bulldozing throughout the South simply to give the game up a few months later. In other words, visitors may find it hypocritical for Republicans to fight against the bulldozing of Southern states to win an election, simply to hand White Southerners the political future of those states.

“A National Game Played Out,” Harper’s Weekly, December 23, 1876.

Perhaps the most sensational event recounted during the investigation into the 1876 returns involved a Black woman named Eliza Pinkston in Louisiana. Pinkston retold the story of an attack on her family by white men attempting to prevent her husband from voting. Having also been injured during the attack, her appearance created a stir. According to newspaper reports, her muscles around her heel had been cut so that her foot hung “useless.” She still had a “gash across her face” and was “weak, and fainted.” This was the result of her husband being dragged out of his house in the middle of the night, the white men stating, “You will vote no more —– Radical tickets here.” After killing him, they returned to the home, attacked Eliza and took the baby beside her and “cut its throat from ear to ear,” dispatching it in a pond.[1]

Recent historians have largely ignored this sensational story embedded within the 1876 election crisis, but earlier works describe the incident in detail. This is partly explained by the partisan nature upon which these earlier retellings were constructed. A. M. Gibson’s 1885 work, A Political Crime: The History of the Great Fraud downplays Eliza’s story saying “she embellished greatly the one she had been coached to tell.” John Bigelow’s 1895 biography of Samuel Tilden berated Eliza as a “disreputable negress, notorious in three States for mendacity and beastliness.” A Democratic committee of House Representatives were sent down to Louisiana to investigate and proceeded to denigrate Pinkston as given to assaulting others, leaving her children to die, a “habitual abortionist,” and sexually promiscuous. Paul Leland Haworth, who was more sympathetic to the Republican cause, argued that despite attempts to negate Pinkston’s testimony through questioning her character, these politicians and historians “lose sight of the fact that the child was nevertheless killed … that [husband] Pinkston was shot seven times.”[2]

The questionable testimony provided is likely the reason for the lack of coverage in subsequent historical narratives. Adam Fairclough, however, revives it in his recent work, Bulldozed and Betrayed. His retelling goes a step further and even points out that Democrats attempted to bring Pinkston in to recant her story in the midst of the later Potter Commission designed to investigate the 1876 election. This part of the story, however, further complicates the narrative. Was Eliza now willing to recant her story because she was being further coerced by violent threats?[3]

Although all of the elements of her story cannot be verified or disproved today, it brings a lens for visitors at the Hayes Presidential to see a deeper understanding of how this election proceeded throughout the South. Here was a woman whose family was attacked by individuals, most likely connected with bulldozing efforts. Her story was brought before a committee seeking to throw out the results of an entire parish that statistically showed that bulldozing occurred. In that Ouachita Parish, 1,386 fewer votes were cast for Republicans than registered Republicans. In East Feliciana, despite 2,127 registered Republicans only one vote went to the Republican ticket. Having effectively overturned the necessary parishes to achieve a Republican victory, the Democratic side argued that the Republicans were resorting to extra-legal means to achieve their desired results.[4]

As far as the perceived bargain that emanated from the filibuster towards the end of the crisis, the Hayes Presidential points to other historians who can be independent evaluators of any last-minute, Wormley Hotel agreement. But the story of Eliza and the actions of both parties in the wake of the 1876 election opens a door to discuss issues in modern politics. Using Edward Foley’s Ballot Battles, we can talk about the dangers of falling into improper means for the proper outcome. Since Democratic supporters bulldozed the South, and Republican operatives threw out returns to achieve their desired outcome, the answer does not lie here (both means cannot be viably justified if we desire truly impartial outcomes). Foley states that Republicans had “to act immorally . . . in order to vindicate a fundamental moral principle.” Instead, Foley argues for “a well-designed impartial institution for the adjudication of the controversy [that] would have enabled the Republicans to prevail fair and square—rather than having their victory sullied by their need to dishonestly manipulate the count of valid ballots.”[5]

As we discuss this controversial 1876 election with the public, we find it important not to defend improper means even if we might feel it led to a proper conclusion. In the case of Hayes and Tilden, both men were willing to accept the outcome of the election, even if they did not agree with the result. The events on January 6, 2021 showed what can happen if one candidate refuses to concede. As Foley points out about 1876, the nation has not come to terms with developing a proper mechanism for when democracy is challenged. While we at the Hayes Presidential do not have answers to this question, we can at least use our historical emphasis to discuss the important topic of ensuring the means of our voting process are as justified as the ends.

[1] New York Times, November 29, 1876, 1.

[2] A. M. Gibson, A Political Crime: The History of the Great Fraud (New York: William S. Gottsberger Publisher, 1885), 160-165; John Bigelow, The Life of Samuel J. Tilden (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1895), 46; Paul Leland Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1906), 108.

[3] Adam Fairclough, Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021), 165; For European perceptions of the Potter Commission, see Niels Eichhorn, “Challenging Exceptionalism: The 1876 Presidential Election, Potter Committee, and European Perceptions,” Muster, February 22, 2022, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2022/02/challenging-exceptionalism-the-1876-presidential-election-potter-committee-and-european-perceptions/.

[4] New York Times, November 29, 1876, 1.

[5] Edward B. Foley, Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 148-149.

Dustin McLochlin

Historian at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums.

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