It happened today - March 2, 2016

On March 2, 1877, the Republicans stole the election of 1876. Sort of. It’s not the only stolen election in US history, I’m sorry to say. But it was the most brazen and, awkwardly, sort of justified.

It happened like this. Much of the South was still occupied by federal troops in the aftermath of the Civil War. Southern white voters were overwhelmingly Democrats because of that same war. And they weren’t willing to let blacks vote.

The occupying federal forces often did allow blacks to vote, regrettably as much to annoy white “rebels” as out of genuine sympathy with blacks. It was the right thing done the wrong way in many cases, and sowed even more bitterness where an abundant crop was already growing.

In the 1876 election, among many other shenanigans, Democrats in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina used fraud and intimidation to keep Republicans from voting or to deceive them into casting ballots the wrong way (for instance printing pictures of Lincoln on Democratic ballots).

Ultimately the matter brought tempers to such a boil that armed insurrection was a genuine possibility. And it was further complicated because the Constitution says that “the President of the Senate shall, in presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the [Electoral College] certificates, and the votes shall then be counted.” But it doesn’t say by whom.

As Congress was then divided between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, it’s not hard to guess that Republicans said the president of the Senate should do the counting while Democrats said both Houses had to concur.

Finally Congress created an Electoral Commission consisting of five senators, five Congressmen and five Supreme Court justices. The senators were divided by party 3-2, the Congressmen 2-3 and two justices were chosen from each party and asked to select a fifth. They chose an independent and the thing just hung there in midair with inauguration day fast approaching (it was in March not January until the 1930s).

Finally a deal was made whereby the Republicans would get the White House and Reconstruction would end. That made Rutherford B. Hayes president for one term, just two days before Inauguration Day, and earned him the nickname “Rutherfraud” Hayes. And plunged the South back into white supremacy, segregation and injustice for almost another century.

So here’s the thing. Absent federal troops, those states would have voted Democrat and made Samuel J. Tilden president. (By the way, Tilden himself reflected after the outcome “I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.”) But only because they would have excluded blacks who were a large portion of the inhabitants.

In fact Mississippi, die-hard white supremacist state of all die-hard white supremacist states, actually had a black majority and would have voted Republican in genuinely fair elections.

So the long and short of it is that in 1876 the Republicans stole the election back from the Democrats who were busy stealing it by cheating blacks of the franchise. And the price the GOP paid for that single term by an undistinguished president was to let white southerners keep stealing their states, if not entire elections, from their black fellows.

I don’t know what else they could have done, by the way. It wasn’t possible to occupy the South indefinitely, and it wasn’t possible to protect black voting rights by any other means. So it’s an unpleasant and disquieting reflection on the depths to which bigotry can drive us that the Republicans were quite justified in what was, on the surface, electoral fraud, but it wasn’t enough to fix an underlying problem that festered for another century.

The other stolen election, by the way, was 1960, and that one was almost as brazen and utterly unjustified even if it was stolen from Richard Nixon. But that’s a story for another day.