History Alumnus Stuart MacKay, is a historian specializing in the American Republican Party and is currently working on a book about the party during the Civil War era. A short excerpt of the article he wrote for the Washington Post is included below. The full article, “Ted Cruz’s proposed election commission can only hurt the country: Election investigations can backfire, and they’re likely to breed cynicism” is available online.
But Cruz and his allies have badly misread this history. The 1877 electoral commission was simply part of larger, longer-lasting, unsuccessful Democratic effort to reverse the results of the 1876 election. More relevant than the commission, in fact, is another aspect of that push: the little-remembered congressional Potter Committee, which reveals how these efforts blew up on their Democratic sponsors. While the committee was formed to investigate Republican corruption, it soon found itself exposing Democratic fraud.
To understand the aftermath of the 1876 election, one needs to understand the context in which the election took place. A lingering economic depression, rampant corruption and scandals in Washington and white supremacists threatening violence against African Americans in the South gave Democrats a real chance to capture the White House for the first time since 1856.
Republicans nominated the outwardly bland Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, a dark-horse chosen because, as one journalist noted, he was “obnoxious to no one.” His rival was the cold, uncharismatic New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden’s lack of the common touch made him distinctly unsuited for politics. But Democrats welcomed his money and organizational acumen after 16 years out of power.
The election followed the familiar contours of Civil War era politics. Republicans accused Democrats of being traitors and rebels, while Democrats condemned Republican oppression of Southern Whites. However, by 1876 the issues of the war had begun to recede in political importance. Tilden’s denunciation of Republican corruption and promises of reform resonated among voters eager to defeat a tired Republican establishment.
The result was the dirtiest election in American history. Relying on fraud and violence to suppress the mainly Republican African American vote in the South, Tilden swept most of the region and gained several key northern states. Hayes ran up the score in the Midwest. Tilden was confident of victory on election night, and even Hayes went to bed thinking he had lost.