Components of Compromise: A Document

Edited by
Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin

Uncertainty and the threat of open rebellion echoed through the United States in the aftermath of the inconclusive 1876 presidential election. Accusations and counter-accusations regarding questionable votes in three of the formerly rebellious states had divided the political parties along geographic lines that evoked memories of 1860. Amidst this turmoil, politicians, regional leaders, and businessmen sought to negotiate a peaceful resolution to this unique crisis.

By now the story of the many negotiations surrounding the aftermath of the election of 1876 is well known. Perhaps the most renowned account is that provided by C. Vann Woodward in Reunion and Reaction (1951), which featured stories of journalists and railroad lobbyists striking deals to persuade Southern Democrats to accede to the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for federal funding of internal improvements and railroads. Woodward's examination revealed only part of the story, however, and perhaps not the most important one when it came to settling the dispute. For federal intervention in the South, intraparty division among Republicans, and the creation of an institutional mechanism to count the electoral vote were far more important to contemporaries.

This account and others make it clear that both candidates wanted to appear above the political fray swirling around them. But privately the aspirants sent out trusted lieutenants to help clarify their positions with other political players and to bring back valuable information. The letter below is the report of a Rutherford B. Hayes confidant made shortly after a brief trip to Washington in early 1877. James M. Comly, editor of The Ohio State Journal, recounts important contacts made and knowledge gathered during a three-day trip to the height of the crisis.

James Munroe Stuart Comly (1832-1887) had come to Hayes's notice during the Civil War, when he served under Hayes in the 23rd Ohio. He eventually took over the regiment when Hayes was elevated to brigade command. After the war Comly became editor of The Oho State Journal, a leading Republican organ published in Columbus. Hayes's three terms as governor and his prominent leadership role in Ohio's Republican party meant that he conferred frequently with Comly in Columbus. The editor was one of the first to suggest that Hayes would be a likely presidential candidate in 1876.

Comly served as one of Hayes's advisers during the ensuing electoral dispute. On December 1, 1876, he hosted a meeting between Hayes and Colonel William H. Roberts of the New Orleans Times, a Democratic organ. Speaking on behalf of several prominent Southern Democrats including Lucius Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi, Wade Hampton of South Carolina, and John B. Gordon of Georgia, Roberts suggested that they were willing to support Hayes for President in exchange for his recognition of Democratic governments in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. According to Hayes, Roberts stated: "You will be President. We will not make trouble. We want peace. We want the color line abolished. We will not oppose an Administration which will favor an honest administration and honest officers in the South. We will favor measures to secure the colored people of all their rights."1

Four days later Comly watched as a delegation of prominent Republicans, led by John Sherman and James A. Garfield, interrupted their journey from New Orleans to Washington to inform Hayes about their investigation into the election in Louisiana.2 Over the next several weeks Comly and Hayes talked over matters as the crisis developed.

Hayes's intentions about Reconstruction and the Republican party were of particular interest to three groups of people. Southern Democrats, skeptical of their party's chances for triumph in the electoral crisis and unsure whether Northern Democrats would support the rebuilding of the Southern economy through railroad grands and internal improvements, gave evidence early of their willingness to accept a Hayes victory in exchange for an end to federal support of the Republican regimes in the South. As editor Roberts told Comly, "You will find the South ready to meet any overtures of peace half way."3 Southern Republicans feared that Hayes would accede to such demands, leaving them to their own devices. Perhaps, they thought, to suffer with Tilden in the short run might revive public support for Reconstruction in the long run. Finally, staunch supporters of Ulysses S.. Grant, alarmed at Hayes's apparent willingness to share ideas with opponents of the outgoing administration, worried lest the incoming president favor these reform Republicans at the expense of the Grant Stalwarts. They, too, came to believe that a Tilden presidency, which might solidify Republican unity under the leadership of the Grant men, might be preferable to a reform-dominated Hayes administration. There were rumors that even the departing President himself shared such sentiments.

Under such conditions some of the Hayes's supporters thought it was time for the candidate to make his intentions known-a goal best achieved by a trip to the capital. "There is a strong feeling in certain quarters here that you should come to Washington in an informal way with a view of conferences as to some important points," John Sherman informed Hayes in early December.4 But Hayes declined. " I have many friends in that city who can of their own motion speak confidently of my ways of thinking and acting," he assured one congressman.5 But the Ohioan was not adverse to sending someone else to Washington. So, when Grand indicated that he would like to talk to Comly personally, Hayes agreed. Comly and other Hayes advisers, thought Hayes, "can give such facts about my general ways of thinking and action as will accomplish all that is right and practicable."6

Comly ventured to Washington to find out what he could about several issues. Of most importance was the position of President Ulysses S. Grant. During and after the campaign there had been some tense moments between Hayes and the chief executive. Most alarming had been statements made by Democratic Party chairman Abram Hewitt after a meeting with Grant that seemed to suggest that the President anticipated Tilden's election. The Hayes forces scrambled to counter such rumors. Several of Hayes's advisers and some of Grant's lieutenants urged Hayes to quell stories that he would appoint Grant's former Secretary of the Treasury, Benjamin H. Bristow, to the cabinet. Bristow had alienated Grant during the investigation into the Whiskey Ring frauds. The President suspected that Bristow and his subordinates were using the investigation, which involved Grant's personal secretary, Orville E. Babcock, to advance a claim for the presidency. It was all-important for Hayes to clarify these issues in order to retain Grant's support.

The position of Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was also cause for concern. Disappointed in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Conkling did not play an active role in the Fall contest. After the election reports reached Hayes that some characterized the canvass in the Empire State as having "a lack of hearty support."7 Believing that Hayes had embraced the "reform element of the Republican party," Conkling, who despised reformers, became hostile to the Republican claimant for the presidency. Rumors soon circulated throughout Washington that the New York senator would come out in favor of Tilden's title to the White House.

Thus, Comly's mission was two-fold. First, he would try to reassure Grant that Hayes would not repudiate his predecessor or embarrass him by appointing Bristow to the Cabinet. Second, he would attempt to discover Conkling's plans. During his visit, he also ran across several of the newspaper reporters who figured so prominently in several accounts of the bargaining that surrounded the election, Southern Republicans frantic at the prospect of being deserted, and Southern Democrats testing the possibility of a deal with Hayes. What follows is his report to Hayes, a report that gives the reader some idea of the multifaceted negotiations and considerations during this most crucial winter. The editors have reproduced the document as it appeared, misspellings and all. They have refrained from using [sic]. Annotation accompanies the letter where possible to clarify or explain references, or to identify people mentioned.

Notes


1Hayes, Diary, December 1, 1876. Charles R. Williams, ed. Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 5 vols. (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1924), 3:383. Roberts later testified about his visit; see House Misc. Documents, 45th Congress, 3rd Session, No. 31, 881-82. go back

2Williams, Diary and Letter of Hayes, 3:384 (December 5, 1876). go back

3William H. Roberts to James Comly, December 14, 1876, in Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 245. go back

4John Sherman to Rutherford B. Hayes, December 9, 1876, Hayes Papers, The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont, Ohio. Hereafter called HPC. go back

5Rutherford B. Hayes to John A. Kasson, December 31, 1876, HPC. go back

6Rutherford B. Hayes to Edward F. Noyes, December 31, 1876, HPC. go back

7Williams, Diary and Letters of Hayes, 3:384 (December 5, 1876). go back

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