Ulysses S. Grant and the Electoral Crisis of 1876-77
by Brooks D. Simpson
The election of 1876, the ensuing electoral crisis, and the so-called Compromise of 1877 have been subjects of much historical scrutiny. From Paul Haworth's
1906 study through C. Vann Woodward's highly influential Reunion and Reaction to recent studies by Allan Peskin, Michael Les Benedict, George C. Rable,
Vincent DeSantis, Charles Fairman, and Keith Ian Polakoff, we have been the beneficiaries of detailed studies and scholarly debate about the election, the
electoral commission, the role of Northern and Southern Democrats, and compromises and deals of all sorts.1 These studies focus on the role played by
politicians, journalists, railroad executives, the candidates, and members of the electoral commission. Few historians have dealt in detail with the role of
President Ulysses S. Grant, relegating him to a distinctly secondary role in the proceedings.2 Yet, contemporary observers recognized that the President played a
critical role in shaping the course of events during the electoral dispute. Unlike some other presidents in the interregnum between the election and inauguration
of a successor, he was no lame duck. His actions between November 1876 and March 1877 reveal both political savvy and statesmanship; indeed, they
demonstrate that the two were intimately intertwined. By looking at the crisis of 1876-77 from the vantage point of the incumbent in the White House, we gain
a somewhat different understanding of what exactly happened and why.
On the night of November 7, 1876, Ulysses S. Grant was in Philadelphia at the home of publisher George W. Childs. All day Americans had traveled to the polls to select his successor in the White House. Most observers predicted that New York's governor, Samuel J. Tilden, would lead the Democratic ticket to victory over Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, the choice of the Republican party. Grant had mixed feelings about the contest. While ramifications of a Democratic triumph deeply concerned him, he resented Hayes's efforts to distance himself from the present Republican administration. Especially irritating was Hayes's willingness to consult with Carl Schurz and others who had broken with the Republican party in 1872 rather than acquiesce in Grant's renomination. In some sense, indeed, both candidacies sought to repudiate Grant's eight years in office. The returns on election night were not promising for the Republican cause, and Grant went to sleep believing that he would turn over the presidency to a Democrat. The next day he visited Child's office. There several Republican leaders, after reviewing the returns, pronounced Hayes the winner. Grant listened without response as they chatted. When they had finished, he quietly responded, "Gentlemen, it looks to me as if Mr. Tilden was elected."3
On Thursday, November 9, Grant dined with his secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, and others at Child's residence. It was certain that Tilden had garnered 184 electoral votes to the 166 secured by Hayes. But Tilden's total fell one short of the 185 needed to claim the election, and the results in three states - Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida - were still uncertain, with both parties claiming victory. This should not have been a surprise. In those three states Republican governors and legislatures were doing all they could to hang on in the face of Democratic-inspired terrorism against Republican voters and officials, Black and white - even if it meant engaging in a little retaliatory fraud. But the news caused Grant to abandon his initial belief that Tilden had won the election. Who won was apparently still an open question. Affairs in Florida demanded immediate attention if Republicans and Hayes hoped to sustain their claim to that state's electoral votes. Secretary of War J. Donald Cameron ordered General-in-Chief William T. Sherman to dispatch soldiers to the state capitol in Tallahassee to keep the peace.4
It was apparent that the election was far from over. On November 10, as Grant prepared to preside over the closing ceremonies of the Centennial Exposition, he learned that Democratic National Party Chairman Abram Hewitt of New York requested prominent Democrats and veterans of the Liberal Republican movement to go south to supervise the counting of the votes in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Immediately Grant telegraphed prominent Republicans asking them to journey southward. John Sherman, James A. Garfield, and Stanley Matthews - three of Hayes's fellow Ohioans - were among those contacted.5 At the same time, Grant, writing "as coolly and promptly as he might have written an order for his carriage," instructed General Sherman and commanders Thomas H. Ruger and Christopher C. Augur to maintain order and to ensure that the return boards were "unmolested in the performance of their duties." At Fish's suggestion, Grant added, "No man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it if 'counted in' or placed there by fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns."6
"Everything now depends upon a fair count," Grant told reporters on the evening of November 11 as he returned to Washington. The President knew from his previous experience with Southern elections that the key to a fair count resided in the Republican-controlled returning boards of the three states. Protecting those boards insured that at least one set of returns would certify Hayes as the winner. Grant impressed this upon Garfield, overcoming the Ohio congressman's hesitation about traveling to New Orleans. Orders went out to Chicago, directing General Philip H. Sheridan to go to Louisiana "to keep the peace and to protect the legal canvassing board in the performance of its duties." Grant also told reporters that he believed that Hayes had won the election - reversing his earlier private opinion.7
When Grant received reports of impending violence in South Carolina, he directed that the federal government should support Governor Daniel Chamberlain "in his authority against domestic violence." But when Chamberlain, after employing the bluecoats to secure the seating of Republican legislators in the state capital at Columbia, wanted to disperse a rival legislature set up by the Democrats, Grant balked. He would not allow the army to become involved in securing the claims of office of either party. Chamberlain tried a different tact to secure federal intervention by asserting that the state's electoral votes were at stake; Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton denied it. Grant decided not to act. "To be plain," he explained to General Thomas Ruger, commanding United States troops in Columbia, "I want to avoid anything like an unlawful use of the military."8 Despite additional efforts to force Grant's hand, the President stood by his resolve to maintain peace and nothing more.
Even preserving the peace posed a tremendous challenge, for in the aftermath of the election partisans from both sides threatened violence to secure the presidency. While scholars have discounted the idea of another civil war, some contemporaries thought it a very real possibility. Grant took no chances. He would not repeat James Buchanan's "temporizing, vacillating, and undecided policy of '60-'61." In order to prevent trouble, Grant needed to show "firmness, promptness, and decision, as well as having force enough at several companies of infantry, batteries of artillery, and the warship Wyoming posted around Washington. These precautionary measures spurred additional rumors that Grant would use force to secure Hayes's election. A few extremists went so far as to predict that Grant would simply declare himself dictator, revealing at last the Caesarism lurking under his republican toga. His old military foe, Gideon Pillow, thought as much, telling Tilden that the Republican leaders would yield "without a controlling power over them . . . But the President has his own purposes to accomplish, and he will not let them yield."9
To calm such alarmist fears, Grant decided to reassure Democrats of his intent to resolve the crisis peacefully. On December 3 he met with Democratic national committee chairman Abram Hewitt. Still bitter at Democratic accusations of his imperial designs, Grant, noted Hewitt, "thought it rather hard that any one should suspect him, who had given his best years to preserve the country, of any designs upon its liberties." Anxious to mollify the President, Hewitt responded that his reputation would survive partisan slander. He then inquired about Grant's position in the crisis, for it was up to Grant "whether the present complication should end in war, or in a peaceful solution." Grant stated that he would not initiate hostilities, but that it was his duty to maintain order. He reiterated his belief that no man "could afford to take the place of President, unless the general judgement concurred in the belief that he was fairly elected." In his opinion, both South Carolina and Florida had gone for Hayes; reported Democratic majorities there were the result of violence and fraud.10
But Louisiana presented a different case. Election controversies there had plagued Grant throughout his second term, and he had grown exasperated with the behavior of the state's Republicans. The conduct of the returning board in that state was such as to render suspicious whatever result it might certify. Perhaps, Grant ventured, the best solution would be to throw out Louisiana's results altogether. This was not a disinterested suggestion on Grant's part, for it made the returning board irrelevant. It removed the possibility that bribery could sustain a Democratic majority created through violence - and it was well known in both political parties that members of the returning board were open to suggestions advanced in the form of hard currency. Grant did not make the same suggestion about South Carolina and Florida, for there the returning boards would favor the Republicans. Only in Louisiana was there some uncertainty as to what the board would do.
When Hewitt pointed out that such a decision would give Tilden a majority of the electoral votes cast, Grant responded that such a result did not by itself secure his election. The winner still had to secure at least 185 electoral votes; Tilden would remain one short. The persistent Hewitt replied that in such a case the House of Representatives would choose the next president - which, given Democratic control of the chamber, meant Tilden. Deftly Grant sidestepped this effort to pin him. Certainly that was "one solution of the problem." But it was not the only one, although Grant believed "that a solution would be reached, that would, in the main, be satisfactory to the people." Whether that solution involved selection by the House of Representatives he was careful not to say.
It was one thing for Grant to be uncertain about the result in Louisiana; it was quite another for him to share that uncertainty with Hewitt. Why did he do so? Probably the reason was part personal, part political. Grant never liked to hear that crass partisan concerns motivated his actions. He had always associated the Republican cause with justice and the national honor. His disenchantment with Louisiana's Republicans rested in part on his belief that party leaders were selfish and sought only office. He was willing to separate the fate of Southern Republicans from the dispute over the electoral votes. Nevertheless, he also understood the value of appearing nonpartisan. By talking to Hewitt, Grant enhanced his image as an impartial arbiter, reassuring Democrats that he would act fairly and honestly. He had assumed a stance that both reflected his personal attitudes and suggested political shrewdness.
There were acts that Grant would not countenance. He would resist with force attempts to install either candidate by force. He attacked Democratic efforts to secure a single electoral vote in several states, for they laid bare Democrats' desire to win by fair means or foul. Congress need to devise a solution equitable to both parties. If, as a result of such deliberations, Tilden won the presidency, he would be inaugurated. Grant pledged to carry Congress's decision into effect, and "to retire from office with the country at peace."11
Hewitt left the White House convinced that Grant thought that Tilden had won, but a careful reading of Hewitt's own account suggests that this was wishful thinking. The President made it clear that Hayes had triumphed in two states and that Louisiana's politics were so tainted by fraud as to render any results of dubious value - not exactly a ringing endorsement of Tilden's claims. Rather, Grant's comments on Louisiana reflected his concern that the Democrats would find some way to gain its electoral votes. Furthermore, as Grant told reporters, if all eligible voters had been free to vote their preferences, the Republicans would have triumphed in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Arkansas.
Instead, Grant wanted to present himself as an honest broker. This was essential to retain his power in the crisis. It was also the only way that Hayes could survive. If Democrats sensed that Grant was out to secure Hayes's election, they would cry fraud. Thus, Grant's pose served the end of both statesmanship and politics. He quieted Democratic fears about the possible employment of military force to secure Hayes's election, removing whatever reason Democrats may have had for raising their own army. At the same time, he reminded Hewitt that he would meet force with force. Grant asserted that he was not blinded by partisanship and that he wanted a solution that ensured the ends of justice through peaceful means. Nevertheless, he reaffirmed that the Republicans would not simply hand the White House to the Democrats, they would have to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress.12
Some Democrats criticized Hewitt for talking with the enemy. Henry Watterson, the Kentucky editor who had just been elected to Congress, exploded that Grant, "a desperate gamester who will keep faith with nobody," had concealed his true intentions "behind a pretense of decency and fair play." But is was Hewitt who sought to twist the interview to his advantage. He immediately began to leak accounts of the meeting to reporters, violating Grant's injunction of secrecy. With an eye to influencing the decision of Louisiana's returning board, he claimed that Grant admitted that Tilden was entitled to Louisiana's electoral votes - a far cry from what Grant actually said. Immediately Grant issued a denial, but it did not reassure all Republicans. Several party members moved quickly to patch up whatever antagonism existed between Hayes and Grant. John Sherman advised Hayes to open a correspondence with the President. "His present position, great public services, and friendly conduct would justify extreme deference to his opinions." James A. Garfield and William Dennison made similar suggestions.13
Advantages accrued to Grant from the uncertainty in Hayes's camp. For the Republican candidate's supporters included some of Grant's most devoted opponents and some recent defections, including Benjamin H. Bristow, Grant's former Secretary of the Treasury. Briston's eagerness to prosecute the Whiskey Ring became entangled with his own presidential ambitions, convincing Grant that his prosecution of Grant's private secretary, Orville Babcock, was in fact a blow directed at the White House. If Hayes believed he had to win Grant over, perhaps Grant could demand some concessions in return, although the President would leave it up to Hayes to figure out what those concessions were. Hayes's supporters, alarmed by Hewitt's report that Grant conceded Tilden's triumph, moved quickly to change the President's mind. Attorney General Alphonso Taft returned from a conference with Hayes in Columbus with a personal letter for the President. Grant, placated, expressed a willingness to meet Hayes at Child's house, but the effort came to naught. In January, James M. Comly visited the White House to plead Hayes's case. Comly assured Grant that Hayes would not appoint Bristow to his cabinet "in view of the fact that he had made himself so personally obnoxious to the President and to so large a section of the Republican party." Grant, relieved at this news, "drew the friendly cigars from his pocket," Comly reported, "and tendered one to me as he settled down to a quiet smoke and a confidential talk . . . This is the best symptom any one can have."14
As Hayes's supporters fretted about the President's course, Grant continued to seek a way to resolve the conflict. His actions, if not explicitly partisan, preserved and enhanced Hayes's chances. On December 5, two days after Grant met with Hewitt, Louisiana's returning board concluded weeks of public hearings and private deliberations by deciding in favor of Hayes. Grant, dropping his previous notion of throwing out Louisiana's vote altogether, welcomed the result. Now it was up to him to build up the image of the returning board. On December 6, the day when the electoral college met, he submitted the reports of John Sherman "and other distinguished citizens" regarding affairs in Louisiana, lending legitimacy to a collection of partisan accounts. At the same time, he refused to submit Francis C. Barlow's report, which asserted that the Democrats had won Florida.15 Grant's personal belief that the Louisiana returning board's function was to overturn by fraud Democratic results obtained through intimidation and violence was doubtless correct. But to say this publicly might encourage proposals to throw out Louisiana's vote altogether, leaving Tilden with a majority of the votes cast and shifting the balance in favor of a Democratic triumph. Now that it was clear that the results favored Hayes, there was no reason to pursue that argument. Tilden would have to earn that final electoral vote.
Thwarted in his attempt to gain Louisiana's electoral votes, Hewitt moved once more to twist his interview with Grant into an endorsement of the Democratic position, this time in South Carolina. There two rival state legislatures were vying for Grant's recognition. Since the state legislature certified the casting of the vote for governor, it was crucial to determine which one was legitimate. Democrats insisted the 63 members, a majority of the 125 seats in the state legislature, constituted a quorum. Republicans claimed that only a quorum of members actually chosen and certified (59 of 116) was sufficient for recognition. The President, who preferred to stay out of the dispute, had pledged to Hewitt not to recognize any house lacking a quorum of 63 members, thus disappointing the Republicans. Hewitt, assuming that Grant would recognize a state legislature with at least 63 members, urged Democrats to woo away Republican defectors to reach that total. The effort proved successful, but Grant, claiming that Hewitt had misunderstood him, refused to recognize the Democratic claims to legitimacy, despite assurances that a Democratic legislature would not reverse the state's electoral vote for Hayes.16
The news of the decision of the Louisiana returning board and the casting of the electoral vote renewed Democratic outrage. Hayes's chances remained alive. Violence still seemed possible. Every day Grant read letters from people who proclaimed their determination to prevent Hayes's inauguration. Some threatened Grant's assassination. Not prone to backing down under any circumstances, the President promised to crush any resistance, warning that there would be a peaceful solution "if we had to fight for it." Some Democrats even spoke of instituting impeachment proceedings against the President for his use of the army in the South, but Grant's shred assurances to Hewitt removed whatever fear the Tilden camp had about the possibility of military intervention. Abel Corbin, Grant's brother-in-law, told Tilden adviser John Bigelow that Grant "wished to retire with grace and honorably from his office, and had no special interest in the success of either of the candidates" - an opinion that obfuscated Grant's preferences in order to assuage the Democrats. But the President would not be intimidated either. He dared Northern Democrats to impeach him, revealing "that he would rather trust rebels than their Northern allies," and he let it be known that any attempt to mount a march on Washington "would be summarily dealt with , should the public safety demand, by a declaration of martial law."17
"A good deal depends upon the President, in reference to his action upon the rival governments," noted Garfield. Recognition of either claimant might well have affected the electoral vote of the state. Before long it became obvious that the Democrats would secure control of Florida's state government, although not before Washington received a set of electoral votes for Hayes. Only when the votes arrived did Grant withdraw troops from there. South Carolina and Louisiana presented more difficult problems. Grant wanted to protect incumbent Republican governors Chamberlain in South Carolina and William Pitt Kellogg in Louisiana to ensure that both states forwarded a Republican set of electoral votes to Washington. In South Carolina he instructed military authorities to support Chamberlain , although he did not recognize Chamberlain as the winner of the 1876 gubernatorial contest. But he did nothing to help Hampton, either, despite efforts made by Hampton and John S. Mosby to secure the withdrawal of federal forces. When Hampton promised peace, Grant retorted, "if the Federal troops should be withdrawn there would be peace, but it would be the rest of death."18
Grant attempted to follow the same course toward Louisiana. He refused to recognize Republican gubernatorial candidate Stephen B. Packard's claim to victory and rejected Kellogg's attempt to get the army to enforce Packard's directives. But the efforts of Democratic candidate Francis T. Nicholls's supporters to usurp control of Louisiana's government threatened the status quo. Several Republicans hurried to the White House, convinced "that the Packard government will fall to pieces in a few hours, if it be not recognized by the President." Grant made it clear that he would not sit by "and see the State government gradually taken possession of by one of the claimants for gubernatorial honors by illegal means." If he was forced to recognize either of the claimants, he would have to recognize the choice of the returning board, Packard. But this fell short of actually recognizing Packard. Rather, it held Nicholls in check. As subsequent communications made clear, Grant remained neutral unless forced by Democratic behavior to recognize Packard. He would not act from "apprehension merely," preferring to maintain the status quo until Congress decided what to do. Nicholls, realizing that Grant's primary concern was the electoral vote, assured him that he would not disturb the Hayes electors. But Grant ignored James Longstreet's efforts to secure recognition of Nicholls's claim by asserting that once in power the returning board would recognize the Hayes electors.19
Tactical considerations shaped Grant's approach to Louisiana. He clearly distinguished between the fate of the state Republicans and the electoral vote. He found "the extreme incapacity of men attempting to rule Louisiana," men who had no interest aside from holding office, exasperating. To recognize Packard might help defeat Tilden, but it would harm Hayes, for it would contribute to the impression of an election stolen by fraud. To recognize Nicholls would give the whole game away in advance by depriving Grant of bargaining power. According to Fish, Grant told Louisiana Democrats that "as the decision of the Presidential question will probably depend to a great extent upon Louisiana, he will not accord recognition of the Nicholls government pending the issue in electoral count," for "any action at this time looking to the recognition of either government would be injurious to the Republican party, and to the ultimate success of Governor Hayes."20
These comments revealed that Grant's primary concern was the presidential contest. He now believed that Hayes had been "clearly elected by the legal vote" in New York, Connecticut, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas as well as in the three disputed states. Privately he expressed his hope for a Hayes victory, although he added that his "political feelings" would not dictate his actions. But it would be hard to attribute this preference to partisanship alone. He sincerely believed that the Democrats were trying to do on the national level what they had successfully accomplished in several Southern states - subvert the electoral process through terrorism. Conceding that Tilden might well have won a majority of votes actually cast in Louisiana, he nevertheless insisted that the Democratic claim to the White House rested upon fraud and intimidation not only in the three Southern states still in Republican hands, but also in other states already converted to the Democratic column by means fair and foul.21
Moreover, Grant sincerely believed that a Tilden presidency would prove a disaster. It would certainly mean an end to the federal protection of Southern Blacks. For all of Hayes's talk about a new Southern policy, he had pledged to protect the freedmen. Grant, unhappy as he was with the quality of the Republican regimes in the South, still desired to do the same, although he tempered his willingness to do so by a realization of its political cost. He was so depressed by events that he confided to Fish that the Fifteenth Amendment "had done the negro no good, and had been a hinderance to the South , and by no means a political advantage to the North." With the collapse of Republican governments throughout the South, a Hayes victory offered freedmen the only hope they had left. With Hayes installed, Republicans could strike a deal whereby the Democrats would be free to assume power in South Carolina and Louisiana on the condition that they respect Black civil and political rights. The Republican regimes in those states were untenable. To recognize them would simply confirm Democratic charges of election-stealing at both the state and national level. The backlash might result in a Tilden victory, permitting Hampton and Nicholls to take their seats without having to promise to protect the freedmen. Even if Hayes survived such charges and became president, the manner through which he assumed office would render dubious the legitimacy of his claim to the presidency, leading to disaster.22
Grant realized that how Hayes won was just as important as the fact of winning itself. As Ralph P. Buckland, Hayes's neighbor and confidant, told Hayes, Grant "depreciated the troubles that would have resulted from a contest over the final count and your inauguration on a disputed result." Only if all concerned accepted Hayes's victory as legitimate could he govern. Otherwise, the Union would be thrust into another crisis akin to that of 1860-61. Thus, Grant had to find some means of fairly resolving the disputed election. He wanted Hayes to win, but by a process in which both sides would acquiesce. He would accept the possibility that such a process might well result in the elevation of Tilden to the presidency. Indeed, he had to, for otherwise Democrats would challenge the entire process and Grant would lose the leverage gained by his emphasis on impartiality.23
It soon became apparent that for Grant to recognize either slate of claimants in Louisiana or South Carolina would not achieve an equitable resolution of the crisis. It was also the only way to preserve Hayes's chances; to recognize Republicans would lead to charges of fraud, while to recognize Democrats would be to lose leverage and possibly electoral votes. Neutrality and non-intervention were politically wise. The best chance for a meaningful Republican victory required that the ultimate decision come from Washington in a process involving members of both parties.
At first this seemed quite difficult to achieve. In the case of disputed returns, who would rule which returns to be legitimate? Republicans claimed that the President of the Senate - a position occupied by Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, a Republican - had that power. Democrats insisted with equal fervor that the House, where they held a sizable edge, decide the contest. The partisan advantage in both cases was painfully evident. Grant rejected the Republican proposal, declaring, "I would sooner have Tilden than the Republicans should have a President who could be stigmatized as a fraud." Yet, he would not endorse the Democratic one. The framers of the Constitution had never foreseen that republican government would come to this impasse. It was time to devise a measure that was just and promised to settle the crisis peacefully.24
With this in mind Grant endorsed the idea of an electoral commission, composed of members of both houses of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, to resolve disputes over the electoral count. At the beginning of December newspapers reported that he was contemplating some form of arbitration to settle the dispute. When Congress finally framed a bill, he lobbied for its passage, over the objections of Hayes's supporters.25 Finally, he called in Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, long known as one of the President's trusted lieutenants. Conkling pointed out that substantial opposition remained, "but if you wish the Commission carried, I can help to do it." Grant simply replied, "I wish it done." The President also consulted with industrialist Joseph Patterson of Philadelphia, who had connections with several Southern Democrats, to win approval for the bill.26
The story of the electoral commission is an oft-told one. After much debate, leaders of both parties settled upon a commission composed of five members of the House (three Democrats and two Republicans), five members of the House (three Democrats and two Republicans), five members of the Senate (three Republicans and two Democrats) and five Supreme Court associate justices (two Republicans and two Democrats who would choose a fifth justice). Implicit in this arrangement was the belief that each member of the commission would favor their partisan affiliation. Thus, attention focused on the fifth justice. Justice David Davis dashed Democratic hopes that he would hold the balance when he refused to join the commission in the aftermath of his election to the United States Senate from Illinois. Instead, Joseph P. Bradley, a New Jersey Republican and Grant appointee, became the commission's fifteenth member. Everyone knew that the result was a commission that tilted ever so slightly in favor of the Republican party, although Bradley's ambivalent record on Reconstruction legislation held out hope for a Democratic triumph.27 On January 29 Grant signed the act into law, declaring that it "affords a wise and constitutional means of escape" from "the imminent peril of the institutions of the country." Americans wanted "to be assured that the results of the election will be accepted without resistance from the supporters of the disappointed candidate, and that its highest officer shall not hold his place with a questioned title of right"28
As Congress discussed the electoral commission bill, Grant continued to maintain the status quo. He refused to commit soldiers to defend the claims to office of Republican gubernatorial claimants Chamberlain and Packard, despite pressure from cabinet members. Reassured by these promises not to install Republican candidates by the use of force, Southern Democrats dropped demands for impeachment. "We did not doubt that the President was impeachable," Henry Watterson remarked. "But, as he had befriended us in time of need, we took that method of paying the debt. In other words, in his hour of need we simply declined to prosecute." At the same time, however, Grant made sure to remind the nation of the character of Southern politics. Responding to a request from the House of Representatives concerning military orders issued to commanders regarding affairs in Virginia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, Grant took the opportunity to state that intimidation and violence persisted in the Southern states and reminded Democrats that his predecessors had used military force to execute the Fugitive Slave Law and put down John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry.29
The counting of the electoral votes, which began on February 1, evolved into a story alternating between the deliberations of the electoral commission and the attempts of Democrats in the House of Representatives to delay the completion of the count by filibuster. Although Grant had played a major role in the negotiations that resulted in the establishment of the Electoral commission, he had nothing to do with its operation. His action to safeguard the returning boards in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida ensured the presentation of at least one set of Hayes electors in each of the three disputed Southern States. His denouncement of trickery helped to sap the Democratic case for an elector in Oregon. Had the commission decided in favor of Tilden in any of these cases, Grant's role would have come to an end, for as president Tilden would be sure to recognize Nicholls and Hampton regardless of what Grant did. But this was not to be. On February 9 the commission counted Florida's votes for Hayes. Seven days later, they decided in favor of Hayes in Louisiana. They defeated the challenge to one of Oregon's three Hayes electors on February 23. Finally on February 27 the commission awarded South Carolina's electoral votes to Hayes.
Most observers, including Grant, believed that Tilden's best chance lay in Louisiana. After his defeat there, the choices became not Hayes or Tilden but Hayes or anarchy brought on by the filibuster in the House of Representatives. Here Grant could influence events, for to recognize either Packard or Chamberlain would fuel support for the filibuster, while to maintain his policy of neutrality between rival factions would lend incentive to completing the count. It was now obvious that the price of Southern acquiescence in Hayes's election would be the withdrawal of federal support from Packard and Chamberlain. Other incentives for compromise, though important to some, were distinctly secondary. One of Nicholls's representatives believed that Democrats possessed sufficient "backbone . . . to demand guarantees, [the] recognition [of] Nicholls and Hampton, or [they would] defeat [the] count." The Louisiana Democrats would abandon Tilden if they could secure home rule under Nicholls. They also promised that Nicholls would protect Black civil and political rights, although Grant remained skeptical about that pledge. After the commission decided to accept the Hayes electors from Louisiana, rumors circulated that Grant would recognize Packard's claim to office. But he refused to upset the status quo. "I think the entire people are tired of the military being employed to sustain a State Government," he told reporters. Alphonso Taft noted that Grant recalled how "he was not so well sustained by the Republican party . . . as he expected" when he had recognized Kellogg as the Republican governor in Louisiana. He would not be embarrassed again. In private he told Garfield that Packard and his supporters "will be driven from the state as soon as the electoral count is decided." He would leave Hayes free to act and Republicans free to bargain.30
Grant had lost faith in Southern Republicanism's ability to sustain itself, and he knew that public opinion would no longer tolerate federal intervention on its behalf. He believed that "the most influential elements of the State" supported Nicholls, while Packard's regime "cannot exist without the support of troops." A second letter from Longstreet to Grant reinforced this impression, and Longstreet added that the only hope for the Republican party in the South was to abandon Packard and rebuild. To secure a peaceful resolution to the confrontation in Louisiana, Grant maintained lines of communication with several of Nicholl's confidants. Negotiations between the President and Louisiana Democrats had been going on for some time; now they began in earnest. Nicholl's representatives "at once went to work to satisfy General Grant as to his peaceful intentions, his desire to treat all men fairly, and to show political and equal rights to Negroes and all."
Grant proved receptive to such assurances. Congressman E. J. Ellis, who later estimated that he met with Grant at least fifty times, recalled how the President offered advice "as to the means by which the accession of Nicholls could be most readily accomplished." Grant reassured Edward A. Burke, Nicholl's personal representative, that he would sustain Nicholl's claim to the governor's chair "unless, carried away by the possession of power, violent excesses were committed." Then the balance would shift to Packard. A majority of Americans were "clearly opposed to the further use of troops in upholding a state government." But Grant had not acted "because he did not want to inaugurate a policy that might embarrass his successor." He agreed to issue orders for the withdrawal of federal soldiers as soon as Congress declared Hayes elected. But he remained determined "to do nothing that would prejudice the interests of the Republican party."31
Burke tried to go one step further. If he could get the agreement of Hayes's associates in Washington that the withdrawal of federal troops would not embarrass Hayes, then, he thought, Grant would have to act. In a meeting with John Sherman, William Dennison, and Stanley Matthews, Burke made it clear that the price of lifting the House filibuster was the withdrawal of federal forces. When Sherman protested that Grant was "surrounded by such influences that we can do nothing with him," Burke revealed the contents of that morning's interview with the President. Sherman, Dennison, and Matthews then gave in. It was time to finalize a deal whose terms had been implicit all along. Later that day, Hayes's Ohio associates, meeting with Louisiana negotiators and a few interested parties at the Wormley Hotel, pledged that Hayes would adopt a new policy toward the South in exchange for promises that Southern whites would protect Blacks' civil and political rights and access to education. The next day Grant assured Matthews that upon completion of the count, he would order the removal of military protection for the Packard regime, although soldiers would remain to preserve "the public peace." At the same time Watterson, seeking to pin Grant down, read Burke's account of his conversation with Grant into the Congressional Record. But the President insisted that the count had to be completed before he would act. "If the count were completed to-night," he repeatedly informed the Louisiana Democrats, "I should withdraw the troops to-morrow." 32
Grant held fast to his position as the count neared completion. On March 1, in reply to another request for support from Packard, Grant, stating that "public opinion will no longer support the maintenance of the State government in Louisiana by the use of the military," drafted an order announcing that he would not use federal soldiers "to establish or pull down either claimant for control of the State." This "Sniffen telegram," so named because it was signed by Grant's secretary C. C. Sniffen, angered Republicans. Yet Grant also refused to do anything to recognize Nicholls's claim to office until the commission completed the count, despite increasing pressure from the Louisiana Democrats. Packard would remain until Hayes was counted in. The same went for Chamberlain in South Carolina. Grant believed that "the whole army of the United States would be inadequate to enforce the authority of Governor Chamberlain." There was little support for such a policy: "If a Republican government cannot sustain itself, then it will have to give way."33
Early on the morning of March 2, 1877, the commission completed the electoral count. The filibuster had done its job of buying time for negotiations and preventing Grant from going back on his promise not to recognize the Republican claimants in Louisiana and South Carolina. By holding to his position of neutrality, Grant had refused to provide Southern Democrats with a reason to prolong the process. Having hinted to Louisiana's representatives his inclination to recognize Nicholls, he had quieted fears that he would support Packard. By refusing to recognize Nicholls, he retained his bargaining leverage. To secure home rule, Southern Democrats had to complete the count and foreswear violence. Grant's tactics, in short, had helped Hayes secure title to the White House. They also left the final responsibility for deciding the fate of the Republican governments in Louisiana and South Carolina in the hands of the incoming President.34
The President was not a party to other negotiations between Hayes's people, congressional Republicans, journalists, railroad lobbyists, and Southern politicians described by C. Vann Woodward some forty years ago. But he could have rendered such discussions moot by recognizing either side in Louisiana and South Carolina. Instead, his position of non-interference without cause gave Hayes and his followers additional bargaining power by making sure that Hayes would decide who to recognize as governor in each of those states.
On March 2, Rutherford B. Hayes arrived in Washington. With John Sherman and William Dennison, he called on Grant at the White House at 11:00 AM. Only after this conference did Grant authorize the transmission of the "Sniffen telegram." The President also notified Burke that federal troops would no longer protect the Republican regime in New Orleans, leaving the people of Louisiana "as free in their affairs from Federal interference as the people of Connecticut." But Secretary of War Cameron held up Grant's dispatch to Augur regarding the disposition of military forces in New Orleans, while General Sherman advised Augur to "prevent any material changes in the attitude of the contending parties till the new administration can be installed, and give the subject mature reflection." When Burke protested to Grant that nothing had been done, the President laconically replied that he "would attend to it, but in his own way." It was left to Hayes to decide what to do.35
Much has been made of the triumph of Southern Democrats in securing "home rule" as a result of the "Compromise of 1877." Yet, to a large degree, "home rule" had already been achieved. Events in 1874 and 1875 had convinced Grant that to support Republican regimes in the South would cost political support in the North. The chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1876, Zach Chandler, had written off the South in his planning for the presidential contest. Of course, the abandonment of these regimes meant abandoning the freedmen. Although in October 1876 Grant had pledged "to see that every man of every race and condition should have the right of voting his sentiments without violation or intimidation," he had seen his power to do this compromised legally and politically. Democrats in South Carolina and Louisiana might pledge to protect the freedmen in their rights, but anyone accepting this reassurance did so based more on hope than trust. It was not clear what else Grant could do, since the alternative - Tilden's election - would surely result in the end of federal efforts on behalf of Southern Blacks and their white allies. At least with Hayes in the White House there remained a chance, however slim, for at least some protection for the freedmen.36
Home rule became a reality in the aftermath of the election. Grant let go of Florida without a fight after the transmission of the electoral votes. In Louisiana he made it clear that Packard's only chance to gain recognition and support would be if Nicholls's supporters engaged in violence to secure their title. Only in South Carolina did Grant show any interest in preserving the Republican claim to office, for he did not lambast South Carolina's Republicans as he did Louisiana's. Even there, however, his inactivity favored Hampton. Initially the question was whether home rule would come under Tilden or Hayes. Once it became evident that Tilden had failed to win the election, the question turned to the likelihood of Hayes's inauguration. Here Grant played a critical role. Had he recognized either set of claimants in Louisiana and South Carolina, he would have deprived Hayes of any leverage. By failing to recognize Packard and Chamberlain, he robbed congressional Democrats of one legitimate pretext to filibuster. By refusing to make a choice until the conclusion of the count, Grant made sure that the filibuster came to an end. He forced the Democratic party to accept the result or to assume the responsibility for creating political chaos. Only by acceding to Hayes's election could Democrats hope to secure a peaceful acceptance of "home rule." Any other promises or deals were incidental. These dealings involved a good deal of bluff on both sides in seeking to make the best of a bad situation and lay plans for the future.
By March 2, 1877, Ulysses S. Grant had been successful in preserving the status quo and thus the election of Hayes. As March 4 fell on Sunday, authorities scheduled the inauguration ceremonies for March 5. Grant and Fish, worried that any uncertainty as to who was president on March 4 would lead to chaos, convinced Hayes to take the oath of office in a private ceremony during a dinner at the White House on Saturday evening.37 Two days later Grant watched as Hayes took the oath in public and delivered his inaugural address. Grant attracted as much interest as his successor. "No American has carried greater fame out of the White House than this silent man who leaves it today," Garfield commented. Even the harshly critical Nation begrudgingly conceded that Grant had conducted himself "as if the approaching end of office were having a sobering effect upon him, and as if he meant to make the manner of his quitting it atone in some degree for his manner in holding it."38
One statement made by Hayes in his inaugural address had a special meaning for the new ex-President. Anyone who was fortunate enough to be elected president, Hayes noted, "owed his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party. But he should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves his county best." Certainly these lines applied to Grant's course of action since election day. He had served his country by doing what he could to secure a peaceful resolution of the crisis. In choosing to act as he did, he contributed to the Republican party's success in retaining control of the White House. Verily, he who served his county best also served his party fairly well.
1 Paul L. Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (New York; Russell and Russell, 1966 ); C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951); Allan Peskin, "Was There a Compromise of 1877?" Journal of American History 60 (1973), 63-77; Woodward, "Yes, There Was a Compromise of 1877," Journal of American History 60 (1973), 215-23; Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973); Michael Les Benedict, "Southern Democrats in the Crisis of 1876-1877; A Reconsideration of Reunion and Reaction," Journal of Southern History 46 (1980), 489-524; George C. Rable, Reappraisal," Civil War History 26 (1980), 347-61; Vincent P. DeSantis, " Rutherford B. Hayes and the Removal of the Troops and the End of Reconstruction," in J. Morgan Kousser and James. M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 417-50; Charles Fairman, Five Justices and the Electoral Commission of 1877 (New York: Macmillan, 1988); Ari Hoogenboom, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1988). go back
2 Among the exceptions to this statement one must include William B. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935); Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1936); William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 325-26; and Harry Barnard, Rutherford B. Hayes and His America (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954). In each case, however, the examination of Grant's behavior is rather cursory. go back
3 George W. Childs, Recollections (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1870), 77; Ulysses S. Grant to George W. Childs, November 5, 1876, Grant Papers, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center (hereafter cited as HPC). go back
4 Cameron to Sherman, November 9, 1876 (three telegrams), in A.M. Gibson, A Political Crime: The History of the Great Fraud (New York: William S. Gottsberger, 1885), 57; Leon Burr Richardson, William E. Chandler, Republican (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940), 185. go back
5 Allan Nevins, Abram S. Hewitt, With Some Account of Peter Cooper (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935), 329; Harry J. Brown and Frederick D. Williams, eds., The Diary of James A. Garfield, 4 vols. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967-1981), 3: 379 (November 10, 1876); Ulysses S. Grant to John Sherman, November 11, 1876, Grant Papers, HPC. Hewitt, remarking later on the composition of the two sets of "visiting statesmen," claimed that "one [was] selected by General Grant acting as partisan, with the other selected by me for their standing and character without reference to their political affiliations." This was a dubious claim, since Hewitt's so-called Republicans had broken with the regular organization in 1872 and had not returned to the party.
6 Ulysses S. Grant to William T. Sherman, November 10, 11, 1876, Grant Papers, HPC; New York Times; November 11, December 17, 1876; Nevins, Hewitt, 326; Joseph G. Dawson III, Army Generals and Reconstruction: Louisiana, 1862-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 236; Dee Brown, The Year of the Century: 1876 (New York: Scribners, 1966), 319; Nevins, Fish, 844. go back
7 Chicago Times, November 11, 1876; Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1876; Brown, The Year of the Century, 290-91; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:380 (November 11, 1876); Dawson, Army Generals and Reconstruction, 237-40. go back
8 Daniel H. Chamberlain to Ulysses S. Grant, November 25, 1876, and John B. Gordon, B.T. Johnson, Wade Hampton, and A.G. Magrath to Grant, November 27, 1876, Grant Papers, HPC, Nevins, Fish, 845-48; Grant to Ruger, December 3 (two letters) and 4, 1876, and Ruger to Grant, December 3, 1876, Grant Papers, HPC. go back
9 Brown, The Year of the Century, 321; Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1876; William A. Russ, " Was There a Danger of a Second Civil War During Reconstruction?" Mississippi Valley Historical Review 25 (1938), 39-58; Pillow to Tilden, November 18, 1876, in John Bigelow, ed., Letters and Literary Memorials of Samuel J. Tilden, 2 vols.(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1908), 2:489. go back
10 Nevins, Hewitt, 338. go back
11 Nevins, Hewitt, 340. go back
12 Ibid., 340-41, 364; Chicago Times, December 11, 1876; Hamilton Fish Diary, December 4, 1876, Fish Papers, Library of Congress on the importance of impartiality, see Gibson, A Political Crime, 27, That Grant was unhappy at the prospect of a Democratic victory was evident in a draft of his annual message denouncing Democratic behavior - passages which did not appear in the final draft, Fish Diary, December 4, 5, 1876. go back
13 John D. Bergamini, The Hundredth Year: The United States in 1876 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1976), 323; Joseph F. Wall, Henry Watterson: Reconstructed Rebel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 146; Sherman to Hayes, December 22, 1876, in Charles R. Williams, ed., Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 5 vols. (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1922), 3:395; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:393 (December 10, 1876); William Dennison to Rutherford B. Hayes, December 9, 1876, Hayes Papers, HPC. go back
14 Grant to George Childs, December 31, 1876, Ulysses S. Grant Papers, Library of Congress; Comley to Hayes, January 8, 1877, HPC. go back
15 Joe Gray Taylor, Louisiana Reconstructed, 1863-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 493; Grant to Congress, December 6, 1876, in Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of The Presidents, 20 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Literature, 1912), 6:4367; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:391 (December 6, 1876); New York Times, December 15, 1876. go back
16 New York Times, December 13, 1876; Grant to Chamberlain, December 5, 1876, Grant Papers, HPC. go back
17 New York Times, December 8, 11, 13, 1876; "An Outlaw of the West" to Grant, November 18, 1876, and "A. M. B." to Grant, November 20, 1876, Grant Papers, HPC; Polakoff, Politics of Inertia, 233; Woodward, Reunion and Reaction, 112; Bigelow, Letters and Memorials of Tilden, 2:516; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:392 (December 7, 1876). go back
18 Grant to J. D. Cameron, November 26, 1876, and William T. Sherman to Thomas Ruger, December 5, 7, 1876, in Edward McPherson, A Handbook of Politics for 1878 (Washington, D.C.: Solomons and Chapman, 1878), 77, 79; December 4, 7, 1876, RG 60, NA, Microcopy 947, rolls 3, 8; Nevins, Fish, 846-49; New York Times, December 11, 1876; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:420-21 (January 19, 20, 1877); Virgil Carrington Jones, Ranger Mosby (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 298-99. go back
19 Dawson, Army Generals and Reconstruction, 243-49; Chicago Tribune, January 8, 1877; McPherson, A Handbook of Politics for 1878, 57, 64-65; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 2:415 (January 14, 1876); Vincent P. DeSantis, Republicans Face the Southern Question, 1877-1897 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959), 53: Nevins, Fish, 844-45; Hamilton Fish Diary, January 7, 17, 1877, Fish Papers, Library of Congress; Longstreet to Grant, January 4, 1877, Grant to Augur, January 14, 1877, and Cameron to Augur, January 16, 1877, in McPherson, A Hand-book of Politics for 1878, 61, 64-65. go back
20 House Misc. Documents, No. 31, 45th Congress, 3rd session, 3:614; Hamilton Fish Diary, January 17, 27, 1877, Fish Papers, Library of Congress. go back
21 Hamilton Fish Diary, January 17, 27, 1877, Fish Papers, Library of Congress; Ralph P. Buckland to Hayes, January 29, 1877, Hayes Papers, HPC; New York Times, December 25, 1876. go back
22 Hamilton Fish Diary, January 17, 1877, Fish Papers, Library of Congress. go back
23 Ralph P. Buckland to Hayes, January 29, 1877, Hayes Papers, HPC; New York Times, December 25, 1876. go back
24 Childs, Recollections, 78. go back
25 Polakoff, Politics of Inertia, 277; Childs, Recollections, 78; Gibson, A Political Crime, 28; New York Times, December 2, 1876. go back
26 Childs, Recollections, 80. go back
27 Fairman, Five Justices and the Electoral Commission of 1877, is a close study of the commission and an extended defense of Bradley. Oddly enough, in the debate over Bradley's role in the deliberations, no mention is made of the rather blatant partisanship of the other justices, especially Stephen J. Field. Perhaps Charles E. McCurdy's long-awaited biography of Field will shed some light on the matter. Grant may have unintentionally influenced the composition of the Electoral Commission. In December he ended the efforts of Illinois Republicans to elect him to the United State Senate, perhaps opening the way for Davis's election; Nation, December 28, 1876. go back
28 Grant to Senate, January 29, 1877, in Richardson, Messages and Papers, 6:4376-78. See Ralph P. Buckland to Hayes, January 29, 1877, Hayes Papers, HPC. go back
29 Polakoff, Politics of Inertia, 300; Congressional Globe, 44th Congress, 2nd session, 927 (January 24, 1877); Woodward, Reunion and Reaction, 148; Grant to House of Representatives, January 22, 1877, in Richardson, Messages and Papers, 6:4372-75. go back
30 Hamilton Fish Diary, February 18, 19, 1876, Fish Papers, Library of Congress; Nevins, Fish, 856; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:420-21 (January 19, 20, 1877); DeSantis, Republicans Face the Southern Question, 53; McPherson, A Handbook of Politics for 1878, 67; New York Times, February 26, 1876; Alphonso Taft to Hayes, February 14, 19, 1877, Hayes Papers, HPC; House Misc. Documents, No. 31, 3:617-29. Those who doubt that the primary consideration of the Louisiana Democrats was home rule should read the telegrams reprinted in the House document. go back
31 Longstreet to Grant, February 17, 1877, and Hayes to Grant, February 23, 1877, Grant Papers, HPC; Taylor, Louisiana Reconstructed, 495; Barnard, Hayes, 385; New York Times, February 21, 1877; Polakoff, Politics of Inertia, 310-12; Watt P. Marchman, ed., "The Memoirs of Thomas Donaldson," Hayes Historical Journal, 2 (Spring-Fall 1979), 250; House Misc. Doncuments, No. 31, 45th Congress, 3rd Session, 616-18, 973. Grant stated, "I know Nicholls and like him; he was in the artillery in the old Army, and I think him a very manly fellow, and I believe more people voted for him to be governor than for Pachard." Ibid., 1:899. Grant's belief that Nicholls won a majority of the votes actually cast may well explain why he remained concerned over whether the actions of the Returning Board would be sustained. go back
32 Barnard, Hayes, 389; Woodward, Reunion and Reaction, 195-97; Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:449 (February 26, 1877); Congressional Globe, 44th Congress, 2nd session, 1985 (February 27, 1877); House Misc. Documents, No. 31, 45th Congress, 3rd session, 1:992; 3:597-98, 623, 625.
33 Packard to Grant, March 1, 1877, and C. C. Sniffen to Packard, March 1, 1877, Grant Papers, HPC; Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1877; Hoogenboom, Presidency of Hayes, 49; DeSantis, Republicans Face the Southern Question, 53. go back
34 New York Times, March 4, 1877. go back
35 Woodward, Reunion and Reaction, 202; Barnard, Hayes, 420; Polakoff, Politics of Inertia, 317; Dawson, Army Generals and Reconstruction, 255; House Misc. Documents, No. 31, 45th Congress, 3rd session, 3:629-30; Ella Lonn, Reconstruction in Louisiana after 1868, (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967 ), 515; Marchman, ed., "The Memoirs of Thomas Donaldson," 196-97. go back
36 Barnard, Hayes, 309; New York Times, October 5, 1876. go back
37 Grant had contemplated an early swearing in for some time: see the New York Times, December 25, 1876. The legitimacy of this swearing-in has never been discussed. go back
38 Brown and Williams, Diary of Garfield, 3:454 (March 5, 1877); Nation, February 1, 1877. go back
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