Americans Have Been Here Before
By Wafula Okumu
November 20, 2000
The just ended American presidential election is being described as a messy, embarrassing, immature behavior that is not a reflection of a quotidian democratic practice. Many people all over the world are wondering how such a fiasco, impasse, and imbroglio could happen in a nation that touts itself as the standard bearer of democracy in the world. However, what is happening in the US is neither new nor unexpected.
Why is it not new? Because America went through the same experience almost 124 years ago. In fact we need not go that far. In 1960, one of America's famous city bosses, Richard Daley, is widely suspected to have summoned the dead from their graves to vote for John F. Kennedy in a tight presidential race against Richard M. Nixon. It was not only the Daley political machine that worked overtime to deliver the crucial votes but also the Texas political machine, that was partly controlled by Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's running mate.
It is worth noting that the man running Al Gore's campaign is none other William Daley, the son of Mayor Richard Daley. But this does not imply that he has used some of his father's vote generating caduceus.
The way some Americans are acting, it is as if this is the first time in their history a decision on a presidential race has dragged on ad infinitum. In 1876, the U.S. had a very close election that many expected to be decided on Election Day. But instead America was shocked by how controversial the elections ended. Like the fiasco today, this one also produced massive acrimony, charges of blatant fraud, and manipulation of the voting process.
Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, and the Democratic Party candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, the Governor of New York, were running to replace the unpopular Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, who was completing his second term as president. The race was a toss-up until Election Day.
When early returns came in, they convincingly pointed to Tilden as the winner since he had captured the swing states of New York, Indiana, Connecticut and New Jersey. By midnight, Tilden had captured 184 electoral votes out of the 185 that were needed. He went to bed assuming two things. That he will wake up as the president-elect and that the winning electoral vote will be delivered by some of the Southern states whose results had not been received.
As the night wore off, both the candidates and the nation believed that Tilden was the next president of the United States. Even a number of newspapers printed stories declaring precisely that. However, an act of chance ensured that Tilden's wish and that of millions of Americans were not to be.
That night, the New York State Democratic chairman wanted to confirm the electoral count he had tabulated and contacted The New York Times to ask for the paper's latest estimate of the electoral count. By its own account, The New York Times' managing editor John C. Reid, a staunch Republican, took that inquiry to mean that the Democrats did not believe they had won the election. Instead of answering the query he awoke the New York director of the Republican campaign.
They then hurriedly dispatched telegrams to Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida advising Republican leaders that if Hayes, who had 181 electoral votes, took those states he would win, and that they should do everything they could to ensure that. Florida, that had four electoral votes, was too close to call and could by itself decide the election.
Although Tilden was safely ahead in the popular vote by a margin of about 250,000 votes the Republicans claimed that Hayes had captured Florida. This gave him a total of 185 votes, the winning number of votes.
As it turned out vote counting in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina was heavily manipulated. Ballot boxes did not only disappear but the pivotal Black voters were either physically intimidated or openly bribed. The verification of who won got mired in invalidation of votes, paying bribes to "correct" ballots, and unending recounting of ballots.
In the Florida results that were tantalizingly close, the Republicans claimed that Hayes finished ahead by 922 votes out of about 47,000 votes cast. But the Democrats saw it differently. They had Tilden winning by a miniscule 94 votes. It is said that in one Florida precinct that voted heavily for Tilden, the Republicans ruined the ballots by smearing them with ink. Another noteworthy point is that the Republican and Democratic parties today are completely opposite what they were in 1876. The present identities were acquired in the 1930s.
As the mess piled up both parties decided to send their representatives to the three Southern states and a detective from the Justice Department was dispatched to Florida. By the time all the states were supposed to submit their Electoral College votes to Congress, the bickering had intensified in the three states to the point where they sent in two sets of electoral returns, each showing a different winner.
This not only baffled and angered the government but also set upon the nation a state of utter confusion. Americans did not know who their new leader is. The only place they could turn to for direction was unhelpful.
The Constitution was unclear on how to end the impasse. It only said that the president of the Senate should open each state's vote and read it aloud but it is silent on what to do when there were two results from the same state.
Yes, you better believe it. Oregon also submitted two results despite both parties' agreement that Hayes had carried the state. A complication came up when the Democratic governor learned that one of the three Hayes' electors was a postmaster, a federal employee, who is constitutionally ineligible to be an elector. The governor did the natural thing then and replaced him with a Democratic elector. This meant that Tilden would get one of Oregon's three electoral votes, giving him the final vote he needed for election even without the three contested Southern states!
But wait a minute, not so fast Governor, the Oregon Republicans had a separate answer to the problem. They asked the postmaster to resign as an elector and from his federal government post. When he did they promptly re-appointed him to fill his own vacancy as an elector!
There was more mess piling up. Colorado that had just been admitted to the Union decided to save money by not even bothering to participate in the presidential election. Instead the State Legislature merely appointed three electors who voted for Hayes.
As the time for inaugurating the new president approached on January 20, 1877, Congress was still faced with a mess of astounding proportions. However, it took a step forward by hurriedly passing the Electoral Commission Law, which was signed by President Grant. This law that applied strictly to the electoral count of the 1876 election, created a 15- member commission to rule on disputed electoral votes.
The commission that was composed of five senators, five representatives and five Supreme Court justices was evenly split between the two parties. Although four justices were appointed from each party, they were collectively asked to choose the fifth justice and final member.
They chose Justice David Davis, who was considered a political independent. However, before he could serve, Justice Davis disqualified himself when the Illinois Legislature named him to the US Senate (Senators were appointed until 1913). No one knows whether this was a coincidence or one more stroke of malignity.
Justice Joseph Bradley was appointed as Justice Davis' replacement. The Democrats accepted him as the most independent of the remaining justices although he was a Republican.
Now Congress could go to work and count the electoral votes. Only disputed states were to be referred to the special commission. What were the verdicts rendered by the commission on the disputed states? Identical. Florida: 8 to 7 in favor of the Republicans. Louisiana: 8 to 7 for the Republicans. And the same for South Carolina and Oregon.
When the final Electoral College votes were tallied, 185 were for Hayes and 184 for Tilden.
Of course, the Democrats were incensed and threatened massive retaliation. Among the mass actions they proposed were filibustering the electoral count until Inauguration Day came to ensure that there was no president. They also vowed to invade the streets of Washington and prevent Hayes from being inaugurated. They even went as far as organizing armed bands and, threatening "Tilden or blood." The nation was gripped with real fear that another war would break out.
To cut a long story short, and up to now no one knows exactly what happened, on March 2, 1877, at 4 a.m., two days before President Grant's term expired, the president of the Senate announced that Rutherford Hayes had won the presidency by a single electoral vote.
Hayes became the President of the United States after a private swearing in ceremony. His presidency having been tainted and discredited from the beginning, he turned out to be a completely ineffective president. He was constantly ridiculed throughout his presidency and called His Fraudulency, President Rutherfraud, and "Old 8 to 7," an allusion to the successive Electoral Commission votes. He served only one term.
Yes, America has been there before but this time the whole world is watching how it treats its self-inflicted political wounds. The world is bracing itself for a new American president, supposedly the most powerful man in the world. It is waiting breathlessly for January 20, 2001 to congratulate President Rutherford II.