It is unfortunate that the April 4 op-ed by Tom Hanks and Jeffery Robinson, “How to rig an election — with deadly, racist consequences,” perpetuated a simplistic myth of a corrupt bargain to settle the 1876 disputed election, giving Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency at the price of ending Reconstruction.
The fact is that before 1876, Reconstruction had already ended in nearly all the former Confederate states, where murder, violence and intimidation had delivered control to white-supremacist Democrats. When both parties claimed victory in the remaining Southern states in 1876, Samuel Tilden and the Democrats had little leverage to sustain their position. The Republicans controlled the Senate, a majority of the Supreme Court and the White House (under Ulysses S. Grant), and thus the Army. Hence, desperate Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly to create the Electoral Commission. When that body found for Hayes, Democrats’ only hope was to delay the official count in Congress. That effort proved futile after Feb. 24, 1877, when the Democratic House speaker ruled against “dilatory” tactics, two days before the infamous Wormley hotel meeting between Hayes’s representatives and Louisiana Democrats.
Evidence suggests that the Republicans participated in “negotiations” not to gain Hayes’s accession to the presidency (which Democrats were powerless to prevent) but as an opportunity for Republicans to obtain explicit guarantees of African Americans’ rights in the last two Reconstruction states. Hayes did not “withdraw” the troops from those states until after he had wrung public pledges from Democratic officials in South Carolina to “secure to every citizen, the lowest as well as the highest, black as well as white, full & equal protection in the enjoyment of all his rights under the Constitution,” and in Louisiana to guarantee to “the humblest laborer … of every color … the full and equal protection of the laws in person, property, and political rights and privileges.”
Eventually, these pledges proved false, and the demise of Reconstruction that was far advanced before the 1876 election became complete throughout the South.
Charles W. Calhoun, Washington
The writer is the author of “Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900.”