When inventorying the shortcomings of American democracy, the 1876 presidential election would be high on the list.
The 1876 vote was roiled by the aftermath of the Civil War, and Democrat Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York, outpolled Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who was Ohio’s governor. But there were disputes over the electoral votes from three Southern states, including Louisiana, and eventually Hayes was awarded the presidency under the Compromise of 1877, opening one of the most shameful chapters in American history. More on that later.
This week, a group of Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz, of Texas, and including Louisiana’s John N. Kennedy, is invoking a precedent from the 1876 election to resolve President Donald Trump’s unproven claims that widespread voter fraud led to his defeat in November. The truth is that the 2020 election wasn’t really all that close. Joe Biden won 51.4% of the vote and 306 electoral votes, so Trump would have to prove a lot of fraud in several states to show that the presidency was stolen.
The Republican plan which Kennedy is supporting is cynical even by his standards. Kennedy and the other Republicans reach back to the 1876 vote to suggest that a Congress “should immediately appoint an electoral commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.”
It's a clever gambit, which allows Kennedy to support Trump’s unproven allegations while simultaneously claiming he is not trying to disenfranchise voters in the disputed states or undermine American democracy. The junior senator is up for reelection in 2022, so his “no” vote Wednesday may keep Republican challengers at bay. At the same time, he can say that he supported the right of states to make their own choice after seeing the results of the “emergency” audit.
But the senator should be ashamed to invoke the 1876 election as an exemplar of functional democracy.
The Compromise of 1877 joined Democrats eager to erase Black political gains in the wake of the Civil War and Republicans who abandoned the ideals of what was then the Party of Lincoln.
Democrats agreed to let Republicans have their man in the White House in return for an end to Reconstruction and removal of federal troops from the old Confederacy. By that time, federal troops remained in a few states, including Louisiana, which less than three years earlier had seen White rebels seize control of New Orleans in the Battle of Liberty Place, forcing President Ulysses S. Grant to intervene.
The 1877 compromise set the stage for generations of racial oppression which soils our history to this day.
Kennedy likes to deliver cornpone humor on cable TV, but he is an educated man who studied at Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Oxford. Did they teach any history there?