Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (with bonus 1900 coverage!)

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Just because you’re a Populist, that doesn’t make you popular

Picture a time in American history when Presidential elections produced enormous turnouts, people debated the issues intently, and felt that their identity was closely tied to their party affiliation. A time when one of the major party candidates went from being virtually unknown a few months before the party convention to becoming the party nominee. When one of the nominees was so popular that hundreds of thousands of people came to his home to visit him. This time was 1896. And, today, most history students get shuffled through it as quickly as possible because the issues involved are often too esoteric or too removed from today’s problems, that people cannot identify with them.

In this book by Southern Methodist University professor R. Hal Williams, as part of the University Press of Kansas series on American Presidential Elections, the 1896 election is presented as the one that marked a major change in the way Americans treated Presidential elections. Although the calendar did not say it was the 20th Century, the 1896 election is, in many respects, the first “modern” Presidential election.

The lead up to the 1896 election was extraordinarily turbulent, and, for the most part, mostly ignored today. Starting in 1876, elections became close affairs in the United States. Republicans eked out wins in 1876 and 1880. The Democrats won the White House in 1884 under Grover Cleveland, but lost it in 1888 back to the Republicans and Benjamin Harrison despite Cleveland winning more popular votes.

The Republicans of this era liked to spend money. They liked to raise revenue and in 1890, President Harrison signed into law a major increase in tariff duties called the McKinley Tariff, named for the Ohio Congressman who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. The Democrats complained about the enormous spending done by the Republicans. They derisively referred to the “Billion Dollar Congress” because they Federal budget had finally topped that mark.

In the 1890 midterm elections, the House Republicans were nearly wiped out at the polls. They lost 93 seats, the most ever. The Democrats picked up 86 of them, with a third party, the Populists, a Western-based movement that opposed the concentration of capital in Eastern banks, picking up the balance. McKinley lost his seat. The voters of Nebraska’s first district chose a 30-year old named Williams Jennings Bryan.

In 1892, Cleveland returned to the White House (while McKinley was elected governor of Ohio), avenging his defeat to Harrison. However, events went bad for Cleveland almost immediately. The nation’s gold reserves were dwindling, creating turmoil in the financial markets. Where was the gold going? It was going overseas.

At the time of Cleveland’s second inauguration, you could take a certificate for a certain amount of silver and have it exchanged for a fixed rate of gold. (About 16 oz of silver for 1 oz of gold). The problem was that gold was worth much more than silver than the exchange rate the Treasury offered. And nearly every other country in the world would not accept deposits in silver because there was too much of it.

Almost immediately after the March 4 inauguration, Cleveland was facing a full-fledged financial panic as credit was squeezed. Cleveland asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. When this happened, Western Democrats, like Bryan, felt betrayed by Cleveland. While the U.S. economy did not collapse, it certainly did not get better. Unemployment went up.

In the 1894 elections, the Republicans broke the four-year old record for biggest turnaround in an election. They picked up 130 seats in the House, putting Thomas Reed of Maine into the Speakership.

By the time of the 1896 election, the Republicans were fairly sure that they would win back the White House. But whom would they choose? McKinley was considered one of the leading contenders. He was the governor of a swing state (Ohio), he was a Civil War vet (he was called Major McKinley in the press), and he had the substantial financial backing of Mark Hanna, one of the wealthiest men in Ohio.

Reed tried to present himself as a candidate, but he came from a small state (Maine), and he was considered too abrasive to appeal to a national electorate. Pennsylvania senator Matthew Quay also made a play for the nomination.

When the Republicans convened in St. Louis, it didn’t take them long, just one ballot, to nominate McKinley, whom most tabbed as an easy winner in November. Garret Hobart, a New Jersey business magnate, was nominated for Vice President.

The Democrats were not in a great position. All of the leading contenders for the nomination were running against the policies of the incumbent President, who happened to be in their party.

The front-runner was Missouri Senator Richard Bland, who was such a big advocate of restoring the silver standard, that he was commonly referred to as “Silver Dick.” That name wasn’t as funny in 1896 as it is now, but it was likely funny enough that Bland didn’t get the nomination.

Instead, William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year old Representative from Nebraska, got the nomination? How did this happen? There were two reasons: 1) Bryan gave one of the most convincing speeches in American political history: the Cross of Gold Speech. The delegates may have nominated Bryan right after he gave the speech if not for a hasty adjournment and 2) the Democrats didn’t have many other good choices. The Democrats nominated Arthur Sewall, a wealthy lumberman from Maine, as Vice President.

So, the 1896 election matched up a Republican governor who looked like Presidential, fought for the Union, and stood for a sound economy. The Democrats nominated someone who was too young to remember the Civil War and backed a potentially inflationary economic scheme. As it turned out, Americans loved the debate.

Bryan was on the campaign trail constantly. He traveled by train all over the nation, but he targeted states that he felt were crucial to his chances for victory. It was not common to do that at this time, but it was not unheard of.

McKinley knew that if he tried to match Bryan speech for speech across the country that he would lose. He knew he held the upper hand in the election and he had no need to make himself look like he had to work as hard as Bryan to get elected. So, Hanna, McKinley’s money man, had trains full of eager Republican voters brought to Ohio, where McKinley would address them from his front porch. It was estimated that nearly 750,000 came to hear McKinley speak over the course of the campaign. The heads of the visiting delegations were given questions by McKinley to ask ahead of time.

The Republicans also had a sophisticated direct mail campaign, flooding the mail boxes of likely Republican voters with materials printed in a variety of languages. McKinley and the Republicans may not have been able to out talk Bryan, but they could definitely outspend him and out organize him.

Complicating matters for Bryan was the presence of a third party, the Populists. They had made a difference in the 1892 election. However, in 1896, they found that their platform, with its reliance on silver, had been co-opted by Bryan and the Democrats. The Populists held a convention of their own and nominated Bryan as their candidate, but refused to nominate Sewell. Instead, they substituted Thomas Watson of Georgia. This left Bryan in the uncomfortable position of having the support of a third party, but not the support of his running mate, which could prove to complicate Electoral College matters. In some states, the Byran-Sewell tickets and Bryan-Watson tickets would run separately, making it harder for Bryan to win. (A group of conservative Democrats favoring the gold standard also nominated a ticket, but it received little support.)

Election Day 1896 was a big day. The turnout was massive. In Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio, the turnout was nearly 95% of the electorate (which was almost all white males at the time.) In New York City, newspapers used “magic lanterns” (early versions of slide projectors) to show a map of the United States with each state colored in to show which candidate had won there. (The book does not have examples of what colors were used.)

McKinley won with 51% of the vote and 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 47% and 176 electoral votes. Bryan failed to win any state out of the Democratic South and the Populist West. McKinley managed to pull in Oregon and California and also the border states of West Virginia and Kentucky.

Why was the turnout so big? Williams makes the point that at this time, Americans tended to identify themselves very closely with political parties. Being a Republican or Democrat made you who you were. Politics was a unifying force in communities. People enjoyed elections, some states holding several per year.

Most people would vote a straight ticket and show up at the polls with a ballot that would distinctly indicate whom they were voting for, although by 1896, the Australian ballot (which actually started in Australia), changed matters. This style of ballot listed all the candidates on the ballot from all the parties. Voters would then indicate whom they wanted. And they would do this secretly.

McKinley’s victory in 1896 was not hard to predict. The Republicans of this era were the only party that was actually trying to do things. The Democrats of this era were best known for only wanting to oppose what the Republicans did, such as expanding civil rights. Bryan attempted to change the Democrats from being a conservative party that mainly said no into a party that appealed to the Populist movement of the West. The book cover shows a cartoon of Bryan as a snake swallowing the Democratic Party whole, which would ultimately be their undoing.

The economy greatly improved during McKinley’s first term, partly because of natural economic cycles and also because gold became more plentiful in the world, making the return to the gold standard far less risky. In 1899, Vice President Garret Hobart died.

In 1900, the Republicans renominated McKinley. The young governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of the Spanish-American War, was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats, lacking anyone better to run, nominated Bryan again, this time with former Vice President Adlai Stevenson as his running mate. McKinley won again, by a slightly larger margin.

American political involvement would never be as great as it was during this time. The Australian ballot allowed people more freedom to choose the candidate they liked instead of the party they liked. People began to identify less with their political party as they realized that their parties didn’t do much for them.

We no longer live in a world where the hottest political issue is bimetallism. Candidates do not espouse the quantity of money theory (as Bryan did) to stimulate the economy. But these were the issues of 1896. Ultimately, the issues were still ones that people argue about today: employment, debt, and the standard of living. The framework of the debate was different than it was today. But, people cared. Or at least they were told to care. Do we care as much today?

1896 result

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton (1860)

yearofmeteors1860 Election Results

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I had not come across this book when it was published back in 2010, but with the renewed interest in all things Lincoln, I was intrigued about a book about the backroom politics that resulted in Lincoln’s election in 1860. Egerton’s book though is not mostly about Lincoln, who is something of a supporting character, but rather on the important figures of the time, whom history has more or less forgotten in the wake of the 16th President’s accomplishments.

The most important character in the book is Lincoln’s Illinois rival, Stephen Douglas. Coming into the election of 1860, Douglas was the most famous political figure in America. He possibly may have also been the most loved and most hated at the same time. In trying to come up with a solution to the territorial expansion of slavery, Douglas came up with a plan that made things worse, popular sovereignty, which would allow the residents of the territories choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. This led to even more strife.

In 1860, there were four major candidates for president and one “third party” candidate who drew significant support. The Democrats ended up having four different conventions in two different cities. Southern extremists, called “Fire Eaters”, had no desire to compromise and hoped that the Democrats would fall apart, ensuring a Republican win that would force Southern states to secede. And that is what happened, as the Democrats nominated two candidates, Douglas, a Northerner who owned slaves in Arkansas (indirectly), and John Breckenridge, a Kentuckian who actually didn’t own any slaves.

The Democrats originally convened in Charleston, but could not agree on a nominee because the party required any nominee to get 2/3 of the votes of the delegates. Eventually, some of the Southern states walked out. Some of them tried to form their own convention in another part of Charleston. That didn’t work, so they gave up and agreed to meet again in Baltimore. Then, they split up again and each group nominated its own ticket. Egerton makes the point that the Democrats could have avoided much of this mess if they had chosen their nominee by majority vote and also apportioned state delegate totals by party strength in the state instead of by electoral votes, which ended up giving a lot of votes at the conventions to Democrats from places like Massachusetts, where they stood almost no chance of winning. (Lincoln would win Massachusetts with over 60% of the vote.)

The Republicans were expected to nominate New York Senator William Seward, but the party believed that he would be considered too radical and would not have carried states like Pennsylvania or Ohio (or even New York), so the party turned to Lincoln, who was a popular, yet lightly-regarded figure at the time.

Unusual for the time, the election of 1860 played out the way, political experts of the day thought it would back in June of that year. The Republicans carried all of the Northern states, and only appeared on the ballot in one state that would eventually secede: Virginia. Breckinridge won most of the South. Douglas won only in Missouri and a few electoral votes in New Jersey despite finishing second in the popular vote. Compromise candidate John Bell of Tennessee finished third in the electoral vote despite never espousing any platform. Lincoln won with the lowest popular vote percentage ever, just 39.65%. To a certain extent, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell all hoped that no one would win a majority of the electoral vote and then force a House vote to decide the Presidency, but they were not very good at math.

After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina and Georgia started the secession movement. There were last ditch efforts at compromise, but the Republicans would not back them, primarily because they granted an expansion of slavery into the territories. Also, Lincoln did not want to come into office with his hands tied to a policy he didn’t support. And so the nation headed off on into the Civil War. The Southern Fire Eaters, whose ideology was based on white supremacy and an antiquated economic system, got their wish of plunging the nation into a bloody conflict. The South thought that the North would cave easily, one in an increasingly great series of miscalculations they would make. The South, while wanting to preserve its “way of life” actually wanted to preserve its economic power, something the North was happy to take from them.

Egerton’s book does a tremendous job of looking at the events of 1860 almost as if you were living at the time. You wouldn’t have thought in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln would become one of the most important historical figures of all time. You would have thought Stephen Douglas was bound for that. But Douglas would die early in 1861, a victim of his own alcoholism. Lincoln’s fame persists. Other figures played their parts in a drama that we hope we never see again.

Odds and ends: At the top of each post, I will put up the results of the election or elections covered in each post. The results will be listed in order of electoral votes received, not popular votes. However, the 1860 election remains the only one to have such an anomalous result. Douglas appeared on the ballot on more states than Lincoln.

Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama was originally chosen as Douglas’ running mate, but he declined the nomination. Herschel Johnson of Georgia took his place.

Most election data will be taken from Dave Liep’s U.S. Election Atlas, which is a free source of a lot of interesting election data. Please note that the site uses RED on its maps for Democratic wins and BLUE for Republican wins. The colors used by television networks today were chosen arbitrarily.

John Breckinridge was serving as a Senator when the Civil War began. He sided with the Confederacy (despite Kentucky not seceding). He was expelled from the Senate for his actions. He later served in the Confederate government and, after the Civil War ended, fled to Europe to live in exile until an amnesty allowed him to return to Kentucky in 1868.

Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism by Jules Tygiel

President #40, C-SPAN Historians ranking #10

40 is the new -30-

Of the nine Presidents who have been in office in my lifetime, none had the impact that Ronald Reagan has had. Ronald Reagan succeeded in transforming not just the office of the Presidency, but also the nature of how politics and government is viewed by the country overall. To the Republicans of today, he is revered like no one else in the party, at times outstripping Abraham Lincoln in fame. To the Democrats of today, he is mostly reviled, although sometimes begrudgingly respected.

For historians and biographers, Ronald Reagan is a popular, yet somewhat difficult subject. Edmund Morris lived with Reagan during almost all of his eight years in office. And yet, he could not truly figure out who Reagan was. So, Morris created a fictional character as the narrator for his biography of Reagan called Dutch.

Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter in Sacramento, had a career of covering Ronald Reagan. He wrote a twovolume biography of Reagan. And Cannon never came close to figuring just who Ronald Reagan was.

I opted for a shorter tome, written by San Francisco State University professor Jules Tygiel. Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, is best known for writing a history of Jackie Robinson’s experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers called Baseball’s Great Experiment. Tygiel also wrote a book on the Julian Oil scandal called The Great Los Angeles Swindle.

One of the reasons for choosing this book is that I actually had corresponded several times with Tygiel about baseball history, and found that he was very generous and giving of his time. He was always willing to help out a researcher if he could. So, since I had a gift card to a bookstore, I picked up his book, figuring that his family would get some royalties for this. (Also, I would finish this series a lot sooner.)

Tygiel’s book is, like nearly all of the others I’ve read for this blog, a synthesis of many other writers works. The book is actually intended to be used as a college textbook. Nevertheless, Tygiel injects his opinion of Reagan’s time as President frequently. To Tygiel, Reagan’s biggest contributions (as the title would indicate) were ideological, but his actual achievements may have been less than what his reputation merits. As an aside, I have found this to be the case with every President from George Washington on. The better job that a President did, the more people expect more to have been achieved.

The book takes a while to get to Reagan’s Presidency, but that is hard not to do for someone who was not inaugurated until he was 70. And Reagan’s journey through life gives insight into how he made what was an unlikely career path from studio contract actor to conservative political icon. Continue reading

Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun

President #23, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #30

Benjamin in the middle

Benjamin Harrison ran for President twice and never got the most popular votes. Republicans chose him to run because he both a famous name (his grandfather was William Henry Harrison) and he came from an important swing state at the time (Indiana). Few of us would likely be able to name any of his accomplishments.

Charles W. Calhoun, a professor at East Carolina University (which is in North Carolina, unlike Coastal Carolina University which is in South Carolina) who is one of the most prominent historians who study the Gilded Age, manages to both humanize Harrison while also elevating his place in history.

Benjamin Harrison was President in a time when power shifted between Republicans and Democrats often. Populist political movements threatened to take down the establishments of both parties. There were violent strikes affecting crucial industries and widespread dissatisfaction with the nature of the economy. Harrison’s four years in office were far from tranquil.

The man in charge of the country during this time was a Born Again Christian Republican who favored a big government, a high tariff, and increased civil rights for African-Americans. He had majorities to work with in Congress for his first two years, but could only pass a portion of what he wanted. Harrison’s boldest ideas (in the area of civil rights) fell victim to Senate filibusters and political horse trading.

Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, the same city where his grandfather would be buried after a just a month as President in 1841. Harrison’s father, John Scott Harrison, was a member of the House of Representatives. After two years at Farmers College in Cincinnati (which is no longer in existence), Harrison enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. (Graduates of this university do not like you to call it “Miami of Ohio” as they feel, quite rightly, that their school is far more distinguished than the University of Miami in Florida. It would help the case of the Ohioans if they had bothered to get the correct URL.)

After graduating in 1852, Harrison apprenticed with an another attorney to learn the law. He married Caroline Scott in 1853, passed the bar in 1854, and moved to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. Harrison wanted to move out of Ohio because he did not want to trade on his family name to get ahead.

Harrison quickly built a reputation as an excellent attorney, especially in criminal trials. In 1857, the people of Indianapolis chose him as the city attorney. In 1860, Harrison won the office of reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court. This job, which paid well, required Harrison to print, publish, and sell all the opinions of the state courts.

When the Civil War began, Harrison first declined to join the Union Army because of family obligations. But, in 1862, Harrison decided to enlist and he became a colonel in command of a regiment of Indiana volunteers. Harrison did not see much action until 1864 when his regiment joined in General William Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Calhoun believed that Harrison saw more battles during that Georgia campaign than his grandfather did in his nearly 30 years in the Army. Harrison was a Brigadier General when the war ended.

Harrison won another term as Supreme Court reporter for Indiana in 1864, despite his military obligations. While he received offers to run for higher office, Harrison declined them until 1872, when he tried to win the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana. However, Harrison did not prevail at the state convention.

In 1876, Harrison did get the nomination after the first nominee dropped out of the race. Harrison lost to the Democratic candidate, James Williams, by about 5,000 votes.

Harrison’s strong showing in the governor’s race started to get people talking about him as a Presidential candidate in 1880. Harrison’s time had not come though. James Garfield won the Republican nomination as a dark horse choice and, ultimately, the Presidency.

In 1881, Harrison finally got a chance to shine when he won a Senate seat. Harrison did not compile a distinguished legislative record, but he was still regarded as a possible contender in the 1884 Presidential race.

But, in 1884, perennial contender James G. Blaine of Maine won the nomination. Harrison and fellow Hoosier, Postmaster General Walter Q. Gresham, ended up in a bitter feud over whom the Indiana delegation should support. This ultimately took away any chance either man had of winning nomination as President or Vice President. Blaine lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland, the first Republican to lose a Presidential election since John C. Fremont in 1856.

Back in Indiana, the Democrats had managed to gain control of the Legislature through a redistricting measure. The Indiana legislature did not reelect Harrison in 1887, choosing Democrat David Turpie by one vote.

In 1888, President Cleveland appeared to be a vulnerable incumbent. Cleveland had shepherded a tariff reduction act that was extremely unpopular in the Northern states, which were dependent upon protective tariffs for their industries.

The Republican race for the nomination in 1888 was wide open after Blaine announced he would not run.  Harrison and Ohio Senator John Sherman were the front-runners, but no one had a wide base of support.

Although Blaine was not running, it did not mean he was not working behind the scenes to pick a nominee he liked. Blaine decided that Harrison’s policies were the most in line with his, and after several ballots, Harrison won the nomination. New York banker Levi Morton was chosen as his running mate. Cleveland was renominated with a new running mate, Allen Thurman. (Vice President Thomas Hendricks had passed away after eight months on the job.)

Interest in the election was huge. The tariff was the main issue and that was causing the North and South to dig in deeply along partisan lines. It was likely that a few key swing states, such as Indiana, would be crucial.

The election had its seamy sides to it. A Republican partisan in California wrote a letter to the British minister to the United States, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, pretending to be a British subject with the name of Murchison. “Murchison” asked Sackville-West which candidate would be better for England. Sackville-West wrote back that Cleveland would be preferable. The letter was made public, stirring up a fury among Irish-Americans.

The Republicans would also be caught in a scandal known as the “Blocks of Five.” A Republican Party official instructed Indiana precinct captains to divide all undeclared voters into “blocks of five” and use an appropriate amount of money to buy their votes. It is generally believed that Harrison was ignorant of this scheme.

When the votes were all counted, Cleveland had won the most popular votes by a margin of 90,000 (48.6% to 47.8%). But, Harrison prevailed in the electoral vote by a margin of 233-168. Harrison won the crucial states of New York (36 electoral votes) and Indiana (15) by less than 1%. The vote broke along almost completely along sectional lines.

When Harrison formed his Cabinet, he made Blaine his Secretary of State and William Windom his Secretary of Treasury. Both men had held these positions while James Garfield was President, but had stepped down after Garfield’s assassination.

The Republicans in the new 51st Congress did not waste much time in trying to enact much of Harrison’s agenda. The government was running a large surplus at the time (about $100 million) and there was plenty of spending to go around. Civil War veterans pensions were extended. Tariffs were raised. In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Law went into effect, the first Federal law enacted that to prohibit unfair business cartels and monopolies. Although Harrison’s Administration would not do much to enforce the act during his time in office, the Sherman Antitrust Law is the cornerstone of all antitrust law in the United States today.

John Sherman, besides the antitrust law, also gave his name to another important law dealing with the economy, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Western farmers wanted to increase the amount of silver used as legal tender because: 1) they were in debt and needed more money and 2) there was a lot of silver around in the West. Eastern financiers did not want silver in circulation for fear of it hurting the price of gold and creating inflation. Farmers did not mind inflation because their debts were not going to going up because of them.

The Silver Purchase Act required the government to buy some silver every year and issue bank certificates that could be exchanged for either gold or silver. This compromise was supposed to give Harrison and the Republicans some breathing room from a growing populist movement in the West. Ultimately, the plan would not work in any way.

Another law Harrison tried to get through Congress in 1890 was a Civil Rights Bill. Sponsored by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the bill would have allowed the Federal government to supervise any Congressional election after receiving a petition from a specified number of citizens. Southern Democrats filibustered this bill and threatened to do the same to the Silver Purchase Act. The Republicans decided that silver trumped civil rights and backed off on the legislation.

The 51st Congress became known as the Billion Dollar Congress for the amount of spending it authorized. In the 1890 off-year elections, Democrats hammered the Republicans for the excessive spending. The Republicans, who had controlled the House by a 172-159 margin, found themselves in a 236-88 hole after the 1890 election. Because of new states joining the union (North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), the Republicans did maintain a majority in the Senate.

With a hostile Congress making it impossible to accomplish anything on his domestic agenda, Harrison spent much of his final two years concentrating on foreign affairs. The United States ran into problems with Canada (and, by extension, Great Britain), Italy, and Chile.

The problem with Canada was the hot button issue of pelagic sealing. The United States had granted a company a limited license to hunt seals on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. The company was not allowed to hunt the seals in the open ocean (pelagic sealing.) Canadian sealers believed that once the seals reached international waters, they were fair game, and part of the unique Canadian right to beat up baby seals.

In the 1890s, Canada’s foreign affairs were handled by Great Britain. Harrison used the pelagic sealing dispute to show the British that the United States was not going to back down to a European power. Harrison threatened military action to protect the seals. Eventually, the Canadians backed down and agreed to arbitration. And, in 1893, the Canadians prevailed and won the right to hunt seals to their hearts’ content. (Well, almost.)

The dispute with Italy involved a lynch mob in New Orleans. In 1891, some Mafia-connected men were acquitted of the murder of a New Orleans police lieutenant. A mob, led by the mayor of New Orleans himself, killed 11 Italian-Americans, three of  them Italian nationals. (In New Orleans, there’s no better justice than mob justice.)  Italy recalled its minister from the U.S., prohibited beef imports from the U.S., and demanded an indemnity. Harrison held the line and only gave the Italians a profound apology. (Harrison believed that the Federal government had no role to play in eliminating lynchings.)

The dispute with Chile was also in 1891 when some sailors from the U.S.S. Baltimore were attacked by a mob in Valparaiso while on shore leaves. Two sailors were killed. Harrison did get Chile to apologize and pay a small indemnity ($75,000).

Harrison ended up doing much of the work of Secretary of State James Blaine. The former Maine Senator was not a hard-worker, which rankled the industrious Harrison. Further complicating matters, Blaine was suffering from kidney disease. Blaine was openly contemptuous of Harrison’s performance as President, while Harrison found Blaine to be a lazy slugabed.

In June of 1892, Blaine resigned as Secretary of State to make one final run for President. However, there was little or no support for Blaine among Republican regulars. No one wanted to dump the incumbent Harrison from the ticket. (Blaine passed away in January of 1893.)

Harrison did want to dump his Vice President, Levi Morton. Morton had done little to advance Harrison’s legislative agenda in the Senate, especially the Civil Rights Bill. So, Morton was sent packing and New York newspaper publisher Whitelaw Reid was put on the ticket.

The Democrats decided to go with former President Grover Cleveland. He had won the popular vote in both of his earlier runs, so why mess with success? Adlai Stevenson was nominated for Vice President.

1892 was a turbulent year in the United States. A strike at an Andrew Carnegie-owned steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned deadly when striking workers fired on Pinkerston agents hired as strikebreakers. Four people died in an exchange of gunfire. The Pennsylvania National Guard had to come to Homestead to restore order.

The growing populist movement among Western farmers had finally coalesced into an actual third party. The group named itself the People’s Party, but was more commonly called the Populist Party. James B. Weaver of Iowa would be its standard bearer in the Presidential Election of 1892.

The Silver Purchase Act was not having its desired effect. Nearly everyone given a greenback that they could exchange for either silver or gold, opted to take gold. This created a serious drain on gold reserves, as well as concentrating more wealth in the East.

Amidst the Presidential campaign and economic crises, Harrison’s wife, Caroline, was dying. At first doctors did not know what was causing her general weakness. Tuberculosis turned out to be the culprit. On October 25, 1892, two weeks before Election Day, Caroline Harrison passed away.

Out of respect, Cleveland ceased campaigning, so as not to take advantage of Harrison’s grief. The final days before the election were grim as Harrison faced a likely defeat to go along with his wife’s passing.

Cleveland won his rematch with Harrison. He edged him in the popular vote by about 400,000 votes nationwide. Cleveland won 277 electoral votes. Harrison won 145. Weaver won four Western states worth 22 electoral votes.

Soon after Cleveland took office, the economy collapsed. Cleveland’s economic policies were not much different from Harrison’s however. It would take the better part of four years for the economy to regain its strength.

In retirement, Harrison worked as a trustee for Purdue University. He also resumed his law practice on a limited basis. In 1896, Harrison remarried. His late wife’s niece, Mame Dinnick, was a 38-year old widow, who had long been a close family friend of both Benjamin and Caroline Harrison. Harrison’s daughter and son refused to attend the wedding of their father, accusing Mame Dinnick of carrying on an affair with their father while their mother was dying. (Calhoun does not put much stock in that accusation.) In 1897, Harrison fathered a child at the age of 63.

In 1900, Harrison traveled to The Hague to argue a border dispute for Venezuela against Great Britain. Harrison brought his new family along with him. The job was taxing. Harrison wrote nearly all of an 800-page brief for the arbitrators. Harrison and the Venezuelans lost the case.

In February of 1901, Harrison developed a cold. This turned into pneumonia, which proved fatal to him on March 13, 1901.

Benjamin Harrison’s story is one not often mentioned in history books. He is remembered more for being the last President to wear a beard. Harrison, like many politicians of the Gilded Age, owed much of his success to friends in high places. Politicans from this era are rarely judged on their ideas, but mostly on the company they kept.

Harrison was an honest man (especially by Gilded Age standards) who never had broad appeal to the rest of the United States. The nation was still not completely over the effects of the Civil War. Harrison made some effort to edge the United States into a more modern era of politics. But, it would take the next two Republican Presidents, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, to revamp the American political system.

Other stuff: Benjamin Harrison’s birthplace was also the home of William Henry Harrison at the time. The home is not there anymore, but there is a marker. Harrison’s home in Indianapolis is now a museum run by the President Benjamin Harrison Foundation. Harrison is buried next to both of his wives at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Harrison’s White House was the first to have electric lighting. In general, the Harrisons were afraid to touch any switches as they thought they would be electrocuted. They tended to leave the lights on.

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Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse

President #19, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #33

He’s very big in Paraguay

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was, by all accounts, an intelligent and honest man who made his way to the White House in the most controversial fashion of any President until George W. Bush. Despite his personal integrity, his reputation from historians has taken a beating.

Hayes is viewed as the man who gave up on the idea of Federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks in the South for a period that lasted past World War II. He accomplished little in his one term as he faced a Congress that was hostile toward him. That was just the members of his own party. The Democrats in Congress hated him more.

Hans L. Trefousse, one of the foremost experts on the Reconstruction Era, tries to do his part to rehabilitate Hayes’ image. However, Trefousse did a better job making Andrew Johnson look like a racist monster, than he does in making Rutherford Hayes look like an underappreciated Chief Executive.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born on October 4, 1822 in Delaware. Delaware, Ohio, that is. His father died before he was born. (Three presidents were born after their fathers had died: Andrew Jackson, Hayes, and Bill Clinton.) Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, helped raise young Rutherford along with his mother, Sophia.

From an early age, Sardis Birchard exposed to young Rutherford to classic works of literature and taught him Latin and Greek. Hayes graduated from Kenyon College in 1842, and later would attend Harvard Law School. Hayes returned home to Ohio and started a law practice in Cincinnati.

In 1852, Hayes married Lucy Webb, who was the love of his life. The two of them had eight children together and would be married for 37 years. Lucy had graduated from what is now Ohio Wesleyan University, and would be the first First Lady to have a college degree.

Hayes’ law practice was successful and he became well known in political circles. When the Republican Party began in 1856, Hayes joined it immediately. Already leaning toward the side of abolition, Lucy’s strong religious beliefs pushed Rutherford firmly into that camp.

When the Civil War began, Hayes signed up for the Army. Hayes took command of a group of Northern Ohio volunteers, and, after a lot of reading up on military affairs, became a respected commander in the field. In the early part of the war, Hayes saw action in West Virginia. He was wounded in a battle that was a preliminary to the bloodbath of Antietam (about 22,000 people died on one day in that battle, the most casualties on any one day in U.S. history.)

Hayes returned to the battlefield in December of 1862 and was now a Brigadier General. Another future President, William McKinley, was under Hayes’ command.

Even before Hayes left the Army, the voters of Ohio elected him to the House of Representatives. He finally took office in December of 1865. Hayes would be a strong supporter of Civil Rights and a vehement opponent of President Andrew Johnson. Hayes resigned his seat in July of 1867 to run for governor of Ohio.

Hayes barely won the election as governor, but the Democrats controlled both houses of the Ohio Legislature. This would prove to be a problem as the governor of Ohio had no veto power at the time. With little to do the first two years except give speeches and make suggestions that no one heeded, Hayes became more involved with Republican politics at the national level.

In 1870, Hayes won a second two-year term, eking out a win by a little over 7500 votes. Hayes toyed with the idea of a Senate run in 1872, but decided against it, thinking it better to retire from politics with his reputation unsullied.

Hayes could not stay away. Or, perhaps, the Ohio Republican Party could not stay away from Hayes. In 1875, Hayes ran for a third term as Governor of Ohio. He won and took a Republican majority into both houses of the Legislature with him. Hayes was now discussed as Presidential material.

For much of the American history, Ohio has been a popular place to find Presidential candidates. The state is both Midwest and East. It is both industrial and agricultural. And, it has always had a healthy number of electoral votes.

Maine Senator James Blaine was the favorite for the nomination going into the Republican Convention. Cincinnati would be the site.

Blaine was well-known, but he had his enemies within the party. The anti-Blaine forces managed to keep the “plumed knight of the Senate” (as some called Blaine) from ever gaining a majority of the delegates. On the seventh ballot, the anti-Blaine forces coalesced around Hayes and got him the nomination. William Wheeler of New York was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel Tilden for President and Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks for Vice President.

1876 was expected to be a Democratic year. Tilden was known as an honest, reform-minded candidate. The country was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis. The Republicans had held a 199-88 majority in the House in 1873. After the 1875 election, the Democrats held a 182-103 majority.

Hayes did not expect to win and there was not much he could do personally to help himself. 1876 was still a time when it was considered unseemly for candidates to personally go out and campaign. It would all be a matter of which party could find ways to get as many people to the polls. Or, in the case of the Democrats in the South, how many black voters they could keep away through intimidation or legal shenanigans.

When the results came out on Election Day, there was no clear winner. The New York Times (then a distinctly Republican leaning publication) reported the results as 184 electoral votes for Tilden and 181 for Hayes. 185 was the magic number. There was one state that had not yet been decided. It was … wait for it … Florida! (Florida had just four electoral votes in that era.)

But, the 181 total for Hayes was not entirely clear. Aside from Florida not reporting, there were conflicting returns from Louisiana and South Carolina. Also, there was one elector in Oregon that was being contested. The New York Times had already given Louisiana, South Carolina, and the lone vote from Oregon to Hayes. However, nobody knew which set of returns was correct. Tilden was going to prevail in the popular vote regardless.

In the end, all the disputed states ended up sending in TWO sets of electoral ballots. If Congress would count the Democratic votes (and not even all of them), Tilden would win. If Congress counted all the Republican votes, Hayes would win.

The Constitution stipulates that electoral votes are to be counted in front of a joint session of Congress with the President of the Senate presiding. But, there was no provision to handle a disputed set of returns. The House was in control of the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by Republicans. The President of the Senate was Republican Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, who was the President Pro Tem. (Vice President Henry Wilson had passed away in 1874.)

There were negotiations back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans about how to count the votes. In January of 1877, a joint committee recommended the establishment of special panel to look at the disputed returns. It would consist of 15 people, five from the Senate, five from the House, and five from the Supreme Court. The Senators would be three Republicans and two Democrats and the Representatives would be three Democrats and two Republicans. The Supreme Court justices would hold the balance as there would be two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent, David Davis.

Davis was from Illinois. The legislature there, controlled by Democrats, tried to buy off Davis by electing him to a vacant Senate seat for Illinois. Davis responded to this by resigning his seat on the Supreme Court. The Democrats had to settle for a Republican justice, Joseph Bradley. Democrats thought Bradley was the least partisan member of the Supreme Court left to choose.

As Congress counted the votes, (I’ve watched the process on C-SPAN and it is scintillating action), when the first set of disputed results came up, Florida’s, the matter was referred to the special Electoral Commission (as it was so called). The Commission voted along partisan lines 8-7 to approve the Republican returns. This was the case in all the disputed results. The count was not finished until 4:10 a.m. on March 2, 1877, less than two full days before the new President would be inaugurated. (Congress would quickly get to work to pass a new law to handle situations like this. It took only 10 years and basically stated that whichever set of returns is approved by the governor of a state counts.)

Outgoing President Grant had Hayes secretly sworn in as President in the White House on March 3. Since March 4 was a Sunday, the public ceremony would not be until March 5. Grant did not wish to risk Democrats disrupting the swearing in or getting some sort of injunction to prevent it.

Hayes, who did not like the way the matter was handled, nevertheless accepted the result. He believed that if the Southern Democrats had not intimidated black voters and illegally suppressed the turnout, he would have won easily. But, Hayes was branded “His Fraudulency” and “Old 8 to 7” in the press.

One of the first fallouts from the election was the removal of Federal troops from Louisiana, which allowed the Democrats to reclaim the political machinery of the state. The military reconstruction of the South was over. Any hope that African Americans had in those states of achieving any semblance of equality would have to be deferred for generations.

Hayes also named a Southerner to his Cabinet. David Key of Tennessee became Postmaster General. Historians still dispute if these two events were part of a deal struck by the Republicans to allow the election of Hayes. Trefousse believes that the true victor of the 1876 election will never be known. There was too much corruption on both sides.

The first two years for Hayes were extremely rocky. Democrats wanted to hold hearings into the election results, with the possible aim of reversing the result. The Republican in charge of counting the votes in Louisiana was prosecuted for fraud. Hayes remarked that he felt that the man would not have charged with any crime if he had just said that the Democrats had won.

Hayes tried to take on the cause of civil service reform as one of his first tasks. The first Federal job Hayes went after was Collector of the Port of New York. The man in charge there was Chester Arthur, an ally of powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who wanted no part of civil service reform.

Following the recommendations of a report by a commission looking into the subject, Hayes ordered Arthur and two other Conkling allies to resign. All three men refused to resign, so Hayes suspended them. Theodore Roosevelt, father of the future President, replaced Arthur. Fewer than six months on the job, Hayes had managed to alienate himself from one of the most powerful men in his own party in Conkling.

While the tempest over the Port of New York was brewing, Hayes faced another major domestic problem: railroad strikes. In July, railroad workers throughout the country went on strike. In some areas, miners joined the strike. Riots sprung up throughout the country. Hayes called in Federal troops to restore order, and, ultimately, get the trains running again.

Before Hayes sent his annual message to Congress, he had already used Federal force to support corporate interests, but withheld Federal force to uphold civil rights. These two actions probably accounted for his recent drop in historians’ rankings of Presidents.

Rutherford and Lucy Hayes did manage to make the White House one of the livelier places in Washington for social gatherings, despite the fact that Lucy did not allow alcohol to be served in her home. She was dubbed “Lemonade Lucy.” The Hayes family were not prudes. They just did not drink alcohol.

In 1878, Argentina and Paraguay turned to Hayes to arbitrate a dispute between the two countries over the Gran Chaco region that bordered the two countries. Paraguay had been at war from 1864 through 1870 against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. The conflict was known as the War of the Triple Alliance. Paraguay suffered staggering losses in the conflict, with about 300,000 people (including civilians) killed. It is estimated that 90% of all adult males in Paraguay died in the war.

An area between two rivers, the Rio Verde and the Rio Pilcomayo was still in dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. Hayes decided to give the territory to Paraguay. The reason for this decision is still unclear. But, Paraguay was so pleased with the decision that a town was named in honor of Hayes, called Villa Hayes, and later an entire department (province) of Paraguay was named Presidente Hayes.

Hayes accomplished little else in office to overcome the controversy that surrounded his election. He had already promised before the election not to run for a second term. Hayes was a lame duck with the stain of fraud hanging over him. It was not a recipe for success.

Trefousse wants to make the point that Hayes was not a dishonest man. And, by all accounts, Hayes was one of the more honorable politicians around in one of the most corrupt eras in American politics. However, Hayes did not fully exercise all the powers of the Presidency. Perhaps he could not so because of political realities.

Hayes did leave office with the United States in better shape than he found it. The economic crisis of the Panic of 1873 had dissipated and Hayes had refused to solve the problem by simply printing more money. The United States had become a more important player on the world stage.

But, if you were a black citizen in the South, your situation would have gotten worse. The Federal government was not in the civil rights business anymore.

Hayes spent his retirement back in Ohio. He served on the Board of Trustees for Ohio State University, which opened when he was governor. He also spent time defending his record as President and his method of election. Hayes loved to point out that the Democratic Party did not renominate Tilden for the Presidency. (Nor would the Democrats renominate Al Gore in 2004.)

Rutherford Hayes passed away on January 17, 1893 in Fremont, Ohio, just six months after his wife Lucy passed away. His last words expressed happiness over going to rejoin her.

Overall, Rutherford Hayes was a good man who drew a bad hand as President. He was thrust into a political world seething with corruption, racial violence, and economic turmoil. Trefousse feels that Hayes did not get his due. Hayes may not have wanted to pull Federal troops from protecting blacks in the South, but, he had little choice in the matter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that under Hayes much of the gains in civil rights for African Americans gained from the Civil War disappeared for about 90 years.

At least the Election of 1876 and the trauma that the country went through ensured that the United States would never have to suffer from a questionable election result ever again. Or so I thought in 1999.

Other stuff: Rutherford Hayes’ birthplace in Delaware, Ohio was demolished in the 19th Century. He is buried in Fremont, Ohio. His grave is on the site of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. The library on site has an extensive genealogical collection. Hayes was an avid genealogist himself.