Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876
By William H. Rehnquist
Near midnight on Election Day in November 1876, the returns coming into Republican National headquarters signaled a victory for the Democratic presidential candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. But alert Republican leaders saw that if all the states still doubtful or disputed went for their candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes would be elected. Word was sent out to four southern states that their returns were crucial for a Hayes victory. Thus Chief Justice William Rehnquist begins this remarkable account of one of American's greatest political dramas, a crisis that was not resolved for nearly four months, on March 2, 1877, only two days before Inauguration Day. In his gripping story, Rehnquist tells how each party maneuvered to buy votes in the southern states, how the country slid into Congressional, judicial and public turmoil, and how the creation in January of an Electoral Commission (comprised of five Democrats, five Republicans and five Supreme Court justices) was opposed by both candidates. When that body's deciding vote was cast by Justice Joseph Bradley, public outcry reached such a fever pitch that the presidential swearing-in had to be held on a Sunday in near secrecy. Reaching beyond the history of a contentious election, the Chief Justice describes the political climate and economy of America in the 1870's, packing his narrative with biographical sketches of the central participants and opening a window on events in that decade that have long been overlooked. In a compelling epilogue we learn the occasions when Presidents, ranging from George Washington to Lyndon Johnson, have asked Supreme Court justices to arbitrate disputes, settle treaties or serve on investigating commissions. Almost always the justices were berated and attacked for their decisions. Would it be better for them to have refused the president’s request? The Chief Justice has some surprising answers.