The presidents from Reconstruction to the turn of the century were less than mediocre. Their dedication to corruption and injustice left an imprint on American politics.
Political corruption permeated American politics from 1865 to 1901. The weak presidents did not face the real issues of the day, which included poverty, low wages and the gross injustices directed against African Americans. However, Grant’s administration (1869 – 1876) was so corrupt that when he left office, the people wanted someone to clean up government.
For the 1876 presidential race, the Republicans nominated former Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a Civil War Union officer, and he developed a reputation for chivalrous behavior and honesty. The Democrats nominated civil service reformer and wealthy corporate lawyer, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden.
Tilden won the popular vote by a slim margin and was ahead in the electoral race when officials disputed 20 electoral votes. The states of South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida held the questionable votes. The Democrats still claimed victory, but Republicans challenged the accuracy of the votes. Consequently, Congress appointed a commission of fifteen officials, seven Democrats and eight Republicans, to end the dispute. Each official voted along party lines, so Hayes captured all 20 votes, which gave him a 185 to 184 victory.
Foreshadowing 2000 Election
The Democrats protested the outcome. They threatened to disrupt the counting of electoral votes, which would have delayed indefinitely the inauguration. The Democrats went as far as to suggest that they would start another civil war. Therefore, leaders from both parties worked out a compromise.
Compromise of 1877
To enhance their relationship with corporations, Republicans wanted to finance a railroad that would travel from New Orleans to California. The Democrats, like many Republicans today, wanted no governmental interference in political and business matters. They especially didn’t want the government to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments that made African Americans citizens and allowed the males to vote.
As deliberations lasted well into the next year, on March 2, 1877, two days before the inauguration, both sides reached an agreement. In exchange for declaring Hayes the winner, the new president removed the federal troops from the South, who protected the rights of African Americans. Hayes also allowed southerners to handle “race relations” themselves and appointed to his cabinet a former Confederate general.
The highlight of Hayes’s presidency was his trend-setting move to allow the racists to deprive African Americans of basic human and civil rights. His reputation of being an honest man must have meant that he honestly hated African Americans. Similar to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s conclusion in the 1857 Dred Scott case, Hayes made it exceedingly clear that “African Americans had no rights that Whites were bound to respect.” Federal non-involvement persisted until pressure from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement forced a change.
Hayes’s unwillingness to stop injustice sanctioned Ku Klux Klan violence toward African Americans, which caused strong reactions. During the latter 1870s, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton advocated for African Americans to leave the South and resettle in Kansas to establish Black towns. Similarly, Edwin P. McCabe urged African Americans to take over the Oklahoma territory to create an independent Black state.
The Republican Split
By 1877 the Republican Party had split into two factions over political patronage: Stalwarts and Mugwumps. Stalwarts traditionally supported the practice of rewarding major campaign contributors through appointments to ambassadorships, cabinet seats and municipal jobs. The Mugwumps intended to reform this practice by appointing qualified candidates. Although Mugwump in Native American language means “big chief,” it also means “one who is indecisive.” Mugwump opponents often symbolized the faction with an ugly bird straddling a fence.
Before the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield, he had been in Congress for several years. They uncovered Garfield’s part in the 1873 Credit Mobilier scandal and other corruption schemes. However, the Republican Party’s disorganization helped Garfield capture the nomination. As a Mugwump, Garfield became the presidential candidate, but the Stalwarts forced him to choose his vice president from their group. Garfield accepted Chester A. Arthur, whom Hayes had fired for illegal activities. The Democrats nominated Winfield Scott Hancock from Pennsylvania.
James A. Garfield
After narrowly defeating Hancock, Garfield became president. One Stalwart supporter of Garfield was Charles Guiteau. In return for his support, Guiteau expected an appointment to a prestigious government position, but Garfield didn’t offer him one. Feeling unappreciated to say the least, Guiteau shot Garfield in the back on July 2, 1881 at a railroad station in Washington, D.C. He eventually died in September and the government executed Guiteau.
Chester A. Arthur
No one thought Arthur would ever become president. Arthur was not only corrupt, but he also had spent time in jail. To characterize his administration, one could safely say that it was slightly above “totally disastrous.” Arthur followed Hayes’s model of allowing the racists to mistreat African Americans.
- Boyer Clark Kett Salisbury Sitkoff Woloch. The Enduring Vision – A History of the American People – Fifth Edition. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
- Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850 – 1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
- Nash, Jeffrey, Howe, Frederick, Davis, Winkler. The American People – Creating a Nation and a Society. New York: Longman, 2003.