Sunday, June 09, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Nineteen, Winner By One Vote

It's hard to imagine that our Founding Fathers wanted Presidential elections to be close and questionable in order to force Congress to make the final decision on who won.  Because for all the times it came down to it - 1800, 1824, 1876, 2000 - Congress simply wasn't up to the task and the entire process ended up rigged, ridiculed and worse.

The election of 1876 came at one of the lowest points in American political history.  The Union had won the Civil War but was losing the peace as their Reconstruction efforts were stymied by unrepentant Lost Causers, and weakened by corruption and growing disillusionment at the federal level.  The Grant administration was finishing up to be one of the most corrupt in our history.

Into this, the Democrats were poised to regain the White House since 1860, having gotten a solid southern region of white voters eager to end Reconstruction and enough northern voters disgruntled with Republican corruption.  In dire need of an honest candidate, the Republicans turned to Rutherford B. Hayes, about as unsullied and honest a Republican that could be found (the alternative was Blaine, then-Speaker of a corrupt House of Representatives).

At first count it wasn't that close a campaign: the Democratic candidate Tilden had clearly won the majority vote (50 percent over Hayes' 47).  What happened was with the Electoral College results: confusion over who won what left the states of South Carolina, Louisiana, Oregon and Florida (Yup.  We've been there and done that) up in the air, preventing Tilden from claiming the Electoral count needed to officially win.

Leaving it to Congress is the usual step, but the accusations of cheating and voter intimidation in those four states had to be investigated... so they set up a kangaroo committee that was originally formed to be as impartial as possible using five Republicans, five Democrats and five Justices deemed above the fray (and was quickly hampered when the Democrats outfoxed themselves by electing the most impartial judge to the Senate, not realizing that being that impartial and honest forced that Judge to resign from the commission).

Given the partisan nature of what the results were going to be, there was a sense of resigned inevitability, so the Democrats made the deal to accept the results as long as the Republicans agreed to end the military occupation of Southern states that were enforcing the Reconstruction efforts.

Hayes won.  Certainly not by popular vote (47 percent to Tilden's 50), not really by Electoral Collge (185 to 184), but definitely by one person (8 votes to 7 on all commissions decisions).

Like all minority-elected Presidents (not by race, mind you but voter count), Hayes was promptly incapable of doing much of an agenda having no mandate to claim.  He had a Democrat-controlled House the first two years, a Democrat-controlled Senate the last two years, meaning not much legislation he wanted got passed. Yet even against such obstruction, Hayes did what he could as an Active President.  There's very little evidence that suggested Hayes was Passive in terms of the office: the stuff he could do without Congressional interference - foreign policy - suggested a proactive, engaged Head of State. The nation of Paraguay named cities, districts and schools after him for his lenient resolution of a bitter border war: I'm serious, Paraguay's got more statutes of Hayes than his own home nation.

As such, I'm leaning towards marking Hayes as an Active-Positive President.  He was rather reform-minded in a Republican Party that was at its' most corrupt period.  He pushed for civil service reform at a time the Republicans wanted to squeeze more of a Spoils System.  He fired a major cog in the political machine in Chester A. Arthur, who was serving at the time as Port Authority in New York, a key patronage office.

Hayes fought against the soft money policy of creating silver as coinage during a major depression, arguing for a compromise deal that ended up with few silver coins produced but creating an environment allowing for the economy to recover.  He made a stand against the rising anti-immigrant (anti-Chinese) sentiment of the day, vetoing harsh anti-immigrant legislation and working towards well-meaning treaties to smooth out the issues.  Hayes did his best to deal peacefully with the Native tribes out west, refusing to let the army take control of the Indian Bureau, fighting corruption in the system, and siding with tribes in court cases to reclaim stolen lands.

If Hayes had a major failure in office, it was killing off the Reconstruction era in the South.  Without the military or political support from up north, the Republican (and pro-Black) governments of the Deep South states withered and died.  "Redeemer" Democratic control swiftly overran every ex-Confederate state (and even the pro-Union border states as well) and introduced segregated policies, denying Blacks the right to vote and removing as many economic and education rights as they legally could.  Hayes had no political support, even from congressional Republicans: his sincere efforts to try and bring southern Democrats into a pro-civil-rights mindset by getting some into key federal offices were for naught.  And the nation got stuck with 100 years of Jim Crow and another 40 years and counting of fights to get our nation past such race hatred.

Of the One-Term Presidents, Hayes did the best he could under trying circumstances.  But it was a corrupt deal that got him - a genuinely honest man, a teetotaler to boot - into office and he was still coping with a corrupt party that wouldn't take heed.  It would take something more than an Active-Positive President to fix the problems of the age.

Next week: It would have to take a tragedy.

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