"Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876." By Roy Morris Jr. Simon & Schuster, 311 Pages. $27.
"History repeats itself" could easily come to mind for the reader of "Fraud of the Century."
In his compelling book, Roy Morris Jr. offers a vivid backstage look into a stolen election, that of a Republican president made possible though bribery, intimidation, back-room dealmaking and one conservative Supreme Court justice - an election whose outcome was contrary to the popular vote.
Morris, a skilled political reporter and historian, frequently mentions that this might sound like a reference to the 2000 presidential election, which was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision. And indeed, the similarities of the 1876 presidential election between Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, R-Ohio, and Gov. Samuel Tilden, D-N.Y. to Bush vs. Gore in 2000 are extraordinary.
No unsuccessful presidential candidate ever came as close to winning as Tilden, writes Morris. Hayes was not voted in by the will of the people but was placed into office through other means.
These included fraud by vote-counters (primarily in Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina); the mysterious removal of thousands of Southern Democrats from the voting rolls; vote-selling; and bribery.
Add to these a contrived and unprecedented Electoral Commission, consisting of five senators, five representatives and five Supreme Court justices, assembled to unlock the stalemate that lasted almost four months beyond Election Day.
The election was in many ways the last battle of the Civil War, writes Morris. President Grant, no stranger to scandal, stepped into the fray by demonstrating his readiness to forcefully confront any rebelliousness by Southern Democrats. Few dissenters doubted the notorious war general's ability to follow through on such threats.
Morris argues that the damage from the 1876 election had long-reaching effects. Hayes, often called "His Fraudulency," "Rutherfraud" and "Old Eight to Seven" (the commission's final vote), completed a relatively lame-duck term, one particularly rife with consequences in a country reeling from slavery and Civil War.
The Republican Party, already suffering from a scandalous Grant administration, was further damaged, writes Morris. Hayes, in his postelection efforts to secure the presidency, probably had to cut deals regarding hot issues such as Southern Reconstruction, resulting in the emergence of a fundamentally different Republican Party.
"The dismantling of Reconstruction, and the consequent political and social disempowerment of the region's sizable black minority, set the stage for nearly a century of de facto and legalized segregation, culminating in the notorious Jim Crow laws of the early 1900s that formalized the social, political, and economic marginalization of southern blacks begun in earnest three decades earlier."
Morris concedes that it's hard to speculate how different things might have been with Tilden in office. Tilden might have taken even less care with Southern affairs. However, the one thing Tilden would have enjoyed is the "perceived legitimacy of his claim." An embattled country's desire for reform, writes Morris, might have been sooner met with a presidency less compromised from the start.
Morris' sharply detailed journalistic style keeps the story from becoming one-sided. He examines the pieces of the debacle carefully and is slow to condemn. The result is a compelling investigation of America's centennial election, a bitter election that somehow seems so recent.