SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – The American tradition of a peaceful transition of power has not gone smoothly in all circumstances. There have been some violent bumps along the way that were met with inventive solutions. The biggest bump happened in 1876, and this election has been cited by the Trump administration today.
When it comes to our process, Ken Ivory a former Utah State Legislator, and Adjunct Professor at UVU says, “we know the nature of power, we know the consolidating nature of power, we know the abusive and tyrannical tendency of power, we devised a system, where an individual’s political voice can be amplified across a diverse nation.”
From the outset, it looked like President Trump gave a speech that riled supporters with his allegations about election fraud, then with impassioned rage, they temporarily occupied the Capitol building. Five people lost their lives.
But President Trump is not the only U.S. president to be associated with political violence. In 1870 another political fight started to brew during the reconstruction. Culminating in an election in 1876 that would change how Americans selected a President.
In 1870 Ulysses S. Grant was president. He was in his first term of office holding a grudge that he was not given the same level of recognition of his Civil War service as other generals. The United States was in a period called the reconstruction…and it was not going as planned.
The Federal military was occupying the South trying to enforce new idealistic laws. At the same time, Southern loyalists were trying to subvert the process.
Professor Frederick Gedicks, holder of the Guy Anderson chair at BYU law school says about the incident:, “The country, Northern white elites, and Northern whites generally grew tired of the expense, (of reconstruction) and the difficulty at the same time the Republicans began to lose political power.”
They lost control of the house. At the time, the Republicans were championing the reconstruction and integrating newly freed slaves into our country.
By 1876, Grant was finishing his second term. The country was separated in its ideals, and his administration was plagued by corruption. He was not a viable candidate for a third term.
Two candidates whose bitter election battle changed everything stepped onto the stage, Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden.
Professor Gedicks says, “It was clear it was going to be a watershed election. There was serious election day violence throughout the South. The KKK and the Redeemers had risen and tried to intimidate newly freed slaves, African Americans, and white Republicans in the south to stop them from voting. There was also fraud in the other direction.”
The election had no heroes, with both sides doing heinous things to try and win. The election was the most bitter the country had seen to date. Not from the candidates themselves, but how their organizations acted and portrayed the other candidate.
In their version of attack ads, Tilden’s opponents made him out to be a drunk who planned to pay off Confederate debts. Hayes’ opponents said he was a thief stealing from his military colleagues during the war.
When it came time to vote, things got worse; both sides committed fraud. Republicans stuffed ballot boxes, let people vote twice and threw away Democratic votes. Democrats threatened Black voters to try and keep them away from the polls.
It emerged there were disputed slates of electors in 3 states. Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Both parties said they won. Both parties said the other was committing election fraud.
The situation was not unlike what we have seen with legislative supporters of President Trump calling for action. Democrats called for a “peaceful army of 100,000 men” to March on Washington if Tilden was not declared the winner.
Oregon, also feeling the political malaise, sent two certificates for the electoral vote, 1 for Hayes, and 1 for Tilden.
“Congress deadlocked, The Senate and House controlled by different parties, and there was no way, Congress and that point could not see a way to resolve the election,” says Gedicks. “They created a Presidential Election Commission, composed of 5 Senators, 5 members of the house and 5 Supreme Court Justices.”
With the commission sticking to party lines Hayes got the victory by 1 electoral vote – people were enraged. He had lost the popular vote.
The country now faced the possibility of a new Civil War.
A backroom deal with secret meetings was made three days before the inauguration. Rutherford B. Hayes promised he would pull the troops from the South and end reconstruction.
How Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in is also questioned, some say he was sworn in during a secret ceremony due to threats against his life.
But according to History.com: “Other accounts say that since inaugural day fell on a Sunday, Congress decided to perform a private ceremony the Saturday before the official inauguration date and repeat the performance in public the following Monday.”
For the century old United States it was a “horrific political experience,” says Gedicks.
Democracy has never been easy
The truth is, our democracy, via a representational republic, has never been easy. It has been a struggle for the entire time the United States has existed.
Our process doesn’t always work as intended. People fight tooth and nail over the outcomes and have for the 244 years of our country’s history.
The Presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is more familiar for the U.S. than you might think. Still, because of the last century’s outward civility, Americans were caught off guard by the violence over the election results.
“I can’t think of a single President in my lifetime, not even President Nixon with all the criminal activity that surrounded Watergate, that would react to violence at the moment in that way, to say it’s disappointing is simply inadequate, it’s just unbelievable,” says Gedicks.
The Electoral Count Act was established in 1887 to keep Congress out of the election as much as possible. It is important to note that Vice-President Mike Pence followed this procedure to the letter, despite President Trump’s turmoil and threats of violence from the President’s supporters.
Ken Ivory says that in the Declaration of Independence we set forth the “Pursuit of Happiness” as part of the national vision statement. “We were going to create a new kind of nation for the greatest number of people the pursuit of happiness,” he says.
“We created a form of Government to make that happen. Watching that were the people in the building themselves happy? Was anyone watching it happy? Were the members of Congress, anyone? No, That does not look like the pursuit of happiness to me.”
Ivory continues, “It looked like Rampant frustration, unbridled frustration. angst, anger, antipathy, that is not the vision, purpose, and direction America set out for, we’re clearly off course.
“We can keep pointing fingers and taking jabs at one another, and try to lay blame, there’s enough blame to go around, hypocrisy thy name is legion, there’s enough hypocrisy to go around everywhere, but we did do something really unique in the United States, we did not rely on a savior, a white knight, we didn’t rely on a politician, we didn’t rely on policy, we relied on a structure, and that was unique in all the world, we’re going to rely on a structure,”
Despite the tests, our Democracy and the structure we rely on continue to hold.