Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 by Adam Fairclough. Louisiana State University Press, 2021. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0807175590. $45.00.
The election of 1876 generated enormous controversy. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, despite losing the popular vote, won the presidency by one electoral vote over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Hayes’s victory hinged on winning disputed electoral votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida—the final three southern states still under Republican control in 1876—and one disputed electoral vote in Oregon. A series of eight-to-seven decisions by the Electoral Commission awarded all the disputed votes to Hayes. Furious Democrats threatened to derail Hayes’s inauguration. Backroom maneuvering by Hayes loyalists and southern Democrats at Washington, D.C.’s Wormley House hammered out the Compromise of 1877. Hayes would be inaugurated, but he would then withdraw support for Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana, name a southerner to his cabinet, and pass a bill providing a subsidy to the Texas and Pacific Railway Company. Multiple Congressional committees investigated the election and “produced a mountain of evidence, published in a score of volumes, that made the Hayes-Tilden campaign and its aftermath the most closely examined and thoroughly investigated election in the history of the United States” (2).
Adam Fairclough, professor emeritus of American history at Leiden University, reveals that some people in 1878 believed another investigation was necessary. On May 13, 1878, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives ordered an investigation of the election. The Potter Committee, chaired by Clarkson N. Potter of New York, spent nine months gathering evidence, examining witnesses, and writing reports.
Why did the House revive the controversy over the election by establishing the Potter Committee? For one, many Democrats itched to expose Republican misbehavior during the election. U.S. Senator John Sherman of Ohio, some people believed, encouraged Republican election officials James E. Anderson and Don A. Weber to falsely swear that Democrats carried East and West Feliciana Parishes by force. Their testimony gave the Louisiana Returning Board justification for excluding the votes from these parishes. Anderson charged Sherman with having written a letter to Anderson and Weber guaranteeing them jobs if Hayes won the election. The Potter Committee, Fairclough observes, “expended a good deal of time in a futile effort to track down this document” (3). In addition, Democrats were “bent on a mission of political harassment” in order to help “pave the way for another presidential run by Tilden in 1880” (3). Finally, some Republicans grew disgusted with Hayes and his southern policy. Once ensconced in the White House, due to the bargaining that took place at the Wormley House, Hayes created a southern policy that was simultaneously duplicitous and naïve. Hayes trusted southern Democrats to keep their promises not to prosecute or persecute white and Black Republicans. These promises turned out to be utterly worthless. Hayes abandoned and betrayed the people in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida that helped win him the presidency. One former Republican officeholder in Louisiana, for example, mocked Hayes’s “pathetic weep over the poor colored man whose votes he now forgets he got” (74). Other Republicans clamored for an investigation because of their revulsion over Hayes’s “catastrophic” Southern policy (62).
The investigation proceeded along two tracks. First, Democrats sought to prove that Republicans had stolen the presidency from Tilden. Fairclough begins with a thorough overview of how Democrats stole the election of 1876 in Louisiana through rampant violence and coercion (bulldozing). Democrats could not disprove Republican accusations of bulldozing and they attempted to emphasize Republican fraud and misbehavior. Anderson, who felt he had not been appropriately rewarded, began to make noises about having been bribed by Sherman. Republican U.S. Senator William E. Chandler detested Hayes’s southern policy and listened sympathetically to Anderson’s claims. However, Anderson could not produce the infamous Sherman letter. Furthermore, Anderson was hardly credible. He attempted to convince Chandler that Weber “was shot by John Sherman’s orders” (72).
Anderson was the first witness to testify before the committee and Democrats eagerly anticipated his testimony. Anderson submitted his copy of the Sherman letter, and Sherman appeared before the committee to either confirm or deny that he had written it. After examining the letter, Sherman stated, simply “I do not believe I ever wrote that letter” (104). Sherman’s equivocal language led people to suspect that he was hedging his bets. Nevertheless, Fairclough sardonically observes, “it did not take an Inspector Dupin” to see “the weaknesses and contradictions in Anderson’s testimony” (105). Ben Butler saw no value in Anderson’s copy of the letter. “This copy was made by reading from a copy, which was made by reading from a copy, which was made by reading from the supposed original” (106). One newspaper sneered that Anderson was a “drunken ‘dead-beat’ whose unsupported testimony amounted to ‘worthless rubbish’” (110-111).
Agnes Jenks, a witness called by Republicans, created a media sensation. Jenks “displayed extensive knowledge of politics, a male domain, and conducted herself ‘with most irritating self-possession.’ Her theatrical manner and quick repartee had the audience ‘convulsed with laughter’” (144). Jenks, in other words, gave a bravura performance by, alternatively, bluffing, bamboozling, lying, shading the truth, and mocking committee members. When a member of the committee asked her what she discussed in her meeting with Governor-elect Stephen B. Packard, she commented, “we had consultations about the Eastern Question.” Her interlocutor seemed stunned: “About the Turkish question?” “Yes, sir,” replied Jenks (148). Jenks also needled Butler, at one point suggesting that Butler should pause for a moment to compose himself. Her “dazzling performance,” Fairclough correctly notes, “could not disguise the fact that much of her testimony challenged credulity” (151).
While Jenks became a sensation, most of the witnesses suffered damage to their reputations or worse. James E. Leet, a former Republican journalist, felt, like Anderson, that he had not been adequately rewarded. Butler and another member of the committee demolished Leet’s testimony. Leet then suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in his admission to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. When former Governor Henry Clay Warmoth of Louisiana visited Leet, Leet did not recognize him and asked Warmoth “are you a preacher, a conspirator, or an assassin, or what?” (171).
In the second line of investigation, Butler attempted to unravel what really happened at the Wormley House. Like other Radical Republicans, Butler had quickly grown disgusted about Hayes’s betrayal of Black and white Southern Republicans. Although still a Republican, Butler was in the process of leaving the party. Potter, sensing an opportunity “gave Butler free rein to probe the ‘corrupt bargain’ that incensed so many Republicans and die-hard Tildenites” (171). As Fairclough comments, “Republicans who took part in the Wormley House meeting maintained a nervous silence, conscious of the fact that their role in counting in Hayes and betraying Packard would not bear close scrutiny” (175). Butler’s line of inquiry failed in the sense that he never located a piece of paper that “spelled out the details of the Wormley House agreement” (195). However, Butler succeeded in discovering documents and eliciting testimony that “went a long way toward illuminating the whole murky business” (195). Fairclough correctly reminds readers of the astonishing and extraordinary nature of the promise Hayes made to southern Democrats to end military intervention: “No incoming president, with the exception of Hayes, has promised the opposition party to carry out a policy so abhorrent to their own partisans, and so contradictory to the platform on which they campaigned, that the pledge must be given in secret” (193).
The Potter Committee was intended to embarrass Hayes and strengthen Tilden. However, in one of the more ironic turns in this story, the committee ultimately backfired. The reason this occurred was because the New York Tribune translated and published cipher dispatches that revealed that Tilden’s nephew, William T. Pelton, attempted to buy electors and bribe returning boards. Indeed, the fact that Pelton’s “Florida and South Carolina plots failed owed everything to divided counsels, garbled messages, and lack of time—it was not for want of trying” (203). Almost at the same moment, Anderson recanted his testimony. Potter and others despaired because the case against Sherman and Hayes fell apart, Republicans seized the fraud issues to scourge Tilden and Pelton, and Potter was forced to investigate Tilden! Tilden testified before a subcommittee, although, like Sherman, he was a skilled lawyer and avoided perjury. The committee submitted three reports on March 3, 1879: a majority report written by Potter, accusing Republicans of having stolen the election; a minority report by three of the committee’s four Republicans, focusing on Democratic fraud; and a report by Butler that offered “remarkably evenhanded analysis” (241). Butler dismissed the Sherman letter as a fiction, asserted that Packard had a stronger claim to the Louisiana governorship than Hayes did to the presidency, and argued that, if a fair election had taken place, Republicans would have easily won. In the end, the reports generated “little surprise and relatively little comment” (246).
“After compiling 3,000 pages of testimony from dozens of witnesses,” Fairclough concludes, “none of the three reports generated by the Potter Committee could provide definitive answers to two key questions. Did John Sherman write the ‘Sherman letter’? Did Samuel J. Tilden attempt to buy the presidency?” (249). Sherman likely did not write the letter. Tilden probably knew about Pelton’s shady dealings. However, neither point can be conclusively proven or disproven. The Potter Committee’s investigation had “elements of farce or opéra bouffe” (261), but it nevertheless illuminated the rot at the heart of the spoils system, highlighted myriad evidence of Democratic bulldozing (despite their best efforts, Democratic members of the committee could not refute these charges), and showcased skullduggery by both parties. The testimony of many southerners, Black and white, reinforced how Hayes had “abandoned and betrayed them—the very people who had risked their lives to put him in the White House” (262).
This is an absolutely marvelous book. Fairclough skillfully guides readers through numerous twists and turns, outsized personalities, and charges and counter-charges of fraud, conspiracy, and skullduggery. He makes important contributions to the historical literature about one of the most controversial elections in U.S. history and about the U.S. after the Compromise of 1877. The contemporary relevance of the material in this book is striking, particularly as Congress investigates the failed coup d’état on January 6, 2021. It is impossible not to be captivated by this well-researched and splendidly written book. Bulldozed and Betrayed will appeal to both scholarly and general audiences and it deserves a wide readership.
Evan C. Rothera is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.