Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
An oft touted benefit of the U.S Constitution is that it provides stability. It is somewhat ironic, then, that for every Constitutional crisis there seems to be a precedent. Admittedly, it is probably a strength that the system can periodically flirt with disaster and survive. If I were to describe a contested election, a recent impeachment, threats of a violent march on Washington and both Republican and Democrats claiming victory into January despite a clear popular vote winner, which year would I be referring to? It could be 2020/1. It could be 2000/1. It is, in fact, 1876/7.
In the 1876 election, presidential assassination and most of all the legacy of the Civil War still loomed large. The Republican Party, then the party of Radical Reconstruction, Grant and Lincoln, nominated Rutherford B. Hayes. The Democrats, who had last won an election in 1856 and whose last President (Andrew Johnson) had survived impeachment by one vote, were the party of the South- despite nominating New Yorker Samuel Tilden. Tilden won the popular vote by 3% (a higher margin than Hillary Clinton in 2016). He even won a majority, not just a plurality of votes. But he didn’t win the White House.
185 Electoral College votes were needed to take the Presidency. With four states left to declare, Tilden sat on 184. However, unlike this year, electoral fraud was widespread. South Carolina, for instance, reported 101% of eligible voters had voted. To aid illiterate voters, Parties would stamp symbols on the ballots; Democrats stamped the image of Lincoln next to Tilden’s name to trick would-be Republicans. Both Parties claimed victory.
If it is reassuring to think that America has survived (to be blunt) being more screwed than it is now, it is also informative to learn from the mistakes of how the election was resolved. To this day, the exact state results are unknown. What is known is that Hayes defeated Tilden by 185-184. Why? Because the Democrats got what they wanted.
To avoid a filibuster at the ratification process (the very process that was stormed this year), an informal compromise was reached. In exchange for Hayes taking the Presidency, Republicans would make concessions. Not only would the remaining federal troops overseeing the implementation of the Reconstruction Amendments be withdrawn from the South, but a blank cheque was issued- do whatever you please with your African-American population.
The Compromise of 1877 ushered in a new era; that of Jim Crow Segregation, Lynching and Disenfranchisement. Black turnout plummeted in the face of horrific violence and insidious laws designed to cut them out. The same racist statues toppled in the summer were those erected after the Compromise. When Mississippi Senator Blanche Bruce left office in 1881, there would be no southern black Senator until Tim Scott in 2013.
What does this teach us? Well, that unity is overrated. The Civil War was about ending Slavery, but ending Slavery was not about ending Black submission. The aftermath of the Compromise sacrificed true emancipation at the altar of ephemeral Unity and set the African-American cause in America back 100 years.
Unity has become a rallying cry for some Republicans today. Leaving aside this irony, now is a chance for progress, for stimulus, for levelling-up America and for change. Biden’s huge aid package and upcoming executive orders are a step in the right direction. There will be disagreements, but with concrete progress comes something more lasting than unity: consensus. Controversial policies like the New Deal, Medicare and Medicaid became accepted– but because they worked, not because they represented ‘Unity’.
America has survived worse political messes. There is no guarantee it will do so again; but, by ignoring self-serving calls for ‘Unity’ and by focusing on improving the lives of Americans, a Biden built consensus could make America recover again.