[I don’t have high hopes for Tuesday’s elections, but I also know they’ll be far from the most complex or significant ones in American history in any case. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such exemplary elections and election years. I vote that you add your thoughts, on this year’s elections or any others!]
How an American Studies approach can help us better understand and analyze our most contested presidential election.
The 1876 presidential election was not only the most contested in American history—with the electors for four states remaining up for grabs for months after election day, leaving the nation with no newly elected president until January of 1877—but also, and for related reasons, one of our most overt historical turning points. Historians have in recent years worked to complicate narratives of the compromise—or “crooked bargain” as it had long been called—by which Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the electors of key Southern states and thus elected president over Samuel Tilden, but the fact remains that one of Hayes’ first official acts as president was to withdraw federal troops from the South, thus explicitly and dramatically ending Federal Reconstruction.
An interdisciplinary, American Studies analysis of the election wouldn’t entail eliding the complex political and historical complexities of the election, its aftermath, and the trajectory and conclusion of Federal Reconstruction. But it would, I believe, contextualize those details with other social and cultural histories, narratives and moments from earlier in the year that exemplify how much the election compromise reflected and solidified existing national trends. I opened my first book by highlighting one such cultural history, the striking shifts in advertisements for the Howard’s touring Tom Show; where February 1876 newspaper ads highlighted the show’s “vivid picture of life among the lowly” and “great moral drama,” three months later May ads described instead a “new version, in commemoration of the centennial,” one “adapted to the sentiment of the times” and featuring “old-time plantation melodies of pleasant memory.”
The Centennial Exposition itself (which opened in May in Philadelphia) further illustrated such cultural sentiments, both in its invitation to Confederate veteran and poet Sidney Lanier to write the opening ceremony’s “Centennial Cantata” and in its on-site “Southern Restaurant,” a culinary concession where “a band of old-time plantation ‘darkies’ [sung] their quaint melodies and strum[med] the banjo before the visitors from every clime.” And an American Studies analysis of these narratives could connect them to prominent 1876 literary works: from Mississippi lawyer James Lynch’s epic poem “Robert E. Lee, or Heroes of the South” which casts Lee as a staunch defender of the antebellum South and its slave society; to Lanier and his brother Clifford’s short tale and folk poem “Uncle Jim’s Baptist Revival Hymn,” in which “a certain Georgia cotton-planter” laments the grass’s “defiance of his lazy freedmen’s hoes and ploughs.”
Such cultural and literary trends don’t mean that the election’s results or effects were inevitable, nor that there weren’t competing, very distinct narratives about region, race, and history in the year and era. But engaging with them helps illuminate the moment and contexts in which the election took place, and helps us analyze how and why it unfolded as it did. Next exemplary election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other elections you'd highlight?
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