[To say that this year’s midterm elections are significant is, I believe, to significantly understate the case. But crucial as they are, they won’t be the first such significant midterms, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five other major midterms, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results. And oh yeah: vote!]
On extending our concept of historical turning points, but also resisting ideas of inevitability.
I’ve written both here and elsewhere about our tendency to focus too much on presidents to narrate our eras and histories, and there’s a corollary and complementary trend (one I’m as frequently guilty of as anyone, to be clear) of focusing on presidential elections as singular and key historical moments and turning points. A particularly clear case in point would be the hugely contested and controversial presidential election of 1876, the eventual results of which, as I’ve written before in this space, seem to have directly produced one of the most significant turning points in the nation’s history: newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes’s 1877 decision to end Federal Reconstruction throughout the South. Whether Hayes did so as a direct result of a “crooked bargain” to secure the presidency remains a point of contention among historians and perhaps always will; but even if he did not, there’s no doubt that ending Reconstruction was one of his first actions as president, and thus that this particular moment reinforces the broader narrative that it is presidential elections which especially represent and contribute to historical turning points.
But while it was Hayes who made that particular 1877 call to end Federal Reconstruction, there was of course a long, complex series of moments and events that led up to that tragic decision. Any such list would have to include many of Andrew Johnson’s white supremacist actions as president and many of the racist laws and racially motivated massacres with which the white South so thoroughly resisted Reconstruction. But alongside such longstanding historical trends we could also locate the contested and influential 1874 midterm elections as a direct predecessor to 1876’s electoral result. Due in part to those broader Reconstruction-era trends (which among other things greatly limited African American voting throughout the South), and in part to a number of other factors (the Panic of 1873, the Grant Administration’s many prominent scandals), Congressional Republicans lost 93 seats and their majority in the House of Representatives (the second-largest swing in House history), with Southern Democrats in particular dominating the elections at every level. Congressional Republicans’ abilities to work with Grant and help advance Reconstruction’s goals were severely curtailed, and the stage was set for 1876’s contested results and their tragic aftermaths.
Or was it? Another historical move we tend to make a bit too quickly (and again, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone) is to read back from what we know happened into prior events that can thus seem to foreshadow those future trends. Certainly it’s fair and important to think about the relationship between different moments and events, and it seems clear that the 1874 election results reflected some shifting regional, national, and political realities that continued to influence subsequent events such as (especially) the 1876 presidential election. But of course a great deal can happen over the two years between national elections, and it would be both inaccurate and highly dangerous to suggest that 1874 led in any direct way to 1876. Highly dangerous, that is, because it might lead to inaction or apathy in the aftermath of a midterm election that doesn’t go as we hope, rather than a renewed commitment to the battle ahead of the next elections (and everything else still to come). I’m writing this post well before yesterday’s midterms, so I don’t know whether that bleak possibility will have turned out to be a reality—but I know that no matter what, we can and should learn from historical moments but never treat them as necessarily or inevitably predictive of what follows.
Next midterm tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other elections or contexts you’d highlight?
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