Wednesday, November 4, 2020
November 4, 2020: Pivotal Elections: 1876
[To say that the 2020 presidential election will be a pivotal one in American history is to significantly under-state the case. But while in some clear ways this moment feels singular, this is of course far from our only such crucial election. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of others, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results.]
On what really happened in 1876, and why that remains a vital lesson for 2020.
I’ve written quite a bit in this space about the controversial presidential election of 1876: thinking about AmericanStudies contexts for it; and connecting it to the 2016 election (which, obviously, ended up going even worse than that comparison would have suggested). I’ve also written about how we can see the seeds of that 1876 debacle in the significant gains won by Southern Democrats in the 1874 midterms. All of those posts have offered attempts to understand not just literally what took place in 1876 (and the compromise, or “crooked bargain” depending on whom you ask, that facilitated those results), but also and especially the broader national situation and moment for Rutherford B. Hayes’ installation as president.
But I’m ashamed to say that in all those posts and analyses, I don’t think I’ve ever said as overtly as I should have what really happened in 1876: the American political system entirely abandoned the African American community. More exactly, the Republican Party that had originated out of the 1850s abolitionist movement, fought a Civil War in order to achieve that goal, and (at least in its Radical Republican wing) worked to ensure that Reconstruction would help freed African Americans gain vital rights, turned its back on all those efforts and goals in order to get its candidate, Hayes, elected. Maybe Hayes didn’t directly trade the end of Reconstruction for the presidency (historians are torn on that question), but in any case his first main act as president was to end those policies. When The Nation editorialized not long after Hayes’ inauguration that “the negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him,” they weren’t just making a prediction—they were assessing, and to be clear were agreeing with, that national political abandonment of the African American community.
Playing the “what might have been” game is always fraught, but I think it’s fair to say that the rise of neo-Confederate, white supremacist national narratives over the last few decades of the 19th century (and well into the 20th century) would have gone very differently had this 1876 abandonment not taken place. There are a variety of lessons we can take away from those histories for our current moment, but I suppose the most overt has to be: political power should never be attained at the expense of our most vulnerable communities and fellow Americans. Winning elections is clearly an important political goal, literally never more so than here in 2020—but both the effort to do so and the victory itself have to be accompanied by continued, indeed amplified, battles on behalf of those vulnerable communities. If this moment is going to become a true turning point, a genuine step toward the more perfect union that was all too briefly imagined and then abandoned during Reconstruction, an electoral victory (necessary as it is) will have to be an integral part of that larger and more crucial progress.
Next election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other pivotal elections you’d highlight?