Stop me if you've heard this one: election night comes and goes and the race between two American presidential candidates is too close to call. The popular vote supports the reticent Democrat, but the well-connected Republican is named president after a lengthy and controversial fight over recounts and electoral votes. Of course, we're speaking of the 1876 contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden as chronicled in Fraud of the Century
by historian Roy Morris Jr. Morris spends much of the book setting the stage by illuminating the characters of both the folksy Hayes from Ohio and the urbane New Yorker Tilden. Though quite different, both men are presented as principled and, ironically enough, committed to wiping out corruption and chicanery. This helps the reader understand the players when the post-election mayhem ensues. The Electoral College is unable to declare a winner after Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida submit multiple "official" ballots with different victorious candidates. Numerous shady deals are worked out to Hayes's favor while forces loyal to Tilden threaten to march on Washington and install their man by force, if necessary. The most damaging result of the mess, according to Morris, is the pervasive mood of distrust and acrimony on the part of Congress, a mood that would contribute to the South's notorious Jim Crow laws. History buffs will appreciate Morris's extensive research but everyone enjoys a good political thriller. --John Moe
From Publishers Weekly
For those who think the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 represented the nadir of American electoral politics, Morris (The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War) provides some muchneeded historical perspective. In 1876, New York Democrat Samuel Tilden almost certainly won the popular vote over Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. But contested returns in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, as well as a legal issue in Oregon, eventually led to a 15-member congressional commission awarding Hayes all 20 contested electoral votes, giving him an improbable one-vote victory in the Electoral College. Well researched and written in clear prose, Morris's account details the stunning sequence of political dirty tricks-including overturning Tilden's nearly 8,000-vote lead in Louisiana-as well as the personalities that conspired to steal the election from Tilden. Although he maintains the decency of both candidates, Morris revives the political legacy of Tilden, portrayed here as a courageous and principled politician who stood up to the corruption of New York's Tammany Hall. Tilden chose to concede the election rather than drag the nation down a dangerous path. "It was an act of supreme patriotism," Morris concludes, "for a man who had won, if not the presidency, at least the election." In sharp contrast to the contested election of 2000, dominated by hanging chads and confusing ballots, Morris's account of the 1876 election reminds us that character can triumph over politics.
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