'America's Most Corrupt Election'

Category:  News
Wednesday, March 4th, 2020 at 10:14 PM

In the fourth installment of the Jefferson Educational Society lecture series, Executive Director of the Erie County Historical Society George Deutsch discussed “America’s Most Corrupt Presidential Election.”

Deutsch began by setting the stage for the 1876 election, which took place between democrat Samuel J. Tilden and republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

“This presentation will focus on the election of 1876, and here are the two gentlemen who ran. Rutherford B. Hayes on the left as a republican and two-time governor of Ohio, as well as a congressman for the state and a general in the Civil War. [He was] generally known as hardworking, prayerful and a teetotaler. He was unspectacular, but an effective governor of Ohio,” said Deutsch.

He continued: “His opponent was governor of New York, originally associated with Boston’s Tammany Hall…he broke with the machine and was elected governor. Everyone who came in contact with him recognized him as a brilliant mind, however, he was very isolated. He was a bachelor, and it was said that his penetrating intellect made even his friends uncomfortable. He was constantly ill — or so he thought. Certainly, a hypochondriac. There was one point where he literally went to the doctor with a new ailment every day. Tilden did not serve in the war and he made millions of dollars in railroad and iron money holdings during the war. He was certainly a kingpin.”

Deutsch then transitioned into speaking about the tactics that each side used to defame the other.

“On Tilden’s side, they accused Hayes of corruption, of stealing money from union funds during the war, and they alleged that Hayes sanctioned the killing of blacks who were signing up to vote, or attempting to vote. The more outrageous claims were that Hayes shot his own mother in a drunken rage. [It was] something that was untrue, because after winning the election Hayes and his wife were such strict teetotalers that they would serve water, not wine at state dinners — something which enraged the diplomatic core,” he explained.

Continuing with Hayes’ attacks on Tilden, Deutsch said: “Hayes tried to run as a reformer, because the republicans had been so marred by corruption. So, they came up with a 20-point plan for reforming the party...Hayes claims that Tilden has numerous affairs, many of them with married women. Furthermore, they claimed that Tilden had contracted syphilis from an Irish whore in the bowery — something that impacted his mental functioning. They said that these activities left him open to blackmailing. When Tilden died, no autopsy evidence was collected showing that he had ever had syphilis.”

Deutsch noted that these tactics make more recent political races seem clean in comparison.

“It was a draining campaign. You think that Trump creates a lot of ruckus, but this campaign was just downright nasty,” he said. “Tilden created the first [of] what was called the newspaper popularity bureau, which had the sole purpose of manufacturing an image of Tilden which was the polar opposite of who he was as a person. His campaign also established the literacy bureau, which published a 750-page book full of accusations and assumptions about the Hayes campaign.”

Republican Rutherford B. Hayes emerged victorious in this race.

The Hayes versus Tilden battle is one of five presidential elections in U.S. history where the candidate that won the popular vote did not become president because the opposing candidate had more electoral votes.

However, according to Deutsch, the election of 1876 is the most controversial of these all, because it steered the course of American history in a new direction by effectively electing a president who ended reconstruction.

The Jefferson Educational Society will be back in Edinboro on March 10 with a lecture by Dr. Andy Roth, titled “American Tapestry: The Stories We Tell Ourselves.”

The lecture will take place at the William P. Alexander Music Center at 6 p.m.

George Deutsch can be contacted at geodeutsch@aol.com with any questions or concerns.

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