In those days of peace and prosperity, America was, in the words of one observer, “a hotbed of rest.” But what, I kept wondering, if we were in a different climate? What if the United States had been divided by an unpopular war, or by intense racial and cultural divisions? What if great numbers of Americans were prepared–literally–to take up arms if Gore or Bush had emerged the victor?

Is such a scenario unimaginable? The fact is, it happened–not in 2000, but in 1876, when New York Gov. Samuel Tilden, the Democratic nominee, went to bed on Election Night with a solid 250,000 plurality over Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, only to see Hayes win the White House after a two-month battle where bribery, blackmail, extortion, voter fraud, and murder were freely employed by partisans of both candidates. It may seem like the stuff of fiction–in fact, Gore Vidal’s novel 1876 puts the contest at the center of its plot–but the real story, set down by author and onetime political correspondent Roy Morris Jr., has enough drama, melodrama, farce, and tragedy to power a dozen such books. Morris’s blend of research, narrative skill, and historical perspective renders Fraud of the Century a compelling tale for anyone even remotely interested in American political history.

Morris begins with a brisk account of how the election came to be contested in the first place. While Hayes himself and most of his supporters believed that Tilden had won–the pro-Republican Chicago Tribune headline read: “Lost. The Country Given Over to Democratic Greed and Plunder”–a trio of Hayes supporters began to stoke the fires of resistance that night. (One of them was a New York Times editor named John C. Reid.) With telegrams sent to Republicans in key states, and with newspaper headlines proclaiming “A Doubtful Election,” they enabled Republicans to argue that in three Southern states–South Carolina, Louisiana, and (historical precedent alert!) Florida, Hayes had in fact been the victor, which would have given him a one-vote electoral majority and thus the presidency.

Morris then steps back and provides the historical backdrop for the emerging post-election contest. In its centennial year, the United States was a nation still wounded by the Civil War that had ended barely a decade earlier. Republicans had held the White House for 16 years, in part by stoking resentment against the Democrats for being the party of rebellion. “Vote as you shot,” the slogan went, and Republicans encouraged each other to “wave the bloody shirt.” (This was no metaphor–in 1868, GOP Rep. Benjamin Butler took to the House floor to display the bloody shirt of an IRS tax collector who had been whipped by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.) But the corruption that had flourished under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant–corruption blatant enough to make an Enron executive blush with shame or envy–had given Democrats real hope that they could take the White House back.

Their candidate, Samuel Tilden, seemed the perfect choice. A civic leader, as well as a lawyer whose railroad work brought him enormous personal wealth, Tilden had taken on the notorious Tweed Ring that dominated New York City politics and had ridden that achievement into the New York governor’s mansion in 1874. Two years later, under the battle cry “Tilden and Reform,” he had become the consensus presidential choice of his party. (Well, not entirely: One Tweed loyalist, Honest John Kelly, repeatedly interrupted convention proceedings to denounce Tilden.) But, Morris notes, there was a weakness to Tilden that went beyond his physical frailty and congenital hypochondria. He was more cerebral than visceral, a man who believed in process and following the rules. In the post-election war that would be waged for the presidency, Tilden lacked the gifts of decisive command.

“His appeal was intellectual, not personal, and his tendency to aloof self-containment would cause him to be strangely passive at the most inopportune time–when the presidency itself was hanging in the balance,” Morris writes. (Al Gore historical allusion, anyone?)

By contrast, Rutherford B. Hayes was a man with an instinct for battle; an instinct revealed by a remarkable record of Civil War heroism–he was wounded four times during the war, and repeatedly escaped death by the narrowest of margins. He went from the battlefield to Congress to the Ohio governor’s mansion, and won the presidential nomination because the front-runner, Maine’s James G. Blaine, was too burdened by charges of corruption to be an effective candidate. (One of the many diverting accounts in the book is the story of Blaine taking to the floor of the House to read highly distorted excerpts from letters that in fact proved his corruption–thus anticipating President Nixon’s bowdlerized tape excerpts by nearly a century.)

Morris’s account of the election itself takes up much of the book, but it is a story critical to understanding what happened after the votes were cast. In several Southern states, the clashes went far beyond peaceful politics. Black Republicans, who held power thanks to Reconstruction laws and the presence of federal troops, fought sometimes murderous battles with whites. Charges of intimidation and violence were exchanged across lines of race and party. These charges set the stage for what would happen after the election, when Republican-controlled election boards in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana essentially took the most serious GOP charges at face value and threw out enough Democratic votes to swing the states to Hayes–some 13,000 of them in Louisiana, where the officials in charge of the vote count had themselves committed enough crimes to fill a season’s worth of “America’s Most Wanted.”

The scene then shifted to Washington, and a divided Congress–the House was held by Democrats, the Senate by Republicans. Tilden’s hope was that the votes of the three Southern states would simply be set aside, throwing the election into the House. Instead–to his dismay–Congress slapped together a 15-man Electoral Commission, with five House members, five Senate members, and five Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court–two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent. But, in a last-minute twist no screenwriter would dare concoct, David Davis, the independent justice, was elected senator from Illinois, and promptly resigned–to be replaced by a loyal Republican justice who cast every vote along party lines. The Electoral Commission gave every contested electoral vote to Hayes. Tilden, who had resisted his followers’ urgings to dispatch supporters to Washington, or to contest the process in the streets–“Tilden or Blood!” went the cry–chose not to plunge the country into chaos.

“We have just emerged from one Civil War,” he said. “It will never do to engage in another; it would end in the destruction of free government.”

In fact, the cost of Hayes’s victory was dear. While Morris notes that the country had wearied of Reconstruction before the election, Hayes’s triumph–due in some part to the willingness of Southern Democrats to accept it in return for a lighter federal hand–led “to the infamous Jim Crow laws that officially sanctioned the social and political disenfranchisement of millions of Southern blacks.” Whether a reform-minded Tilden, taking office without the cloud of fraud that hung over Hayes, could or would have changed this bleak history is one of those tantalizing “what-ifs.” As for Hayes–dubbed “His Fraudulency” by his opponents–he had already pledged not to seek a second term before the votes were counted, although his administration was successful enough that one Democratic partisan quipped, “he has done so well that I sometimes almost wish he had been elected.”

The one story Morris does not tell is what Congress tried to do to ensure that there would never be another “stolen election.” In 1887, it passed the “Electoral Tally Act,” which tried to push the final authority over the votes back to the states. Had the Supreme Court in 2000 not stopped the Florida recount, we might well have been treated to a textbook case of The Law of Unintended Consequences–with the Florida legislature asserting its power to award the electoral votes to Bush, a state Supreme Court ordering the votes awarded to Gore, and two competing slates of electors heading toward an evenly divided Congress as the Inaugural date drew ever closer.

Jeff Greenfield is a CNN senior analyst. His books include The People’s Choice and Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! Inside the Strangest Presidential Election Finish in American History.

Jeff Greenfield is a CNN senior analyst. His books include The People’s Choice and Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! Inside the Strangest Presidential Election Finish in American History.

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