Here, for those unfamiliar with the tale, is the story. The year of 1876 was America’s centennial, and a presidential election year. There were two big issues in the race: one, how sick and tired everyone was of President Grant and his thieving Republican cronies; and two, how sick and tired everyone was of Reconstruction. The South didn’t want to be reconstructed anymore; in fact, large numbers of white southerners wanted what had been reconstructed to be deconstructed. The North, for its part, after decades of dealing with the South and its unruliness and its race problems, was nearly exhausted. “The truth is, our people are tired of this worn out cry of ‘Southern outrages,”’ wrote a Michigan Republican named Thomas Wilson. “Hard times and heavy taxes make them wish the ‘nigger,’ ‘everlasting nigger,’ were in ____ or Africa.”

At its convention in Cincinnati, the Republicans nominated the governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes. Although he had been a congressman and a Union general who’d suffered four wounds in battle, Hayes was not a well-known national figure when he started the campaign, and his candidacy was considered a long-shot. The favorite was the Speaker of the House, the charismatic James Blaine. Sadly for him, Blaine was laboring under a payoff scandal, and though the favorite in the early rounds, his momentum stalled. When the odious Simon Cameron, the political boss of Pennsylvania, offered to swing his delegation into Blaine’s column in exchange for the usual appointive payoffs, Blaine declined; it is less likely that he was pure of heart than that he thought he had other votes and miscounted. When he topped out, Hayes seized the day. In nominating Hayes, the Republicans chose a man with sterling credentials who nonetheless deserved to be described by Henry Adams as “a third-rate non-entity whose only recommendation is that he is obnoxious to no one”; it’s hard to see how this could happen, but in our own time, we have the example of George Herbert Walker Bush, a man of many titles and few accomplishments. Hayes, however, was a very astute politician. Whether it was early in his career, at this convention, or later in this campaign, Hayes could always spot his opportunities, and grab them.

Hayes’s opponent was Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York. Tilden was justly celebrated as a staunch opponent of corruption; he’s the man who managed to outmaneuver Boss Tweed, for example. He was smart, shrewd, but the bachelor Tilden was not what we would call a people person. “He’s as cold as a damn clam,” one anonymous politician told the New York Tribune.

The campaign was a fairly perfunctory affair, and in its waning days, both candidates assumed that Tilden would win. And in fact, he did amass 265,000 more votes than Hayes. But as any child can tell you, the most votes does not a winner make.

It was Hayes’s great, grand luck that on election night, one of the great scoundrels in American history strolled onto the scene. Daniel Sickles–the Tilden-hating ex-congressman and ex-ambassador, and the progenitor of the insanity defense, which he claimed to excuse his cold-blooded murder of his wife’s lover–wandered into a woebegone Republican headquarters in Manhattan, and began reviewing the election returns. What the gimlet-eyed Sickles spotted were three states–the three southern, Yankee-hating states of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana–that seemed to be in the Tilden column, but which were–if you looked at them right–at an angle–under a blue light–with your eyes kind of squinty–actually in play. And as Sickles pointed out, if those three states switched from Tilden to Hayes, the Buckeye would win. At that point, Republican party henchmen, with a zealousness that would make James Baker’s heart pump with pride–swept into the disputed states, and made sure they went for Hayes.

Much of this was accomplished through bribery. In Louisiana, for example, where a Tilden lead of something between 6300 and 8900 votes had to be disappeared, a thoroughly unscrupulous canvassing board all but attached sales tags to their collars, and Republican operatives happily ponied up.

The victory of the Hayes camp in this phase of the post-election elections was accomplished when all three states reported two sets of authorized returns to Washington. In the next phase, their triumph came in persuading the authorities to ratify the right results. There was a lot of maneuvering here, a lot of persuading people to use one precedent in one place and to forego it in another. Again it was accomplished through party favoritism and bribery.

While all this was going on, the cerebral Tilden was conducting himself with lawyerly aplomb, composing a magisterial brief explaining why the disputed votes were rightfully his. Meanwhile Hayes, the better politician, sent rhetorical signals to southern Democrats indicating that he was pretty darn sure that they could be counted upon to insure the rights of all their citizens without any bluecoats keeping watch. The southerners grasped that they wouldn’t need Tilden in order to meet their goals. In the end, a stacked commission set up to adjudicate the disputed returns gave all of them to Hayes. Thus was Grover Cleveland prevented from becoming the president with the funniest name.

Morris does a fine job describing all these shenanigans, although in the presence of such naked avarice and hypocrisy, one yearns a bit for the touch of a black humorist instead of an evenhanded historian. Morris’s tale is hobbled by the absence of a hero. There is some sympathy for Tilden as the ostensible winner who had his trophy stolen. But the fact is that one of his stronghold’s was the south, where his allies were terrorizing black people, most of whom voted Republican. Hayes’s forces bribed and bullied their way to victory, and the candidate himself was quick to yield a position he seemed to hold sincerely–equal rights for African Americans–when the prize was in his grasp.

As fun as it is to muck about in these muddy precincts, readers will enjoy an extra frisson in discovering how dyspeptically parallel were the elections of 1876 and 2000. It’s not as though one can look at these events, so distant from one another, and regard these as anything but particularly awful coincidence, Still, it’s striking to see Florida serving as the political swampland in each of these comedies; to see politicians of both parties flocking to the contested states and spreading their malignant influence; to see blacks physically intimidated from voting in one election, and their votes systematically undercounted by negligent officials in the other; to see cash payoffs in one race and political payoffs in another (Hello, Congresswoman Katherine Harris!); and in both races, to see a Democratic candidate get more votes, only to loss to a Republican who was more aggressive. Democrats still suffering Political Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome may wish to consult their therapists before plunging into this book.

And yet for all the unpleasant memories this book conjures up, the more alarming historical echo is to be found in the accounts of how unsettled the country was ten years after the Civil War. Anger was everywhere, resentment was deep, violence was commonplace, and talk of renewed warfare was frequent. It’s sobering to think that a decade from now, American troops might still be keeping a lid on things in Iraq, but it’s even more sobering to realize what happened after the election of 1876. Federal troops decamped, and local authorities resumed control. Much of what the north won with blood on the battlefield was thrown away, and the better part of a century passed before freedom and democracy could be enjoyed by all citizens of the south.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.