Tuesday, January 5, 2021

1876 Election Back in the News

A couple of years ago the Mill published in the paper a piece about a suspicious check for $8000 that was sent to Ladd & Bush bank over a century ago.

From Chicago to Memphis readers [in 1877] bent on reforming the corruption in Washington, watched the story of this check unfold in dramatic fashion, and Asahel Bush’s name and Salem, Oregon became national news. To summarize several hundred pages of testimony, just before the electors were to meet in Salem a check was drawn at the Wall Street Firm of Martin & Runyon and directed to the Ladd & Bush Bank in Salem via a New York agent in a cipher-encoded telegram.

For the main frame they focused on corruption in President Grant's administration.

Let’s set the stage for this bizarre tale. It’s 1876 and the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes is running against the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Both candidates are running on a platform of reform, seeking to counteract the corruption of then-President Ulysess S. Grant. Grant’s scandals were so bad that he had split the Republican party. Fellow Republican, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts even coined the derisive term “Grantism” and gave a speech on the Senate floor differentiating Grant’s activities from the core values of the Republican party. Tilden won the popular vote and looked like he would win the electoral college except for contested returns in several states, including Oregon.

While most of the elections controversy circled around voter intimidation in the South, the issue Oregon focused on the eligibility one of their three presidential electors.

Especially in our current moment, this take on the election, separating national and local matters, and focusing on scandal in the Grant administration, may not have the right emphasis and context.

Conservative writer David Frum, no great progressive, Sunday published a thread about the Election of 1876, interpreting it on different grounds.

You're hearing a lot of talk about "irregularities" in the election of 1876 that led to a "disputed" outcome. What is being referred to in this hazy terms?

He underscored that "white conservatives had used terror and massacre to deter former slaves from voting" and placed the dispute in the context of the Reconstruction period and its sequel of racist "Redemption." A conservative, he is alarmed by the reactionary right, whom he finds radical rather than conservative.

Over the next half century, the states "redeemed" by white conservatives shriveled into tight oligarchies.

Democracy in the United States has a contested history. It's being contested again right now. The foundational idea of democracy is that each person counts. Let's commit to proving that theory true in the dangerous week ahead.

Corruption and problems with Grant's administration may not, then, be the best lens for interpreting this weird episode with Ladd & Bush Bank. 

A substantial part of any problem with Grant was that he supported the 15th Amendment and anti-KKK legislation, and a focus on Grant's corruption may be too much a legacy of 20th century "lost cause" and Dunning School historiography. More contemporary interpretations remind us of tearing down Reconstruction and that Grant did good things also. Race should be more centered.

In light of this, the episode with Ladd & Bush and its context of the disputed Electors really deserves a new reading that reconnects it with the national politics of Reconstruction.

Maybe there is an academic study of it out there somewhere, but as we reassess the legacy of Asahel Bush here in Salem, we should here have a better popular understanding of this episode also.

The combination of disputed Electors, disputed votes, and white supremacy is no merely academic matter at the moment.

Reconstruction themes in 2021

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