Saturday, January 17, 2009

Inauguration 1877: Seems Like Yesterday

The transition period between a presidential election and inauguration is about 10 weeks, under the modern schedule. A president-elect has so many details to attend to during that period that the time probably seems to move very quickly. When he stands up to take the oath of office, I suppose he thinks "it seems like only yesterday, that I found out I had been elected".

In 1877, it seemed that way for a reason. Rutherford Hayes took the oath on March 3 (because the 4th was a Sunday). A dispute about the outcome of the 1876 election had been resolved on March 2.

Hayes, who was then governor of Ohio, was nominated by the Republican Party. Governor Samuel Tilden of New York was the Democratic nominee.

Tilden won 51% of the popular vote, but the candidates' electoral vote totals were very close. There were disputes about the electoral votes in four states including, in what was a foreshadowing of events 124 years later, Florida.

A 15-member body called the Electoral Commission was appointed to resolve the disputes. It consisted of five members of each house of Congress, and five Supreme Court justices. In theory, the commission was to consist of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent. But, apparently the "independent" was really a Republican.

The commission voted along party lines to award the disputed electoral votes to Hayes.

The Civil War was a very recent memory at that time. Therefore, a fear that violence would ensue from a disputed result seemed very real. However, when Hayes repeated his oath in a public ceremony on March 5, all was peaceful.

During his single term as president, Hayes ended the military occupation of the southern states. That effectively ended Reconstruction, and set the stage for the "Jim Crow" regime of segregation and denial of African Americans' civil rights in those states, that were not effectively addressed by the federal government until the 1960s. The notion that that action by Hayes was part of a deal to secure southern electoral votes is still debated.

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