President Tilden: A Hard Bargain 1876 CE – 1877 CE

In the fall of 1987 I was talking with the engineering director of a hybridoma production and selection system project we were working on about the vagaries of the American electoral system. I made passing reference to Tilden winning the vote for president in 1876 CE.

“I attended the Tilden High School in Brooklyn” he noted.

“Named for the same man I believe.”

“I know about his cleanup of Tammany Hall,” he said, “but I’ve never heard of a President Tilden.”

“I said he won the election, not that he served as president.”

The 1876 presidential election is seldom given its due in American history courses below the college level, and often not even in such environments. It is usually treated as an anomaly or curiosity, disregarding its key role in the social development, or lack thereof, of the United States for roughly 90 years.

In 1876 the Republican Party had effectively controlled the Federal Government since the Civil War [1861 – 1865]. The states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were still under Federal military occupation. Where Federal troops had been withdrawn from the South, white supremacist Southern Democrats had gained power and ended Reconstruction, often by means of physical attacks on or intimidation of newly enfranchised Negro voters.

In 1876, Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, ran against Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee. Both men were honest by the standards of the time, and both generally decent in their personal relations with African-Americans. Tilden, however, was supported by virulently racist Southern Democrats, and Hayes allowed a cynical deal to be made that won him the presidency at the cost of betraying black supporters of the Republican Party.

The election results were contested. Tilden won the popular vote by roughly a quarter million ballots, but the Electoral College decision was in dispute because Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina each sent two sets of very different results, putting 20 Electoral College votes up for grabs. A vote from Oregon was also questionable, but easier to resolve.

Tilden had 184 of the 185 Electoral College votes he needed to win the presidency.

If just one of the contested states went his way, Tilden would clear the hurdle of the Electoral College and become president.

For Hayes to become president, he would have to receive all the contested Electoral College votes.

Republicans objected with reason that the violence and threats against black voters invalidated the questionable votes for Tilden. Democrats pointed out with accuracy widespread ballot fraud in the election results favoring Hayes.

Congress formed an Electoral Commission that met in early 1877. There were rumors of military mobilizations on the part of Southern whites opposed to Federal efforts to deny Tilden the presidency. Concern that civil insurrection if not civil war might break out was justified.

The Electoral Commission voted along party lines, awarding all contested Electoral College votes to Hayes, giving him the presidency. Tilden supported the outcome for reasons sometimes referred to as The Compromise of 1877. This informal, unwritten deal gave Hayes the presidency in return for ending Reconstruction and Federal military occupation of the South, and promised a number of economic aid projects to help the South recover and develop. Tilden’s acceptance of these terms is widely held to have prevented insurrection from breaking out.

Hayes was widely referred to as “His Fraudulency” and “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes for his term of office and beyond. He is honored in Paraguay for saving 60% of that nation’s territory after its overwhelming defeat in the War of the Triple Alliance [1864 – 1870].

Grant removed Federal troops from Florida before he left office. Hayes did the same for Louisiana and South Carolina shortly after he became president. Southern Democrats quickly took control and effectively ended the franchise for African Americans in the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted and enforced. Despite this, almost all Southern blacks remained loyal to the Party of Lincoln until it egregiously bungled the response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

A suitably busy and slightly fatuous 1879 painting of The Florida Case before the Electoral Commission, by Cornelia Adèle Strong Fassett, hangs in the U.S. Senate. It was not commissioned and she had to wait seven years to get paid, and then she received much less than she had asked for.

A personable young man who worked for Senator Kerry, guiding my family and my sister’s through the Capitol Building in December of 2000, did not know the story behind the picture, despite the recent Gore – Bush election dispute. He thought that Tilden might be governor of Florida. I gave him a volume of Massachusetts colonial history as a token of appreciation for the tour of the building, but decided not to test his patience with the story of the election of 1876.

Further Reading:

• Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr. provides a clear and balanced account of the events.

• John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America describes the disaster that ended the Republican hold on black voters in the South, and its contribution to the African – American migration from the South to the North.


Casualties of War: The 57th Massachusetts Volunteers 1864 CE – 1865 CE

Soldiers in the American Civil War [1861 CE – 1865 CE] had many ways to die, including combat, disease, abuse as prisoners of war, and lethal medical practices.

Some 625,000 to 850,000 did so. Both Union and Confederate regiments suffered crippling losses that are almost inconceivable by modern standards. The Federal Army of the Potomac is rightfully notorious for the number of deaths in its ranks.

The Iron Brigade, made up of troops from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota is usually cited as suffering the highest casualty rate of any brigade during the war.

The 1st Minnesota’s loss of some 200 out of 262 men on July 2 1863 at Gettysburg is often mentioned. Their heroism in a knowingly suicidal attack against a Confederate charge outnumbering them by more than 5 to 1 is remarkable by any standard. Through its sacrifice the 1st Minnesota saved the Union position on Cemetery Ridge.

Similarly heavy losses were suffered for no discernible gain by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment which was ordered against all reason to charge across an open field towards well defended Confederate lines during the siege of Petersburg on June 18, 1864. The unit lost more men in a single day than any other regiment in the Union army, by some counts 632 of its 900 men.

Counts differ. Warren Wilkinson set a new standard for comprehensiveness and accuracy in his regimental history of the 57th Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers, entitled Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen [1990]. The 57th Massachusetts lost more men faster over the course of its service, which was limited to the last year of the war [1864 – 1865], than any other regiment in the Federal army.

Wilkinson’s careful analysis of the descriptive lists, morning reports, company order books, and other primary sources indicated the 57th Massachusetts had lost a larger number of men than had been previously established. As a result of his close scrutiny of original documents, the 57th Massachusetts appeared to have a higher percentage of killed and wounded than had been reported for any other Union regiment. Wilkinson hastened to add “If the 57th’s [previous] figures are wrong, then there is a reasonable chance that the tallies of other regiments could be so as well, and, so, until all the original regimental records are analyzed again and numbers counted, no resolution of which regiment exceeded all others in the percentage of killed and wounded can be reached accurately.”

The 57th was recruited in Central Massachusetts, with many coming from areas around Worcester and Fitchburg. They quickly went through hell in the Wilderness campaign [May 5 – 7 1864], Spotsylvania [May 8 – 21 1864], Cold Harbor campaign [May 31 – June 12], and the siege of Petersburg [June 9 1864 – March 25 1865].

The Battle of the Crater [July 30 1864] epitomizes their experiences. Lt. Colonel Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania, proposed digging a tunnel underneath a Confederate fort so that the Union forces could blow up the fort and punch through the Southern defensive lines. Shafts were dug and 8,000 pounds [3,630 kg] of gunpowder placed below the Confederate stronghold called Elliott’s Salient.

The explosion created a crater 170 feet (52 m) long, 60 to 80 feet (18 m – 24 m) wide, and 30 feet (9.1 m) deep, killing between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers in the blast.

The Union plan had called for a division of well-trained African American troops to lead the attack, pushing quickly beyond the crater to break the Confederate lines. White soldiers including the 57th Massachusetts would follow to support the African American troops as they spread out from the ridges bordering the crater and attacked towards Petersburg.

But Major General Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, opposed this use of black troops, ordering Major General Burnside the day before the battle not to use them to lead the assault. There were fears of political repercussions if the black troops failed in their mission or suffered heavy casualties. Burnside appealed.

Grant supported Meade’s decision. White troops of Brigadier General James Ledlie’s 1st Division, including the 57th Massachusetts, were chosen by lot to lead the attack, as no white Federal unit volunteered for the honor.

Ledlie failed to communicate the battle plans to his officers. The day of the attack, Ledlie got seriously drunk. He stayed safely in the rear for the duration of the action.

The white units leading the attack did not fan out from the ridges bordering the crater as the black troops had been instructed to do. At least ten minutes after the explosion, the white soldiers left their trenches and wandered to the bottom of the crater. They could not climb its sides. The Confederates took positions around the crater’s rim and fired their rifles and hastily redeployed artillery into the mass of Union infantry milling about on the crater floor. Federal casualties were heavy.

The black troops, avoiding the depths of the crater as they advanced, attacked the Confederate lines as they had been trained to do. Despite some local successes, they were pushed back with heavy losses, being unsupported by the white Union soldiers who were being slaughtered on the floor of the crater.

Burnside reinforced failure, increasing the Union casualties to no purpose.
Burnside was relieved of command. Ledlie was dismissed for his actions.

And the 57th Massachusetts earned the dubious distinction of being the Union regiment that suffered more casualties faster in the course of the war than any other Federal regiment, at least until other regimental histories’ casualty counts are updated from primary sources.

Further Reading:

• Wilkinson’s Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen chronicles the experiences of the 57th Massachusetts regiment in sobering detail. It set new standards for regimental Civil War histories.

• James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom is the best single volume history of the Civil War.

Destroying a Culture: The Aztecs 1519 CE

It is always distasteful when violent oppressors denigrate their victims, the more so when the badmouthing happens to be justified. The Spaniards who conquered Mexico in the early 16th century CE were brutal, greedy, and dirty. The Aztecs were worse.

While giving a lecture in Southwest China in 1983 on the European conquest of the Americas, including the 1519 Mexican campaign of Cortés, I mentioned in passing that many scholars estimated the Aztecs ritually killed about 20,000 people annually, donating the hearts of their victims to fearsome deities, mounting the skulls on poles in displays around their temples, and eating much of the remainder. I did not mention that some senior scholars had estimated the number of people sacrificed in Central Mexico when the Aztecs were at the height of their power to be approximately 250,000 per year.

A gentle Chinese engineer raised his hand to ask a question: “Are they still like that in Mexico?”

I had been thoughtless. While the first quarter of the 16th century might appear almost ancient from the perspective of many of the citizens of the United States, to the Chinese scholars in the audience, it was virtually the day before yesterday.

Aztec cannibalism is reported often in the histories of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, including the writings of Hernando Cortés, Bernard Díaz del Castillo, and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, and is visually depicted by native artists in the Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. A favored dish seems to have been a stew of tomatoes, peppers, and flesh from the arms and legs of the sacrificial victims. One local who could not wait for his meal to be prepared is reported to have snacked on slices of nose removed from his still living captive.

Such details have not stopped academics dedicated to romantic notions of noble aborigines living in harmony with their environment from ignoring documentary and archeological evidence to fulminate against any suggestion that the Aztecs, or for that matter the Iroquoians or Pacific Islanders, may have practiced anthropophagy at any time. These polemicists generate outraged letters and book length arguments based on high moral attitudes, ignorant assertions, and petulant deconstructions of documents. Such arguments, often remarkably innocent of historical foundation, have sometimes been published by otherwise reputable university presses.

As archeological evidence of Aztec cannibalism and a more detailed understanding of classical Mesoamerican cultures have developed, the cannibalism deniers have become even less credible than they were 35 years ago. A sentimental falsification’s demise is not much of a loss: the fantasy that the Mayan city states were peaceful communities led by sages and philosopher kings could not survive the decryption of the Mayan writing system. History is richer for knowing that in reality the area of Mayan culture was dominated by city state polities whose squabbling and internecine warfare make Classical Greece look almost irenic by comparison.

The practice of Aztec cannibalism helps explain some things about the odd nature of their imperium, like the existence of enemy enclaves within the Aztec lands. Since it was generally forbidden to eat members of your own community, such unconquered territories were a convenient source of war captives to sacrifice and eat.

Anthropologists and historians note the paucity of domesticated animals and the general lack of high protein food sources as probable causative factors in the widespread practice of cannibalism in pre-conquest Mexico.

This is not to say that the Aztecs deserved to be brutally attacked by the Spanish conquistadors, although it helps explain why other tribes were so willing to join the Spanish campaigns. Victory over the Aztecs was not won primarily by native allies or European weapons, however, nor was the ensuing near genocide of native peoples in the Americas the direct result of warfare, though the horrors of slavery in the Spanish run mines and agricultural estates provided suitably grim finishing touches.

The deadliest invaders were from the Old World, but they were bacterial and viral.

The natives of Central Mexico, being densely populated and immunologically naïve, lacking any prior exposure to European diseases, constituted an ideal environment for virulent pandemics. Smallpox and respiratory infections spread rapidly and killed quickly. Cortés was saved more than once by the sudden death by disease of key Aztec leaders. Spanish transmission of and immunity to European diseases ultimately were more effective than weapons, horses, or bravery in the process of conquest.

Similarly, European diseases spread by transatlantic fishing expeditions depopulated the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 17th century, paving the way for the Great Migration of English settlers in the 1630s. The French in Canada were on the losing side of European pandemics in Colonial America, as they gambled on the strength of aboriginal allies to counter the superior demographic trends of neighboring English colonists. Tribe after tribe, despite being carefully cultivated by the French authorities, succumbed to European diseases before they could squelch the English settlements.

The introduction of European diseases was critical to the successful colonization of North, Central, and South America. Of course the colonists preferred to credit their advanced culture, astute leadership, and religious piety. The Mexican natives may have built impressive cities, but the Aztec practice of human sacrifice on a horrific scale and cannibalism on an equally appalling level made them historically vulnerable to the cant of European imperialism. Not all victims are innocent.

Further Reading:

• The Aztec cannibalism debate of the 1970s was in part provoked by Marvin Harris’ Cannibals and Kings [1977]. Marshall Sahlins provides a useful summary of the arguments and evidence in his reply to W. Arens in The New York Review of Books, Volume 26, Number 4 [March 22, 1979].

• Michael Cole’s Breaking the Maya Code is an enjoyable account of the addition of a great people to the documented history of the world. Linda Schele and David Freidel summarize what was learned in A Forest of Kings, as do Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler in The Ancient Maya.

• William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples and Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange and his Ecological Imperialism were groundbreaking studies of the impact of disease and environment on history. Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493 usefully extend their discussions. Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana chronicles smallpox’s disastrous effects on the natives of North America.

Silent, Next to a Swamp in Darién: How Scotland Lost Independence [1698 CE– 1707 CE]

The English takeover of Scotland did not result from the defeat of William Wallace in 1305 CE, nor from the overwhelming English victory at Flodden in 1503, nor even the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, which provided only a dynastic connection.

The Scots maintained enough independence to mount serious and sometimes successful invasions of England through the 17th century, causing the downfall of the Stuarts during the English Civil War and the lasting impoverishment of much of Scotland through vain attempts to re-establish that family thereafter.

It wasn’t by defeating wild Highlanders or jihadist Cameronians that England took control of Scotland. It was an unfriendly financial takeover following the debacle of the Darién Plantation.

In the 1690s, when Scotland was still suffering the effects of several unsuccessful military adventures and repeated widespread crop failures, a banker named William Paterson whipped up a frenzy of support for a scheme to colonize Panama. He had previously failed to win backing for hs plans in England, the Netherlands, and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire. Paterson had been born in Scotland, had helped found the Bank of England, and was willing to move to Panama with his family. A huge proportion of Scotland’s wealth was invested in the project: plausible estimates range between 25% and 50% of all the coinage circulating in the nation.

The site chosen for the colony was one of the unhealthiest locations in a disease ridden portion of the planet. Outside of a tiny settlement and town, the area remains virtually uninhabited today. The colonists brought with them in 1698 bitter highland feuds, excessive quantities of alcohol, and, perhaps deadliest of all, censorious and meddlesome representatives of the Kirk. Only some 300 of the original approximately 1,200 settlers survived. A second attempt to settle in November of 1699 was abandoned in February 1700.

The financial managers of the effort tried to recoup their losses by outfitting four trade ships. The first two were lost when their captains ignored their orders and experimented in the slave trade and buccaneering; the third was lost at sea; the fourth, hired in London, was seized by the East India Company for attempts to violate its charter. The Scots hung three innocent English merchant seamen as revenge.

Facing bankruptcy, Scotland’s leaders petitioned London for help. The English stabilized the Scottish pound, and granted £398,085 10s sterling to Scotland as part of the 1707 Act of Union. The whiff of contempt for the penny wise pound foolish Scot who insisted on his 10s can still be discerned more than 300 years later.

Paterson, whose wife and child died in Darién, survived serious illness to return from Panama and become a vocal proponent of Union with England. The subsequent activities of the sea captains who turned to slave trading and piracy are lost to history.

Further Reading:

• Douglas Watt’s The Price of Scotland: Darien, Unity and the Wealth of Nations properly emphasizes Scottish financial mania and mismanagement.

• John Prebble’s Darien: The Scottish Dream of Empire [The Darien Disaster] provides a lively narrative.