I’ve been re-reading Dr. A. V. Huff’s “Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont.” I’ve just come to the portion about the “Redemption Campaign” of 1876, and was struck by the ironies and similarities with our current election. We may think the Obama-McCain contest has been ugly, but it was nothing like the South Carolina governor’s election of that year.
South Carolina had just suffered through Reconstruction in the post-War South. The Republican Part, the party of Lincoln, was considered the radical party. The Democrats were the conservatives, who longed for antebellum ways of doing things. Wikipedia puts it this way…
Hampton was a leading fighter against radical Republican Reconstruction policies in the South, and re-entered South Carolina politics in 1876 as the first southern gubernatorial candidate to run on a platform in opposition to Reconstruction. Hampton, a Democrat, ran against Radical Republican incumbent governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain. Supporters of Hampton were called Red Shirts, and were very violent. Supporters of Chamberlain, mostly black militia members, defended themselves with arms. Therefore, the 1876 South Carolina gubernatorial election was the bloodiest in the history of the state. The vote was very close, and both parties claimed victory. For over six months, there were two legislatures in the state, both claiming to be authentic. Eventually, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Hampton as the winner of the election. The election of the first Democrat in South Carolina since the end of the Civil War, as well as the national election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President, signified the end of the long period of Reconstruction in the South.
The bits that I find interesting are first the apparent role reversals between the parties. The Republicans were progressives, promoting the rights of all, whereas the Democrat victory of 1876 ushered in a new era of Jim Crow laws. I’m sure those early voters would be amazed to see a Democrat Party nominating the first black candidate for president in our nation’s history, or a Republican Party that promotes xenophobia through illegal immigrant legislation.
According to Huff’s book, in Greenville County in 1876 the Democrats employed “Rifle Clubs” meant to break up meetings of Republicans. On the actual election day, Democrats crowded the courthouse, allowing no one but their party in to vote. In this present election it seems ironic that it’s the Democrats who are running into trouble for signing up everyone to vote (regardless of political affiliation, I might add) while the Republicans are being accused of robocalls meant to confuse potential Democrat voters.
We think of our present election as being one of divisive politics and mud-slinging, and political ramifications for the survival of our nation. We have to keep in mind that we have it easy compared to 132 years ago. The election of 1876 was at a time when our nation was most divided. Just a decade earlier it’s very core had been weakened by a horrendous war fought on our own soil, and damaging our own culture and resources. I would like to hope that if we could get through that, then we can get through this election as a nation, regardless of who wins.