Study Guide

Centennial Crisis

by William H. Rehnquist

Centennial Crisis Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As a result of his participation in the disputed presidential election of 2000, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist of the United States Supreme Court, already a historian of the Court, developed a particular interest in the bitterly disputed election of the nation's centennial year, 1876. The result is Centennial Crisis, a study of the circumstances through which Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio became the nation's nineteenth chief executive. It was a torturous process which presented puzzling legal ambiguities and necessitated the establishment of an electoral commission in a political context that gave unusual weight to its judicial members.

There were some notable resemblances between the two elections. In each, the Democratic loser won the popular vote. In each, the tally of electoral votes by which presidents are actually chosen at first proved inconclusive and led to charges of voting irregularities in one or a few closely contested states, with Florida a case in point. In each case, ordinary congressional examinations of the evidence failed to resolve the difficulties. Ultimately, the result of both elections hung on decisions by Supreme Court justices, albeit in somewhat different forms.

The commission that in 1876 faced the task of deciding whether to recognize Democratic or Republican electors in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon was composed of five men from the Senate, five from the House of Representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Because the Democrats controlled the House, the Republicans the Senate, and the resulting makeup of the ten legislative members of the commission guaranteed a vote along party lines, the five judicial members would tip the balance. After much wrangling, a House committee recommendation that a membership consisting of two “Republican,” two “Democratic,” and one presumably independent judge was accepted. The sympathies of Justices Nathan Clifford and Stephen Field lay with the Democrats, those of Justices Samuel Miller and William Strong with the Republicans. These four would choose the fifth justice. Fortunately, Justice David Davis, whom the Republican president Abraham Lincoln had named to the Court but who was considered no more Republican than Democrat, passed muster as the independent whose vote would install either Hayes or his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, in the White House.

Contemporaneously with the process of establishing an electoral commission, the Illinois legislature named Davis to the United States Senate. The Seventeenth Amendment, which established popular election of senators was still decades in the future. Davis had not yet surrendered his judicial duties, and he would not take office until March 7, by which date the commission would have completed its work. Davis does not seem to have sought the Senate seat, and Rehnquist does not probe the Illinois lawmakers’ motivation in selecting him. Nevertheless, Davis did not wish to give up his prospective seat, as he thought he must do if he accepted a post on the commission. When he declined, the justices fell back on Justice Joseph P. Bradley, like Tilden a native of a small community near Albany, New York. Politically, however, Bradley seemed remote from the Democratic presidential candidate Tilden and likely to uphold the claim of Hayes's backers, which he ultimately did.

Rehnquist begins by locating the 1876 controversy in its historical context. In his first chapter, he briefly sets the scene of the nation's centennial celebration and, in somewhat more detail, explains the political atmosphere of the scandal-ridden administration of the incumbent president, Ulysses S. Grant. Chapters 2 and 3 present biographical sketches of the two men striving to succeed him. The next three describe the election and the ensuing controversy, while incorporating profiles of the judicial component of the Electoral Commission. On a topic of obvious interest to Rehnquist, the actual deliberations, which began on January 31, 1877—less than five weeks before the new president would assume office—little can be said, for the sessions were closed to the public, and only one of the fifteen commission members wrote an account of the proceedings. Representative James Garfield, who would win the next presidential election and then fall to an assassin's bullet four months later, maintained a diary. Garfield alleged that he had...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)