Weekly Geopolitical Report – The Election of 1876: Part I (October 19, 2020)

by Bill O’Grady | PDF

Earlier this year, in the spring, we issued a five-part series on the election.  At the time, we considered adding a section about a disputed outcome but decided that the odds of such a result were too low to consider.  Since issuing that report, the likelihood of an uncertain and disputed election has risen.  The combination of the president’s comments surrounding the insecurity of mail-in voting and the death of Justice Ginsburg has increased tensions dramatically.

Every election has at least some possibility for a disputed outcome.  However, despite the fact that we don’t have a national system for voting (beyond setting dates, individual states determine voting procedures), disputed elections are surprisingly rare.  There are two that offer historical parallels.  The Bush/Gore race in 2000 is probably familiar to most readers; the recount was ended by a Supreme Court decision which was reluctantly accepted by VP Gore.  The one that most readers probably aren’t as familiar with is the election of 1876, between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden.[1]  In many respects, the election of 1876 is perhaps a better historical analog to our current situation.

In this two-part report, we will begin by framing the 1876 election, focusing on the two issues that were dividing the country—reconstruction and the economy.  The personalities and positions of each candidate will be examined.  The election campaign and the election itself will follow.  We will conclude this section with a discussion of the elements of the dispute, the method of resolution, and the outcome.

Next week in Part II, using this background, we will employ the historian’s primary tool, compare and contrast.  There are similarities between the 1876 election and our current one, but there are important differences, too.  One of the critical differences is that in 1876 the U.S. “punched below its weight” in world affairs.  The government was preoccupied with the westward expansion and was more than happy to let the British run the world.  And so, being distracted by a disputed election didn’t mean all that much for world affairs.  That isn’t the case now, so we will discuss how various nations may use a period of uncertainty to further their geopolitical goals.  As always, we will close the report with potential market ramifications.

Read the full report

[1] The primary historical source for the election of 1876 is: Rehnquist, William. (2004). Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876. New York, NY: Vintage Books, Random House Inc. (Kindle Edition).