INFAMOUS FINAL SCENE OF THE “CRIME OF 1876”?
(All Rights Reserved)
After months of stalemate and rising tensions over the contested Election of 1876, emissaries from the Hayes-Tilden camps privately met several times at the Wormley Hotel and negotiated a settlement (“The Bargain”), arguably one of the most important in our Nation’s history which remains shrouded in denials to the present. The “secret deal” was formulated only days before the end of the Grant Administration under threat of filibuster and violence on Monday evening, February 26, 1877, chiefly, in the rooms of W.M. Evarts (a key Hayes backer who served as counsel to the Electoral Commission and later became as Secretary of State in the Hayes Administration).
The Wormley Agreement paved the way for the end of the Reconstruction Era, providing assurances for the early withdrawal of remaining Federal troops in three southern states (Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida) and the right of these states to “control their own affairs.” The written pledge provided by trusted Hayes’ aide (Charles Foster) to John Young Brown (D-KY) of the Tilden group cemented a strange alliance between Hayes’ Ohio Republicans and Tilden’s southern Democrats. “The Bargain” probably staved off anarchy which threatened to ignite from congressional indignation and the partisan tilt for Hayes in the Electoral Commission. A veiled threat of violence, with echoes from “The Battle of Liberty Place” in New Orleans and other bloody confrontations, provided political gravitas amidst an atmosphere of near-panic and coercion.
On February 28, when southern Democrats refused to join with plans for a rebellious protest in the House of Representatives over challenges to the seating of disputed South Carolina electors the tide shifted. During the afternoon in one of the most tumultuous sessions witnessed since before the Civil War, House Speaker Samuel J. Randall (D-PA), in a reversal, blocked the protestors, and Hayes’ forces reigned supreme. Hayes was proclaimed the winner on March 2, 1877 and was quietly sworn in at the White House. Two days later Rutherford B. Hayes was officially inaugurated as the 19th President of the United States.
As the election crisis subsided, President Hayes promptly ordered troops withdrawn from the South (an action Tilden would have found much more difficult to achieve politically). But Hayes quickly became stunned and disillusioned at the effect this decision had on black suffrage and other civil rights in the South. Despite extensive congressional investigations, little was revealed about the Wormley conferences.
Recognizing there was some obloquy in the trade, Hayes maintained his denial that he was an actual party to the Wormley Agreement (although his personal papers show beyond a doubt otherwise). As one historian noted: “In this way was consummated the most spectacular act of injustice in American history . . . a majority of American people believed the decision was wrong, the country has not to this day been convinced that it was right.” Hayes left office after one term, turning over the presidency to another Ohio Republican colleague, ill-fated James A. Garfield, who won by a tiny plurality and was assassinated after only four months in office. Hayes spent much energy and resources in his later years on the issue of black education.
1. Washington Evening Star
(February 19, 22, and 24, 1877).
In one of history’s ironies it is worth noting that the Wormley Hotel was owned and managed by one of the capital’s leading citizens, James Wormley, an African-American entrepreneur, who personally fought against increasing segregation after the Civil War and helped establish the first public school for blacks in Washington, D.C. (Wormley Resolution of July 26, 1871). When Wormley died in 1884, flags were flown at half-mast and a former chief justice of the U.S. District Court and a former Washington mayor were among the pallbearers. At his funeral Wormley was described as a “manly man who respected himself and who demanded respect from others . . . A man was a man with him . . . There was nothing cringing or obsequious about him in his contact with white people. He was a race man In the sense that he was thoroughly interested in the welfare of the race” (Rev. Francis J. Grimke).
ELECTION OF 1876