Review by Michael Lorenzen of Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876 written by William Rehnquist. Originally published in Ohioana Quarterly, 47, (Winter 2004), 453, 454.
The presidential election of 1876 was one of the most bizarre, and controversial, elections in American history. By all appearances, Samuel Tilden won the election. However, some of the returns from the southern states were disputed. The most hotly debated state was Florida. A commission was appointed which included five Supreme Court Justices and ultimately Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the next President of the United States of America.
The parallels of the presidential election of 1876 with the presidential election of 2000 are obvious. It is with greater irony that this book on the election of 1876 is written the sitting Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Rehnquist. It was his court which settled the 2000 election which also revolved around disputed votes in Florida.
Rehnquist noted this in the prologue. He wrote, “There was profound dissatisfaction with the process on the part of the losing parties in both 200 and 1876. Perhaps when such a dispute erupts, there is no means which will satisfy both sides. But for all of those whose interest in the process of electing a President was quickened the disputed election of 2000, a review of what happened in 1876 should be interesting and perhaps instructive.” (pp. 5, 6)
The book is well written and Rehnquist does an excellent job telling the story of the election of 1876. He provides a biography of both Tilden and Hayes and details how each won their parties nomination. He also writes a narrative of the election campaign, election day, and the turmoil that quickly followed. Rehnquist offers great detail on how the Electoral Commission that decided the election was formed and he provides a biography of all 15 members including the five Supreme Court Justices. He also relates the aftermath of the election.
Probably the most interesting part of the book is the epilogue. Rehnquist relates the history of Supreme Court justices getting involved in non-court affairs such as helping to settle treaties, serving on commissions, and arbitrating disputes. He then examines how these services impacted both the Supreme Court and the nation. The Chief Justice feels that many of the non-court services that Supreme Court Justices have been questionable (Justice Jackson service in the Nuremberg Trials for example) while others have been appropriate. Among these appropriate endeavors he counts is the 1876 Electoral Commission. Of the Supreme Court Justices of 1876 he concludes, “They may have tarnished the reputation of the Court, but they may also have saved the nation from, if not widespread violence, a situation fraught with combustible uncertainty.” It is fair to say that by stating this he is also justifying the role the he and the Supreme Court played in the election of 2000.
This book will probably be valued by both Presidential and Supreme Court historians in the future. As it stands now, it is a good historical recounting of one troubled election and gives insights into the mind of a person who helped settle another. The book is well documented and the index is also of sufficient depth to make finding information in the book easy.
CENTENNIAL CRISIS: THE DISPUTED ELECTION OF 1876 BY WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST. ALFRED A. KNOPF (NEW YORK), 2004. 274 PP HC $26.