Monday, November 3, 2008

Our Carnival of Buncombe

When the polls close Tuesday night, Americans will sit down in front of the TV, popcorn and favorite beverage close by, for an evening of election returns punctuated by deep thinking from academics, journalists and assorted pundits.

If the results are close, as they were in 2000 and 2004, there is likely to be much handwringing about unprecedented levels of partisan division, negative campaigning and the shocking cynicism of American politics.

In fact, there is nothing unprecedented about it. Closely fought elections, partisan division, and mudslinging are, for better or worse, as American as apple pie. For connoisseurs of the political circus, the years between 1876 and 1896 must be regarded as a Golden Age of political chicanery.

In 1880, when Republican James A. Garfield defeated Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by less than 2,000 votes, he took the White House because he carried New York and collected its 35 electoral votes. New York, however, fell into Garfield’s column not because of well-reasoned argument and dispassionate discussion of the issues but because boodle and patronage bought victory.

Four years later, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to win the presidency since before the Civil War, but his victory was hardly overwhelming. Cleveland defeated Republican James G. Blaine by 25,685 votes – less than three-tenths of 1 percent. Once again, New York was the key battleground.

Cleveland’s campaign had been stymied initially by his admission that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. But what became the most egregious gaffe in American politics ultimately tipped the scales for the Democrat.

At a late October rally for Blaine in New York City, the Rev. Samuel D. Burchard declared that Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” The alliterative phrase infuriated Irish Catholics, who flocked to Cleveland’s banner and gave the state to him by 1,047 votes.

In 1888, Cleveland won a majority of the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to his Republican challenger, Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. As discussed in an earlier post, the late October disclosure of a letter from the British minister to the United States declaring his preference for Cleveland put New York in Harrison’s column and the Indiana Republican in the White House.

In his classic The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, Richard Hofstadter recounts what Pennsylvania Republican boss Matt Quay thought about Harrison’s view that “Providence has given us the victory.”

“Think of the man,” Quay sneered. “He ought to know that Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it.”

Without question, however, the most serious and complicated presidential election of the period came in 1876, when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ran against Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York.

Tilden easily won the popular vote by more than 254,000 votes, but rival slates of electors from South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida threw the outcome in the Electoral College into doubt.

For weeks, uncertainty and tensions escalated. At a Democratic convention in Wisconsin, one speaker said he did not believe it would be necessary to “resort to arms” to put Tilden in the White House, but “if it became necessary, it was the duty of the people to arm.”

The crisis came to a head when a commission appointed by Congress to rule on the legitimacy of the rival elector slates voted 8-7 in favor of the Republican electors from Louisiana. Hayes, dismissed by the Washington Post as “his Fraudulency,” entered the White House but never managed to live down the circumstances of his election.

So if it’s close on Election Night, if partisan tempers flare and deep thinkers earnestly bemoan the benighted state of our political discourse, be of good cheer. The “carnival of buncombe,” as H.L. Mencken once described American politics, is one of the longest running shows around.


New York Times, Jan. 17, 1877, p. 5

Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, Minn.: Edinborough Press, 2008.

McPherson, James. ed. To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

Mencken, H.L. A Carnival of Buncombe: Writings on Politics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Summers, Mark Wahlgren. Rum, Romanism & Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.