A few years ago I talked about a book that I found myself really enjoying. It was Gore Vidal’s Burr, an entry in his long-running Narratives of Empire series which sought to create historical fiction tales about various important moments in American history. The series blended real-life and fictitious characters to tell these stories, weaving fact and fiction to attempt to get somewhere closer to the truth than the history books can by showing these figures less as massively mythical entities, and more as deeply flawed human beings. I loved Burr, and that feeling only enhanced as I became obsessed with Hamilton later that year. And yet, I hadn’t had an opportunity to visit this series again since. Technically the next book in the series, chronologically speaking, should have been Lincoln, Vidal’s look at the Civil War, but when I went I decided to dive back into the weird world of American History, I found myself drawn to the third story, 1876. And, this was primarily because I personally find the sheer absurdity of the election of 1876 to be one of the most fascinating and frankly ridiculous periods in the entirety of American history. It’s the kind of story that could probably be made into a Coen Brothers movie, full of blatant corruption, people being absolute idiots, and just a general reminder of the idiocy of the Electoral College. So, taking all of that fascinating source material and pairing it with Gore Vidal’s renowned wit seemed like a slam dunk. And, while I really did enjoy this novel, it also didn’t end up reaching the heights I experienced with Burr.
Much like Burr, the novel follows a fictional man named Charles Schuyler, the illegitimate bastard son of Aaron Burr who left America shortly after the events of Burr and has spent a majority of his lifetime in Europe, specifically tumultuous France, with his daughter Emma who has recently been left a widow, and a princess. The pair arrive in America just as the election of 1876 is starting to kick up, looking for the opportunity to make money off of Charles’ writing, and ideally to get Emma a rich husband. Charles ingratiates himself with the New York of 1876, which has just freed itself from the control of Boss Tweed, and that is looking down the hundredth anniversary of this new country, which had so recently torn itself in two during the Civil War. Charles flits between the various political worlds of New York, getting a feel for the country that has changed so much in the years that he’s been gone, and in the process meets the governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, who is presumed to become the Democratic nominee, and most likely the next President of the United States. Charles sees opportunity in befriending Tilden, specifically getting the chance to become a dignitary in France for the rest of his life, and sets to work aiding Tilden in any way he can.
While Charles heads around the country, heading wherever a story is waiting for him to write up and sell, he gets a better feeling for this newly reconstructed America, and all the tensions that are barely being contained below the surface. And, in between all of that, there’s also plenty of drama involving Charles and his daughter Emma attempting to find a husband, and in the process getting involved with an ambitious and rich family who they each expect they can exploit in various ways. But, eventually the election finally arrives, and things really start to fall apart. The Republicans nominate a relative unknown governor named Rutherford B Hayes, and the actual elector occurs. However, when all is said and done, Hayes and Tilden are virtually tied in the Electoral College. The actual results are pretty easily questioned, with malfeasance on both sides, leading to a Constitutional crisis, calling in rules that had never been used to determine the actual next President. Both sides work themselves up into a fervor, to the point where a second Civil War appears more and more likely. But, as the inauguration inches ever closer, the two sides come up with a compromise. Tilden more than likely received the most votes, but Hayes is given the Presidency, in exchange for more freedom in the South, essentially turning their backs on the recently freed black population of the South, and setting up the political system that would dominate for the next century of American politics, all while ensuring that Charles Schuyler works to his dying day, scraping by a living as a journalist.
I had really adored Burr, certainly in part because Gore Vidal was an amazing writer and could tell an excellent story, but also because it did something different. It told the tale of the foundation of America from the point of view of one of American History’s greatest villains, telling us a story that has practically become mythology in America in way that portrayed the Founding Fathers are a bunch of people making it up as they went along instead of the deities they’re so often portrayed as. And, going into 1876 I assumed that that novel would take an equally deep dive into the insane world of America in 1876, and the sheer audacity of that election. But, that’s not really what we got. The shenanigans involved after the election, as the country was about to be ripped in half once again, really only comes into play in the last fourth of the book. Maybe less. The majority of it revolves around Charles Schuyler playing around with various political factions, and getting an idea of how fractured America really was at this point. Which, is in and of itself a very interesting topic. I can’t really fault the book for not being what I expected it to be, because that was my own issues. I do highly recommend you learn more about that election, and the insane things that were done in order to get one side or the other to win the Presidency, as was hilariously described by the podcast the Dollop not too long ago. But, if you’re coming to this novel in order to get a better understanding of those events, you maybe should seek out a different source.
Because, weirdly enough, the election of 1876 is perhaps one of the most important elections ever held. Which, seems weird, since Rutherford B Hayes certainly isn’t one of the most memorable presidents to ever hold that title. It’s an election that probably gets skimmed over in any sort of history class, except maybe to lay down the bare bones of the election, probably specifically about the compromise that ended the conflict. The Democrats and the Republicans made a compromise that kept the Republicans in power, at the expense of the people of the South, especially the non-white people. They got to push the occupying forces of the Union Army out of the South so that they could institute the Jim Crowe laws that would go on to dominate American culture for more the next hundred years, and then some. The Reconstruction era of American society was a complicated one, where the country had the chance to reckon with the events of the Civil War, and the inhumanity of slavery. But, instead, it just led to chaos. And, before it had any chance to actually lead to anything of real worth, it was dashed away thanks to a compromise. Instead of actually dealing with its past and attempting to heal, America just tried to ignore it. Which, really became an ongoing thread with American history. And, a substantial amount of that hinges on this otherwise trivial election, and all thanks to the Electoral College.
1876 was written by Gore Vidal, 1976.
Categories: Page Turners