The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Rutherford B. Hayes, January 12th, 1877

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St. Louis, Jan. 12, 1877.

When speaking in my last letter of the independent action of Southern members of the House, I did not mean to indicate that I expected anything of the kind, for I did not. I merely desired to know whether there was anything in the story going through the papers. I am glad to learn that Southern men who have sought conversation or correspondence with you show so good a disposition.

In your reply you did not allude to what I had said about the desirability of an agreement in the Conference Committee of the two houses of Congress on a mode of counting the electoral vote. There had been a rumor in the papers that some friends of yours, assuming more or less to represent your views, had expressed a hope that no such agreement would be arrived at, but that the counting of the votes and the decision of all disputed points by the President of the Senate would be insisted upon. This matter appears to me of such importance in this crisis that I cannot refrain from expressing to you my anxiety about it, in connection with all the circumstances of the case. You will pardon me for being very frank. I do not want to force myself into your confidence or to obtrude my counsel. But at the beginning of the campaign I wrote you in one of my first letters that for whatever work I might perform in the canvass I should neither claim nor desire nor expect anything in return except the privilege of speaking to you on matters of public concern without reserve. I did so, and in some cases the advice I volunteered seemed to coincide with your views, in others it did not. In all cases it was offered in a sincere and unselfish spirit. In the same manner I address you now, believing that there are some things about which many people may hesitate to speak to a man in your position because they may not be considered pleasant. If I act otherwise I do so as a true friend.

I send you an article taken from the last number of Harper's Weekly, undoubtedly written by Mr. Curtis. I risk nothing in saying that it represents the sentiments of thousands upon thousands of Republicans, not habitual malcontents, but faithful members of the party, and by no means its least estimable element. I do not accept all that Mr. Curtis says about the means the State government of Louisiana had to employ to prevent intimidation and violence; in this respect, I think, he goes too far. But what he says about the doings of the returning-board and the impression those doings have produced upon a very large number of conscientious Republicans, is undoubtedly correct. It is certainly true that there are grave doubts in the minds of that class of citizens. Those doubts were not produced by “Democratic brag and bluster,” to which no sensible man would yield; but they originated in the proceedings of the Louisiana returning-board itself, and considering the well-known antecedents of that board and the suspicious circumstances surrounding its action on the present case, those doubts are not unnatural. They are expressed in private more frequently and pointedly than in public; but you may safely attribute such demonstrations as the petitions of the Philadelphia and New York merchants to Congress, asking for an agreement upon a fair mode of counting the electoral vote, to just that troubled state of mind. I know that to be so from my own personal acquaintance with a large number of Republicans.

Here and there the theory is set up that all we have to do is to convince ourselves as to the substantial right in this case and then use all means at hand to make that substantial right prevail. Just here some very grave questions present themselves. The letter of Mr. Redfield you sent me, I had already read in the Cincinnati Commercial. I consider Mr. Redfield to be a trustworthy correspondent who believes in what he says, and I myself believe that he is in the main correct. The probability that a fair and free election would have turned out a considerable Republican majority in Louisiana is indeed strong. The same applies to the effect of intimidation and violence in the five parishes thrown out. I have also read General Van Alen's speech and consider him a sincere and truthful man. But all these statements, while making a very strong case, do not solve the question, why, if all these things are so certain and clear, the returning-board did not, in obedience to the law of the State, admit a Democrat as a member to witness and take part in these proceedings, but performed the decisive part of their duties as a strictly partisan body and in secrecy. Thus, by the action of the board itself, the doubt as to the merits of the case is increased in the public mind. It is useless to indulge in any delusion about this matter. I am aware that most of the party organs speak in a different tone, but as that feeling of uncertainty in most cases shrinks from public demonstration, the party press cannot in that respect be taken now as fairly representative of the constituency behind them. Under such circumstances it is more than ever necessary that the counting of the votes and the final determination of the result should be above suspicion as to fairness and impartiality. Nobody should be permitted to say that in determining the result anything extraordinary was done to take undue advantage of the position of power occupied by the party in the National Government. This is of the highest importance, for we now are going to establish a precedent fraught with good or very dangerous consequences.

It is maintained by some that the President of the Senate has, according to the Constitution, the power to count the votes, to decide doubtful cases and to declare the result, and that the two houses of Congress are only witnesses to the act, without any authority to interfere. Having studied that question, the law as well as the precedents, I know what can be said in favor of the above proposition. It is true that it corresponds with the earliest practice. But it is also true, that no President of the Senate ever practically decided a disputed case, or claimed the power to do so, and that for more than half a century it has been the uniform usage that, whenever a case of doubt arose, the two houses of Congress took it in hand for settlement. The Wisconsin case can scarcely be quoted as a precedent to the contrary. That is the history of the country, and as the Republican party has not only never questioned that power of the two houses but practically asserted and exercised it, it has become the history of the Republican party. If now after all this, that power is claimed for and by the President of the Senate and exercised to decide all disputed questions in favor of the candidate of his party and thus to determine the result, will not such an act appear in the light of an arbitrary assumption of a doubtful power in the service of party interest? And what will be the effect?

It may be said that bad appearance is of no consequence if the act can be defended with strong argument. Indeed, I trouble myself little about mere clamor, but I do care very much not only about the merit but also about the appearance of such an act in a case like this. I will not follow Mr. Curtis in predicting the certain downfall of the party that does such things, although I think he is right. But there is a far more important consideration. What kind of a precedent would such a proceeding set to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous politicians in the future? It will not be the suspected action of a strictly partisan returning-board alone; it will not be the assumption and exercise of questionable power by the President of the Senate alone,—it will be all these things together by which a party decided a Presidential election in its favor. Imagine such doings to stand as a precedent in our history, and then an unscrupulous set of politicians bound to maintain themselves in power, to find such a precedent, and then to improve upon it—where will be the limit of arbitrary proceedings? What will become of our Presidential elections? What an immense step will it be in the Mexicanization of the government!

It is for such reasons that I am so anxious to see the Conference Committee unite both parties upon a mode of counting the electoral vote and determining the result which will not appear in the light of a mere partisan maneuver, but be recognized as fair by all impartial men and put the legitimacy of the next Administration above reasonable question. For such reasons I think that everybody that can wield any influence should use it to that end. You can certainly not desire to be lifted into the Presidency by a proceeding of doubtful character, so doubtful, indeed, as to trouble the minds of a large number of patriotic men in your own party. An Administration whose title can be questioned by fair argument would be so completely at the mercy of the opposition and so crippled in its power for good that to carry it on would be misery to a man of fine sensibilities and a noble ambition.

It is well that you should know what is going on in the public mind outside of those circles which are apt to form themselves around a man likely to wield power. The question is asked on all sides: What can Governor Hayes do if made President in such a way? Which of the reforms he has so bravely defined and so solemnly promised, will he be able to carry out? I have received a large number of letters from all parts of the country, from men who earnestly and actively supported you and now are troubled by the same anxieties and apprehensions. As a specimen of the current thought I send you one addressed to me by a gentleman you know as a man of honor and ability. I take the liberty of communicating it to you without the knowledge of the writer, because you ought to know what such men think and say. You will oblige me by returning it. It presents but a mild picture of the fears and gloomy anticipations at present prevailing among many of your friends.

Pardon the length and frankness of this letter. Let me assure you that it comes from a true friend who entertains for you feelings warmer even than mere esteem and is animated by the sincerest wishes for your success, prosperity and honor. I would rather speak of more agreeable things, but, as a friend, I deem it my duty to say to you what thousands of conscientious men think, although, possibly, they may shrink from making their thoughts known to you. The gravity of this crisis may justify the intrusion. Our Constitutional system has received many rude shocks of late, and, maybe, we have arrived at a turning-point now where the progress of evil may either be arrested or precipitated or at least accelerated. Any movement in the wrong direction now would open a Pandora-box of evil for the future.