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Letter Found At Lenox Library Provides Insight On Controversial 1876 Election

The discovery of a letter at the Lenox Library is shedding some light on perhaps the most controversial presidential election in American history.

“Eoin found one half of the letter and I found the other half of the letter,” Lenox Library Director Amy Lafave recalled. “We put them together and said ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’”

Amy Lafave’s reaction to a four-page letter between two brothers-in-law may seem out of place, except when you learn who the two men are. The recipient is Julius Rockwell, who served in both houses of Congress and had two stints as the speaker of the Massachusetts House. The writer is David Davis, a Supreme Court Justice, who had a chance to essentially decide the 1876 presidential election singlehandedly. Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York took the popular vote and with 20 electoral votes unresolved led Republican Rutherford B. Hayes 184 to 165. An electoral commission was formed to award the 20 votes. The members were split evenly by party with one independent…you guessed it: Davis.

“So they think he’ll [Davis] be basically the one vote who will be swung either way and whichever way he swings will be the right way,” said Eoin Higgins.

The letter was discovered as part of Higgins’ master’s thesis on Rockwell’s 1855 bid for governor in Massachusetts. So what does Davis say in this 1878 letter?

“Davis says to Rockwell ‘I have no doubt that Tilden was cheated,’” explained Higgins.

But in a strange turn of events, Davis relinquishes his ability to impact the election.

“The Democrats here in Illinois elected Davis to the Senate and their feeling was that would push him in the direction that they wanted him to go,” David Davis Mansion curator Jeff Saulsbery explained. “But Davis was a very strong-willed and strong-minded. He simply just resigned the Supreme Court seat to come back and be a Senator. So he thwarted their plans and still took the office.” 

In turn, Davis left the electoral commission, as described by Saulsbery. A more Republican-leaning Supreme Court Justice was appointed and the commission assigned the 20 contested electoral votes to Hayes, who took the presidency. Higgins says he interprets the letter as Davis questioning the integrity of the vote counts.

“Until now there is no way of ever really knowing what would have happened,” Higgins said. “What does happens is that Hayes gets into office and part of the compromise that the Republicans make with the Democrats is that ‘You give us the presidency and we’ll [Republicans] will end Reconstruction.”

Higgins sent the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, Illinois a transcript of the letter. Although Davis was a Whig and a Republican, who served as Abraham Lincoln’s campaign manager, he had strayed from the party by 1876. Saulsbery says while interesting, the letter doesn’t necessarily shed light on how Davis felt in 1876, but instead shows his feelings after roughly two years and investigations into the election. In Saulsbery’s opinion, he doesn’t think Davis, who he calls a fair-minded person, would’ve given all 20 votes to Hayes.

“He only had to give away one electoral vote and Tilden would have won so out of that 20 how could he not have?” argued Saulsbery.

After saying he has no doubt Tilden was cheated, Davis writes in the letter that “investigations wouldn’t make it any plainer.” The Davis Mansion and the Lenox Library plan to continue going through the Davis-Rockwell letters in hopes of finding more on the topic.

Nonetheless, the letter does allow for a fun part of history…speculating what might have been different had Tilden become president. It’s a topic Higgins is happy to weigh in on.

“The deal is probably going to be…Tilden is president, but it’s going to be politically impossible to end Reconstruction,” Higgins said. “That’s just kind of the way these things balance out in American politics. Reconstruction doesn’t end. This is totally speculative. Then you have about 40 years until World War I so in those 40 years you have Jim Crow laws. Well maybe with Reconstruction, you don’t have that.”

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