Segment from Pulling the Curtain

Old Time Shenanigans

Historian Mark Summers chats with Ed about the down and dirty politicking of Gilded Age-era elections. Intimidation, vote-buying, and fraud, oh my!

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers and Peter Onuf. Today, we’re talking about the history of voting. And we want to spend a little time looking at early cases of what might be the most exciting aspect of the voting process– cheating.

ED: Ah, yes. It’s kind of surprising, Brian– in the 1880s and 1890s, kind of a golden age of American politics. Voter turnout was at nearly 80% of eligible voters, a remarkable number by today’s standards. It was a time when the national elections were decided on the thinnest of margins and thus could be easily swung by well-executed shenanigans.

These days, elections are all about the top of the ticket– the presidential candidates themselves. But in the 1880s, it was all about the party.

MARK SUMMERS: You’re not voting for William McKinley. You’re voting for the party that saved the Union, the party that will protect you from treason. Or you’re voting for the party of liberty and personal choice. The party of moral ideas on the one side and the party of personal liberty on the other.

ED: This is Mark Summers, an historian at the University of Kentucky who’s written a lot about the high jinks in American politics, especially in the late 1800s. And he’s referring, of course, to the Republicans, what he calls the moral ideas guys, and the Democrats, those liberty lovers.

MARK SUMMERS: You can have Indiana governors shouting right openly there, every man that shot against you during the war was a Democrat. The man that killed Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat. Everyone who hunted slaves with bloodhounds was a Democrat. Soldiers, every scar you have upon your body was given to you by a Democrat.

ED: And that’s so-called waving the bloody shirt, right?

MARK SUMMERS: Well, yeah. But it’s done on the southern side, too, except you don’t wave the bloody shirt in terms of treason. You wave it in terms of, if you don’t vote the Democratic Party, you’re going to have Negro rule. Do you want Negroes sitting in the school right next to your daughter? Do you want a Negro sheriff hailing you? And do you want Negroes on juries? That’s what the Republicans are gonna do! Vote the white man’s ticket. Vote the white supremacy ticket.

Let me ask you, if you knew that the issue was saving your country, wouldn’t it be worth buying a few voters? If the real issue was whether the country was going to be destroyed or not?

ED: So the fact is that they really were unembarrassed about violating what an earlier generation, the founding generation, would have defined as purity at the polls.

MARK SUMMERS: Oh, the politicians were unembarrassed about it. As they would say– one of them wrote in a letter, sometimes you have to fight Satan with his own weapons.

ED: So tell me about Satan’s weapons, Mark. What were the techniques that they would use to trick their way into victory?

MARK SUMMERS: Oh, number one, you’d buy voters. That’s a simple kind of thing. A voter cost you $2, maybe $2.50, maybe, if there’s a lot of competition, as high as 10 bucks. Simple as that. The $2 bill, its main uses is for vote-buying. I mean, that’s it gets its big pull-out. There’s some people that what you might describe as partisan floaters. Might be Republicans, for example, who they would never vote anything but a Republican ticket. But if you don’t buy ’em, they’re not gonna vote at all. And you’re gonna need their votes.

And buying votes is really not all that hard to do because in the days before the secret ballot, each party prints its own ballot, which means that what they do is the party organizer will put the ballot into your hand along with the money or along with the IOU or the promissory note. And when he sees you going to the polls and put that paper ballot in through the slot, he knows he’s got his money’s worth.

ED: Now sometimes, however, that straightforward approach of just buying an election doesn’t work, and people have to resort to more imaginative means. What would some of those have looked like?

MARK SUMMERS: Yeah, colonization, for example. Colonizing. Now remember, up through the 1880s, states vote on different days. So you could vote in Pennsylvania in October and cross the border into New York and vote there in November. Simple enough. Or vote in Indiana in October and already have voted up in Maine and Vermont in September. That’s an easy thing. So you don’t have enough votes? A person who’s smart can bring them across.

ED: Now, all this sounds like these are acts of what we might think of today as corruption that actually involve the voters themselves in a very explicit way.


ED: But was there not backroom chicanery that was violating the wills of the voters?

MARK SUMMERS: Yeah. Boss Tweed of New York City of Tammany Hall in the 1870s, when he was put on the witness stand once and asked about vote fraud said it wasn’t the voters that made the result. It was the counters that made the result. Let me give an example of, say, Louisiana. In a normal election year in the Gilded Age, you can get turnouts in some counties of 112% to 140%. Boy, do they like to vote.

But you know the best thing about it? This usually will get a turnout overwhelmingly Democratic with this 112%, 140% percent in a parish that has nothing but black Republicans in it. How did they do it? They did it because they put in the kind of votes and returns they wanted to put in.

ED: Can we say that one party cheated more than another back in the Gilded Age?

MARK SUMMERS: Oh, golly. In Indiana, in Delaware, in New Hampshire, no, no. Each side will buy wherever it can buy votes. It’s utterly unscrupulous, utterly dishonest. But you go on down to the South, and almost all the cheating, almost all the swindling, is Democratic cheating. They’re doing it quite deliberately because in states where there’s a black majority, which means a Republican majority, or enough white and black votes to vote Republican, the only way you can win is by wholesale cheating– by owning the election officials, by intimidation, by threats, by what’s known as bulldozing.

Bulldozing is not earth-moving machinery. Bulldozing is the form of intimidation, threats, and violence you use to make sure the other guys don’t vote. You dynamite their newspaper office before election day. You take out a few of their organizers and give ’em a flogging with barbwire. You fish three or four black Republicans out of the bayou maybe a week before the Louisiana election. The other ones, they’re gonna get the message. They’re not gonna show up to vote.

I mean, you go to Mississippi, you go to a black precinct– I mean, this happens in 1875. The blacks are getting ready to vote. A group of white armed riders with ropes over their arms come up, and they say, when do the polls open? And they say, not for five minutes. And they say, then the shooting won’t begin for five minutes, And ride off. How many people do you think are gonna show up to vote there?

ED: Not many.

MARK SUMMERS: Not many, which is one reason why I say in a county like Yazoo County, there’s about 1,000 Republican voters in one year. And the next year, there’s seven.

ED: Now, are there no disinterested reformers who are going to come in and say–


ED: What did they propose as solutions to this problem?

MARK SUMMERS: Oh, they had a lot of good solutions. Number one is the secret ballot. Secret ballot is a ballot that we have today, one that’s printed by the government that has all the parties on it that they’ll be handed at the polling place. Before that, what you have is a paper ballot. It may be about the size of a half sheet of notepaper. And on it, it lists one party’s candidates. And that party passes that ballot out.

I mean, Democrats, if they want to gull the illiterate black voters in the South, you know what they do? They can print a ballot that has Lincoln’s face on the top. Well, Lincoln’s a Republican hero. Of course blacks are gonna vote that ballot. They can’t read that all of the electors down there on that ticket are Democratic electors.

Between 1888 and about 1892, about half the states in the country got the secret ballot. And then sure, the guy can put a gold eagle coin into your hand for $1 or something like that. But he doesn’t know he’s gonna get his money’s worth, does he?

ED: And so the result led into a golden age of American–


ED: Right?

MARK SUMMERS: The golden age of honesty that we’re in today. Oh, no, no, no. If you have a secret ballot, it means that most people who are illiterate probably aren’t going to be able to vote because they can’t read the names. One of the magic things about the secret ballot down South is that for a lot of Southern white politicians, this is the way to keep blacks from voting. Because if maybe 30%, 40%, 50% of blacks have not had schooling and are illiterate, they won’t be able to figure out which party is which, and the Democrats will. It’s meant deliberately to cut out the vote.

But the other thing is a lot of vote buyers actually are people of honesty. And they figure, if I’ve been paid money to vote for the Democratic ticket, by gum, I’m gonna carry through. Vote buying went on in Kentucky all the way into this century and beyond. We’ve had politicians– prominent, up-and-coming, good politicians– who were implicated and jailed for being an accomplice in this kind of vote buying. The secret ballot doesn’t really cure it.

Or I could pick a county in Indiana and show you the same kind of thing, or in Ohio and show you the same kind of thing. It didn’t clean it up entirely.

ED: Is there any part of United States that’s immune to this stuff, Mark?

MARK SUMMERS: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I don’t think there’s ever been an honest state in the Union. I don’t really think so. When the advantage is big enough– I think most voters are honest. I think most politicians are honest, shocking as that may be to say. But there’s always the people out there that want to give themselves an edge. And they’ll get it, if they can.

ED: Mark, thank you so very much for joining us today.

MARK SUMMERS: My pleasure.