Review: Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876


Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876
by William H. Rehnquist
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Centennial Crisis is Chief Justice William Rehnquist's interesting but ultimately disappointing telling of the disputed election of 1876.

The book is quite good at giving us the background of the central characters in the 1876 election - Grant, the outgoing President, Hayes, the candidate who ultimately won, Tilden his opponent.  This takes up the first four chapters. 

Chapter 5 covers the election itself, and here's where things get disappointing. Over the preceding 90 some pages Rehnquist covers the players in detail, but the play itself gets only eighteen pages, and there are twists and turns here that clearly could have benefited from further detail. I got to the end of Chapter 5 more than a bit confused by it all - Louisiana had a committee that simply threw out votes until they got the result they wanted?  Oregon's governor simply substitutes electors because why? It's all really strange and not well explained - even to a reader going through the strange contortions of the 2020 election.

Suffice it to say that more than one state (Hello Florida) submitted votes from more than one slate of electors to the Electoral College, throwing the election to Congress.  How Congress made it's way through the electoral mess, and managed to enlist Justices of the Supreme Court while doing so is the subject of the rest of the book.

Centennial Crisis is interesting as the product of the legal mind of the Chief Justice whose court ruled on the Florida ballot disputes in the 2000 election.  It's worth a read for that reason alone. But if you are looking to understand the environment and the politics of 1876 that led to the dispute in the first place, then it's best to look elsewhere. Rehnquist, legal wizard he, is of course much more interested in the legal process of resolving the dispute, and it's impact on (and to) the Supreme Court, and that is the story he tells here.

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