Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Campbellton, Friendship Church and the contested Election of 1876

Rutherford B. Hayes
19th President of the United States
Library of Congress
Most Americans remember the confusion in Florida that led to the contested election of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Most do not remember, however, that the Sunshine State was a key battleground in an even more bitter election fight. The election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden came down to a single electoral vote.

Author's note: As you read this, please remember that neither party of today resembles its 1876 version. Also, please note that the term "Radical Republican" is not an editorial comment, but rather was a commonly used name for the party at that time.

Florida was still a small state population-wise in 1876, but her tiny collection of four electoral votes was more than enough to swing the election in favor of Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The Carpetbagger Republicans who controlled the state government were determined to prevent that from happening, even if they had to steal the election and disenfranchise hundreds of voters.

The War Between the States (or Civil War) had been over for 11 years by 1876, but Radical Reconstruction was still the law of the land. U.S. soldiers could be sent to patrol civilian streets if there was even a hint that citizens might protest or otherwise "cause trouble." As the election of 1876 approached, in fact, a company of U.S. troops was sent to Jackson County:

Samuel J. Tilden
Rightful 19th President of the United States?
Library of Congress
The commanding officer Fort Barrancas, Fla., will send a battery of the Fifth Artillery to encamp at Marianna, Fla., to be increased, if necessary to make a total of thirty enlisted men, by temporary details from other batteries at the post, for duty under the provisions of General Orders No. 96, current series, Headquarters of the Army.

The battery to arrive at destination before November 7, and to remain until November 14, then to return to its proper station. - Special Orders No. 151, Headquarters, Department of the South, Oct. 18, 1876.

Republican officials in Tallahassee had spread claims that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to attack African-American voters in Jackson County.

These warnings of violence appear to have been fabricated because there was no outbreak or even evidence of Klan activity in the county that year. A later investigation by the U.S. Congress would determine, in fact, that black and white voters in Jackson County were beginning to see eye to eye on the matter of Carpetbagger rule.

Reconstruction had been a time of great turbulence in the county. Claims of widespread political murder, however, have been debunked by recent archival research. This is not to say that some political killings did not take place in 1865-1876. Clerk of Courts Dr. John Finlayson was assassinated by an individual or individuals unknown and several other politicians - Democrat and Republican - were wounded. The actual number, however, was less than 10% of the more than 170 deaths claimed by some writers.

Campbellton Baptist Church, built in the 1850s, was the
home congregation of many of the voters disenfranchised
in the 1876 Presidential election.
Citizens had seen taxes skyrocket to their highest level in Florida history. A couple of schools had been built by the Reconstruction-era government, but despite the increase in taxes very few people were receiving educations. Fees for filing court cases had gone through the roof, making it all but impossible for poor residents - black or white - to seek justice in the Carpetbagger-run courts. A subsequent audit even found that county officials were double and triple taxing some properties so they could purchase them at auction when the rightful owners could no longer afford to pay their taxes.

Such issues affected citizens regardless of race. High taxes and outrageous filing fees were a burden to all small farmers and business people. People of both races wanted better educations for their children. They wanted a peaceful and prosperous community and an end to post-war bitterness.

These common desires led to a remarkable transition in Jackson County's voting demographics. Almost all of the "freedmen" or former slaves had supported the Republic Party since 1865. Many whites had not voted at all during the years following the War Between the States but were now raising the standard of the Democratic party in growing numbers. By 1876 they were joined by a small but growing number of their black neighbors.

Friendship Church near Malone was at the epicenter of the
contested Election of 1876. The polling place then was
described as a small log church with no light or heat.
This new alliance was especially noticeable in the rural precincts that bordered the Alabama state line. Two of these precincts - Friendship Church and Campbellton - held the key to the White House.

A Congressional investigation found that election day of 1876 was for the most part peaceful in Jackson County. There were a few incidents here and there along with reports of long lines at some polling places, but the election system worked well and people voted freely. African-American voters from the Campbellton and Friendship Church precincts later testified that they willfully cast ballots for Democrat Tilden instead of Republican Hayes and that they only threats they received came from Republicans of their own race.

It was a cold day and there was no heat at Friendship Church so when the polls closed, the poll workers - both black and white - took the ballot boxes to Mosley's Store where they could count the ballots by the warmth of his fire. Both Republican and Democrat poll inspectors were present for the count and Samuel Tilden carried the precinct.

Armstrong Purdee was a poll official at the
Campbellton precinct in 1876.
In Campbellton, one of the Republican poll inspectors was 23-year-old Armstrong Purdee. He would soon become Jackson County's first African-American attorney:

...I do not know as there was any wrong done. I do not know as there was or I would have objected. During the dinner-hour, when we went to adjourn, I said, “Gentlemen, we can’t conceal the box from the public.” I spoke right in that way, and Mr. Callaway came out, and when we all came out he told me it would be all right, and then I didn’t object. - Armstrong Purdee, Testimony before Congressional Select Committee, Dec. 26, 1876.

 The only other problem reported in Campbellton was the appearance of some loud men, but the poll officials made them leave and all was described by whites and blacks alike as "peaceful." A large crowd appeared just before poll closing, but there is no indication that anyone was denied an opportunity to vote. Tilden carried the precinct by a wide margin.

Once the vote totals arrived in Marianna, Republican officials were shocked to find that Jackson County had voted the Democratic Party ticket for the first time since the end of war:

Jackson County Courthouse in Marianna as it appeared
during the contested Election of 1876.
“The day passed quietly. At none of the precincts was there the least demonstrations of a riot, and every man walked freely and without fear to the polls and deposited his ballot, and we are glad to know that a great many of the colored people had the nerve to cast a Democratic vote. The county is Democratic by ninety-six votes. Glory enough for one day – God be praised.”  It may be well, too, to quote a paragraph from the Sentinel, the governor’s organ, of the 11th, four days after the election. It said: “Reports from all parts of the state bring information that, in spite of previous apprehensions, the election of Tuesday was the quietest and most orderly of any ever held in Florida. No disturbance of any kind is reported from any quarter.” Days after this, when the figures began to look gloomy for the Republicans, the Union raises the cry of intimidation and fraud with respect to Jackson and other Democratic counties. It won’t hold. - Report on Jackson County elections from the Indianapolis Sentinel, Nov. 23, 1876.

When the returns from Jackson County reached Tallahassee the state canvassing board declared fraud and threw out the results from Friendship Church and Campbellton. The board members were all Radical Republicans and their action disenfranchised hundreds of voters from the two state line precincts.

Florida's historic Old Capitol as it appeared in 1876.
A Congressional Select Committee investigated the situation in December and found that Florida's canvassing board had acted without cause. The board's entire reason for throwing out the Jackson County results was that the number of Democrat votes at Campbellton and Friendship Church exceeded the number of whites registered in the precincts. The officials did not believe that any blacks would have voted for the Democratic nominee so they tossed every vote cast. No investigation was initiated and Florida's four electoral votes were handed to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Congressional investigators later interviewed a number of African-American voters from Campbellton and Friendship Church. Placed under oath, many of these men declared that they had cast their vote for the Democratic Party ticket and not the Republican one. Henry Olds, a 27-year-old African-American voter, explained to investigators for example that he voted a "Flag ticket." Asked if he knew whether that was a Republican or Democrat ballot, he responded, "Democrat, I suppose."

John Wallace, African-American political leader in
Florida during Reconstruction, accused his fellow
Republicans of widespread fraud. He believed that
the Presidential election had been stolen.
This did not matter in Tallahassee, where the Carpetbagger members of the canvassing board not only threw out the votes from the two Jackson County precincts, but then voted to abolish their own board. This eliminated the chance of anyone from Campbellton or Friendship Church filing an appeal over the theft of their voting rights.

The battle shifted to Washington, D.C., where it was determined that Tilden could do nothing about the fraudulent electors from Florida. The decision by the canvassing board to abolish itself prevented the Democratic nominee from suing to obtain a court order regarding the Jackson County precincts.

Similar issues in South Carolina, Louisiana and Oregon were resolved in similar ways and the election came down to Florida's four electoral votes. The move by the canvassing board to block the voters of Campbellton and Friendship Church from the rightful exercise of their constitutional rights threw the election to the Republican Party.

Rutherford B. Hayes became President of the United States by just one electoral vote.

His victory was assured by the GOP shenanigans in Florida. Tilden and his allies fought to the end and were able to force the Republican nominee to agree to an end to Radical Reconstruction in the South. The end of Republican Party rule in the region for the next century soon followed.

The two parties, of course, have changed greatly since 1876. So has the election process in Florida. A look back in time to that bitter election shows, however, that every vote counts and even the voters of small rural precincts like those in Jackson County can hold the future of their country in their hands.

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