Historical Highlights

Contested Election Victory of Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina

July 19, 1882
Contested Election Victory of Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina Image courtesy of Library of Congress Before his election to Congress, Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina became a legend for his heroic efforts capturing the Southern ship, the Planter, during the Civil War.
On this date, African-American Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina won his contested election case against Representative George Tillman, a political rival Smalls once described as the “arch enemy of my race.” Tillman had defeated Smalls in his 1878 re-election campaign and, in 1880, the black Congressman resolved to take back the seat. However, the “Red Shirts,” a South Carolina white supremacy group led by Tillman, the “Democratic tiger,” intimidated black voters throughout the violent campaign. Smalls failed to defeat his rival, garnering only 15,287 votes, or 40 percent; however, he contested the election, hoping to capitalize on the slim Republican majority in the 47th Congress (1881–1883). His case came before the Committee on Elections on July 18, 1882. Using a particularly violent town, Edgefield, South Carolina, as a case study, Smalls won the support of the committee by testifying that his supporters had been frightened away from the polls. In an attempt to prevent Smalls from taking the seat, House Democrats sought to avoid a quorum by deserting the House Chamber when his case came to a vote. Their plan backfired, however, as the House seated him, 141 to 1 with 144 abstentions. While Smalls’s victory was yet another blow to southern Democrats, the state legislature spoiled his chances for re-election by gerrymandering away his district in 1882.

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