Historical Highlights

Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina Opposed the 1877 Electoral Commission

January 25, 1877
Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina Opposed the 1877 Electoral Commission Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina, the first Black Representative in Congress, earned the distinction of also being the first Black man to preside over a session of the House, in April 1874.
On this date, Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina declared his opposition to legislation creating an Electoral Commission to determine the victor of the 1876 presidential election. The inconclusive presidential contest between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York had produced a conundrum for Congress. The House and Senate, responsible for certifying the electoral vote, needed a way to evaluate disputed results from four states: Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina. The three Southern states had endured a campaign rife with violence, fraud, and voter suppression, and had sent two sets of results to Congress, one which favored Hayes and the other which favored Tilden. On January 18, Senator George Edmunds of Vermont proposed a bill to establish an Electoral Commission made up of five Representatives, five Senators, and five Supreme Court Justices. The 15-member panel would evaluate the competing results and decide the outcome of the election. Rainey, who in 1870 became the first African American seated in the House, printed remarks in the Appendix of the Congressional Record on January 25 opposing Edmunds’s commission. Rainey believed the nation was at a historic crossroads. One path, he said, would lead to “a near resort to arms” while the alternative would preserve a fragile peace. Edmunds’s bill, Rainey said, would undermine the Constitution's separation of powers by granting the legislative and judicial branches the ability to determine the head of the executive branch. He feared the commission would be overtly partisan and could lead to “the election of a President by one man rather than by a majority of the people of the United States.” Rainey urged restraint to avoid long-term damage to America’s democracy. “I venture to suggest that extreme caution be exercised in the premises, lest the passage of this bill be taken as an announcement to the world that, after the test of a hundred years, it has been found impracticable for a republican government of such magnitude as ours to exist upon a firm and peaceful basis. . . . The demise of this Republic would be a calamity of no ordinary character. Such a result would increase the arrogance of potentates and plunge in the depths of humiliation and despair a large portion of the world’s inhabitants, who have watched with unfeigned interest in our steady rise as like a star unto its zenith, and who have cherished the best hopes for the perpetuity of our institutions and the life the Republic.” Despite Rainey’s warning, the bill became law. The commission ultimately voted along party lines, 8 to 7, to give all the contested electoral votes to Hayes. During Hayes’s presidential administration, violence and fraud at the polls across the South went unchecked by the federal government. As the promise of Reconstruction waned—the promise of a biracial democracy—the stark oppression of Jim Crow took its place. African Americans, especially in the South, saw their civil rights obliterated. It would be nearly another century before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to begin restoring what had been taken away.

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