Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock

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Author: Winfield Scott Hancock  | Date: 1887

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Electoral Crisis of 1877

BY MAJOR-GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT HANCOCK

WHEN I heard the rumor that I was ordered to the Pacific coast, I thought it probably true, considering the past discussion on the subject. . . . I was not exactly prepared to go to the Pacific, how ever, and I therefore felt relieved when I received your note informing me that there was no truth in the rumors. Then I did not wish to appear to be escaping from responsibilities and possible danger which may cluster around military commanders in the East, especially in the critical period fast approaching.

"All’s well that ends well." The whole matter of the Presidency seems to me to be simple and to admit of a peaceful solution. The machinery for such a contingency as threatens to present itself has been all carefully prepared. It only requires lubricating, owing to disuse. The army should have nothing to do with the selection or inauguration of Presidents. The people elect the Presidents. Congress declares, in a joint session, who he is. We of the Army have only to obey his mandates, and are protected in so doing only so far as they may be lawful. Our commissions express that.

I like Jefferson’s way of inauguration; it suits our system. . . . He inaugurated himself simply by taking the oath of office. There is no other legal inauguration in our system. . . . Our system does not provide that one President should inaugurate another. There might be danger in that, and it was studiously left out of the Charter. But you are placed in an exceptionally important position in connection with coming events. The Capitol is in my jurisdiction, also, but I am a subordinate, and not on the spot, and if I were, so also would my superior in authority, for there is the station of the General-in-Chief. On the principle that a regularly elected President’s term of office expires with the 3d of March (of which I have not the slightest doubt, and which the laws bearing on the subject uniformly recognize), and in consideration of the possibility that the lawfully elected President may not appear until the 5th of March, a great deal of responsibility may necessarily fall upon you. You hold over. You will have power and prestige to support you. The Secretary of War, too, probably holds over; but, if no President appears, he may not be able to exercise functions in the name of a President, for his proper acts are of a known superior, a lawful President. You act on your own responsibility, and by virtue of a Commission only restricted by the law. The Secretary of War is only the mouth-piece of a President. You are not. If neither candidate has a Constitutional majority of the Electoral College, or the Senate and House on the occasion of the count do not unite in declaring some person legally elected by the people, there is a lawful machinery already provided to meet that contingency, and to decide the question peacefully. It has not been recently used, no occasion presenting itself; but our fore fathers provided it. It has been exercised, and has been recognized and submitted to as lawful on every hand. That machinery would probably elect Mr. Tilden President and Mr. Wheeler Vice-President. That would be right enough, for the law provides that in failure to elect duly by the people, the House shall immediately elect the President, and the Senate the Vice-President. Some tribunal must decide whether the people have duly elected a President.

I presume, of course, that it is in the joint affirmative action of the Senate and House; why are they present to witness the count, if not to see that it is fair and just? If a failure to agree arises between the two bodies, there can be no lawful affirmative decision that the people have elected a President, and the House must then proceed to act, not the Senate. The Senate elects Vice-Presidents, not Presidents. Doubtless, in case of a failure by the House to elect a President by the 4th of March, the President of the Senate (if there be one) would be the legitimate person to exercise Presidential authority for the time being, or until the appearance of a lawful President, or for the time laid down in the Constitution. Such a course would be a peaceful and, I have a firm belief, a lawful one.

I have no doubt Governor Hayes would make an excellent President. I have met him, and know of him. For a brief period he served under my command; but as the matter stands I can’t see any likelihood of his being duly declared elected by the people, unless the Senate and House come to be in accord as to that fact, and the House would of course, not otherwise elect him.

What the people want is a peaceful determination of this matter, as fair a determination as possible, and a lawful one. No other determination could stand the test.

The country, if not plunged into revolution, would become poorer day by day, business would languish, and our bonds would come home to find a depreciated market. . . .

As I have been writing thus freely to you, I may still further unbosom myself by stating that I have not thought it lawful or wise to use Federal troops in such matters as have transpired east of the Mississippi, within the last few months, save as far as they may be brought into action under the Constitution, which contemplates meeting armed resistance and invasion of a State, more powerful than the State authorities can subdue by the ordinary processes, and then only when requested by the Legislature, or, if that body could not be convened in season, by the Governor; and if the President of the United States intervenes in the matter it is a state of war, not peace. The Army is laboring under disadvantages, and has been used unlawfully, at times, in the judgment of the people (in mine certainly), and we have lost a great deal of the kindly feeling which the community at large once felt for us. It is time to stop and unload. Officers in command of troops often find it difficult to act wisely and safely, when superiors in authority have different views of the laws from them, and when legislation has sanctioned action seemingly in conflict with the fundamental law, and they generally defer to the known judgment of their superiors. Yet the superior officers of the Army are so regarded in such great crises, and are held to such responsibility, especially those at or near the head of it, that it is necessary on such momentous occasions to determine for themselves what is lawful and what is not lawful under our system, if the military authorities should be invoked, as might possibly be the case in such exceptional times when there existed such divergent views as to the correct result. The Army will suffer from its past action if it has acted wrongfully. Our regular Army has little hold upon the affections of the people of to-day, and its superior officers should certainly, as far as lies in their power, legally, and with righteous intent, aim to defend the right, which to us is the law, and the institution which they represent. It is a well-meaning institution, and it would be well if it should have an opportunity to be recognized as a bulwark in support of the right of the people and of the law.

[Mrs. Almira Russell Hancock], (New York, 1887), 152–157 passim.

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Chicago: Winfield Scott Hancock, "Electoral Crisis of 1877," Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock, ed. Mrs. Almira Russell Hancock in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed July 24, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SNR6MH8ICIEFVAV.

MLA: Hancock, Winfield Scott. "Electoral Crisis of 1877." Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock, edited by Mrs. Almira Russell Hancock, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 24 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SNR6MH8ICIEFVAV.

Harvard: Hancock, WS, 'Electoral Crisis of 1877' in Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock, ed. . cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SNR6MH8ICIEFVAV.