Powers on Fairclough, 'Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876'

Adam Fairclough. Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 328 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7559-0.

Reviewed by Michael S. Powers (Angelo State University)
Published on H-Nationalism (September, 2022)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57420

Perhaps no era surpasses Reconstruction in its importance for the national development of the United States. It is no accident that examining this era has been a leading avenue of recent study. Previous studies, like Moon-Ho Jung’s Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006), have examined forms of labor that replaced slavery. Historians, such as Michael F. Holt and Michael Perman, have highlighted the contentious debates over the rights of freedmen. More recently, historians like those who contributed to William A. Link’s edited collection, United States Reconstruction across the Americas (2019), have begun to extend the analysis of Reconstruction beyond national borders. Adam Fairclough’s Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 is grounded in a rich array of primary sources, from newspapers and government reports to private correspondence, that focuses on the Potter Committee—the most significant of several congressional investigations into the campaign, conduct, and contested resolution of that pivotal election.

This chronologically focused analysis builds on Fairclough’s numerous prior works on Louisiana, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement. Fairclough traces the findings of the Potter Committee in a clear and organized manner as a means to analyze the election in Louisiana as well as to examine attempts by national and local actors to determine the outcome. Fairclough’s laser focus on the Potter Committee enables Bulldozed and Betrayed to illustrate wider workings of the US nation-state in the Civil War’s aftermath, such as the reciprocal links between politics and journalism, the role of informal channels in Gilded Age politics, the influence of patronage, and the transactional nature of the nineteenth-century political arena. On the whole, Fairclough brings insight and clarity into what he aptly describes as a “convoluted tale of political skullduggery” (p. 4).

The book begins with details of Democratic intimidation and violence—known at the time as “bulldozing”—during the election campaign, election day, and the aftermath in Louisiana. Here Fairclough demonstrates a consistent strength of the book: his ability to coherently weave a narrative of political maneuverings at the parish, state, and national levels. Bulldozed and Betrayed specifically hones in on the parishes of West Feliciana and East Feliciana, which border Mississippi in the northern “boot” of the state. “If Louisiana held the key to the White House,” Fairclough contends, those parishes “held the key to the state” (p. 31). In so doing, Fairclough adds to our understanding of Louisiana history in the period, since scholars often focus on New Orleans or the sugar parishes. Fairclough demonstrates that historians concerned with tracking intimidation and violence should not merely focus on election day itself. Instead, Democrats pursued a strategy of “frontloading intimidation and violence” that ensured a false sense of transparency and fairness (p. 29).

As the book progresses, Fairclough highlights evidence of Democratic bulldozing the Republicans unearthed, most notably, by the testimony of an African American female sharecropper that became national news. Yet Fairclough also demonstrates that national GOP leaders, aided by local operatives, engineered victories for both the gubernatorial candidate, Stephen B. Packard, and Rutherford B. Hayes through the manipulation of the state Returning Board. Fairclough’s subsequent assessment of President Ulysses S. Grant counters recent historians, such as Ron Chernow, who have emphasized Grant’s furthering of Black rights. Fairclough does not so much deny Grant’s prior efforts in support of African American equality as he demonstrates that Grant took steps to abandon Republican state control amid Democratic insurgence, which Hayes ultimately carried to fruition.

Likewise, Fairclough adroitly includes the chicanery so common in the period. He traces the duplicity and outrageous claims that border on the comical of local political rogues like James E. Anderson. He takes the reader on a hunt for the Sherman Letter, a document that supposedly penned assurances of political horse trading but that ultimately was as mythical as Big Foot. In the same vein, Fairclough’s work covers the scandal of Democratic leaders in 1876 and 1877 using coded ciphers in attempts to bribe electors. Bulldozed and Betrayed, therefore, would be of interest to any scholar interested in Reconstruction and Gilded Age political theater.

Yet the historiographical lion’s share of Bulldozed and Betrayed is its analysis of the obfuscated dealings resulting in the so-called Compromise of 1877. “By winks and nods,” Hayes and his surrogates agreed to not support Packard’s claim on the governor’s mansion and end the policy of military intervention in southern affairs (p. 196). In exchange, Democrats promised to end the congressional filibuster that threatened to delay Hayes’s inauguration, allow for a Republican senator from Louisiana, and protect Black rights. Thus, Fairclough covers much of the same ground regarding the resolution of the 1876 election as historians from C. Vann Woodward to Charles W. Calhoun. Yet he argues that the national lens of prior scholars overlooks the subterfuge of Hayes actively undermining Louisiana Republicans’ hold on state power. “Packard had more right to be governor of Louisiana,” Fairclough argues, “than Hayes had right to be president of the United States.” In so doing, Fairclough redeems Republicans, like William E. Chandler, whose criticism of Hayes had been dismissed as the sour grapes of spurned patronage lackeys. Perhaps no other figure is resurrected to righteousness more so than Benjamin Butler. Fairclough argues that Butler’s Potter Committee report, which outlined a litany of sins on the part of Hayes and his heelers, “bears comparison with the dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson for its truth-telling analysis and prophetic warnings” (p. 245).

Fairclough’s book joins the ranks of seminal works, such as Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (1988) and Mark Wahlgren Summers’s The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (2014), in placing the struggle for Black freedom at the center of his narrative and definition of Reconstruction’s successes. Where Foner emphasizes that Reconstruction was left unfinished due to entrenched Democratic opposition, Fairclough presents Republican elites as the author and finisher of Reconstruction’s demise. Fairclough’s analysis of the rationale behind the Hayes junta’s decision to leave Louisiana Republicans to “root, hog, or die” is in line with the findings of Summers and earlier historians like Michael Les Benedict: namely, that most white northerners in the era cared more about fastening an indivisible nation, ending slavery, conquering the frontier, and economic issues than they did about federal safeguards for Black equality. Whatever their scholarly squabbles, Fairclough adds further credence to the orthodox historical interpretation that Louisiana was the most violent, chaotic, and pivotal state in Reconstruction.

Citation: Michael S. Powers. Review of Fairclough, Adam, Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57420

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.