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Parshat Lech Lecha – Unfortunate compromise

In the 1877 US presidential election, a compromise won the Republicans the election, but they lost almost everything they believed in (Lech Lecha)
Rutherford B. Hayes (l) and Samuel J. Tilden. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Rutherford B. Hayes (l) and Samuel J. Tilden. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

It appears that there will be a high voter turnout for next week’s US presidential election. But it is unlikely that the percentage of votes will be as high as in the election of 1876. In that year, almost 82 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot in what became perhaps the most controversial US election result so far.

The reason for the high turnout was the huge change in the electorate. Congress had passed the 14th Amendment in 1866 (despite President Andrew Johnson vetoing it) and it had been ratified by the states and adopted on July 9, 1868. This gave African Americans full citizenship and the same representation as white people (previously they had only counted as 3/5ths of a white person). This was followed by the 15th Amendment, ratified and adopted by the states on February 3, 1870. This addition to the Constitution guaranteed that:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

And furthermore:

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Of course, this still left half the population disenfranchised – the 14th Amendment had specified that the right to vote only applied to males and not females. Nevertheless, it meant a large cohort of people voted for the first time during the 1870s.

President Ulysses S. Grant. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

These new voters, many of them only recently freed from slavery, took their right to vote very seriously. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had officially freed the slaves right in the middle of the Civil War. And after the war, the United States entered the Reconstruction Era. President Ulysses S. Grant passed the Enforcement Acts to ensure that, not only would the African Americans have the right to vote, but also the ability to do so. Grant sent the military to the South where it virtually wiped out the nascent Ku Klux Klan which, over the previous few years, had murdered outspoken freedmen and prominent Republicans.

Having served two terms, Grant decided to follow the precedent set by George Washington and not run again. His Republican Party selected the Governor from Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, to head the ticket. He was running against the Democrat candidate, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden’s family had made their money manufacturing and selling Tilden’s Extract, a cannabis extract billed as a safer alternative to opium. (Fitz Hugh Ludlow wrote about his recreational experimentation with Tilden’s Extract in his 1857 book The Hasheesh Eater.)

Although Tilden himself had always been opposed to slavery, many of the former slave owners in the Democrat party expected him to end Reconstruction once he became president.

After the polls closed, on the evening of November 7, 1876, the vote count began. It quickly became clear that Tilden had won the popular vote by a margin of about 250,000. By midnight, he had also won 184 electoral college votes to Hayes’s 165. Most thought this had won him the election. Many of the papers printed their morning edition declaring Tilden the winner.

1876 Electoral Map (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

But they had all forgotten that just a few months earlier, Colorado had been admitted to the Union. The new state’s three votes in the electoral college meant that there were now a total of 369 votes, and that Tilden was still one shy of a majority.

The New York Times had figured this out and said the election was still too close to call, going with the headline “A Doubtful Election.” There were still 20 electoral college votes that had not been clearly decided, enough to potentially give Hayes the presidency.

If South Carolina, with its seven electoral votes, Louisiana, with eight and Florida with four, Hayes would be even with his rival. All three states appeared to have voted for Tilden, but there were allegations of fraud, voter intimidation and blatant cheating that gave the Republicans hope. Then there was a single disputed elector in Oregon, who had been disqualified by the Democrat governor, even though the state had overwhelmingly voted for Hayes.

Hayes was in Ohio writing his concession speech by the time the morning edition of the Times reached him, and he realized that he might have a chance.

Republicans and Democrats invested all their energy ensuring that they won those electoral college votes. The Democrat Tilden needed just a single vote to win the election. Hayes couldn’t afford to lose any.

Cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 1877 Feb 17, p. 132. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Both parties used everything at their disposal, including bribery, to ensure their party won the electoral college votes.

Eventually the Republican delegates in all four states were authorized to go to the Electoral College to vote for Hayes. Unfortunately, the same states also authorized Democrat Electors to go and vote for Tilden.

There was nothing in the Constitution about how to deal with an electoral college that had given two men in opposing parties enough votes to become president.

On January 29, 1877 a 15-member bipartisan commission was appointed to decide on each of the four states that had submitted two sets of electors.

Poster published in 1877. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On January 31, the commission convened and ultimately voted along party lines, deciding to award all 20 electoral college votes to Hayes, making him the 19th president of the United States.

However, behind closed doors, the Republicans and Democrats made a deal, known as the Compromise of 1877. The Democrats would concede the election. In exchange, the Republicans would remove all the troops from the Southern states and end Reconstruction.

Hayes was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1877. And as Federal troops were withdrawn from the South, the former slaves were betrayed. The Democrats then gradually imposed the so-called Jim Crow segregation laws. The Supreme Court upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, legalizing the institutional economic, educational and social disadvantages for African Americans living in the South. By the beginning of the 20th century African Americans in many states were almost entirely removed from voter rolls. In Louisiana, for example, although African Americans made up the majority of the population, there were only 5,320 eligible to vote. In North Carolina not a single black voter was left on the rolls by 1905.

The compromise put an end to racial equality. It would take almost a century, until Democrat President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, before most of them would be able to vote again. Coincidentally, that same year, most white southerners switched allegiance from the Democrat Party and became Republicans.

United States President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among the guests behind him is Martin Luther King Jr. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The compromise with the Democrats won Hayes the election. But the price the Republicans paid for victory was giving up almost everything they believed in.

Perhaps there are some values that should not be compromised.

Which brings us to this week’s Torah reading, Lech Lecha. The Torah describes how God told Abram (who would soon become Abraham) to leave his home and go to the land of Israel. God promised him riches and power if he traveled to this new land.

Abram and his wife Sarai (later to become Sarah) set out immediately for the Promised Land. But they also allowed Abram’s nephew, Lot, to come with them.

Was Lot motivated by the same religious desire as his uncle? Did he want to follow God’s instructions? Not likely. The text implies (and the rabbis state explicitly) that Lot went because he was next of kin to the childless Abram and Sarai and expected to inherit their wealth in the future.

The Torah teaches that as soon as they began to amass some wealth, Lot chose to separate from Abram. Genesis 13 describes how both Abram and Lot had great wealth (given to them by the king of Egypt). And immediately, “There was a fight between Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen,” (Genesis 13:7). Abram decides it is time for him and his nephew to part ways. He let Lot choose where he wants to live. Lot shows his true colors and chooses Sodom, a city known for its wickedness. Genesis 13:13 states:

The men of Sodom were extremely wicked and sinners before God.

Not only did Lot go to settle in a city of sinners, but soon after his arrival, he was appointed to be one of the judges of the city. Lot didn’t just blend in with the inhabitants of the city; he became one of its leaders.

Why had Abram compromised on his own values and allowed Lot to tag along with him for so long? Did he feel guilty for his brother’s death and decide he had to look out for his nephew? Did he believe he and Sarai could influence Lot so that he would stop craving riches and the lifestyle of Sodom and Gemorrah?

Whatever the reason, his compromise ultimately did not help Lot, but did harm Abram. It was only after he separated from his nephew that God again spoke to the Patriarch.(Genesis 13:14-15):

And God said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes and see from the place you are, north, south, west and east. For all the land you see I will give to you and your descendants forever.’

Abram’s spiritual growth and relationship with God had been damaged by his kindness to his nephew. When it came to his religious beliefs, Abraham would rather be thrown into a furnace than compromise. But when it came to dealing with people, he compromised his values and paid a price.

But it seems that he didn’t learn his lesson. In next week’s Torah reading, Vayera, God tells Abram he will destroy Sodom and Gemorrah because they are exceedingly evil. But Abram does not accept God’s statement and argues that the city should be saved. Abram urges God to compromise and save the wicked city for the sake of any righteous who may be there (though ultimately it turns out there are none except for Lot and his two daughters). God humors Abram by tolerating his arguments, but in the end tells Abram that there is no room to negotiate. The angels head off to destroy the city. There can be no compromise.

On one hand, Abraham is praised for his kindness to all, regardless of whether they are deserving or not. In contrast to Noach who climbed into his ark without a word of protest when God brought the flood, Abraham tried to save the sinners from God’s wrath.

But sometimes, a compromise can lead to a worse outcome. Abram harmed his relationship with God in an effort to maintain his relationship with Lot. If he had succeeded in delaying the destruction of Sodom he may have caused more sin, misery and death than if he had remained silent.

Was there a better alternative in 1877? I don’t know. Perhaps there was no alternative to the compromise. Could Abraham’s innate desire to be kind to all ever allow him to abandon the wicked to their fate? Perhaps not. Maybe it was only when he was instructed to offer his son as a sacrifice that Abraham understood there was no room for compromise.

These are unanswerable questions.

But it is important to remember that compromise is not always equitable. Sure, the Mishna (Avot 1:12) says that we should be like the students of Aharon and love peace. But that does not mean that a compromise will always give the best outcome.

It is ironic to view compromises as a negative or detrimental thing. We often tell our children to work out a compromise. I almost feel guilty for pointing out the potential weaknesses in compromises, but it is important to realize it is not always the right path

Sometimes, instead of being a win-win situation, a compromise is actually a loss for some. There are times that we must stand up for what is right and reject a compromise that harms others or damages our relationship with God.

When researching this blog I read many articles and listened to several podcasts. By far the most entertaining podcast on the 1876 election is The Constant. Check it out.

I’ve started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley. Beginning November 3rd, I’m beginning a new six-part series at WebYeshiva. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes by registering on the website.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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