Isaac Wayne MacVeagh's Election Race

In 1877, a local attorney helped the GOP retain the White House—at a cost.

Chester County’s Isaac Wayne MacVeagh.People working toward a goal can easily develop tunnel vision. Peripheral issues? What peripheral issues?

Perhaps it was like that for local attorney Isaac Wayne MacVeagh, who was recruited to help settle the disputed 1876 election. MacVeagh’s goal was to keep the presidency in Republican hands. He saw Republicans—despite the rampant corruption of the Grant administration—as the party of reform and Democrats as the party of the Confederacy. In that context, the White House was worth losing Southern state governments.

According to his 1917 obituary in the influential North American Review, MacVeagh “did more probably than any other one person to break up carpetbag government.” Carpetbaggers were mostly radical Republicans who, after the Civil War, were the primary defenders of civil and voting rights of newly freed blacks. When they fell from power, the era of Jim Crow began.

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Born in Phoenixville, MacVeagh was the middle of three sons, often compared unfavorably to his older brother. Whereas Nathan was “serious and diligent,” Isaac was “irascible and opinionated.”

Named for Isaac Wayne, a son of Anthony Wayne, with whom his father had served in the War of 1812, the boy decided to drop his first name. He attended the Freeland Seminary (now Ursinus College), then went off to Yale University, where he received a law degree in 1853. He began a law practice and married Letty Lewis, whose father, Joseph, owned the Chester County Times, which favored the new Republican party and abolition. By 1859, MacVeagh was serving as district attorney for Chester County.

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MacVeagh could’ve been nothing other than a Republican. His mother, Margaret Lincoln MacVeagh, was a second cousin of Abe himself. In 1860, his father-in-law’s newspaper published Lincoln’s first biography. Widely reprinted, the article was many Easterners’ first introduction to the man who would soon be president. After Letty’s death in 1864, MacVeagh married Virginia, the daughter of Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s secretary of war.

In 1863, when Confederate forces entered the state before the Battle of Gettysburg, MacVeagh found himself in charge of the local militia. He saw no combat, but could be considered a legitimate veteran. (His brother, Nathan, died of battle wounds in 1864.) That fall, as chair of the state Republican Party, he sat on the platform with Lincoln as the latter delivered his 263-word address.

After the war, MacVeagh busied himself as a West Chester burgess and with the planning and creation of the West Chester State Normal School (now West Chester University). The first meeting of the school’s trustees was in his office.

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MacVeagh ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Named U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman in 1868, MacVeagh didn’t stay long in the position. The Daily Local News reported in its 1917 obituary that he “disagreed with the methods” of the Grant administration. In 1915, MacVeagh hinted at the cause in praising Richard Lyons, former British ambassador at Constantinople for his refusal to engage in the “dirty work” of begging favors for his country’s businessmen. “I have never seen any benefit whatever to the masses of these countries from the capitalists seeking concessions or the promoters of loans to the bandits in temporary charge of [their] governments,” he said.

MacVeagh’s rise to national prominence began in West Chester in 1873, when he defended William Udderzook for the murder of his accomplice in a fraud scheme. (See April 2009’s Retrospect.) Udderzook was convicted and hanged, but MacVeagh nevertheless displayed considerable legal skill, which was noted in nationwide coverage of the trial.

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After the trial, MacVeagh co-founded a law firm, MacVeagh and Bispham—now known as Dechert LLP, with more than 800 lawyers in 26 offices around the world. Clients included railroads, banks, insurance and coal companies. The firm’s offices were in Philadelphia, so MacVeagh bought a house in Lower Merion.

Then came the election mess of ’76: Rutherford B. Hayes versus Samuel J. Tilden for the presidency. As a Republican, Hayes was handicapped by Grant administration corruption. Tilden had campaigned under the slogan “Turn the rascals out,” in response to which the GOP could offer promises of reform and the “bloody shirt”—emotional reminders that the Democrats were the party of the South, whose attempt at secession had cost so many their lives.

Tilden won the balloting by about 250,000 popular votes. The electoral count was less clear. Democrats claimed 17 states with 184 electoral votes; Republicans, 18 states with 166 electoral votes. Up in the air were Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana with 19 votes each. Election required 185.

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What those three Southern states had in common was significant numbers of Union troops to back the push for civil and voting rights. As Northern willingness to pay taxes to support these troops had declined, they’d been withdrawn elsewhere—with predictable results. Black participation in the political process plunged in the face of Klan violence and re-emergent white control.

In Florida, where voter fraud and ballot tampering made it impossible to tell who had really won, both sides opted to bribe relevant officials. Republicans eventually won the bidding. In South Carolina, a Republican-dominated panel invalidated the ballots of two counties, giving Hayes the state’s electoral vote, and the GOP continued control of the state. In response, Democrats organized a rival state government.

In New Orleans, the Reconstruction capital, Radical Republican Gov. Stephen B. Packard occupied the statehouse, protected by 5,000 federal troops and three gunboats. Democratic Gov. Francis T. Nicholls set up headquarters at the Odd Fellows Hall. Both were inaugurated in separate ceremonies before their rival legislatures.

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At his death, Isaac Wayne MacVeagh was remembered as a genuine reformer. In the 1880s, he served as president of the Civil-Service Reform Association of Philadelphia, which lobbied against the spoils system and for merit hiring at all levels of government. In 1889, speaking to the Massachusetts Reform Club, he declared that “the American people know that every dollar in the public Treasury is merely the sum that they subscribe to the common fund and belongs to them only and not to the politicians who propose to squander it.”

Yet MacVeagh also believed that Republicans were the only likely architects of reform. In the campaign, he’d warned that Democrats would destroy the national banks, inflate the currency with “irredeemable paper money” and abandon the freedmen. Both Tilden and Hayes had promised a greater measure of home rule to the Southern states, but only the Republican candidate conditioned that promise on the protection of equal rights for all citizens.

So, naturally, MacVeagh agreed when Hayes—who said the Pennsylvanian’s views matched his own “almost precisely”—asked him to lead a commission of five senior statesmen to settle the Louisiana dispute. The men had no legal authority,
but were the personal representatives of Hayes, who borrowed money to pay their expenses. Also on the commission was John Marshall Harlan, a future U.S. Supreme Court justice.

By this time (April 1877), Hayes had already been sworn in, his victory certified with 185 electoral votes based on Republican versions of the outcome in the three disputed states. But his status could still be challenged; the same panels that confirmed Hayes’ election also confirmed local Republican victories, and those state results were being widely resisted, often with violence.

“The actions of the returning boards in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana would not bear close scrutiny,” wrote historian Roy Morris Jr. “Any reasonably impartial board was likely to reverse the findings, particularly those from the state of Louisiana.”

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For Hayes to keep the White House, the Southerners must somehow be placated. Hayes was determined not to use force. He had no mandate to resume the Civil War. But he also wanted to avoid antagonizing Southern voters, believing naively that Republicans could build a majority party in the South with a combination of blacks and upper-class whites.

So, with no legal authority and no troops, MacVeagh and his fellow commissioners could only jawbone. And they did, quite well.

Packard expected the commission to declare a winner. In this, he was disappointed. The Republican governor controlled only the four square blocks surrounding the statehouse.

Meanwhile, outside that zone, thousands of Nicholls’ supporters publicly pledged “never to submit to the pretended Packard government; never to pay it a dollar of taxes; never to acknowledge its authority; but to resist it at every point and in every way.”

Rather than choose a governor, MacVeagh and his group focused on creating a legislature in which both houses would have a quorum of members whose seats were undisputed. In theory, both the Packard and Nicholls legislatures could try to attract the other side’s undisputed members.

But, as MacVeagh and his commissioners undoubtedly pointed out in their closed-door conferences, Louisiana politicians would eventually have to face the Democrats in the street, and do it without troops to back them up. Packard legislators got the message.

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Many years later, Harlan’s wife, Malvina, described the process: “The commission gave no advice to either side yet those members of the legislature who had ‘recognized’ Gov. Packard began—one by one, and then by twos and threes—to
desert to the rival legislature and, finally, the remnant of the Packard legislators went over in a body.”

Before leaving New Orleans, Malvina noted, “practically all the legally elected legislators [on the commission] ‘recognized’ Mr. Nicholls as the governor of the state, and the Packard regime disappeared from view.”

Packard wisely left the state and settled in Iowa to breed livestock. The Republican governors of South Carolina and Florida were similarly abandoned.

Disappointed by Hayes’ commitment to reform, MacVeagh became increasingly critical of the Republican Party. He served as attorney general under James A. Garfield, but resigned rather than serve under his successor, Chester Arthur, a renowned patronage politician. MacVeagh later endorsed Democrat Grover Cleveland.

In 1880, in a speech to Philadelphia businessmen, MacVeagh condemned both continuing Republican corruption and the party’s “surrender to white men who were disloyal while they continued to trample under their feet the right of suffrage guaranteed by the Constitution to black men who were loyal.”

Perhaps, in the end, MacVeigh had a guilty conscience.

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