Book Review: Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876

Adam Fairclough has written a lot of books. Most of them are firmly set in the 20th century, dealing with the Civil Rights movement. However, with The Revolution that Failed: Reconstruction in Natchitoches, Fairclough moved into Reconstruction history, particularly in Louisiana. Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 is his second book on the era, and it is both broad and narrow in its scope. It is also a delight to read if you have a dark sense of humor. For those who think politics is a noble game, Bulldozed and Betrayed would like to have a word with you.

Bulldozed and Betrayed deals with Louisiana’s role in the controversial 1876 presidential. In addition to discussing in detail the seemingly always poisoned waters of Louisiana politics, the book goes into detail with the Potter Commission. It was a strange beast made up of Democrats and Republicans who despised Rutherford B. Hayes and sought to discredit him for political gain. It ended up aiding neither the stalwart Republicans nor the Tildenite Democrats, the very men who hoped to prosper. The Democrats lost in 1880 and James Garfield, although not a Hayes partisan, was certainly not a stalwart. For more on that story I recommend Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield.

In relaying this complicated tale, Fairclough excels. For one, he understands that great personalities were pivotal. As such, he draws sharp portraits of the leading politicians of the era, such Jacob Cox, Samuel Tilden, and John Sherman. He does so almost always with nuance. The good and bad of each is shown, even for the obscure James E. Anderson. He played a crucial role in getting Hayes elected, and is portrayed as a violent drunkard and liar, but also a man with genuine grievances who was given a tough political task in Louisiana. This fairness applies to both parties. In the standard Reconstruction narratives of today Democrats, North and South, are villains. So they are here, using intimidation and implied violence (when not outright) to cow blacks into voting for Democrats. They called it bulldozing. The next part of the steal comes from Republicans who made a “corrupt” bargain with Democrats in the South and betrayed the southern Republicans. Fairclough makes a strong case against the prevailing narrative that there was no bargain. The Republicans of this narrative are often corrupt and mendacious or at best weak and naive. The Louisiana Republican Party in particular was an eyesore.

The book is not perfect of course. While most of the characters are treated fairly, Fairclough is perhaps too well disposed towards Benjamin Butler and too hard on Hayes. Of the later, he is portrayed as a naive hypocrite who betrayed his party and unknowingly ushered in the Jim Crow era. Even Tilden, who is also raked, comes across at least as an intelligent political operative who did good work in New York. Coming away from Bulldozed and Betrayed  I was prepared to rank Hayes down with Grover Cleveland. Also, the local Louisiana side of the tale is shorter and lacks some context. Why exactly were the parishes of West and East Feliciana were so violent is not discussed in enough detail. The answer lies in Pistols and Politics: The Dilemma of Democracy in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810-1899. Save for Port Hudson, no great battles were fought in that area, but the economic devastation and lawlessness of the Civil War ushered in an era of political violence that lasted decades.

Fairclough is in line with current orthodoxy that explains the failure of Reconstruction as due to a lack of Northern will and white Southerners using violence. What is missing is an understanding of nineteenth century conceptions of government, concerns about the use of the military, and to a lesser degree that the Republican Party was not simply a party of abolitionists. It also had commitments to business, conquering the west, and limiting immigration. When the union appeared ready to crack and the Republican Party found itself losing elections, they very quickly ditched Reconstruction. Not every Republican liked it, but by 1876 the leading radicals were dead or hobbled. Even Butler the radical jumped over to the Democrats and took up different issues.

Bulldozed and Betrayed is a superbly researched, written, and tragic tale of the election that for many ushered in and represented the worst parts of the Gilded Age. The story is not pretty. However, it is worth reading.

Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876

by Adam Fairclough

Louisiana State University Press, 2021

Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick

3 Responses to Book Review: Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876

  1. Sounds excellent and nuanced. One thing that’s apparent from a deep study of post Civil War political and social history, is the fact that neither party, at the least the white members of the parties, spent every waking moment pondering over what we have come to define as Reconstruction. They were mostly concerned with recovering power, if they were Democrats, and retaining power, if they were Republicans. In the course of this, odd alliances, some cross racial, were created and broken. A key factor in all this is the enduring Northern urban and southern rural strength of the Democratic Party. The Republicans were mere tyros in organizational integrity compared to their opponents, having barely come together from numerous sources before being thrown into war.

  2. I’ve wanted to read both of these books for over a year now. LSU Press has a treasure trove of history books. There are too many.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!