Book Review: Centennial Crisis

Centennial Crisis:  The Disputed Election Of 1876, by William H. Rehnquist

As someone who, from time to time, likes to read works of legal history [1], I found this work immensely appealing on two levels.  On the surface level of reading, this book is a joy to read, written by someone, namely the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who has a good skill at crafting a narrative, and an ability to make a compelling tale of the sordid and corrupt mess of a particularly controversial election, namely that of 1876 where disputed ballot returns in Florida (among other places) decided the presidency.  On a deeper level, though, this book makes a highly appropriate indirect appeal on the part of Chief Justice Rehnquist for the legitimacy of the (partisan) decision made in Gore vs. Bush that ended up certifying Bush’s decisive victory in Florida that won him the presidency in 2000 despite losing the popular vote.  This book is an example of a well-written history from someone who helped to make history, and one that points out both the complexity and dubious legitimacy of America’s politics while also presenting a high-toned view of the dignity of the Supreme Court as an institution, something that is not always easy to remember in the case of that court’s frequent self-inflicted wounds by deciding poorly on mistaken moral and legal grounds in the attempt to adjudicate disputes in a frequently divided nation.

The contents of this book consist of a generally chronological history of about 250 pages that follows several parallel tracks.  One of the book’s threads takes up the history of the Supreme Court as an institution, the way that justices have served loyally and well, and either added to or detracted from the dignity of the office, and the sorts of cases that the Supreme Court or its justices have had to deal with, such as the five justices that served on the fifteen-man committee that ended up giving Rutherford Hayes the presidency by a vote of 8-7.  The second thread is that of the election of 1876, its political context in the corrupt Guilded Age as well as the aftermath of the Civil War, and also includes a fascinating series of biographical sketches on the most important people involved in the dispute, including most notably Hayes and Tilden themselves.  The third thread is a discussion of legal jurisprudence and the larger cases that were being made by Hayes’ and Tilden’s advocates, and the dirty tricks that both sides and their proxies had been involved in, and the bitterly divided state of the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War.  All of these threads are dealt with skillfully in a way that is easy to read and full of surprising depth.

Whether or not one agrees with the case that the Supreme Court justices, despite their partisanship, did a good job in 1876, or whether one agrees with the subtle and implicit argument that the justices in 2000 did so, this book does what any book by a Chief Justice should do, and that is make a persuasive historical case.  From this book it is clear that Rehnquist has a shrewd understanding of the need to defend the legitimacy of an institution of which he was so prominent and conspicuous a part, as well as a strong degree of interest in using history and law in order to make a complex and nuanced case that is ostensibly about the crisis of 1876 but is also, albeit not very openly, a case about the similar crisis in 2000, about which the author felt it may have been too recent a crisis to provide the necessary historical detachment.  This is, ultimately, a book that is both easy to read but one that rewards a reader that approaches the work with a sense of appreciation for skilled layering and implication, a work that deserves to be better read, regardless of your own partisan identity, on the sheer joy of reading a work that speaks so deeply to the life and concerns of a notable man who proves himself a surprisingly skilled popular historian.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Centennial Crisis

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