Friday, December 31, 2010

The Election of Rutherford B. Hayes

Tim Wu, in his book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, tells a story about the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. It seems that while he was a longshot for the Republican nomination and for the final election, he was the choice of both the owners of the New York Times and of Western Union. It seems that they worked together to assure his election.

Western Union at the time had a monopoly on use of the telegraph lines; it had obtained much of the national network built by Union soldiers during and after the Civil War. It also owned the Associated Press, which was the only news service. Only the Associated Press was allowed to send news stories over the Western Union telegraph lines.

Wu tells us that Western Union and the AP only sent stories favorable to Hayes during the campaign, refusing both stories that were unfavorable to him and stories that were favorable to his opponents. Consequently, during the campaign Hayes' popularity improved.

In November apparently the Democrat, Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote but Republican Hayes was close. Wu tells us that Western Union passed all the cable traffic among Democrats to key Republican leaders, from which they discovered that the Democrats were having difficulties in the South. Cables went out to the Republican Governors of southern states and low and behold enough votes in the electoral college were disputed to leave the selection of the new president in doubt. The impasse lasted for months until a deal was brokered. Hayes would become President but as President he would withdraw the federal troops from the former Confederate states and cease to enforce Reconstruction policies.

If you think big corporations have too much political power now and if you think elections are dirty now, apparently they were worse in 1876. On the other hand, perhaps the lesson of this story is the need for eternal vigilance. If we do not protect our democracy, they there are surely people who would love to subvert it to get their own way.

I am just starting the book, but it seems very good. Wu is the person who coined the term "net neutrality" and the book appears to be a warning that -- if history is a guide -- that the open Internet could be monopolized by big business and government and as a result our access to information forced through a bottleneck which would have bad effects.

No comments: