The War of the Rebellion proved a political boon for Republicans and a bane for the Democrats. There was the taint of disloyalty and with black men having suffrage and ex-Confederates being denied it until after the 1868 election, the South was solid Republican territory. Indeed, the 1868 election was won by Grant due to the black vote! However, the Grant Administration had numerous problems surrounding corruption, voters were tiring of Reconstruction, the full extent of the Credit Mobilier scandal was exposed after the 1872 election, and the deep recession produced by the Panic of 1873 all resulted in the Democrats winning the House for the first time since the Buchanan Administration. It also helped that Congress had in 1872 passed a blanket amnesty for Confederates. This was also a comeback in the Senate for former President Andrew Johnson, but he died only months after being seated. The leader of this comeback was Indiana’s Michael C. Kerr (1827-1876), a four-term representative who had just won back his seat.
First elected in 1864, Kerr was a staunch loyalist, both to the United States and his party, making him an ideal figure to lead the Democrats back to a majority. He was a War Democrat who had won praise from Indiana Republican Governor Oliver Morton for cracking down on conspiracies against the Union by Copperheads. Kerr was a strong debater who did his homework and was universally admired in his own party. He in turn was despised by the staunchest Republicans. Kerr was, like all Democrats of the time, opposed to the 14th and 15th Amendments as intrusions upon states but differed with some on his support of hard currency. He also made no bones about expressing anti-black sentiments. Kerr narrowly lost reelection in 1872, and in February 1873 he decided to return the salary increase he received from the widely condemned pay increase that Congress voted for itself (Garraty & Carnes, 308). This new Congress under Kerr opposed subsidies for business, supported patronage regardless of prior affiliation with the Confederacy, opposed Reconstruction as did all Democratic officeholders, pushed anti-Grant measures (prevent ex-presidents from serving again), and admitted Colorado to the Union. Historian William Smith wrote in 1897 on him, “If not a great man, Michael Crawford Kerr was an honest, faithful and useful public servant. He was a man of pure conscience, strict integrity and large ability” (Glass).
Kerr didn’t have long to go; in 1870 he had contracted tuberculosis and despite numerous efforts to cure himself, including travel to warmer climates, it continued to develop, and he often proved too ill to perform his regular duties as speaker (Garraty & Carnes, 308). He died four days after Congress adjourned its first session on August 19, 1876. His fellow Hoosier, William Holman, eulogized him thusly, “Michael C. Kerr is dead. The record of a good life is complete. May that record perpetuate his virtues and services he has rendered to his country as long as time shall endure” (Beam). He was succeeded by Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, who would play a major role in negotiating the compromise that resulted in Rutherford B. Hayes being found to be president.
Beam, A. (2013, June 11). New Albany Bicentennial: Michael C. Kerr. New Albany News and Tribune.
Garraty, J.A., & Carnes, M.C. (ed.). (2005). American National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Glass, A. (2013, March 15). Future Speaker Michael C. Kerr born, March 15, 1827. Politico.