Isaac Wayne MacVeagh's Election Race

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

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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.

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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