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Looking Back On The First Government Shutdown In U.S. History


This current federal government shutdown is the longest one we've had. Sarah Gonzalez of our Planet Money podcast tells us that the first time this sort of thing happened was over protections for black voters.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: In 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes was president, a Republican. He won after some controversial postelection negotiations.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: A lot of people already are calling him Rutherfraud B. Hayes because he's been elected by fraud.

GONZALEZ: Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College. Rutherford B. Hayes - is he the one with the long, bushy sideburns or the long, pointy beard?

RICHARDSON: Oh, Lord, can you really tell the difference between all those guys?

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

RICHARDSON: The only one who kind of stands out is James Garfield because he has piercing blue eyes.

GONZALEZ: James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes were the key players in the first shutdown.

Did they call it a shutdown?

RICHARDSON: No, they called it the rider fight or the appropriations fight.

GONZALEZ: A rider is a provision that gets tacked on to an appropriations bill. Now, to understand the very first shutdown, we have to go back to the Civil War. In 1861, almost all of the Southerners who were in Congress surrender their seats to go fight in the war as Confederates. But they slowly start gaining their seats back after they lose the war.

RICHARDSON: These guys have literally been shooting at the same people that they're going to be sitting with in Congress.

GONZALEZ: At the time, African-American men were allowed to vote, but they tended to vote Republican. So Democrats didn't want them voting. Sometimes, it resulted in violence at the polls. And the government would send troops. Nineteenth-century Democrats hated this. So when they gained control of Congress 14 years after the Civil War, they come up with this idea.

RICHARDSON: Simply starve the government until they did what we wanted by holding a gun to the head of the Treasury.

GONZALEZ: Fund the courts and the Army but only if the government stops protecting black voters.

RICHARDSON: There are a number of cartoons in the newspapers about how the Confederates have taken back over Washington and how they are deliberately starving the United States Treasury the same way that they starved Union prisoners.

GONZALEZ: And one guy in particular was telling the president, you cannot cave to the Democrats - James A. Garfield with the icy-blue eyes. He was the House minority leader.

RICHARDSON: Hayes and Garfield look at what they're doing, and they say, this is a complete perversion of the way the American government is supposed to work. A faction cannot starve the United States government to death to get its way. Once you have admitted that is as legitimate tactic of governance, you've destroyed our American Constitution.

GONZALEZ: For months, Hayes vetoes bills that forbid protecting voters. And Democrats eventually give in on all but one very small part of the courts. It was mostly symbolic. But starving the government, shutting it down was considered so unsuccessful that no one tries it again for almost a hundred years.

RICHARDSON: People recognized that you could not govern by extremism. There was a premium on abiding by our constitutional norms and by working things out between the different parties that wanted different things.

GONZALEZ: There are a few small shutdowns in the 1970s and '80s. But the return of shutdowns as a tactic really takes hold in the 1990s. Eventually, it did become so difficult for African-Americans to even register to vote. But it didn't happen because of a shutdown. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.