Mr. Den Herder goes to Washington

Mr. Den Herder goes to Washington

 

When young Jacob Den Herder and his family, newly arrived from the Netherlands in 1847, stepped off the flatboat that had carried them into western Michigan, they were greeted by thousands of acres of dense forest.

When young Jacob Den Herder and his family, newly arrived from the Netherlands in 1847, stepped off the flatboat that had carried them into western Michigan, they were greeted by thousands of acres of dense forest. Dark, unruly wilds. Not unlike what Den Herder would face 30 years later in a committee room full of politicians in Washington, D.C.1

By then, Den Herder had established himself as one of Zeeland, Michigan’s leading citizens. In the decades since, he had swung an ax to clear forest for the township’s first homes, had taught school, had held public office and had operated several successful businesses. (The Den Herder Bank, Travel & Insurance Co. was a forebear of Zeeland State Bank and eventually, First Michigan Bank.)2

Den Herder couldn’t have been entirely surprised then, when he was nominated by state Republicans to be an elector from Michigan’s 5th District, one of 11 Michigan electors who would help choose America’s president in the 1876 election.3

Even before Den Herder and his fellow electors visited Lansing that December to vote, they had to appreciate their roles in an unfolding drama.

The popular vote between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had been historically close. Suspecting the Democrats had intimidated black and Republican voters at the polls in three Southern states, Republicans contested the results in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, where Tilden claimed to have won by impossibly large margins. A committee of 10 congressmen and five Supreme Court justices reviewed the vote and declared Hayes the winner in all three states. 4

“The political strife between the two main parties was very hot and as a whole evenly divided,” Den Herder wrote in his memoirs. “The result of the November (popular) election had shown that … 185 Republican and 184 Democratic electors had been chosen. Therefore the electoral colleges of the different states were very closely watched.”5

In December, Den Herder proudly voted for Hayes and his running mate, William Wheeler. But two months later, a group of Michigan Democrats questioned Den Herder’s citizenship and thus, his eligibility to have served as an elector. Den Herder was subpoenaed by Congress and traveled to Washington, D.C., to appear before the investigating committee.

“Political feeling at session of Congress ran high and wild,” Den Herder wrote. “The Democratic side of that committee was very anxious to get at me.”6

With support from Michigan Sen. and acting U.S. Vice President Thomas Ferry, a friend of Den Herder’s from Grand Rapids, Den Herder produced the papers that proved his citizenship, which seemed to satisfy the Democratic investigators, but only briefly.

The next day, it was alleged that Den Herder had never resigned as a local postmaster, which also would have made him ineligible to serve as an elector. Den Herder swore that he had resigned but lacked proof. Eventually Ferry enlisted the help of the U.S. postmaster general, who produced papers confirming that Den Herder had vacated his postmaster’s job two years earlier.

“Consequently my vote for Hayes and Wheeler … was declared legal and I was at liberty to return home,” Den Herder wrote. “I stayed, however, until the other doubtful votes of other states had all been disposed of and Hayes and Wheeler declared elected President and Vice President of the United States.”7

Though he would refer to his experience in the capital as “that terrible political storm,” the deeply religious Den Herder took some positives from his trip. He was heartened to see Congress begin every day’s business with a prayer. And he was moved to join Vice President Ferry, a Presbyterian, at Sunday services and worship with members of a Christian faith other than his own.

“That was the very best paying political office I ever had,” Den Herder wrote, “not from a financial point of view, but otherwise. And I still thank God for that experience.”8

Den Herder Jacob-detail

For Jacob Den Herder, an active community member and business owner, politics was a natural career progression. Photo Credit: Zeeland Historical Society

 

18xx Den Herder store-detail

Jacob Den Herder’s first storefront in Zeeland, Michigan. Photo Credit: Zeeland Historical Society