All the cool people know about The Hunger Games - currently an extremely popular novel by Suzanne Collins that is being brought to the big screen starting today, March 23rd, 2012. The brilliantly crafted work of semi-fiction takes place in a post-apocalyptic USA controlled by a disturbingly callous empire. This empire's primary form of twisted entertainment just happens to be an annual, nationally televised fight to the death among a handful of unwilling children, taken at random each year from each of the country's twelve poor districts. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a teenage girl living in one such district who volunteers to take her sister's place in the tournament even though it almost certainly means her own gruesome death for the sake of higher television ratings. That brief synopsis is all we'll say about the story, since by virtue of it having won several awards and sold countless copies since it was first published in 2008, we're guessing most of you have already read it and those of you who haven't will be going to see the movie very soon. However, what you probably don't already know about The Hunger Games and what the Lost and Founders will happily import is that the author actually got her inspiration from one of the darkest and most fascinating spectacles in American History: The Founder Games. True Story.
The year was 1876 and the race for the US presidency had become in the last several years pretty stale. The Democratic and Republican parties that have now become the most established factions in the US political system were during this period first beginning to truly establish themselves as representations of the popular opinions of the states, or districts as they were often referred to in the vernacular of the day, but no one outside of Congress and the party leaders really cared about who would be the next president. The four candidates for the 1876 election were thus once again chosen by the Electoral College at random from all districts (This practice had started in the previous election and was discontinued after the 1880 election of James Garfield who was shot by a deranged fan who was unhappy with the outcome of the race). For the Democrats - Samuel Tilden and Thomas Hendricks where chosen, and for the Republicans - Rutherford Hayes and William Wheeler.
This is where it gets interesting. Congress decided that since there were no major political crisis at the time that they would spice things up for a more exciting election season. Rather than waste time and money with an actual democratic process, the first and only Founder Games was declared in secret as a non-fatal contest between the four candidates to ensure that the next president was both a shrewd politician and in possession of enough military prowess to keep the growing nation safe. The idea was that all four candidates would be given their choice of weapon and the last man standing would be granted the presidency before a second round of games would be played to choose the Vice President. The results would then be chronicled for the public and published in the Farmer's Almanac.
Hayes chose slingshot as his weapon of choice since truly lethal weapons were prohibited, and he quickly made an alliance with Wheeler at the start of the games, who sported a rope with a knot on the end. Tilden and Hendricks also teamed up, choosing a large stick and a cat as their weapons, respectively. The battle royale was fought in an unnamed forest in southern Pennsylvania, which at the time was largely underpopulated and extremely treacherous terrain.
The Founders Games lasted for 6 days; culminating when Hendricks was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head from Hayes' slingshot, and Tilden surrendered due to a nasty bout of food poisoning from the local fauna. Tensions mounted when it was realized that the alliance between Hayes and Wheeler would succumb to betrayal as announcers from the Electoral College confirmed that only one of them would be allowed office. However, at the last possible second through a masterful powerplay by Hayes, both men were declared mutually victorious.
Editors note: We will refrain from explaining exactly how that happened, because it is exactly the same as the ending to the Hunger Games. Let it never be said that the Lost and Founders spoil endings.
Needless to say Hayes was elected President and Wheeler his Vice President, though it was decided almost immediately by Congress that the entire affair was in poor form and should never be announced to the public. So it stands that 1876 was one of a small handful of elections throughout American history that were not decided through a real democratic process. In order to cover up the sordid affair, a web of half truths was quickly disseminated though the media that resulted in most Americans individually believing that they slept through election day but that everyone around them must have voted and it was really close. So close in fact that a controversial compromise had to be made that in effect ended Reconstruction and put the Republicans in office. It seemed pretty plausible at the time so most people were ok with it and glossed over the major inconsistencies in the story. Television had also not been invented yet so no one outside of Congress and a park ranger in Pennsylvania had any way of knowing that the games took place.
Fast-forward to 2008 and in the Hunger Games we have another shining example of the Founders' inspiration on American literature and culture thanks to Suzanne Collins' careful study of history. We encourage you to think about that as you flock to theaters this weekend - because if not for Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, there would be no Katniss Everdeen.