Rutherford Birchard Hayes’ victory over Samuel J. Tilden in the election of 1876 was the closest in our history. In fact, many people consider the man inaugurated in March 1877 was not the winner at all. In the Electoral College, only one vote separated the two candidates, still a record for the closest election. It is how those votes were won that created a constitutional crisis and threatened to start another civil war.
As the 1876 campaign began, the Democrats were favored to win for the first time since before the Civil War. President Grant was not running for re-election. When he had run for re-election to a second term in 1872, a large faction of his own party, alienated by the corruption of his administration, proclaimed themselves Liberal Republicans and backed the Democratic candidate. Grant’s second term, if anything, was even more corrupt than his first. Republicans feared a backlash against them by a public outraged by the corruption.
Both parties nominated state governors known for their honesty and efforts at reform. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, who had gained national attention by opposing the powerful Tammany Hall organization, and prosecuting the powerful Boss Tweed. The Republicans, after a long convention, nominated Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, a war hero also well known as a reformer.
With the exception of three states, the south had returned to home rule following Reconstuction. These states would vote solidly democratic in this election, and for the next century. With the southern states returned to the Democratic Party and the backlash against the Republicans due to the corruption issue, the Democrats were expected to win.
When the election was over, it looked as though the Democrats had indeed won by an electoral vote of 204-165. But late on the election night, a democratic state chairman wired the New York Times asking nervously for the latest totals from three states (Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) saying “Please give your estimate of electoral votes secured for Tilden. Answer at once.” A Republicans editor, John Reid, wired other Republican leaders that if “…they want to know the electoral vote, that means they are not certain they have won. If they are still in doubt, then we can go on from here and win the election.”
Immediately, party officials, “visiting statesman” and “observers” went south to make sure their party won the states that were in doubt. Both parties offered bribes and spread money around liberally. The result was that Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina turned in two sets of electoral votes, one from the official election supervisory agency and another from the carpetbag Republican governments.
In Oregon, where the Republicans won all three electoral votes, one of the Republican Electors was a postmaster. Postmasters, along with all federal office holders, were forbidden by the Constitution from serving as electors. The Democratic governor of the state appointed a replacement, a Democrat of course.
When it came time for the Congress to count the electoral votes, they were faced with two sets of electoral votes from four states. Twenty electoral votes were in dispute, just enough to change the outcome of the election. Tilden had 184 certain votes, and Hayes had 165. Hayes had to win all twenty of the disputed votes to win the election.
The one challenged vote from Oregon was easily handled, and was awarded to Hayes. The Democratic Party in Oregon had not followed the rules of the Constitution, and the Republican replacement was legal. This meant that 19 votes were still in dispute, and with them, the election.
Congress had never faced such a situation before, and there were no guidelines in the Constitution. They set up an Electoral Commission to decide each of the 19 disputed votes. The Commission would consist of five senators, five representatives, and five members of the Supreme Court. It was also agreed unofficially, that the electoral Commission would include seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent. It was tacitly understood that the independent member would be Justice David Davis. Although an independent, he was thought to be favorable to Tilden. Shortly after the bill creating the Electoral Commission was passed, the Illinois legislature elected Davis to a Senate seat. Davis accepted the senate seat, and resigned from the Supreme Court. The fifth Suprememe Court member of the Commmission would have to be a Republican, since Davis had been the only independent, and there were no Democrats on the court. The crucial fifteenth member turned out to be Justice Joseph Bradley, a Republican. The Democrats were still hopeful, however, since Bradley had a reputation for independence. Indeed, the night before the final vote, he read his decision in favor of Tilden to the Democratic National Chairman. But a number of Republican leaders spent the rest of the night with him, and he voted for Hayes.
Once the Commission had voted, Congress had to approve the decision. Members of both parties were threatening to use force to make their candidate president. A final decision was not made until March 2, 1877, just two days before inauguration day.
The Senate was controlled by the Republicans, and the House of Representatives by the Democrats. To get both to vote for the decision would be almost impossible, but a compromise was reached. Southern Democrats in Congress were persuaded to vote for the Electoral Commission decision in exchange for a promise of an end to Reconstruction by the removal of all federal troops from the south. When the southern Democrats voted in favor of the Commission decision, that gave a majority in the House to the Republicans, and Hayes was declared elected.
The crisis was not over yet. Many Democrats were still threatening force, but Tilden managed to calm them down. Grant, in a most unusual action that has never been repeated, had Hayes sworn in secretly in the Red Room the night before the Inauguration, just in case of problems on inauguration day. But the inauguration was held without incident, and Rutherford Birchard Hayes became the 19th president of the United States.
More people voted for Tilden than for Hayes, but Hayes came out the winner in the Electoral College by one vote, 185-184. It is generally agreed by historians that two of the three disputed states were really won by Tilden, but the Electoral Commission gave all the disputed states to Hayes.
Throughout his term, Hayes was referred to as “Old Rutherfraud,” “Old 8-to-7,” and “His Fraudulency.” But he proved to be a good and honest president. He removed the last federal troops, ending Reconstruction. He worked hard for civil service reform, and tried to end graft and corruption in the federal government. He is also remembered for his wife, who was nicknamed Lemonade Lucy because she refused to allow any drink stronger than lemonade in the White House. Hayes served one term and retired from politics.
The copyright of the article THE STOLEN ELECTION OF 1876 is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish THE STOLEN ELECTION OF 1876 in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.