The Most Disputed Election and End of Reconstruction

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1856 advertisement for the Tilden Company

In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote for president, but lost the White House to a backroom deal.

The most disputed presidential election in history took place in 1876. The Republicans and Democrats squabbled over three key states. After several months, Rutherford B. Hayes emerged the winner. The Hayes victory brought an end to Reconstruction and left African-Americans to the mercy of their former masters.

Rutherford B. Hayes

After eight scandal ridden years and a great depression, Grant was done. The Republican Party feared they would lose the 1876 election and searched high and low for an honest candidate to be the standard bearer. They found Rutherford B Hayes of Ohio. He was a solid, honest governor with no ties to the corruption in Washington D.C.

Samuel Tilden

The Democrats also searched for an honest man and found Samuel Tilden. As governor of New York, he destroyed one of the most corrupt political machines in history. With the American voter tired of the corruption in Washington and the continuing Southern issue, the Democrats felt confident going into the general election.

Northerners Tire of Reconstruction

In 1876, the American voter was sick of Reconstruction. Reconstruction was the period after the Civil War in which the North attempted to reform the South and give African-American freedmen their rights. The White South resisted fiercely and violently. By 1876, Northerners wanted to live and let live. They were sick of the South, sick of Southern violence, sick of the corruption in Washington, and wanted the troops home.

In this environment, Tilden won the popular vote 51%-48%. However, two sets of returns came in from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Under fair (i.e. safe) voting conditions, the GOP should have won those states easily. However, Democratic shenanigans and violence resulted in disputed results. A committee was established to determine a winner.

The Compromise of 1877

The committee had 15 members. Each party had seven members. The fifteenth member was an independent. That independent quickly resigned. The Democrats and Republicans cut a deal. The independent was replaced by a Republican and Hayes became president. In return, Hayes would pull the troops from the South.

The Road to Plessy

The Compromise of 1877 left the Southern African-American population to the Democrats. In short order, slave master control transferred to the state and Jim Crow was born. By the turn of the twentieth century, their lot was worse than it had been under slavery. It would be a century before the Second Reconstruction.

In 1877, the Republicans won the White House while the Democrats won the South. While the North won the Civil War, the South won the peace through violence. While Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes captured the electoral college with a little help from his friends and the Democratic party bosses. The compromise ended Reconstruction and set civil rights back a century.

Sources:

  1. DeGregorio, William, ed. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. Barricade Books, NY: 2009
  2. Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Harper Perennial Classics, 2002