The Stolen Presidential Election of 1876

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Congressional compromise awarded disputed electoral votes from three Southern states to Rutherford B. Hayes and ended Reconstruction in the South.

On the night of the national election in 1876, returns seemed to indicate a victory for the Democrat, New York Governor Samuel Tilden. However, by the next morning Republican newspapers, led by the New York Times, were casting doubt on Tilden’s apparent victory. At the center of the controversy were the electoral votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. If all three states were awarded to the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, he would become the next President. Significantly, Tilden needed only one state to win.

Bribery and Intimidation in the Election of 1876

High ranking leaders in the Republican Party swiftly raced to the South, armed with suitcases of money. Tilden heard of these efforts and was himself encouraged by his own election team to pay fifty-thousand dollars to secure the South Carolina electoral votes. Tilden, however, refused, putting his trust in the American people and the Constitution. A wealthy man, Tilden rejected any notion of bribery. Tilden had been responsible for ending the infamous “Boss Tweed” ring in New York.

In the disputed states, Republican counters discarded enough “suspicious” ballots to ensure a Hayes majority. But because these states had rival governments, one set up under Congressional Radical Reconstruction and the other under Abraham Lincoln’s original Reconstruction plans, each state submitted two sets of electoral votes to the Congress (Florida submitted three different sets).

Conflict in the Congress

As the votes were opened and counted in early 1877, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives but the Republicans controlled the Senate. As the votes from the disputed states were submitted, each was formally challenged, forcing the two houses to meet separately in their respective chambers and vote on a resolution. Given the voting rules and the fact that each party controlled one part of the Congress, the lawmakers were at an impasse.

Both Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden finally agreed to the creation of a special electoral commission made up of fifteen members that would evaluate and decide each set of disputed electoral votes. After agreeing, however, the fifteenth member of the commission, an independent whose neutrality had been widely regarded, resigned in order to take the Illinois Senate seat. He was replaced by a Republican.

As the commission stripped Tilden of the votes, beginning with Florida, which was considered his best opportunity, it became apparent that the Democrats would be robbed of victory. Democratic House leaders threatened to filibuster until the end of the short term, taking the nation to inauguration day without a new president and the nation to the brink of a Constitutional crisis.

Back Room Deals Put Hayes in the White House

Republican Congressional leaders met with Southern Democrats and brokered a “compromise” to ensure their acquiescence. The new Republican president would withdraw the last remaining Union troops from the South, providing for “home rule;” one Cabinet position would go to a Southerner; and the Congress would vote funds to help rebuild Southern infrastructure.

How much Hayes actually knew about the events beginning with the day after the 1876 election is debated by scholars. His presidency, however, was a lonely path because he was in everyone’s political pocket. Called “old 8 to 7” behind his back, as a reference to the special commission, and “his fraudulency” by others, Hayes had little popular support or sympathy.

The Election Ends Reconstruction in the South

As the last federal troops were withdrawn, all of the states in the South were “redeemed.” This also meant that African Americans lost all political and social rights enjoyed during the early years of Reconstruction. Writing in the early 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois remarked that, “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Sources:

  1. Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction (Harper & Row, 1990)
  2. Eric Foner, Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution: 1863-1877 (HarperCollins Publishers, 1988)
  3. Roy Morris Jr, Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election (Simon & Schuster, 2003)
  4. Lloyd Robinson, The Stolen Election (Forge Books, 2001)