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The Presidential Election of 1876

The general cynicism of the late-1870s is reflected in the pre-election card below. Both the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, and the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, were honest, capable, and beyond reproach in public and private life. But many people, disgusted by the scandals of Ulysses Grant's administration, the corrupt carpetbag rule in the South, the spoils system, and the infamous Tweed Ring in New York City, could not help but think that most politicians were crooks, or at best pawns in the hands of the industrial giants and barons of Wall Street.

of the two evils choose the least
of the two evils choose the least

The country had something to be cynical about in the 1876 election. On the morning after Election Day the newspapers announced the results: Tilden, seemingly the winner, 4,284,020 popular votes and 184 undisputed electoral votes to Hayes' 4,036,572 and 165. Apparently a Democratic victory, but the Republicans would not concede. They claimed that in three southern states Tilden carried (Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida), Negroes had been unlawfully kept from going to the polls. Had they been allowed to vote, electors favoring Hayes would have been elected. An Electoral Commission created by Congress ultimately decided in favor of Hayes on March 2, 1877, just fifty-six hours before the inauguration. Neither Tilden nor Hayes had any personal involvement in either the dispute itelf or the resolution process which followed.
[above is from The Presidents of the United States]

The Campaign

The principal issues in 1876 centered around the aftermath of the Civil War, with an emphasis on ending Reconstruction in the South, on which issue both major parties agreed. Both parties also backed civil service reform, although their specific reforms differed.

Both sides mounted mud-slinging campaigns. Democrats attacked Republican corruption, while Republicans countered with the Civil War. One popular Republican slogan of the day proclaimed that: "Not every Democrat was a Rebel, but every Rebel was a Democrat."

In keeping with the political tradition of the day, neither Tilden nor Hayes actively stumped during the campaign, leaving the actual campaigning to party workers and officials.

campaign poster for Hayes and Wheeler
campaign poster for Hayes and Wheeler

campaign flyer for Tilden and Hendricks
campaign flyer for Tilden and Hendricks

The Initial Results

Although the Republicans had some of the most famous Americans of the day on their side, Hayes believed that the Democrats had a far better chance of winning the presidency. When the first election returns seemed to confirm this, Hayes went to bed, believing he had lost.

The next day, news reports showed that Tilden had received a total of 4,284,200 popular votes to 4,036,572 for Hayes. Although it appeared to be a win for Tilden, whether or not that win would be official depended upon contested electoral votes in three southern states -- Louisiania, South Carolina, and Florida -- in which there had been conspicuous irregularities; there was also a dispute in Oregon. If all the disputed electoral votes went to Hayes, he would win; a single one would elect Tilden. The country was in a furor as months of uncertainty followed.

The Dispute

The electoral votes for Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida were in dispute because of charges of voter fraud lodged by both Democrats and Republicans. These charges included: the use of "repeaters" to stuff ballot boxes, the use of fraudulent ballots to trick illiterate black voters into voting for Democratic candidates, the holding back of ballot boxes in some areas so that more votes could be added later, and evidence that blacks had been intimidated away from the polling places in many areas in order to keep the Republican vote count low. The reported popular vote counts for each state were close enough that both sides could easily claim victory, provided enough disputed votes were taken away from the other side. As a result, all three states ended up sending electors from both parties to the Electoral College.

The situation in Oregon was a little different. There, one of the Republican electors was technically a government employee and, therefore, should have been ineligible to serve as an elector. The Governor of Oregon, who happened to be a Democrat, claimed he had the right to appoint a Democrat to replace the elected Republican, a right that Republicans denied. This left one of Oregon's electors in dispute.

On December 6, the Electoral College awarded all of the disputed votes to the Republicans, giving Hayes 185 and Tilden 184. But the Electoral College's decision still had to be certified by the President of the Senate, a position normally held by the Vice-President of the United States. However, Henry Wilson had died in 1875, and Senator Thomas Ferry, a Republican from Michigan, was then serving in that position. But, since Ferry was not Vice-President, he chose not to determine whether the Electoral College's results were valid or not, citing a lack of direction from the Constitution.

The Resolution

In January, 1877, Congress appointed a 15-man Electoral Commission to decide which electoral votes should count for Hayes and which for Tilden. Its decisions were to be final, unless both houses of Congress voted otherwise.

Composed of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, the Electoral Commission began its proceedings on February 1. The commission chose to resolve the question of each state separately. All of the commission's decisions ultimately followed party lines, and all of the disputed electoral votes were awarded to Hayes. The Senate finally confirmed the electoral votes at 4:10 A.M. on March 2, 1877.

Print Source

John and Alice Durant The Presidents of the United States Miami: A.A. Gaché & Son, Publishers, 1976

Internet Source

"Frequently Asked Questions About the Dispute Election of 1876" Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center www.rbhayes.org

See Also

Rutherford B. Hayes
Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> Ulysses Grant's Administration

This page was last updated on December 06, 2018.