The Election of 1876

The election of 1876 was one of those elections like the election of 1824 in which the loser of the election became the president. Unlike such previous disputed elections, such as the elections in 1824 and 1800, the problem in 1876 was not that no candidate achieved a majority there were only two candidates, or that there was some quirk in the electoral process. The problem with the election of 1876 was a combination of outright fraud and confusion in counting the ballots in the three remaining states of the former Confederacy that were still occupied by federal forces; South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana.

The year 1876 was the centennial of the United States. The year began with great celebration for the one hundred years that the nation had been independent. The feelings of most people were optimistic and cheerful about the future. America had, to be sure, fought a terrible Civil War only a decade before, and the South was still rebuilding. Still,the country was prosperous and at peace, and was rapidly settling the West.

The campaign season began well. President Ulysses S. Grant had wanted to run for a third term but between the two term tradition and the series of scandals that had marred his administration, there was little enthusiasm for Grant. In fact the most important issue of the election was reforming the civil service and ending corruption in government. Therefore, both parties wanted reforming candidates untouched by any unsavory associations. This ruled out Congressman James G. Blaine, a Republican from Maine who had had some apparently unethical dealings with the Union Pacific Railroad. Instead, the Republicans nominated Rutherford B Hayes, the reforming Governor of Ohio. The Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden from New York. He had prosecuted Boss Tweed when he served as District Attorney and as Governor, he had fought the Canal Ring.

Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes

The candidates were both honest men and there wasn’t much difference in the two party platforms, so naturally, to keep things interesting, both sides attacked each other ferociously, making this election one of the nastiest elections in history. The Democrats were delighted to point out the corruption in the Grant administration and in the Reconstruction governments in the South. The Republicans accused the Democrats of being traitors who had supported the Confederacy during the war. The real fun though, did not begin until after the election.

Samuel J. Tilden
Samuel J. Tilden

When the votes were counted, Tilden won the popular vote over Hayes by 4,300,000 to 4,000,000. The electoral vote was what counted, though, and here things were less certain. To win in the electoral college required 185 votes. Tilden received 184 votes, mostly in the south but including New York and Indiana, while Hayes got 165 votes in the north and west. There was a problem with four states; Oregon, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana.


Oregon was relatively simple. Hayes had won the popular vote there, but one of the electors was a postmaster and the constitution does not permit federal office holders to be electors. The Democratic governor of Oregon selected a Democrat to replace him. The Republicans announced that Hayes had won Oregon’s three electoral votes, while the Democrats insisted that the correct count was one for Tilden and two for Hayes.

The Southern states were more difficult. To say that the elections were marked by fraud would be a tremendous understatement. There was marked voter intimidation. The Democrats tried to keep as many Blacks from voting as they could, while the Republicans tried to make sure the Blacks could vote as many times as they wanted. There was bribery, ballot box stuffing, and outright fraud. It will probably never be certain who actually won in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana but Louisiana and Florida sent in two sets of returns while Florida managed to come up with three.

Congress had the responsibility of deciding which returns accurately reflected the votes in the disputed states. It was an act that would be sure to create controversy no matter what they decided. As it happened the House of Representatives was controlled by the Democrats, while the Republicans had the majority in the Senate. The two houses fought bitterly but finally agreed to establish an Electoral Commission composed of five Senators, five Representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Eight of these men were Republicans and seven were Democrats, and somehow all of their votes ended up being 8 to 7 in favor of Hayes, making Rutherford Hayes the next president.

Naturally, the Democrats were not at all happy with this result, especially in the south. They accepted the decision of the commission without any serious trouble though. Tilden urged acceptance of the decision and many southern Democrats came to believe that Hayes was a president they could work with. Democratic leaders met with their Republican counterparts, even while the commission was working and agreed to accept whatever the decision of the commission might be in exchange for the next president agreeing to remove the remaining federal troops out of the South. The compromise of 1877 preserved the Union and ended what could have been a very messy political crisis. It also ended the Reconstruction Era and helped to heal the divisions caused by the Civil War. Unfortunately it also meant abandoning the cause of civil rights for the freed slaves. Southern Democrats swiftly took control of the southern state governments and disenfranchised the Blacks as soon as they could. They would have to wait almost another century to get there rights.

Rutherford B. Hayes turned out to be a decent president who pushed for civil service reform. He wasn’t able to do very much because of the circumstances of his election and decided not to run again in 1880.


Rutherford B. Hayes

Since President Obama made a fool of himself for disparaging his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes as a technophobe who didn’t believe the telephone would ever be of any use, it might be worthwhile to take a look at the nineteenth President of the United States.

Hayes is one of those presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt that you never hear much of. Until Obama brought him up it would be safe to say that many Americans had never heard of him. (Of course it might also be safe to say that many Americans have never heard of Lincoln or Roosevelt.) This obscurity is unfortunate because he was a good man.


English: Rutherford B. Hayes (October 4, 1822—...
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Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born in Deleware, Ohio on October 4, 1822. His father died three months before he was born but managed to leave behind an estate large enough to allow young Rutherford to get a good education. Hayes had an uneventful childhood and was regarded as rather stuffy. He never got into any trouble. He attended Kenyon College and Harvard Law School and practiced law in Ohio. He was an abolitionist and joined the newly formed Republican party.

Hayes began to enter politics in 1858 when the city council of Cincinnati selected him to become city solicitor when that post was vacant. His political career had to be put on hold when the Civil War broke out. Hayes was commissioned major of the 23rd Ohio Volunteers, a regiment he helped form, and was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was a brave and dedicated officer, being wounded in action six times, and by 1865 he had been promoted to major general.

The Confederates were terrified of his beard

While still fighting in the war, Hayes was nominated for Congress in 1864. He refused to campaign saying, “Thanks. I have other business just now. Any man who would leave the army at this time to electioneer for Congress ought to be scalped”. He won anyway, but didn’t take his seat until the war was over. I wonder how many people in Washington these days would do that.Hayes was elected governor of Ohio in 1867 and reelected in 1869. He ran for Congress again in 1872 but didn’t win. He did win election for a third term as governor in 1875.

In 1876, Hayes was nominated as the Republican candidate for president, largely because of his solid reputation as an honest man who had no part in the corruption that was so endemic at the time. His opponent was Samuel J. Tilden, a Democratic Governor of New York with a history of battling against corruption in government and who had defeated the Tweed ring. The platforms of the two men were much the same and there really wasn’t much to distinguish the two men except that Hayes had as awesome beard. That didn’t stop the campaign from being very, very nasty.

He lost because he didn't have an awesome beard.

The Democrats ran against the corruption of the Grant years. Grant himself was honest, but he turned out to be a poor judge of character and many of his friends weren’t. The Republicans retaliated by blaming the Democrats for the Civil War and casting them as the party of treason. (Much like they are nowadays). At first it looked as if Tilden had won with 184 electoral votes to Hayes’s 165. 185 votes were needed to win and 20 votes from the states of Oregon, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina were disputed. I won’t go into the details here but after a lot of discussion, Congress appointed a fifteen man board to arbitrate. Since eight men were Republicans and seven Democrats, the board decided in favor of Hayes by a 8-7 vote and Hayes became the nineteenth President. As part of the deal, Republicans agreed to end reconstruction and remove federal troops from the South. Without the federal government to guarantee their rights, the Black former slaves were quickly disenfranchised.

Hayes tried to be a good president but the irregular election left a taint. He was known to be honest but there was a feeling that the election 1876 had been stolen. He tried to reform the civil service and end the spoils system, but was not entirely successful. He worked to return the country to the gold standard to prevent inflation. He vetoed a bill excluding Chinese from immigration on the grounds that the bill violated a treaty with China. This was unpopular in the west and some Democrats even tried to begin impeachment proceedings. The greatest crisis of the Hayes administration was the Great Railroad Strike, caused by the railroad companies cutting employees wages. Hayes used federal troops to suppress the riots and end the strikes. His decisive action gained Hayes praise, especially from business leaders, but he himself was more ambivalent and believed the strikers’ grievances were legitimate. There was also trouble with the Indians. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce rebelled rather than be forced to live in a reservation and the Nez Perce tried to flee to Canada. They were stopped only forty miles from the border.

Contrary to President Obama’s assertion, Hayes was a technophile who actually installed the first telephone in the White House. He also had Thomas Edison demonstrate the phonograph.

Hayes’s first lady was Lucy Ware Webb. She had attended Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College, making her one of the few women of the time to have a college education. She was active in social organizations, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Both Rutherford and Lucy were teetotalers and she refused to serve alcohol at White House functions, earning her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.

Hayes decided not to run in 1880. He had proposed a constitutional amendment changing the president’s term to six years without reelection, but he had little support. He and Lucy returned to Ohio and he died on January 17, 1893.

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