The Election of 1876

In celebrating America’s first centennial, on July 4, 1876, one must have recalled the tumult of that century: a war to secure independence, a second war to defend newly-obtained independence, and then a civil war the consequences of which the country was still grappling with eleven years after its end. But there also had been extraordinary success in that century, albeit not without cost; by the 100-year mark, the country had shown itself and the world that its Constitution—that centerpiece of democracy—was holding strong (with 18 Presidents, 44 Congresses, and 43 Supreme Court justices already having served their government by that time), and the country had expanded several times over in geographic size, putting it in command of a wealth of resources as its cities, industries, and agriculture prospered. Several months after the centennial celebration was the next presidential election, and during the life of the country, while most elections had gone smoothly, some had not—the elections of 1800 and 1824 were resolved by the House of Representatives choosing the victor as no candidate secured a majority of Electoral College votes and the election of 1860 was soon followed by the secession of Southern states. And yet, even with those anomalous elections in view, the upcoming election of 1876 was to become one unlike any other in American history.

President Ulysses S. Grant, near to completing two terms, had contemplated running for a third term in 1876. However, the House of Representatives—in passing a resolution stating that the two-term precedent set by George Washington had “become by universal concurrence a part of our republican system of government”—put an end to that dream, for now, and there were others in the party with ambition: fellow Ohioan, Rutherford B. Hayes, a veteran of the Civil War, an attorney who had practiced in Ohio, and thrice the winner of the gubernatorial race of his home state, was a contender for the nomination.[i] As was James Blaine, who inspired many party members but had a reputation within the Republican Party of being too entangled with the corrupt parts of the railroad industry.[ii] In the electoral politics of the era, there were two coveted swing states—New York and Ohio—that played a part in selecting the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.[iii] Thus, Governor Hayes of Ohio, a native of his state, held an advantage within his party just as Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden of New York did amongst Democrats. The Democrats were well aware that if the Republicans nominated a native Ohioan, they would likely take the state; and that fact was the impetus for selecting Tilden—who had won the 1874 gubernatorial race in a landslide—as the Democratic nominee. Both were lawyers; both had experience in government; both knew that as President they would be tasked with untying the tight knot of tension between Northern and Southern states regarding the issue of Reconstruction. Hayes, whom the Republicans ended up nominating at their Cincinnati, Ohio convention, had interests aligned with his party and then-President Grant: Hayes would seek to secure and protect the right of freedmen to vote throughout the country, even including the South. Tilden had a more complicated record and a less approachable demeanor. He advocated for states’ rights but not necessarily voting rights: he formed a commission to sideline the Tammany Hall politics of the city, and that commission “recommended a property requirement for voters in New York City municipal elections” that would effectively disenfranchise “up to 69 percent of New York City’s voters.”[iv] Although he backed down from that proposal after outrage built, the facts remained that he had advocated for it and that the proposal was in line with his cold approach to politics. Just as he had dropped out of Yale because the food did not agree with him and just as he opted to be a lifelong bachelor, he chose to reject intimacy with his constituents and transparency in his politics.[v]

Samuel Tilden.

James Garfield—one of Hayes’ most vocal supporters—looking at the stakes of the election and the potential for a Tilden administration, posed the question: “Shall the ex-Rebels have the Government?”[vi] Garfield called on Republicans to ensure that the “revolution through which we have passed and are still passing” was not lost; they “could never relax their vigilance until the ideas for which they fought have become embodied in the enduring forms of individual life.”[vii] To Hayes and many Republicans, this meant working with Southerners to protect voting for all men—including freedmen.[viii] Grant’s administration, recognizing the importance of the issue within the party, had taken the drastic step of sending soldiers to the South for protection (which many Democrats saw as the galvanizing event they needed to usher in their candidate), and, with the election approaching, Hayes was struggling to find the right answer on the issue.[ix] A Tilden administration was not going to become involved in such affairs: Tilden was focused on repairing the damage to the economy that the Panic of 1873 and its fallout had wrought.

Grand National Republican Banner.

Regardless, there was an election day standing between the candidates and the challenges they sought to face; and it was an election that would, as a point of fact, occur within a day this time—rather than elections throughout the country taking place over the course of weeks; it was the “first attempt in American history to create a single day during which all the nation’s voters cast their ballots: the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.”[x] The election itself was not without incident. In the South, violence erupted where blacks planned to exercise their right to vote; and throughout the country, voters were enthusiastic—nearly 82 percent of eligible voters exercised their right. That percentage stands to date as the highest turnout of any presidential election in American history.[xi] The early results indicated that Tilden was on his way to the White House: he won New York, Indiana, New Jersey, Connecticut and much of the South; on election night, he had “184 of the 185 electoral votes he needed for victory.”[xii] While Hayes expected to lose—and spent the following week stewing over it—his team was not ready to concede. The vote totals in South Carolina, Texas, and Louisiana were in dispute; and for good reason: the Democrats had used violence and coercion to suppress voters, the Republicans had utilized control of the voter return boards to adjust the vote totals, and both sides used fraud wherever possible.[xiii] In South Carolina, the vote total exceeded the number of adult males in the state; in Florida, three sets of returns existed (the original count, a second adjusted by the courts, and a third that the Democratic legislature conjured up); and in Louisiana, the head of the electoral commission attempted to sell the state’s electoral votes to the highest bidder.[xiv] In the end, Hayes carried each of the states and appeared to be the victor; but the Democrats, anticipating just such a result, “challenged and invalidated one of the electors in Oregon, leaving the candidates stalemated at 184 Electoral College votes apiece.”[xv] It was then that the matter went from complicated to incomprehensible.

Interpretation of the Twelfth Amendment—that amendment which may have attempted, in 1789, to lay out the process for the Electoral College but failed to do so in any clear manner—was the dispositive issue. Opportunists began their work: George McClellan, the early hero of the Civil War, who had fallen from grace after Robert E. Lee humiliated him and his army, “conspired and blustered about raising troops to march on Washington.”[xvi] This would not come to pass, but the question remained whether Congress would be able to fulfill its duties in selecting the next President. Negotiations ensued. With the Senate being controlled by Republicans and the House of Representatives being held by Democrats, consensus was not likely; thus came the creation of a Federal Electoral Commission which would attempt to resolve the issue.[xvii] The commission, although perhaps convened in good faith, voted along party lines with the only wild card being the Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley—who ended up voting with the Republicans.[xviii] Bradley’s vote led to Hayes’ electoral count surpassing the threshold. It was not without cost, however: Hayes, during the negotiations, had agreed that he “would not enforce the civil rights laws in the South; he would not deploy federal troops; he would abandon the freedmen to the promises of Southern Democrats that they would recognize their political and civil equality.”[xix] In other words, the Reconstruction of the Grant administration was coming to an end; rather than utilize the resources of the federal government to ensure that disenfranchisement did not occur, the Hayes administration was going to start a policy of relying on the word—nothing more—of the southern Representatives and Senators that they would not allow further discrimination. Many people, in newspapers and in social circles, referred to Hayes as “Rutherfraud” for the deal he cut with Congress, but the unusual path to power that he traveled would not hinder his presidency in any significant way—and while it may have tarnished his reputation at the time, history has been far more unkind to him for his concessions to the South.

The Compromise of 1877, as the deal resolving the election came to be called, was reached within days of the Constitution’s mandated inauguration: in fact, while Hayes was on a train from Columbus, Ohio to Washington, in the first days of March, he received word that the chambers of Congress had agreed on the election results and that he would be sworn in; and so he was on March 5, 1877.[xx] A new era was beginning in North-South relations. Throughout the country, but particularly in the South—where generations would intimately see the effects of allowing states, counties, and cities to use nearly any means to disenfranchise and discriminate—those who saw the promise and potential of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era would always look to the deal that Hayes—and his proponents—made and wonder: what could have been achieved?

President Rutherford B. Hayes. By: Mathew Brady.

[i] Congressional Record, 44th Cong., 1st sess., vol. IV, pt. 1, p. 228.

[ii] See Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 326.

[iii] See id.

[iv] Id. at 327.

[v] See id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id. at 327-28.

[viii] See id. at 328.

[ix] See id.

[x] Id.

[xi] See id.

[xii] Id. at 330.

[xiii] See id. at 330-31.

[xiv] Id. at 331.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] See id. at 332.

[xviii] See id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] See id. at 332-33.


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