There have been several contested elections in American history, though none quite like the election of 1876. The last contested election was the 2000 election. For thirty-six days the nation anxiously awaited until the Supreme Court in a five to four decision ordered the recount of Florida’s votes stopped effectively handing the election to George W. Bush despite the fact he lost the popular vote by half a million votes. Though this election is still argued sixteen years later this election is nothing compared to the most contentious election in American history.
The year 1876 was America’s centennial and Fourth of July celebrations were boisterous across the land as America celebrated its one-hundredth birthday. In Philadelphia, Americans celebrated by attending the nations centennial exposition. The centennial spawned all sorts of souvenirs and the world’s largest steam engine to celebrate American ingenuity and the growing industrial might of the confident young nation. But the presidential election of that year would present the American experiment in democracy that began one hundred years earlier its most serious constitutional challenge next to the bloody Civil War of eleven years earlier.
In fact, the Civil War still loomed large in American politics in that centennial year. Not enough time had passed to erase the raw resentments that still festered in both the North and the South but particularly in the South. Federal troops under the Reconstruction laws still patrolled Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina and were a powerful and painful reminder of the loss suffered by the south. Party alignments still were largely determined which side you or your people fought for in the war.
The issues and the candidates themselves were largely uncontroversial. The scandals of the Grant administration along with corruption plaguing many local and state governments run by both parties led to widespread calls for reform. Civil service was generally acknowledged as a jobs mill for the politically favored. Allegiance to the party rather than competency and qualification was the basis for many government hires from postmasters to Ambassadors. Neither side had a monopoly on this issue.
Rutherford B. Hayes was a former governor of Ohio and the Republican nominee. His Democratic counterpart was former governor of New York Sam Tilden. Both were known and respected as honest. Tilden had successfully taken on the machine of “Boss” Tweed and uprooted corruption along the Erie Canal as governor. There was little difference between them when it came to their positions on the issues of the day. Whether it was the economy, tariffs or trade, Civil Service reform or particularly the thorny issue of troops in the South and the end of Reconstruction, there were few disagreements on how each would approach these issues were they to become president. Both voiced their support for ending the last vestiges of Reconstruction though Hayes was somewhat vague in his proposals for ending it.
Rutherford B. Hayes. Image via Mathew Brady/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.
Democrats seized on the exposure of corruption in the Reconstruction governments of the south. Southern newspapers printed stories, some true, many embellished, about the corrupt “carpetbaggers” and bankers from the north preying on the innocent farmers of the south. Along with the financial scandals of the Grant people and the Panic of 1873, the Democrats played on theme of economic corruption among the Republicans. For their part Republicans were quick to once again raise the bloody shirt and remind voters that the rebels who started the Civil War were Democrats.
Despite the fact that there was little disagreement on issues the campaign quickly degenerated into a no-holds-barred political brawl with personal attacks on the moral character of the candidates. Tilden was viciously attacked in the Republican press and accused of all sorts of malfeasance and corruption and the Democrat press threw their fair share of mud at Hayes. By election day on November 7, both candidates had been subject to a plethora of lies, innuendos and an unrelenting litany of attacks on both their personal and professional lives. These attacks went way beyond any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled against either candidate.
Though this was in the days before public polls, the newspapers and pundits of the time anticipated and predicted close race. The total Electoral College was composed of 369 members and 185 votes were the required to win the presidency. Tilden was ahead in the popular vote and in fact ended the election with more than half a million votes than Hayes. By late night on November 7, 1876 it appeared that Tilden and the Democrats had secured the presidency when Oregon, which had 3 votes in the Electoral at the time, announced two votes for Hayes and one for Tilden, giving Tilden the minimum 185 necessary. Throughout the nation Democrats celebrated and Republicans commiserated. Hayes went to bed thinking he would be writing a concession speech over breakfast the next day.
As midnight approached on election night, Republican Daniel Sickles was returning home from the theater and a late night dinner when he stopped into the nearly deserted Republican National Headquarters. Sickles was a colorful character who came to the public’s attention in 1859 when he shot the son of Francis Scott Key in Lafayette Park in broad daylight. He surrendered and for the first time in American history used the claim of temporary insanity as the cause, claiming Key was having an affair with his wife and this made him crazy. The newspapers covered the lurid murder trial that followed and for the most part presented Sickles as the aggrieved husband protecting his wife’s honor. The jury accepted his insanity claim and acquitted him. In 1863 he fought at the Battle of Gettysburg as a General in the Union Army. Sickles and his troops were involved in the fight at Cemetery Ridge and he had his leg partially blown off and later amputated, which effectively ended his military career.
Daniel Sickles. Image via Bain News Service, publisher/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.
A lawyer by training, Sickles settled in New York City after the war and maintained a lucrative law practice as well as being active in Republican politics. On election night Sickles went to Republican headquarters as the wire reports were trickling in with west coast election results. Things did not look good for Hayes. Most Republicans had gone home in anticipation of a defeat for Hayes and the Republicans. However, as Sickles perused the results that election night he concluded that if Hayes could win the too-close-to-call states of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida he could win the election. Coincidentally, they were the last three states with Republican Reconstruction governments in the South.
Sickles was a hyperactive Republican partisan whose wily ability to bend the rules was matched only by his ruthless aggressiveness in the pursuit of Republican victory and he refused to succumb to defeat. He asked where Zachariah Chandler, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was and found out he was drunk and asleep as the returns came over the wires to Republican headquarters in New York. Chandler was a wealthy merchant from Michigan and one of the founders of the Republican party. As a Senator he was one of the “Radical Republicans” which sought to treat the south harshly in the post- Civil War Reconstruction era. It seems Chandler liked to drink a lot, which led to a rocky tenure as Republican National Chairman. Since Sickles couldn’t contact Chandler right then, he used his Chandler’s name on a telegraph message that he sent to the Republicans in each state asking if they could hold their state for Hayes. All three replied in the affirmative. The fight was on!
It turned out that Democrats in Oregon had engaged in a bit of electoral chicanery. Hayes won Oregon by a small but significant enough margin to receive all three of Oregon’s Electoral College votes. However, one of the Republican electors, John Watts, was also a postmaster but planned to resign his commission a week before the electors in Oregon were scheduled to meet and so he would no longer a federal employee when he voted. The Constitution prohibits Federal office holders to be electors so at the urging of the Democratic National Committee, Oregon’s Democratic Governor dismissed him and added a Democratic elector who promptly voted for Tilden thus securing the last vote necessary to put Tilden at the 185 threshold needed to win the election. Angry Republicans in Oregon cried foul and the Republican postmaster joined the other Republican electors and voted for Hayes putting Tilden one short of being president-elect. So now one of Oregon’s three Electoral College vote was in dispute. South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida were the last three states under Reconstruction administration and as the night turned into morning it became clear that all three states were too close to call leaving the results of the election in doubt.
The RNC believed all three Oregon votes were Hayes and realized that if Hayes got the nineteen remaining votes in the Electoral College represented by winning South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida that would mean winning the election and so the RNC set out to claim those states.
As the RNC and DNC burned up the telegraph wires overnight and all morning all sorts of accusations of fraud, irregularities, voter intimidation and voting theft were claimed by each side against the other and reported in various partisan newspapers. While Tilden only needed one state to win, Democrats still claimed all three states and Republicans also claimed all three for Hayes and boldly declared a Republican victory. By the afternoon it was obvious there was no clear winner in any of the three southern states.
Almost immediately both sides sent a plethora of lawyers, shady political operatives and election “observers” to the three states to figure out what happened and to find a way to secure victory for their side. Charges of political shenanigans were leveled against both sides and there was truth in many of the accusations. Republicans used the Reconstruction governments, which they controlled, in all three states to tilt the scales in Hayes’s favor, both during the actual election and in the post-election confusion. Backed by Federal troops, Republicans had made sure they got African-Americans to the polls, allegedly several times in many cases. Democrats, for their part, used the KKK and other terrorist groups to keep African-Americans away from the polls. Both parties presented numerous charges of various types of voter fraud with ample evidence to back them up. Violence broke out in several places most notably in Louisiana and several deaths were linked to the election. Presidential election historian Paul F. Boller, Jr. supports the conclusion that Democrats probably won South Carolina and Republicans carried Louisiana and Florida but concedes it is difficult to know considering all the irregular factors involved in casting and counting the votes.
The process for certifying a presidential election involves opening the envelopes from each state that contains that state’s vote in the Electoral College on the Senate floor in Washington and tallying the votes in front of the full Senate. The problem was Louisiana and South Carolina sent two sets of tallies, one set for Hayes and one for Tilden from each state. Florida also sent two sets but Democrats in Florida also sent in a second set showing Tilden won the state just to be sure. That gave Florida two sets for Tilden and one for Hayes. There is no legal mechanism in the Constitution for what to do when two conflicting election results are sent to the Senate to be counted in the Electoral College. Apparently Madison never anticipated such a scenario.
This unprecedented election situation opened the door to a raucous, full-throated debate in the House and Senate on how to proceed. Democrats in the House argued that since no candidate had a majority in the Electoral College the House should vote as per the Constitution. Democrats, of course, were in the majority in the House. The Republican majority in the Senate countered that the states sent in their Electoral College votes and Constitution provides that the Senate should decide which set of tallies from each of the contested states was valid. But again, in reality there was no constitutional provision for this situation and the standoff extended into the new year.
Eventually a compromise was worked out. After all these were politicians. A fifteen-member committee was agreed to review the returns in the three southern states and determine the winner. The decision of the commission would be legally binding unless overturned by both the House and Senate. Since the Senate was controlled by Republicans and the House by Democrats there seemed little chance that one of the legislative bodies would nullify the result if their candidate were declared the winner. Seven Democrats and seven Republicans were agreed upon with one member as an independent. Five were members of the Supreme Court, five from the House and five from the Senate.
The independent member was a Supreme Court Justice named David Davis. As if there weren’t enough strange twists to this election, the Illinois’ legislature voted Davis into the Senate after he was appointed to the commission. Democrats in Illinois seemed to believe this would convince Davis to favor Tilden but instead this caused his resignation and replacement on the committee by another member of the Supreme Court and may have cost Tilden the election. The new member was Joseph Bradley who was a Republican but believed to be impartial. The committee was now composed of seven Democrats and eight Republicans.
The Congressional debates were contentious, to put it mildly. General Sherman ordered Federal troops to Washington in case the very real threat of violence erupted. By February 26 it was clear that the eight Republicans were going to vote all 20 votes for Hayes as soon as Democrats in the house lifted their filibuster. Behind the scenes there were many meetings of opposing factions. On February 26, a meeting was held at a hotel in Washington. Four Southern Democrats and five Republicans from Ohio representing Hayes had a meeting. No record of the meeting was kept and none of the participants ever admitted to anything but the next day the filibuster was lifted, a vote taken and all 20 disputed votes went to Hayes and he was elected. With the inauguration scheduled for March 5, the commission voted on February 27 on strict partisan lines and gave all nineteen disputed votes from the three southern states and Oregon’s one disputed vote to Hayes making Hayes the winner of the Electoral Collage by a 185 to 184 margin, though Tilden received a half million more votes out of approximately nine million votes cast.
Though there is no hard evidence to prove it, the deal that was worked out was Democrats would not object to a Hayes presidency provided he removed the last federal troops from the south and Hayes would put a Democrat in a Cabinet position among some other agreements. Though many cried foul the deal was done. The South got the most important resolution it wanted which was the ending of Reconstruction governments and whites quickly cemented white political control of the former Confederate states and Jim Crow laws began appearing in the South. African-Americans were to become politically, economically and socially, second-class citizens of an apartheid South.
Tilden explained his attitude about the election to a friend as essentially, “I was elected President without the headaches.” When Hayes had accepted the Republican nomination he wrote that he would only serve one term if he won the election and he was true to his word. Though it left a bitter taste in the political mouth of the nation, the country eventually swallowed the results of the most disputed presidential election in American history and moved on.