Echoes of 1876
At the end of election day, Nov. 7, 1876, Democratic presidential candidate Samuel Tilden, the Governor of New York, had accumulated 184 electoral votes — one short of a majority — while Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, Governor of Ohio, had 165 electoral votes. The votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina — with a combined 20 electoral votes — were too close to call. Tilden led the popular vote 51.5% to Hayes’ 48%. The country was bitterly divided — the Civil War had ended only 11 years before. The turnout rate was unprecedentedly high, though some of it was inflated by fraud.
Both Democrats and Republicans alleged massive fraud and irregularities in the voting in all three states. Democrats claimed that Republicans had stuffed ballot boxes and asserted that vote totals in some areas exceeded the populations. Republicans claimed that Democrats in the three states suppressed the black vote. Corruption was widespread and apparently bipartisan. Republicans controlled the voting process in the three disputed states, but as one scholar of presidential elections concluded, “corruption did abound in the disputes over the electoral votes, but Democrats were just as guilty of it as Republicans,” and “Democrats also tried to steal an electoral vote . . . in Oregon.”
Both parties soon claimed victory, and partisan newspapers repeated these claims. The New York World editorialized that “The new era begins” with Tilden’s victory. An editorial in the Republican-leaning Indianapolis Journal conceded that Tilden had 188 electoral votes and had won the election. Republicans, however, claimed that Hayes won all three disputed states and therefore had 185 electoral-college votes. The next day, the Journal changed its position, stating, “The Republicans take their turn at rejoicing. The conclusion of yesterday reversed. Latest returns give Hayes 185 votes. A majority of one. All the Pacific States, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, are claimed by the National Committee as certainly Republican.” The New York Times’ headline, more truthfully, read: “A Doubtful Election.”
Grant prepared for riots, or worse
The Grant administration recognized that the doubtful election could result in disorders, riots, or worse. Federal troops were sent to the contested states to preserve order and ensure that the election canvassers were unmolested. President Grant issued the following order to Gen. William T. Sherman:
Instruct General Augur, in Louisiana, and General Ruger, in Florida, to be vigilant with the force at their command to preserve peace and good order, and to see that the proper and
legal Board of Canvassers are unmolested in the performance of their duties. Should there be any grounds of suspicion of fraudulent counting on either side, it should be reported and denounced at once. No man worthy of the office of President would be willing to hold the office if counted in, placed there by fraud; either party can afford to be disappointed in the result, but the country cannot afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns.
Grant, according to one historian who wrote about the election 30 years later, “had no confidence in the fairness of Democrats” so he requested prominent Northern Republicans to travel south to witness the canvassing in all three disputed states.
On Nov. 24, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune wrote that the disputed election “has given rise to considerable uneasiness,” with some observers believing “that, in the event of Gov. Hayes’ being declared lawfully elected, his inauguration will lead to revolution.” Former Union General and Democratic presidential candidate George McClellan reportedly stated that any attempt to prevent Tilden from taking office should be “met by force.”
Another Tilden supporter remarked that “a little bit of war to inaugurate Mr. Tilden would do us no harm.” Democrats shouted the slogan “Tilden or War.” Tilden even said that if Hayes was inaugurated, violence would be justified.
Hayes gets presidency in exchange for ending Reconstruction
When the electoral college met, the three contested states each sent two sets of electors. In January 1877, a divided Congress (Democrats controlled the House, Republicans the Senate) decided to establish an Electoral Commission to decide which disputed states’ electors would vote for president. The Commission consisted of five members of the U.S. Senate, five members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and five Supreme Court Justices — seven Democrats, eight Republicans.
The Commission by an 8-7 party-line vote awarded the electoral college votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina to Hayes, giving him the necessary 185 votes and the presidency. Democrats in the House threatened to prevent the Commission’s results from being certified.
A secret deal or compromise was worked out, whereby in return for awarding Hayes the presidency, the Republicans would end Reconstruction in the southern states. This compromise enabled southern Democrats to establish one-party rule in the South and to enact Jim Crow laws to re-subjugate black citizens. On March 2, 1877, Hayes was declared the winner. He was sworn into office on March 5.
Voter fraud, voter suppression, heated partisanship, threats of violence surrounding a disputed presidential election are, therefore, nothing new. Human nature does not change. Politics, even in a democracy, is a struggle for power that can be messy and ruthless. The Republic survived the 1876 election and it will also survive the 2020 election, whatever the eventual outcome. (Although major media networks have declared Biden the winner, the Trump campaign’s legal challenges in several states persist, and the official electoral college vote won’t be certified and cast until December).
President Grant’s words bear repeating: “No man worthy of the office of President would be willing to hold the office if counted in, placed there by fraud; either party can afford to be disappointed in the result, but the country cannot afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns.”