|The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876
|Digital History ID 3109|
In the election of 1876, the Republicans nominated Rutherford
B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio, while the Democrats, out of power
since 1861, selected Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York.
The initial returns pointed to a Tilden victory, as the Democrats
captured the swing states of Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey,
and New York. By midnight on Election Day, Tilden had 184 of the
185 electoral votes needed to win. He led the popular vote by
But Republicans refused to accept the result. They accused
the Democrats of using physical intimidation and bribery to discourage
African Americans from voting in the South.
The final outcome hinged on the disputed results in four states--Florida,
Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina--which prevented either
candidate from securing a majority of electoral votes.
Republicans accused Democrats in Florida, Louisiana, and South
Carolina of refusing to count African American and other Republican
votes. Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of ignoring many
Tilden votes. In Florida, the Republicans claimed to have won
by 922 votes out of about 47,000 cast. The Democrats claimed a
94 vote victory. Democrats charged that Republicans had ruined
ballots in one pro-Tilden Florida precinct by smearing them with
Both Democrats and Republicans in Oregon acknowledged that Hayes
had carried the state. But when the Democratic governor learned
that one of the Republican electors was a federal employee and
ineligible to serve as an elector, he replaced him with a Democratic
elector. The Republican elector, however, resigned his position
as a postmaster and claimed the right to cast his ballot for Hayes.
Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina each submitted
two sets of electoral returns to Congress with different results.
To resolve the dispute, Congress, in January 1877, established
an electoral commission made up of five U.S. representatives,
five senators, and five Supreme Court justices. The justices included
two Democrats, two Republicans, and Justice David Davis, who was
considered to be independent. But before the commission could
render a decision, Democrats in the Illinois legislature, under
pressure from a nephew of Samuel Tilden, elected Davis to the
U.S. Senate, in hopes that this would encourage Davis to support
the Democrat. Instead, Davis recused himself and was replaced
by Justice Joseph Bradley.
Bradley was a Republican, but he was considered one of the
court's least political members. In the end, however, he voted
with the Republicans. A Democrat representative from New York,
Abraham Hewitt, later claimed that Bradley was visited at home
by a Republican Senator on the commission, who argued that "whatever
the strict legal equities, it would be a national disaster if
the government fell into Democratic hands."
Bradley's vote produced an eight-to-seven ruling, along straight
party lines, to award all the disputed elector votes to Rutherford
B. Hayes. This result produced such acrimony that many feared it
would incite a second civil war.
Democrats threatened to filibuster the official counting of
the electoral votes to prevent Hayes from assuming the presidency.
At a meeting in February 1877 at Washington, D.C.'s Wormley
Hotel (which was operated by an African American), Democratic
leaders accepted Hayes's election in exchange for Republican promises
to withdraw federal troops from the South, provide federal funding
for internal improvements in the South, and name a prominent Southerner
to the president's cabinet. When the federal troops were withdrawn,
the Republican governments in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina
collapsed, bringing Reconstruction to a formal end.
Under the so-called Compromise of 1877, the national government
would no longer intervene in southern affairs. This would permit
the imposition of racial segregation and the disfranchisement
of black voters.
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