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The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 Previous Next
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 250,000.

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 ink.

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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