Presidential Election of 1876 – The Deal

January 5, 2008

sjtilden_of_ny.jpgThis was the second closest and most disputed presidential election in American history. Certainly it was the most contentious of 19th century America. The 2000 election of Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Albert (Al) Gore, Jr. stands as the closest and most contentious. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the 1876 election over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, but in the end the election had to be decided by an Electoral Commission. (left: Samuel J. Tilden, Democrat from New York)

On election day, November 7, 1876 Tilden defeated Ohio’s Rutherford Hayes in the popular vote, and had 184 electoral votes to Hayes’s 165, with 20 electoral votes in dispute. A constitutional crisis loomed.

Hayes’s predecessor was Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, who was finishing out his second term. A weak economy and rampant corruption in his administration had lost support for the Republicans. In fact on December 15, 1875 the House went so far as to overwhelmingly pass a resolution asking Grant not to seek a third term. He had previously denied that he would do so, but he did try later in 1880 to run again.

Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes was nominated on the 7th ballot as a party compromise. He was previously a member of the House of Representives and a governor of his home state of Ohio. He was a reformer who wanted to get rid of corruption and put the federal government on a new path.

The National Greenback Party was formed to advocate the use of greenbacks (paper money not supported by the gold standard). They nominated manufacturer and philanthropist Peter Cooper for president. This party wanted the gold standard abolished and a free supply of paper money used to help the working class.

The Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York, for president. He had become a national figure as a crusading reformer. Tilden stood for an end to corruption, withdrawal of federal troops from the South, tariff reform, a ban on Chinese immigration, and a halt to railroad subsidies.

These were the three main presidential candidates. Of the three, Hayes was the relative unknown. An unusual fact related to campaigning at this time – it was actually considered improper for a candidate to actively pursue the Presidency, neither Tilden or Hayes stumped for votes, that job was left to surrogates. Certainly a far cry from today’s presidential politics.

Election Day, November 7, 1876, Samuel Tilden won 250,000 more popular votes than Hayes. In fact the popular vote really doesn’t have anything to do with the actual election of the President of the United States (see my posting on “How is the President Elected? The Answer May Surprise You” in my blog archives). Far too much emphasis is placed on its importance. Anyway the Republicans refused to concede the election to Tilden disputing the returns from Florida (sound familiar?), Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon.

On December 6, 1876 two competing sets of Electoral Returns were submitted from these states and a constitutional crisis erupted. The constitution provides that if neither candidate has a majority of electoral votes, then the Presidency will be decided by Congress. At the time the Congress was controlled by the Democrats. They could easily have voted to give Tilden the election. To bring order to the process President Grant requested that Congress set up an Electoral Commission. This temporary commission consisted of five members from each of, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. The political make-up of the members was eight Republicans and seven Democrats. Their assigned task was to sort out the election results.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, a Republican member of the Commission, submitted a legal opinion on February 9, 1877 favoring the election of Tilden. Under pressure from fellow Republicans he reversed his decision. The Commission then voted not to examine individual state returns, and awarded Florida’s electoral votes to Hayes. Subsequently on February 16, 23, and 28, 1877, they awarded electoral votes from the other disputed states to Hayes. They declared Hayes as their choice for president. Congress still had ratify the Commission’s findings.

Republicans from Hayes’s home state of Ohio met with Southern Democrats on February 26, 1877. The Southerners agreed to support the election of Hayes with conditions. This was a secret meeting held before the Congressional vote on the Commission’s findings. The deal became known as the Compromise of 1877. Hayes had to promise to withdraw federal troops from the South, appoint a Southerner to his Cabinet, and look into railroad subsidies. He earned the nicknames “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” for this back-room bargain.

469px-president_rutherford_hayes_1870_-_1880.jpgOn March 2, 1877 Congress voted to ratify the Commission’s findings and officially declared Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (photo to right) as the 19th President of the United States. He was inaugurated three days later. The Democrats and many of the electorate were outraged. Samuel Tilden became, like Al Gore after him in 2001, the almost President.

The final results of the election of 1876 were:

Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican  Electoral Votes 185   Popular Vote 4,034,311 (47.9%)
Samuel J. Tilden, Democratic     Electoral Votes 184   Popular Vote 4,288,546 (51.0%)

In this election year it is always interesting to look back at previous events. More postings to come.

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