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1876 saw an election even more crazed and contentious than 2016

1876 Electoral Map (Graphic: Public domain)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: United States presidential election, 1876

What it’s about: In 1876, a nation reeling from the recent Civil War must surely have hoped that the nation’s centennial would be a time to put ugly division behind it and stand tall as a proud democracy. Those hopes were short-lived, as the contest between Samuel Tilden and Wiki Wormhole favorite Rutherford B. Hayes turned into what presidential historians of the day termed “an absolute shitshow.”


Strangest fact: Still holding out hope that the Electoral College pulls out one last shocking twist and gives the election to the popular-vote winner? Stranger things have happened. At the end of the first vote count (a much slower process in 1876), Tilden was leading the electoral vote count 184-165, with 20 votes disputed (the country had only 38 states at the time, a smaller Congress, and therefore fewer electoral votes). In Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, both parties claimed victory, and in Oregon, one elector was deemed ineligible for being an elected official (electors are traditionally party loyalists who do not hold an office), and the Democratic governor tried to replace the Republican elector with a member of his own party.

Rutherford B. Hayes (Photo: Library Of Congress)

In the three disputed states, with one side accused of preventing African-Americans from voting and the other side claiming the election was rigged against them—which would surely never happen in this day and age—both sides cried foul and claimed their side was entitled to those states’ electoral votes. The Constitution states that the president of the Senate (then Republican Vice President Henry Wilson) shall present the electoral results to Congress, and “the votes shall then be counted.” Republicans claimed this entitled the VP to award the disputed votes; Democrats wanted to leave it to Congress, as they controlled the House. Neither side won.

Biggest controversy: With no clear way forward, Congress appointed a 15-member electoral commission of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Each party had even numbers, with Justice David Davis, acknowledged by both sides as an independent, the deciding vote. But no sooner than he had been chosen did the Illinois Democratic-controlled state legislature elect Davis to the Senate. (This was before the 17th Amendment allowed senators to be elected by popular vote—until 1913, they were appointed by the legislatures.)


Democrats believed they had bought Davis’ vote, but he promptly resigned from both court and commission. The commission’s four remaining justices chose the most impartial remaining justice, Joseph P. Bradley, as Davis’ replacement. Bradley tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor, and the disputed electoral votes were given to Hayes. But the fight wasn’t over.

Samuel Tilden, looking peeved even now (Photo: Public domain)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Hayes was probably the better man. He was first elected to the House while still serving as a Union officer in the Civil War. He refused to campaign, saying, “[Any] officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer… ought to be scalped.” In Congress, he fought for civil rights and civil service reform, both signature issues of his presidency. As governor of Ohio, he also established Ohio State University. Tilden was a Northern Democrat, loyal to the Union during the Civil War but eager to compromise on slavery before the war and critical of Lincoln during it. Tilden did, however, play a key role in bringing down the Tweed Ring and was a philanthropist who bequeathed most of his money to establishing the New York Public Library.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Despite his good intentions, Hayes’ presidency was undermined by the controversial election and a compromise that put him in the White House. While the Democrats agreed to abide by the electoral commission’s decision, they demanded concessions, and the Compromise of 1877 was quickly hammered out.


Hayes agreed to place at least one Southern Democrat in his cabinet (he went with postmaster general, then a Cabinet-level office). The Republicans agreed to legislation to help industrialize the South and rebuild its economy. Democrats in turn agreed to a second transcontinental railroad through the South (a Republican priority, which was never followed through on). But most significantly, Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the last remaining Confederate states—Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida.

It likely wasn’t a coincidence that the same three states with contested votes were the three with disputed electors. Federal troops remained in the South to protect the rights of African-Americans after emancipation, so it stands to reason that troops would have stayed the longest in the states where voting rights weren’t taking hold. Outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew troops from Florida, and Hayes withdrew from the other two states. Those states immediately went to work disenfranchising black voters, and the South was solidly Democratic for nearly a century, until Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act marked the Democratic party abandoning white supremacy in favor of becoming the party of civil rights. (Richard Nixon in turn cynically appealed to those abandoned white supremacists, a strategy the Republicans have embraced ever since.)


Also noteworthy: The election was noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was the only time in American history a candidate got more than 50 percent of the votes and lost (in other instances when the second-place finisher won, neither reached 50 percent). 1876 also had the highest turnout among eligible voters in American history (at that time, men over 21) at 81.8 percent. Colorado had only been admitted to the Union a few months before the election and had neither time nor money to organize a vote, so the state legislature chose the electors (they went for Hayes), the last time any legislature did so. And the official vote tally put Hayes’ margin of victory at just 889 votes, the closest deciding vote in American history until George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000.

Tilden announced he was satisfied that “I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.” Hayes, who was taunted with “Rutherfraud” throughout his presidency, kept a promise not to run for reelection and was succeeded by James Garfield.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The presidential contest wasn’t the only controversial election for Rutherford B. Hayes that year. He was also the surprise winner at the Republican National Convention. While nowadays, the nominees are generally chosen well in advance and the convention is essentially a pep rally to kick off their campaign, historically conventions were where the nominee was actually chosen by the party. The Republican frontrunner in 1876 was House Speaker James Blaine, who had far more support than any other candidate but was shy of a majority of delegates. Fearing he was unelectable in the general, his opponents gradually coalesced around Hayes, who won the nomination on the seventh ballot, after finishing fifth or sixth in the first four go-rounds.

A Hayes campaign poster (Image: Library Of Congress)

Further down the Wormhole: A minor figure in the election was Peter Cooper, who ran as a third-party candidate for the short-lived Greenback Party. (Lincoln had started issuing paper money not backed by gold, to pay for the war; the Greenbacks wanted a return to the gold standard.) Cooper himself led a long, fascinating life outside of politics as an inventor, businessman, and philanthropist. We’ll take a look at his ongoing legacy next week.

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