The election of 1876 was intensely fought and had a highly controversial outcome. The candidate who clearly won the popular vote, and who may have won the electoral college tally, was denied victory.
Amidst accusations of fraud and illicit deal-making, Rutherford B. Hayes triumphed over Samuel J. Tilden, and the result was the most disputed American election until the recounts of 2000.
The 1876 election took place at a remarkable time in American history. Following Lincoln’s murder a month into his second term, vice president Andrew Johnson took office.
Johnson's rocky relations with Congress resulted in an impeachment trial. Johnson survived in office, and was followed by Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, who was elected in 1868, and reelected in 1872.
The eight years of the Grant administration came to be known for scandal. Financial chicanery, often involving railroad barons, shocked the country. The national economy faced difficult times. And federal troops were still stationed throughout the south in 1876 to enforce Reconstruction.
The Candidates In the Election of 1876
The Republican Party was expected to nominate a popular senator from Maine, James G. Blaine. But when it was revealed that Blaine had some involvement in a railroad scandal, Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio, was nominated at a convention that required seven ballots. Acknowledging his role as a compromise candidate, Hayes delivered a letter at the end of the convention indicating he would only serve one term if elected.
On the Democratic side, the nominee was Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York. Tilden was known as a reformer, and had attracted considerable attention when, as New York’s attorney general, he prosecuted William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, the famously corrupt political boss of New York City.
The two parties did not have tremendous differences on the issues. And as it was still considered unseemly for presidential candidates to campaign, most of the actual campaigning was done by surrogates. Hayes conducted what was called a “front porch campaign,” in which he talked to supporters and reporters on his porch in Ohio and his comments were transmitted to newspapers.
Waving the Bloody Shirt
The election season degenerated into the opposing sides launching vicious personal attacks on the opposition candidate. Tilden, who had become wealthy as a lawyer in New York City, was accused of participating in fraudulent railroad deals. And the Republicans made much of the fact that Tilden had not served in the Civil War.
Hayes had served heroically in the Union Army and had been wounded several times. And the Republicans continually reminded the voters that Hayes had participated in the war, a tactic sharply criticized by Democrats as “waving the bloody shirt.”
Tilden Wins the Popular Vote
The election of 1876 became notorious not so much for its tactics, but for the conflicted resolution that followed an apparent victory. On election night, as the votes were counted and the results circulated about the country by telegraph, it was clear that Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote. His final popular vote tally would be 4,288,546. The total popular vote for Hayes was 4,034,311.
The election was deadlocked, however, Tilden had 184 electoral votes, one vote short of the required majority. Four states, Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida had disputed elections, and those states held 20 electoral votes.
The dispute in Oregon was settled fairly quickly in favor of Hayes. But the election was still undecided. The problems in the three southern states posed a considerable problem. Disputes in the statehouses meant each state sent two sets of results, one Republican and one Democratic, to Washington. Somehow the federal government would have to determine which results were legitimate and who had won the presidential election.
An Electoral Commission Decides the Outcome
The US Senate was controlled by Republicans, the House of Representatives by Democrats. As a way to somehow sort out the results, the Congress decided to set up what was called the Electoral Commission. The newly formed commission had seven Democrats and seven Republicans from the Congress, and a Republican Supreme Court Justice was the 15th member.
The vote of the Electoral Commission went along party lines, and the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared to be the president.
The Compromise of 1877
The Democrats in Congress, in early 1877, had held a meeting and agreed not to block the work of the Electoral Commission. That meeting is considered part of the Compromise of 1877.
There were also a number of "understandings" reached behind the scenes to ensure that the Democrats would not challenge the results, or encourage their followers to rise up in open revolt.
Hayes had already declared, at the end of the Republican convention, to serve only a single term. As the deals were hammered out to settle the election, he also agreed to end Reconstruction in the South and to give Democrats a say in cabinet appointments.
Hayes Mocked for Being an Illegitimate President
As might be expected, Hayes took office under a cloud of suspicion, and was openly mocked as "Rutherfraud" B. Hayes and "His Fraudulency." His term in office was marked with independence, and he cracked down on corruption in federal offices.
After leaving office, Hayes devoted himself to the cause of educating African-American children in the South. It was said he was relieved to no longer be president.
Samuel J. Tilden's Legacy
After the 1876 election Samuel J. Tilden advised his supporters to accept the results, though he still apparently believed he had won the election. His health declined, and he focused on philanthropy.
When Tilden died in 1886 he left a personal fortune of $6 million. Approximately $2 million went to the founding of the New York Public Library, and Tilden's name appears high on the facade of the library's main building on Fifth Avenue in New York City.