US Election: Why the 1876 election was the most controversial of all time

Katherine Chatfield
·Columnist
·5-min read

Donald Trump is doing everything in his power to swing the upcoming US election his way, from deterring postal votes to encouraging supporters to vote twice. But if the vote doesn’t go in his favour, it’s looking unlikely there will be a peaceful transition to a democratic government, after he refused to promise he’ll hand over power without a fight, saying: “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens.”

His reluctance to concede power is reminiscent of the 1876 election in the US, where both candidates claimed victory and a result wasn’t reached until four months after the vote.

Could history repeat? Here’s what went down in one of the craziest election vote counts in US history.

Who were the 1876 Presidential candidates?

The Presidential candidates vying to become the 19th President of the United States were Republican Rutherford B Hayes and Democrat Samuel J Tilden.

Hayes wasn’t well known outside his home state of Ohio, where he had first been a congressman and then the governor. He was chosen as a nominee by the Republican party because he’d been wounded while serving in the Civil War, and it was thought he would appeal to veterans. Ohio was a swing state, and Republicans were counting on Hayes being able to convert voters.

Democrat Samuel J Tilden (left) and Rutherford B Hayes (right) both pictured.
Democrat Samuel J Tilden (left) and Rutherford B Hayes (right).

Tilden was born into a wealthy New York family, and trained as a lawyer before eventually becoming the 25th governor of New York. In this role he became known for his attempts to stop corruption. He soon became well-liked amongst the Democrats and was voted as Presidential Candidate in 1876, based on his reputation for reform and his thorough knowledge of the electoral system.

What were the issues at stake in the 1876 election?

America was in the middle of a severe economic depression and still recovering from the Civil War which had ended the previous year. Republicans were growing tired of Reconstruction, which attempted to address the inequalities arisen from slavery. The Democrats wanted reform of the federal government, its civil service and for restrictions on Chinese immigration to the US.

A hand and gun seen over a flyer reading "Tilden or blood".
This cartoon was published in Harper's Weekly, February 17, 1877. Source: Getty

Who won the most votes?

The election was held on 7 November 1876, and Tilden led the popular vote by more than 260,000. Preliminary returns showed Tilden had 184 electoral votes – just one short of the 185 majority needed to win the election at that time – and Hayes had 165.

However, there were 19 electoral votes from four states which were in dispute. Oregon had already been declared as won by Tilden, but was called into question at the last minute. Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina were all in doubt, although all were predicted to go to Tilden.

It’s believed Hayes was ready to concede defeat, when a Republican leader from New Hampshire noted that if all the electoral votes in question were given to Hayes, he would beat Tilden by 185 to 184 electoral votes. This caused the Republicans and the Democrats to claim victory in these states, in the hope they would win the election. With the country at an impasse, both parties sent lawyers into each state, in the hope they could sway the canvass.

What were the issues complicating the votes?

Republicans claimed black voters had been intimidated so they wouldn’t vote. Electoral fraud was rife and threats of violence against Republican voters started to emerge. There were accusations of Republicans printing their symbol (which allowed illiterate people to vote) on Democratic ballot papers. The country was so divided, it almost sparked another civil war, with Democrats using the slogan “Tilden or War.” The ambiguous language surrounding counting and certifying electoral votes simply added to the confusion.

The Senate President announces the results of the election seen in sketch.
The Senate President announces the results of the election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Source: Getty

How was the situation resolved?

On 7 December 1876, a month after the election, congress was forced to find a solution. At the time, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, and the Republicans controlled the Senate. They reached a compromise by creating a neutral electoral commission, with five members from the House of Representatives, five from the Senate and five from the Supreme Court; these 15 people consisted of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent. However, the independent, Justice David Davis, refused to serve, and the four remaining Justices voted a Republican in his place, Justice Joseph P Bradley.

Meanwhile, party leaders had started to meet secretly, to work out an agreement, which is now known as the Compromise of 1877. This saw Hayes agree to give back control of the South to democratic governments and put a Southerner in his cabinet, on the condition Democrats agreed to respect the civil rights of black citizens and would let Hayes claim the election.

The electoral commission went on to give every disputed vote to Hayes. It was believed Justice Bradley had been leaning towards awarding Florida to Tilden until Republican allies swayed him, and he eventually gave the seat to Hayes.

Hayes was finally declared the 19th President of the United States on 2 March 1897, nearly four months after the election, with a 185 – 184 majority.

Big crowd of children rolling Easter eggs on the White House lawn.
Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of American president Rutherford B Hayes, introduced the custom of children rolling Easter eggs on the White House lawn which still stands today. Source: Getty

What was the upshot of the result?

Hayes was sworn in in a private ceremony the following day, and in a public ceremony on 5 March 1877. Although protests were expected, the ceremony passed peacefully, despite outrage from many Democrats who nicknamed Hayes “Your Fraudlency.”

However, Democrats in the south of the country didn’t seem to mind, as Hayes followed through on the promises he’d made, and ordered federal troops to withdraw from Louisiana and South Carolina where they’d been protecting Republican claimants to governorships. This started a period of Democratic control in the South, and ended the effort to enforce the Constitution. Black Americans called the deal the “Devil’s compromise”, claiming it was simply a recommitment to white supremacy.

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