Election of 1876
A decade following the close of the Civil War, the United States was facing a number of national issues, including resuming specie payment, reconstruction in the South, and corruption during the two terms of President Ulysses Page 91 | Top of ArticleS. Grant (1822–1885). Some members of Congress, for political reasons, raised the political slogan of the bloody shirt, reminding the public it was the South that began the Civil War. Enthusiasm for enforcing the civil rights of the freedman, begun with passion immediately following the cessation of fighting in 1865, faded from the public conscience. Economically, the nation was recovering from the Panic of 1873.
The voting in the presidential election of 1876 in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina was surrounded with fraud and, in many locations, violence. The concern was that the final outcome of the presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893), Republican of Ohio, and Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886), Democrat and former governor of New York, would be decided by the electoral votes from these doubtful states. The outcome of the election in Oregon was, likewise, in doubt. Violence was threatened as emotions ran high in Oregon and the three southern states, where the federal troops had been given orders to maintain the peace. Immediately, partisans from both parties (designated in the press as visiting statesmen) made the journey either on their own initiative or as a result of being sent to protect the interests of their respective parties. These visitors viewed the recount and attempted to influence the outcome.
Because of the uncertainty of the outcome, recounts were done in each of the four states. Upon the canvassing of the vote in South Carolina, it became clear that the Republican ticket had carried the day with a small majority; but this was disputed by the Democrats and, as a result, it was obvious that each would separately certify their list of electors, resulting in two groups of electors.
The review in Florida was a bit more confusing. By law, a board consisting of the secretary of state, the comptroller, and the attorney general (the sole Democrat on this body) would canvass the results. The board could legally throw out any ballot that on its face was invalid, which they did. On this authority, the board felt it could take evidence, a position that the supreme court of Florida disputed in their opinion: It was declared that the duty of the board was ministerial and had no fact finding function.
In Louisiana, the situation was also confusing, resulting in a certification of two groups of electors. As was the practice, each set of electors in the four states met in their respective state capitols in December and cast their votes. After the electors had cast their votes and certified the results to Congress, the problem of who had been elected President became a problem for Congress to resolve, for neither of the candidates had a clear majority.
With no precedent to guide them, Congress was faced with a dilemma of determining which returns to accept from each of the four states with two sets of returns. The Constitution provided that the President of the Senate, in the presence of both houses of Congress, would count the votes. Each legislator had his own opinion on how to proceed in this constitutional crisis, and the days and weeks passed with no clear decision on who had been elected as President. It was not clear if both houses should vote separately in deciding which set of returns would be counted. The majority in the House was Democratic and the Senate had a Republican majority so it was obvious that each body, if voting separately, would cast their ballots for the outcome that would benefit their respective parties. If both houses voted together, then the election would go to the Democratic candidate, Tilden, for the majority of total membership of Congress was Democratic. If the House voted separately, the results would end in a deadlock. Many serious questions were raised and passionately debated, including whether only ballots certified by the governors would be accepted (the elections of several governors were undecided).
When Congress convened in December, it began its third session known as the lame duck session, because several of the Congressmen deciding the issue had been defeated in this election. Compromises were offered and rejected as each side sought to gain their own agenda. The days went by, drawing closer to the inauguration day (March 6) established by the Constitution.
After weeks of debate, Congress adopted a bill providing for an electoral commission. Congress would count the returns from any state that sent a single certified ballot in the prescribed manner unless objection was raised. If the two houses separately could not resolve the dispute of the divided results, the matter would be referred to an independent commission, whose decision would be final. This commission would consist of five members from each house and five justices of the Supreme Court, four of whom would be appointed with a fifth nonpartisan member chosen by those four justices. Justice Joseph Bradley, a recent appointee to the Court, was elected as the fifth judge. Because Justice Nathan Clifford (1803–1881) was the oldest in appointment, he was selected as chairman. On February 1, 1877, Congress began the tallying of the votes alphabetically by state; when Florida was called, objection was made to the return and the dispute was referred to the commission.
When the commission met to consider the Florida case, the Democratic counsel offered to prove that there was fraud practiced in the election and that, logically, this would entail investigating the casting of the votes in this state. The obvious objection to this was that it would require determining the eligibility of every voter in disputed precincts. The commission, after two long sessions, determined that it would limit its considerations to the documents submitted to Congress. Justice Bradley wrote an opinion on this decision that was a very able opinion. After consideration of the Florida case, counsel moved to show the chicanery practice in Louisiana, but Page 92 | Top of Articlethe commission awarded these votes to Hayes. As the commission resolved each case, the results were conveyed to Congress to enable that body to continue its count of the vote. The next state referred to the commission was Oregon, where the disputed eligibility of an elector was found to be proper. After the Florida decision was reached by the commission and given to Congress, it was obvious what the outcome would be and it became the subject of bitter political filibuster in the House, which continued until March 1, just five days before the inauguration.
Meanwhile, the congressional leadership was seeking a compromise that would give all those engaged some advantage. It was agreed informally that the federal troops would be withdrawn from the capitals of South Carolina and Louisiana, thus ending Reconstruction in the southern states. Although Hayes did not participate in reaching this comprise, he did agree with it. The final count resulted in Hayes being elected by one vote in the Electoral College with 185 electoral votes awarded to Hayes and 184 electoral votes awarded to Tilden. Tilden had received 51 percent of the popular vote.
Dunning, William Archibald. 1907. Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Haworth, Paul Leland. 1906. The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. Cleveland, OH: The Burrows Brothers Company.
Rehnquist, William H. 2004. Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876. New York: Knopf.
Erwin C. Surrency