Who Won the

1876

Election?

 

 This article first appeared in Issue 9 of Buttons and Ballots, in Spring 1997.


Who was the real victor in the presidential contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden? This article will review the basic facts of the election, then address the question of who actually won. Like a typical teacher, though, I am guilty of seeing validity in the arguments of both sides of this controversy. Thus I furnish two reasons why Tilden was elected, but also one key reason why he was not.

In November and December of 1876, the United States government teetered at the brink of chaos. Both parties were claiming victory in the presidential contest just concluded. The situation wasn't clarified when each of the states' electors met, because from four states, two sets of documents were sent to Washington—one proclaiming the state in question was carried by Tilden, the other giving the state's electoral votes to Hayes. The Constitution was silent on how to proceed. The Constitution simply said that the president of the Senate should open each state's votes and read them aloud. It did not say what the president of the Senate should do in the case of double sets of electoral votes sent in by several states.

Three of the states that sent double returns were Southern states still undergoing Reconstruction, where Republican governments, supported by black voters and a smaller number of white voters, still were in power. Generally speaking, the Republican electoral votes had stronger claims to being the official vote of the state, generally having been signed by the governor and bearing the state seal. The Democratic documents did have some claims of authenticity too, however, being backed by the state legislatures or some other state functionaries.

Complicating matters was the situation in a fourth state, Oregon. Here everyone admitted Hayes had carried the state. However, since one of the Republican electors was a postmaster, the state's Democratic governor declared that elector ineligible to serve and appointed a Democrat to serve in his stead. (The Constitution bars federal officers from serving as presidential electors.) The most legitimate-appearing documents from Oregon thus gave one vote to Tilden and two to Hayes, while somewhat less official-looking documents from the state gave all three electoral votes to Hayes.


Orange states were for Hayes, blue states for Tilden, and yellow states contested.

The gray areas are unorganized territories. Note that Oregon is pictured as divided, since everyone agreed at least two of its three electoral votes should go to Hayes.

If Hayes were given all the contested electoral votes, he would win by one vote. If Tilden won even one of the contested electoral votes, he was elected.


To break the deadlock, Congress appointed a bizarre Electoral Commission, a hybrid body made up of five Senators, five members of the House of Representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Congress originally hoped to have seven Republican members of the Commission, seven Democrats, and one independent. As it turned out, however, the actual membership was eight Republicans and seven Democrats. After taking evidence, the Electoral Commission voted 8 to 7 on every substantive vote to accept the Hayes electoral votes, and reject the Democratic documents from the four contested states. At a late hour the night before President Grant's term expired, the President of the Senate finished the electoral count and announced Hayes had been elected president. The engraver for the New York Daily Graphic made a picture of the scene, which appears below.


Why Tilden was Elected: One.

Republicans' claims that Hayes was elected centered on Democrats' use of fraud, violence, and intimidation against black voters in the Southern states of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Republican officials "threw out" the votes in counties with especially bad records of violence and fraud, and when these votes were thrown out, Hayes carried the three states. But even if we concede for the sake of argument that allegations of Democratic fraud and intimidation were true, black voters were in the majority in only two of the contested states—South Carolina and in Louisiana. Thus while fraud, violence, and intimidation might have denied Hayes his rightful victory in the two black-majority states, the white-majority state of Florida was Tilden's all along. And if Tilden carried Florida, the presidency was his.

The rebuttal made by historians friendly to Hayes is that voting in the Southern states did not fall invariably along racial lines. Florida, in particular, had a large number of white Republicans. Indeed, the Democrats' claim to the state rested on a majority of only 100 votes out of more than 50,000 cast. So if 100 of those Democratic votes were gained by use of illegal or dishonest means, Florida should have been Hayes' as well as South Carolina and Louisiana.

Democrats' rebuttal of the Republicans' rebuttal: All three of the contested Southern states had Republican governments. The Republican governments were responsible for securing a fair election. It is very risky to start declaring victors based on what the voters might have done had conditions on election day been different.

Why Tilden was Elected: Two.

The Electoral Commission was a travesty from the beginning. It invariably voted 8 to 7 along party lines in favor of Hayes. Also, it did not behave in a consistent way. The Commission's most important policy decision was that it did not have the power to "go behind the returns" and second-guess the voters of a state. If a set of returns was official, bearing the state seal and the governor's signature, then Congress must accept those official returns. Republicans on the Commission followed this policy consistently until they got to the state of Oregon.

With Oregon, although the returns that were signed by the governor gave one electoral vote to Tilden, the Electoral Commission decided to "go behind the returns." After their investigation, members of the Commission determined that the governor of Oregon had acted improperly, and the body gave Oregon's third electoral vote to Hayes. If the Commission had followed its own logic, it should have simply accepted the return the governor sent in.

Historians friendly to Hayes have made a number of rebuttals to this argument, but generally have appealed to concepts of fairness. Fair-minded observers agreed that the elections in the three Southern states were murky affairs and that it was not quite obvious who had carried those states. In the case of Oregon, however, there was not the slightest doubt that a large majority of the voters voted for Hayes. The governor was deliberately tampering with the will of the voters, and no one could claim with a straight face that Tilden was somehow entitled to one of Oregon's electoral votes.

Why Tilden was Not Elected.

Perhaps the strongest case for explaining why Tilden was not elected can be made by bringing the state of Mississippi into the equation. Mississippi had a large black majority, but black Republican voters there were threatened and assaulted as they tried to vote on election day. Also on election day, the state's Democrats employed ballot-box stuffing and other forms of fraud. Just after the election the federal marshal in Mississippi wrote a letter to the New York Times urging, "By no means should the electoral vote of Mississippi be counted, for I tell you there is no doubt, if Republicans had been allowed to vote as they wished, without being threatened in all manner of ways, beaten and killed, Mississippi would have voted for Hayes by a 20,000 majority."

Indeed, Mississippi had voted for Grant's reelection in 1872, giving the president more than 63 percent of the vote. Not much had changed in the intervening four years, except that Mississippi Democrats had perfected their methods of suppressing black voters. It is safe to say that Mississippi and South Carolina were the two states that saw the most severe suppression of black voters in 1876, and that both states would have gone for Hayes in an open and fair election.

The Democrats' rebuttal would be that Mississippi was not one of the contested states before the electoral commission. That is, the Republicans made no official claim that they had carried the state. If Mississippi belonged to Hayes, surely the national GOP would have made such a claim.

Yet Republicans did make such a claim, informally. They did not waste much time on the claim, however, because every branch of Mississippi's government was in Democratic hands (after a bloody 1875 state election). Thus there was no way to get official documents claiming the state had been carried by Hayes. Since the Republican strategy was to say the Electoral Commission must accept the official returns of each state, it did not make sense to press the Republicans' claims to Mississippi, where the official returns said Tilden had won the state's eight electoral votes.


 

  Extraordinary Paper Ballots

from Mississippi

 

The above paper ballots are preserved in the National Archives, in the Records of the Department of Justice. The ballot on the left is a genuine Republican ballot from Mississippi. Since illiteracy was widespread among farmers (both black and white) in Mississippi, the ballot includes a picture of Lincoln to tell illiterate voters that this is a Republican Ticket. For the same reason, Democratic ballots usually had an engraving of the Democratic rooster.

One method of fraud used by the Democrats, however, was to print up copies of the Republican ballots, substituting the names of Democratic candidates for the Republican ones. Then, on election day, Democrats could make sure the fraudulent ballots got into the hands of Republican voters. A fraudulently printed Democratic ballot is shown at right. Tilden and Lincoln?!!

The only thing positive that can be said about Democrats' use of fraud in Mississippi in 1876 is that it was probably preferable to the violence that was also employed.


Conclusion.

The 1876 election was an enormously complex affair that would take hundreds of pages to analyze adequately. Both of the major political parties engaged in some dubious practices in Washington and in the Southern state capitols. Neither Hayes nor Tilden could have taken office with complete pride in his party's methods of electioneering. Ironically, both men were exceptionally upright and honest, having been chosen for those qualities after the voters recoiled at corruption in the Grant administration.

The riddle of who won the centennial year election will never be solved to everyone's satisfaction. If we ask the question, Who did the voters of the country favor, there can be almost no doubt that a majority of the voters of Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and all the uncontested Hayes states, wanted Hayes. Thus even if we concede Florida to Tilden, Hayes would have the edge by nine electoral votes (189 to 180). Given all those 8 to 7 votes in the Electoral Commission, however, and given Republican deal-making with Democratic lawmakers, Hayes' detractors will never grant him a clear title to the office of President of the United States.

Jugate Republican poster: "Grand National Republican Banner."

 © 1997 by Stephen Cresswell