As the United States celebrated its
Centennial in Philadelphia in July, 1876, President U.S. Grant was
nearing the end of his second term in office. Saddled with scandals
affecting high officials in his administration, Grant had given up
on the possibility of seeking an unprecedented third term. Attention
turned to several other Republican politicians as the GOP nominating
convention met in Cincinnati in June.
The leading candidate was
Representative James G. Blaine of Maine, former Speaker of the House
of Representatives. Blaine was leader of the Republican
“Half-Breeds”, who had opposed a third term for Grant. His bitter
political rival was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the
GOP “Stalwarts”, who had supported another term for Grant. Also
considered were Indiana’s wartime governor and now Senator Oliver P.
Morton, a favorite of the Republican Radicals, Benjamin Bristow,
Grant’s former Secretary of the Treasury (a reformer), John
Hartranft, governor of Pennsylvania, and Rutherford B. Hayes,
governor of Ohio and its “favorite son”.
Civil War hero (wounded four times)
Hayes had been elected to Congress in 1864 (serving two terms) and
after the war was elected governor twice (1867 and 1869), then
turned to law practice in Cincinnati, but was persuaded to become
governor again in 1875 (defeating the Democratic incumbent).
As balloting began on June 16,
Blaine had a substantial lead initially but after six ballots Blaine
had failed to gain the nomination. On the seventh ballot, the
supporters of Morton and Bristow and Roscoe Conkling’s New York
delegation switched most of their votes to Hayes, making him the
Republican nominee. Hayes’ main opponent would be the Democratic
candidate – Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York. A wealthy
corporate attorney, Tilden gained recognition as a reformer who
played an important role in the prosecution and conviction of
corrupt New York City political boss William Tweed. Tilden easily
defeated other candidates, who included Union Civil War hero
Winfield Scott Hancock. There were also minor candidates like Peter
Cooper of the Greenback Party.
Hayes and Tilden were competing for
the electoral votes of 38 states (Colorado having been admitted to
the Union in the Summer of 1876). Reconstruction still existed, with
contingents of Federal troops still stationed in the former
Confederate states. President Grant had fought to have them stay as
white Southerners, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, sought to
deny the freed slaves their voting rights under the Fifteenth
Amendment. During the campaign, the Republicans used the “bloody
shirt” against Tilden, who had not served in the military during the
Civil War. Both major parties mounted attacks against the
185 electoral votes were needed by
the winner. Tilden received 4,286,808 (50.92%) votes to 4,034,142
(47.92%) for Hayes. Hayes won Ohio narrowly (50.2% to 49.1%).
Overall, the Republican New York Times initially declared
that Tilden won 184 electoral votes, just one short of becoming
President-elect, to Hayes’ 181, with Florida’s 4 in doubt. Led by
former New York City politician and Civil War general Dan Sickles
and New York Times editor John Reid, the Republican party
decided to challenge the reported results. In determining the
outcome, the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats
controlled the House. Under Article II, Section 1 of the
Constitution, counting of the ballots of the Electoral College
occurs in Congress. If no candidate has a majority, then the outcome
is determined by a vote of states. The Democrats controlled more
state delegations in Congress than the Republicans.
Controversy over the voting
centered on four states: Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South
Carolina. The three Southern states had Republican governors under
Reconstruction. Republicans claimed that Democrats in the three
Southern states prevented Republicans from voting, especially the
former slaves, thus preventing higher Republican vote counts.
Democrats accused the Republicans of discounting Tilden votes in
their reporting of the results. In Florida, Tilden had apparently
won by an 80-some vote margin. The State Canvassing Board controlled
by Republicans instead certified that Hays had actually won by a
45-vote margin. Democratic “electors”, backed by a newly-elected
Democratic governor, nevertheless, informed Congress that Tilden had
won. The battle went to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled that
the Board had acted improperly in disregarding returns that it
considered fraudulent. In Louisiana, a similar state board reversed
an apparent Tilden victory and Democrats sent their own results
favoring Tilden to Congress. Democrats claimed that the head of the
Republican board had been bribed to throw out Tilden votes. In South
Carolina, which elected former Confederate general Wade Hampton
governor (in another disputed election), the state board certified a
victory for Hayes. The state Supreme Court then found them in
contempt, fined them, and imprisoned them before they were released
on writs of habeas corpus by a federal judge. To overcome Tilden’s
ostensible lead, Hayes had to win all of the 20 disputed electoral
votes of the four contested states. In Oregon, the Democratic
governor in a dispute about the legitimacy of the electors declared
that Hayes would only receive two of its three electoral votes,
which would have elected Tilden by a single vote.
Both parties sent representatives
to the states whose votes were in question to support their side.
For example, Ohio politicians James Garfield and John Sherman went
to New Orleans to support the Republican-controlled Returning Board.
Both the House and Senate appointed special committees to
investigate the vote counts in the contested states. The majority of
both committees declared the victory of their favored candidates,
with minorities finding the opposite results.
The House and Senate then appointed
7-member committees to recommend how to determine the disputed
election results. Both candidates opposed the creation of a special
commission, with Republicans favoring the counting to be done by the
Senate President (a Republican). After rejection of other proposals,
Congress decided to create an Electoral Commission comprised of five
Senators, five Congressmen, and five Justices of the U.S. Supreme
Court. One of the five Senators was Democrat Allen Thurman of Ohio.
Two of the five House Representative were from Ohio: Republican
James Garfield and Democrat Henry Payne. Garfield kept a diary about
Involving the members of the U.S.
Supreme Court in such an inflamed political atmosphere was
controversial but there was precedent for their serving the
executive branch The first Chief Justice John Jay had served as
President Washington’s special envoy in settling disputes with Great
Britain related to the Revolutionary War. With the ten politicians
evenly divided by party affiliation, the spotlight was on the
appointment of the judges. A consensus emerged that four justices
were appointed with two each believed to be sympathetic to the
candidates of the opposing parties by reason of which party’s
president had appointed them to the Supreme Court. The four would
then choose the fifth justice.
After Chief Justice Morrison Waite
(appointed by Grant) declined to be considered, the unanimous first
choice was David Davis. An Illinois lawyer who became a state
legislator and then judge, Davis managed Lincoln’s 1860 presidential
campaign. In 1862, Lincoln put Davis on the Supreme Court by recess
appointment. Davis became known for his controversial decision in
Ex Parte Millligan (1866), declaring military trials of
civilians during the Civil War unconstitutional. Davis was believed
to be an independent.
As the Congressional Electoral
Commission legislation was being passed, the Democratic Illinois
legislature elected Davis to fill the U.S. Senate seat previously
held by “Black Jack” Logan, the War Democrat general. However,
instead of remaining on the Court and serving on the Commission,
Davis said that he would resign his seat on the Court. He would
serve in the Senate (including as President Pro Tem) until 1883 and
would be succeeded by John Marshall Harlan. With the remaining
justices all Republicans, Joseph Bradley was chosen as the fifth
justice. Bradley has been appointed by Grant in 1870 and would serve
on the Court until his death in 1892.
The Commission held its first
meeting on January 31, 1877 with the inauguration on March 4 just
over two months ahead. Congress met the next day to count the
Electoral College votes and with the conflicts over the disputed
votes, the outcome was referred to the Commission. Its decision
could only be overruled by agreement by both houses of Congress.
After conducting hearings, the Commission voted on Florida first,
confirming Hayes’ victory by an 8-7 vote with Bradley in the
majority. The Commission then also by 8-7 votes decided to accept
Hayes’ victory in the other three contested states, with the
Democratic House fruitlessly rejecting all four decisions. Some
outraged Congressional Democrats threatened to filibuster
Some Democrats had also charged
that Bradley had been prepared to vote for Tilden in the Florida
dispute but had been unduly influenced by visits the night before by
Republican visitors. In a letter published on September 2, 1877,
Bradley denied such visits and denied that he had changed his vote
to favor Hayes.
However, at the end of February
some Hayes supporters, including Garfield and Sherman, met with
Southern supporters of Tilden and what became known as the “1877
Compromise” emerged. An unspoken agreement to remove the remaining
Federal troops from the South would be the responsibility of
President Hayes, although President Grant had already begun this
process. In addition, during the campaign Hayes had announced that
he would only serve for a single term. Democratic opposition to the
Commission’s decisions giving the presidency to Hayes by a margin of
185-184 was dropped and Hayes was declared the winner on March 2.
With the inauguration delayed until Monday, March 5, Hayes took the
oath privately on March 4. Thus ended the closest controversial
outcome of a presidential campaign until perhaps either John
Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 or George W. Bush’s
victory over Al Gore in 2000, once again involving vote counts in
Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court.
President Hayes was called by many
Democrats “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency”. Hayes did
remove the Federal army from the South and, as promised, served only
one term. In a conflict with Roscoe Conkling over civil service
reform Hayes fired Conkling’s crony Chester Arthur as customs
collector of the port of New York (a patronage post), who would
become U.S. President following President Garfield’s death at the
hand of an assassin. Ironically, President Arthur would sign the
Pendleton Act reforming the Federal civil service.
Samuel Tilden suffered poor health,
preventing his considering another campaign for the presidency, and
died in 1886, leaving part of his large fortune to help fund the
creation of the New York City Public Library. His tombstone reads:
“I Still Trust the People”.
James G. Blaine was the Republican
nominee in 1884 but lost to Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic
President since before the Civil War.
Winfield Scott Hancock was the
Democratic nominee in 1880 but lost to James Garfield, the dark
horse Republican candidate. Garfield had come to the convention as
the manager for fellow Ohioan John Sherman but was picked on the
36th ballot after Grant and Blaine failed to secure a majority.
Roscoe Conkling also battled
President Garfield over proposed civil service reforms. President
Chester Arthur appointed Conkling to the U.S. Supreme Court but
after his Senate confirmation he changed his mind and returned to
his a law practice until his death.
Michael Bellessilles. 2010. 1877:
1877: America's Year of Living Violently.
Michael Holt. 2008.
By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876.
Roy Morris, Jr. 2004. Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876.
William H. Rehnquist (Chief
Justice, U.S. Supreme Court). 2004. Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876.