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Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Real Lessons Of The 1876 Presidential Election

The other day on Twitter, Jake Tapper shared a couple of tidbits about the 1876 Presidential election, namely about James B. Walker, who ran on the American National Party ticket (a third party) and Samuel J. Tilden, the Democrat nominee who won the popular vote but lost the election. 

Tapper was one of many people who wrote about the hotly-contested 2000 Presidential election, one that is still being debated to this day. But Tapper’s tweets prompted me to read up more on the 1876 Presidential election, in which Tilden won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Before I begin, I don’t believe Tapper’s intention was to blame Tilden’s loss on the American National Party. But some people remain adamant that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 Presidential election, so those people could fall into the same argument for the 1876 election.

There is more to the 1876 election than that, though. But the bigger issues that impacted the 1876 election are still relevant today and, in fact, were exposed as much in the 2000 election. Those issues go back to this question: Who counts the votes?

So let’s examine some of the events leading up to the 1876 election, the election itself and what was happening “behind the scenes” when voters went to the polls, how votes were tallied and what led to a resolution that some might argue was an unconstitutional solution.

The Background

As every historian will note, the Democrat and Republican parties were not what they resemble today. The Republican Party held the Presidency (Ulysses S. Grant) and, years earlier, was sympathetic to blacks who had been freed from slavery after the 13th Amendment was ratified, but still intimidated by the former Confederate states because of the “black codes” those states passed. Long story short: The Republican leadership pushed through a Reconstruction plan that sent troops into the former Confederate states, which led to Republican-controlled legislatures. That same leadership also drafted the 14th and 15th Amendments (the former defining citizenship to make it clear the freed slaves were U.S citizens, the latter declaring the right to vote could not be denied because of race), both which were ratified.

But by the time of the 1876 election, most of the Republican leadership who sympathized with the blacks had either passed away or were no longer serving. A few remained, but more of the Republicans were less interested in protecting the rights of blacks than they were about political attacks on the Democrats.

And the Democrats were far from being patron saints. As Reconstruction neared its end, Democrats were taking back control of Southern state legislatures that Republicans had once controlled (and some of those Republicans were black). Then-President Ulysses S. Grant faced accusations of corruption – some which held merit and some which did not – and, though the Republicans wanted him to seek another term, Grant declined to run again. And the economy was in poor shape, thanks to a depression that started in 1873 and the effects were still felt three years later.

And on Aug. 1, 1876, Colorado became a new state. Certain Republican Party leaders were split over whether Colorado should gain statehood or not. Per Jerry and Dave Kopel’s Nov. 24, 2000, writeup about the 1876Presidential election

But while some Republican strategists wanted to keep Colorado out of the Union till after the 1876 election, Grant’s friend, Colorado multimillionaire Jerome Chaffee, wanted to be a U.S. Senator, and therefore wanted Colorado to become a state promptly. The Republican Chaffee had served as a territorial delegate before the 1874 election of Democrat Patterson. Chaffee assured Grant and the senators Colorado's electoral votes would go to the Republican candidate for president. Based on this promise, Chaffee succeeded in getting the Enabling Act for Colorado statehood to pass Congress on March 3, 1875, during the last days of Chaffee’s delegate term.”   

All this takes us to the 1876 Presidential election.

Who Was Running In 1876?

Let’s get the third-party candidates out of the way first. The American National Party indeed had nominated James B. Walker. But there was also the Prohibition Party, which nominated Green Clay Smith. And then there’s arguably the most notable third party at the time, the Greenback Party, which nominated Peter Cooper.

The Democrats, who saw the Presidency as ripe for the taking, settled on Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York who became noteworthy at the time for butting heads with the corrupt political machine headed by William M. “Boss” Tweed. As Gilbert King wrote about Tilden in aSept. 7, 2012 article for The Smithsonian

Sixty-two and a lifelong bachelor, he was respected for his commitment to political reform though considered dull. With corruption charges plaguing associates of the sitting president, Ulysses S. Grant, Tilden’s candidacy could not have been better timed for Democrats to regain national power.

The Republicans, meanwhile, entered their convention with James G. Blaine though to be the favorite, but a few Republicans had doubts that he could win the election. Add to this the fact that the so-called Liberal Republicans pulled away from the party because of their objections to federal government intervention in the Southern states during Reconstruction. (Keep in mind that, back then, the term “liberal” did not mean what we think of it as today.) After six votes with no candidate getting an absolute majority, Republican leaders met privately and, on the seventh vote, settled on Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Democrat platform did not outright call for an end to Reconstruction, although it remained a hot topic in the South. But the Democrats were not above using other tactics to criticize Reconstruction, asMichael F. Holt discusses

Since 1872 Democrats had repeatedly pledged their acceptance of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments as final settlements of the slavery issue. Those pledges did not, however, prevent Democrats from race-baiting in the North when they saw an opportunity or from criticizing the insertion of federal troops in the South to protect freedmen’s voting rights and defend Republican state administrations. By the spring of 1875 many Republican voters and officeholders in the North also denounced continued federal intervention in the South as an outrageous infringement on republican self-government.

At the same time, the Republicans were not acting like patron saints when it came to running a campaign. Consider their tactics against Catholics, as Holt notes:

In several northern state elections in 1875, most notably Ohio, Republicans made gains by falsely claiming that Democrats supported Catholic demands to use local public tax revenues to finance Catholic parochial schools. Hayes, for one, believed this issue made him governor in 1875. President Grant publicly echoed the anti-Catholic charge in a speech in September 1875 and later called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting any such public expenditures. In December 1875 former House Speaker Blaine, then the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, introduced that constitutional amendment. Most Republicans expected anti-Catholicism to be a decisive and winning issue for them in 1876, no matter who won their nomination.

And those tactics were just the start of how each party campaigned leading to the election.

The Election: Whose Vote Was It, Anyway?

The best summary of how the election of 1876 unfolded may be the four-page summary from HarpWeek. But to summarize everything as best I can:

Both Tilden and Hayes assumed Tilden won the Presidency based on the first returns on Nov. 7, 1876. But a Republican named Daniel Sickles checked on returns and realized that Hayes had a chance to win the electoral vote by one vote if he won the state of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, all states still under control of federal troops and Republicans thanks to Reconstruction. And the New York Times, whose managing editor John Reid was an ardent Republican, learned that some Democrats had their doubts about the election outcome. The New York Times did not project a win for Tilden and called Florida too close to call. (Yes, Florida can’t catch a break in these close elections.)

Tilden did win the popular vote with 4,284,020 votes (51 percent) to Hayes’ 4,036,572 (48 percent) a margin of less than 250,000. As for third-party votes, Peter Cooper had 83,726, Green Clay Smith had 6,945 and James B. Walker had 463. That accounts for 91,134 votes for third-party candidates – a considerable amount at the time, but not enough to put Hayes ahead of Tilden. And while those votes would have widened Tilden’s margin of victory, the popular vote does not determine who wins the Presidency.

That brings us to the electoral vote. First, because Colorado was now a state when it was not in 1872, the number of electoral votes needed to become President had increased. In 1872, one needed 184 votes to win the Presidency. In 1876, the President needed 185. Additionally, because Colorado did not have enough time to organize a Presidential election, the state legislature selected the state’s electors and gave all three to Hayes. It was the last election in which states chose electors through a state legislature.

Colorado’s votes, though, weren’t the subject of debate. The three subject to the most debate were those of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina – the same three states subject to the harshest restrictions of Reconstruction. In those states, accusations of intimidation, fraud and bribery were hurled by both parties.

In some cases, those accusations held a lot of merit. Southern blacks were often intimidated with threats or acts of violence by Democrat paramilitary groups (most notably the Red Shirts in South Carolina) to keep them from voting in a time that blacks would surely vote Republican. In Florida, Democrats handed out Tilden ballots decorated with Republican symbols to blacks, most who couldn’t read and unknowingly voted for the Democrat. And all three states were stuffed with multiple ballots.

The Republicans had their own issues, though. The members of the returning boards who reviewed votes in those states had been appointed by Republicans and were more interested in keeping Republicans in control. The returning board in Louisiana threw out 13,000 Democrat ballots and 2,500 Republican ones, giving not only the electoral votes to Hayes but the state governorship to Republican Stephen Packard.

And then there was the attempt by Republican James Madison Wells, head of that same returning board, to sell the electoral votes to either party for $200,000, an offer both parties rejected. He made another offer through a friend to sell the votes to Tilden for $1 million, and while Tilden rejected it, his nephew Colonel William Pelton negotiated with Wells and Republicans in Florida in an attempt to buy the electoral votes (Tilden claimed he knew nothing about Pelton’s dealings).

Another state in dispute was Oregon, in which Republican elector John Watts served as postmaster, but resigned his job a week after being named an elector, well ahead of the scheduled electors’ meeting. But Oregon’s Democratic governor removed Watts as an elector and replaced him with C.A. Cronin, the governor arguing the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that no elected or appointed official may serve as an elector made Watts ineligible from the start. The other two Republican electors refused to recognize Cronin and cast their votes for Hayes. Cronin, though, reported his vote for Tilden and the other two for Hayes.

In other words, politics, corruption, underhanded dealings and voter intimidation had far more to do with the 20 disputed electoral votes than any other factor. That leads us to the resolution.

How The Electoral Vote Went To Hayes

You can refer to the HarpWeek article about the mood surrounding the dispute electoral votes, but needless to say, you’ll learn that the sometimes childish political arguments we see today are nothing new. And then came the disputes over who was going to decide who won the electoral vote.

Because Vice President Henry Wilson died in 1875, Republicans suggested that Senator Thomas Ferry, who served as president pro tempore of the Senate, should count the electoral votes. A few Republicans suggested the Supreme Court settle things. The Democrats, though, wanted the House of Representatives to decide the Presidency. Guess who controlled the House at the time?

Finally, the parties agreed to pass the Electoral Commission Act, which would establish an electoral commission consisting of five senators (three Republicans and two Democrats), three representatives (two Republicans and three Democrats) and five members of the Supreme Court, four chosen based on geographic diversity with those four selecting the fifth. The act passed both Congressional houses, with only House of Representative Republicans voting more in opposition than in favor.

The expectation was that the Supreme Court justices would select David Davis, a Greenback Party member, to be the deciding vote on a commission evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The belief was Davis’ independent leanings would make him fair in casting the deciding vote.

But a Democrat-Greenback coalition in Illinois’ new state legislature chose Davis to be a U.S. Senator (remember, state legislators chose the Senators at the time). While Democrats thought the move would encourage Davis to favor Tilden (and the move was backed by none other than Colonel William Pelton), Davis instead resigned from the commission. The end result was Joseph Bradley, a Republican justice, replaced Davis and cast the deciding votes for Hayes.

Meanwhile, negotiations ensued among Democrats who remained unhappy about the commission’s decision. Several concessions were made, but the most notable and the one that really settled the dispute was the agreement to end Reconstruction, namely the withdrawal of federal troops from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. In the end, Hayes was awarded a one-vote electoral majority, 185-184, and Reconstruction ended.

What If Tilden Had Become President?

It’s true that the end of Reconstruction set the wheels in motion for racial segregation and various tactics to discourage or keep blacks from voting, such as the poll tax and literacy tests. However, it’s not clear that a Tilden Presidency would have ensured blacks of their rights. The Democrats controlled the House, would surely push to end Reconstruction and had no incentive to support blacks. The Republicans controlled the Senate, but had far less enthusiasm for the rights of blacks than before. Tilden was not likely to support blacks, either. At best, the end of Reconstruction would have been delayed, meaning that racial segregation was likely to follow. Sadly, there was little interest in Washington D.C. to ensure the rights of blacks.

Given that blacks at the time backed Republicans and there is little evidence that any of them wanted to vote Democrat, a Tilden Presidency would not have been popular with blacks, who despite the gains made under the 14th and 15th Amendments, were still treated as second-class citizens by the majority of Americans.

That is not to say that those who believe Tilden should have been President, believe that would have improved the situation for blacks. But it is a reminder that a Tilden Presidency doesn't mean that racial segregation never happens in the United States.


The real issue stemming from the 1876 Presidential election was who was counting or influencing the votes. Election reforms introduced in the years that followed sought to end practices of politicians buying or selling votes, although it took some time for such measures to be enacted or enforced after they were enacted. And it took many years before the poll tax was banned, thanks to the 24th Amendment, and other measures keeping blacks from voting were rescinded.

But even to this day, there are many questioning what’s going on behind the scenes at the polls and tactics to either keep people from voting or dishonestly influence elections. And while the 1876 election happened more than a century ago, it’s an important reminder about what happens when those running the elections try to manipulate them for their own personal gain.

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