The Electoral College and the Disputed Election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876

Rutherford B. Hayes / Public Domain

As the favorite son of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes had much in his favor.

By Dr. Ari Hoogenboom
Professor Emeritus of History
Brooklyn College
City University of New York

The Campaign and Election

By 1875, the Republican party was in trouble. A severe economic depression followed the Panic of 1873 and scandals in the Grant administration had tarnished the party’s reputation; falling crop prices, rising unemployment, and corruption in high places boded ill for the Republicans. Ohio Republicans turned to Hayes, their best vote-getter, to run against the incumbent Democratic governor. Once again, Hayes won a close race, with 5,544 votes out of almost 600,000 cast, and was immediately spoken of as a contender for the 1876 Republican presidential nomination.

As the favorite son of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes had much in his favor. Both regular and reform Republicans liked him. He was a war hero, had supported Radical Reconstruction legislation and championed Negro suffrage, and came from a large swing state. His reputation for integrity was excellent and his support of bipartisan boards of state institutions endeared him to reformers. Hayes realized that “availability” was his greatest strength. Distasteful to no one, he was the second choice among the supporters of the other leading candidates. Nevertheless, Hayes insisted on a united Ohio delegation and did nothing to lessen his availability. Moreover, the 1876 Republican convention was in Cincinnati, which teemed with Hayes supporters.”Availability” did work for Hayes. James G. Blaine, the frontrunner and the favorite of partisan Republicans, was tarnished by allegations of corruption; Oliver P. Morton, the favorite of Radicals, was in ill health; Benjamin H. Bristow, the favorite of reformers was anathema to Grant, Roscoe Conkling, the quintessential spoils politician, was unacceptable to reformers and to Blaine, and none of these candidates could muster the votes of the majority of the convention. By the fifth ballot, Hayes had picked up votes; by the seventh, he had clinched the nomination.

The Republicans faced a very difficult campaign. The Democratic candidate, Samuel Jones Tilden, governor of New York, had strong reform credentials. He had helped bust the infamous Tweed Ring, a corrupt group of Democrats that had been running New York City for years, and then smashed the state’s corrupt canal ring. In addition Tilden was a superb political organizer and the Democrats in the South were certain to use violence to keep black and white Republicans from voting. Finally, the Republicans had been in power for a long time, were hurt by scandals, and hard times gripped the economy. There was strong sentiment to throw the ruling party out.

In that era, overt campaigning by the presidential candidate himself was largely frowned upon. Beyond publishing an acceptance letter, candidates were not supposed to demean themselves by campaigning—the office should seek the man. Not only were candidates mute, national committees were virtually powerless. Presidential campaigns were conducted by state and local party organizations headed usually by senators and congressmen. In his acceptance letter, Hayes called for a reform of the civil service and pledged to serve only one term, lest patronage be used to secure his reelection. He also backed the resumption of specie payments (return to the gold standard) as scheduled for 1879. Most importantly, he was a supporter of honest and capable local government in the South, as long as it respected the constitutional rights of all citizens.

The Dispute

The election proved to be the longest, closest, most hostile, and most controversial – up to that time—in the history of the United States. Hayes knew it would be close and predicted that if he were defeated it would be “by crime—by bribery, & repeating” in the North and by “violence and intimidation” in the South. Early returns on the telegraph from both Ohio and New York showed Tilden in the lead, and Hayes went to bed convinced he had lost.

The next day, however, Hayes learned that he had carried the Pacific Slope and that both parties claimed to have carried Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Tilden had a plurality of 250,000 in the popular vote and was one electoral vote shy of the majority needed to win the presidency. But if Hayes carried Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, whose official votes would be determined by Republican controlled returning or canvassing boards, he would win the presidency by one electoral vote. In those states, as well as in the rest of the South, intimidation kept black voters from the polls. Republicans asserted that had their votes been counted, Hayes would have carried the three disputed states as well as other southern states. Citing intimidation, the returning election boards in the disputed states invalidated enough Democratic votes for Hayes and the Republican party to emerge victorious. A further complication arose in Oregon: Hayes carried the state, but one of his electors was a federal office holder and could not be an elector. He resigned his job after the election, but the Democratic governor of that state certified a Democratic elector in his place.

When electors met in state capitals to vote for president on December 6, 1876, both Republican and Democratic electors met in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon, and cast conflicting votes. These were forwarded to Washington to be counted by the presiding officer of the Senate, Thomas W. Ferry, in the presence of both houses of Congress. Ardent Republicans claimed that Ferry had the right to decide which votes to count, but Democrats insisted that the joint session with its Democratic majority must decide. Congress resolved this impasse in the compromise (incidentally, the only important compromise in the disputed election) Electoral Commission Act passed in January 1877. It established a commission of five senators (three Republicans, two Democrats), five representatives (three Democrats, two Republicans), and five Supreme Court justices (two Republicans, two Democrats, and one political independent, Justice David Davis) which would decide what votes to count and thus resolve the election. Initially, Hayes did not like the Electoral Commission bill since it meant giving up on electoral “certainty.” But when it passed, he realized it would enhance the legitimacy of the ultimate victor. Davis, however, disqualified himself after a monumental miscalculation by Tilden’s corrupt nephew, Colonel William T. Pelton, who assumed that electing Davis as senator from Illinois with Democratic votes would purchase his support for Tilden on the Electoral Commission. Davis was replaced by a Republican, Joseph P. Bradley, giving Hayes’s party an 8:7 edge. Bradley did have an independent streak, but in strict party votes Hayes was awarded the disputed states.

After the Electoral Commission awarded Louisiana to Hayes (which Tilden unofficially carried by 6,300 votes and where the Republican returning board threw out 15,000 votes of which 13,000 were Democratic), the Democrats knew that Hayes would win. Combining frustration and calculation, they then delayed the counting of electoral votes with frequent adjournments which threatened to plunge the nation into chaos by leaving it with no President on March 4. Those who calculated (as distinct from those who were irrationally angry) hoped to secure concessions from politicians close to Hayes. Among their objectives were the removal of the handful of troops that protected the remaining Republican state governments in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Columbia, South Carolina; a federal subsidy for the Texas & Pacific Railroad; and cabinet appointments for prewar Whigs accompanied with hints that if so rewarded, white southerners would be attracted to the Republican party. That southern Democrats and Hayes’s friends negotiated is a virtual certainty, but that they struck any “deal,” “bargain,” or compromise that offered anything beyond what Hayes promised to do in his letter of acceptance is very doubtful. Hayes and his representatives insisted that the troops would be withdrawn only when the civil and voting rights of black and white Republicans were respected. It is also clear that the southern negotiators had little or no control over the irrational filibusterers that prolonged the count. Samuel J. Randall, the Democratic Speaker of the House, realizing that creating chaos would backfire on the Democrats, ruled the filibusterers out of order and forced the completion of the count in the early hours of March 2, 1877. With 185 votes to Tilden’s 184, Hayes was declared the winner two days before he became President.

It was, to say the least, a distasteful victory that left widespread hard feelings. Tilden had actually received a quarter million more popular votes than Hayes; this fact, coupled with the partisan work of the Commission, convinced Democrats that the recent political disgraces in Washington were far from over. The sneering Democratic press dubbed Hayes “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.”

Originally published by the Miller Center, University of Virginia, under open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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