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Election of 1876
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics
Election of 1876
Imagine an election of a United States President that no one knew the outcome of even well into December. Perhaps one where the state of Florida played a pivotal role that featured charges and countercharges of voter fraud, racism, even lost ballots. Sound familiar? Well this election did not have a single piece of hanging chad, mostly because punch cards wouldn't be invented for another 10 years. It was the Election of 1876 with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes challenging Democrat Samuel Tilden for president.
The first hint of Republican concern with the election came when they quietly voted to recede from the 22nd Joint Rule, an election "reform" allowing them to throw out electoral votes that had been in place since 1865. After the Civil War, the Republican congress used this to throw out Democratic votes in the South. Now, though, the Democrats controlled the House, and the Republicans didn't want the Democrats throwing out Republican votes.
From the start of the year, which saw the United States celebrating its centennial, James G. Blaine of Maine appeared to be the front runner for the Republican nod. In six years as Speaker of the House, Blaine steered a party line course, praising Ulysses S. Grant while damming the scandals around the President. In May, however, whispers of wrongdoing surrounded Blaine. It seems he had sold bonds to friends and supporters in Maine and the value of these securities quickly dropped. When word reached Blaine that some people were upset and might cause him a problem in the Presidential race he borrowed money from Tom Scott, president of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Unfortunately for Blaine, Scott's railroad was under investigation at the time by the House, and three Democrats were appointed to look into the matter. In a hearing on May 31, 1876, the sub-committee called James Mulligan to the stand. The effect on Blaine was remarkable. His skin turned white and the affiable Representative was suddenly quiet as Mulligan described letters in his possession that told a different story about Blaine and his bond dealings.
After the session, Blaine approached Mulligan and asked to see the letters, which Mulligan permitted. Blaine then simply walked away with the letters. The resulting firestorm forced Blaine to take the letters and read selections in the House of Representatives on June 5. Although few Democrats were satisfied, many Republicans were. To make it impossible to question the candidate about the letters, Blaine faked a fainting spell (feinting spell?) on the way to church, then arose the day before the convention.
For his vice-president, Blaine wanted Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a Union war veteran who had been seriously wounded at South Mountain, the battle that preceded Antietam. He also participated in Phil Sheridan's Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 before being elected to Congress that November. Although he aligned himself with the Radical Republicans, when he returned home to govern he took a moderate stance, perhaps because his legislature was Democrat.
Hayes name had been tossed about as a possible presidential contender since early in 1876, but Blaine's control of the state conventions seemed to dash any hopes; Blaine was the clear front-runner. Hayes did have the backing of Ohio, and the Republican Convention had chosen to return to Cincinnati that year. Cincinnati was home to Benjamin Bristow, another Republican candidate. Heavily supported by the newspapers, Bristow had uncovered the Whiskey Ring and other scandals that tainted the Grant Administration. While he had his supporters, he did have some fairly high negatives, even among his own party. Oliver Morton, an Indiana Senator, garnered a number of delegates.
The convention was opened by Edward Noyes, himself a veteran of The Civil War, having lost an arm at Ruff's Mill. Frederick Douglass also spoke, as did John "Blackjack" Logan, a veteran of the Atlanta Campaign. Blaine did not win the ballot on the first vote and Hayes floor managers did an effective job of forming a coalition of the second tier candidates, allowing Hayes to win. He chose William Wheeler as vice-president, perhaps as a recommendation from Phil Sheridan.
New Yorker Samuel Tilden came to the Democratic Convention in St. Louis the clear front runner for the Democratic nod for President. The self-made millionaire had been a lawyer and good friend of Martin Van Buren in the late 1840's. His reputation as a reformer came when he challenged Boss Tweed for control of the state after being elected governor in 1874. The firmly entrenched Tweed, back by his personally selected judges, was not about to give up that easily, so Tilden began by impeaching them. By the start of 1876 Tweed's empire was diminishing rapidly.
That doesn't mean there were not other hopefuls. Civil War General Winfield S. Hancock, governor of neighboring Pennsylvania, was the charismatic leader of a small but vocal minority. Indiana governor Thomas Hendricks led the "soft money" proponents, mostly from the western states. Tom Bayard from Maryland and Allen Thurman of Ohio also thought they might have a shot if a Tilden candidacy didn't materialize.
Democrats were facing an uphill battle in 1876, in spite of the scandals of the Grant administration. Republicans had been in power since 1860 with the exception of Andrew Johnson and had built a good deal of patronage in the political system. Tilden also had some problems in the South, although Hayes, as a Republican had more. Tilden supported the candidacy of his mentor Martin Van Buren twice, once as a Democrat in the Election of 1840 and once as a Freesoiler in the Election of 1848. Never popular in the South, it was Van Buren's run in 1848 that most disturbed the Southern voters. Candidate Tilden dismissed his anti-slavery statements as youthful indiscretions.
Another problem was Tilden himself. Although popular, he was not a thrilling stump speaker. A third problem for Tilden was the object of his reform, Boss Tweed. The New York City politico had been successfully put behind bars, but many of his political cronies stood in Tilden's way of becoming President. Finally, Tilden's hard money stance alienated a number of western soft money Democrats. Although he did not get the nomination on the first ballot, Tilden easily won on the second.
The campaigns were slow to get off the ground. As was the habit of the day, both candidates wrote long letters to constituents outlining their personal goals, but neither was inspiring. In August a story broke about Tilden underpaying his 1863 income taxes. Tilden was reluctant to battle the charges, but in a couple of weeks it seemed they were not going to go away, so he release information clearing himself of the tax evasion charges. Hayes, too, had tax evasion charges which the candidate admitted in September.
Tilden was an early believer in propaganda. His mentor Martin Van Buren had lost an election because of political cartoons (at least that's what Tilden thought). The Democratic candidate hired cartoonists to portray himself in a positive light while making Rutherford Hayes look bad. The cartoons were then released to local papers free of charge. Regional writers in touch with local issues espoused the Democrat in articles, also distributed without charge.
Hayes continued to perform his duties as governor of Ohio and Republican papers promoted his "stainless" character to offset the scandals of the Grant Administration. Tilden's record as a reformer, especially regarding Boss Tweed and the Canal Ring, made good press in the pro-Democrat newspapers. Of course, Republicans trotted out the "bloody shirt," although Hayes did not participate directly in that exercise. By the Election of 1876 the bloody shirt message had been honed to the point of blaming Democrats for everything from slavery and secession to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Smearing did not only involve bloody shirt politics. Republican speakers would imply that Tilden was homosexual because he was a lifelong bachelor and that he "courted men because women couldn't vote. Tilden's hard money stance was also ridiculed because in the East he spoke of hard currency and in the West he seemingly backed soft money. Sectional politics played a roll in the Hayes campaign as well, since his northern and border state speakers would extol, "Are you for the Rebellion or the Union?"
Meanwhile, Democrats were making inroads with black voters. Republicans, especially southern Republicans, had been abusing their power and their relationship with black voters. For example, when Georgia voted to expel legally elected black officials from the state house, Republicans who had supported the election of the blacks joined Democrats in voting for their expulsion.
Going into the election, things looked pretty good for Samuel Tilden to win. In early October, Democrat Jim Williams defeated Republican Benjamin Harrison for governor of Indiana. Papers had a field day drawing comparisons between that race and the Presidential race scheduled a month later. Just a few days later Hayes own people were trying to figure out a way Hayes could win. With the South solidly behind Tilden and Hayes losing New York, Tilden seemed almost assured of victory.
President Grant was not about to sit by and turn the White House over to the Democrats. He rushed troops into South Carolina to preserve order at the polls on Election Day. Republicans began spreading rumors that Tilden would recognize southern claims of damages caused by the war. Still, on November 7, 1876 Tilden would be the presumptive when he awoke the following morning.
While papers across the nation proclaimed Tilden's victory, some chose to wait until victory was assured. About 10 am on November 8, results indicated that Tilden had 184 electoral votes to Hayes 166 (needed to win:185). The states of Oregon(3), Florida(4), South Carolina(7), and Louisiana(8) were disputed. In popular vote, Tilden had won hands down, with almost 51% of the vote. During the day of November 8 questions began to arise. The New York Times had not declared a Tilden victory and folks were wondering what the Times was seeing in the election results.
Grant in Washington was not taking the situation lightly. He ordered soldiers to guard armories in some Southern states. In Florida, where a razor-thin margin of 91 votes separated the two candidates, a train carrying votes was derailed the day following the election. In South Carolina, pre-election violence turned into post-election hysteria when the Republican and Democratic candidates each claimed victory in the gubernatorial election.
Vote counting boards in the three contested states met to decided who would be President. South Carolina, Louisiana (with the disqualification of 13,000 Democratic votes), and Florida each went with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but by the time Florida's board met, attention turned to Washington. It was here the election would be decided.
After a month of political haggling, Congress created the Joint Committee on Electoral Count, comprised of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats. As the committee met in the Old Senate Chamber, rumors swirled in the country of incredible plots against the government to the point where President Grant made a statement "any ... warlike concentration of men...would be dealt with summarily."
After hearing most (but not all) of the evidence the Committee voted 8 to 7 to close that stage of the hearing. It came time to decide who would be the next president. Once again voting on strictly party lines, the Committee decided in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes. In less that a month he would be inaugurated.
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Election of 1876 was last changed on - December 23, 2007
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