Tuesday, February 17, 2015


The governor arose from a restful sleep, dressed, and headed for his office in a "contented and cheerful" frame of mind, even though he fell asleep believing he lost a bid for the presidency.


The 1876 election played out like a heavyweight boxing match with two gubernatorial heavyweights slugging away at each other with verbal jabs, hooks, and uppercuts. In the end, the match would be decided not by a knockout punch, but by the handlers in the corners of the two formidable political warriors. 

Rutherford B. Hayes, a former Union general wounded five times, emerged from the Civil War with a reputation for bravery under fire. 

Following the war, he served two terms as an Ohio  Republican congressman and then ran for the governor’s office, winning two consecutive terms from 1868 to 1872 and then a third term from 1876 to 1877. 

His most valuable asset as a politician was a reputation for honesty and unquestioned character.

Samuel J. Tilden spent twenty-five years as reform-minded State Assemblyman. In 1866, he headed New York’s Democratic Party. 

Criticized for his reluctance to join the campaign to expose William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt leader of the Tammany Hall political machine, Tilden named a committee to probe the activities of Tweed, who eventually was arrested and imprisoned for corruption. 

In 1874, Tilden won election as governor of New York, which led to his nomination as presidential candidate two years later.

The two candidates promised reform—platforms prompted by allegations of fraud and corruption that riddled the Republican presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, completing his second term as chief executive.

While Hayes slept on election night, former Democratic U.S. Congressman Daniel E. Sickles - an unlikely supporter - showed up at Republican National Committee headquarters in New York to review the election returns. According to the available information, Tilden won New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Indiana, as well as the entire South.

In addition to winning the popular vote in the nation's centennial year, Tilden appeared on his way to the White House with 203 electoral votes, with only 185 needed for victory. But Sickles spotted a glimmer of hope. All the returns weren’t yet in. He figured if Hayes could win the Pacific states, and if Republicans held strong in the South, Hayes would win. 

Earlier, a Democratic campaign official contacted the New York Times in an effort to verify the actual electoral vote count. When editor John Reid, who happened to be a Republican, got the message to clarify the tally, he concluded if the Democrats weren’t sure, then Hayes might still have a chance to pull out a victory.

At that moment, the actual electoral vote count stood at 184-166 for Tilden, raising doubt about 19 votes.

The struggle for the election, as shown in a political cartoon titled:
 "Where two ride a donkey, one must go afoot." 
N.Y.Daily Graphic Feb. 16, 1877 (Rutherford B. Hayes Center)

Sickles, according to historian Art Hoogenboom in The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, dispatched telegrams to Republican leaders in South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Oregon that read: “With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state.”

Stakes were so high in the 1876 election that both sides resorted to manipulating the results with a series of dirty tricks. Republican officials in Florida, for example, tossed out the right combination of precinct returns to give Hayes a 900-vote lead. 

At the same time, election returns in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida came under dispute. But, together, the votes in those states clinched the presidency for Hayes. Hoogenboom wrote, “With fraud rampant (widespread), it is impossible to determine who would have won a fair election.”

From N.Y.Daily Graphic June 26,1877:
 "Alas, the Woes of Childhood. Sammy Tilden, "Boo-Hoo! Ruthy Hayes's got my presidency, and won't give it to me."
(Rutherford B. Hayes Center)

Months dragged on before the election of 1876 was settled. Among the allegations: 

  • Ballot boxes on both sides were stuffed with extra ballots. 
  • In Florida, ballots for Democratic candidates were printed with Republican symbols to trick illiterate voters.
  • In precincts where fraud was rampant, all the votes were discarded.
  • Local leaders in the South used votes as bargaining chips. A backroom deal known as the Compromise of 1877 where those same states threw support to Hayes in exchange for a promise to remove federal troops from the South—a move that would end Reconstruction (1865-1877) and allow Southern whites to resume control of their states. 
  • Angry Democrats vowed that Tilden would be inaugurated—by force, if necessary.

With inauguration scheduled for March 5, 1877, Congress appointed a special Electoral Commission to deal with the controversy.

The panel, made up of eight Republican and seven Democrats, voted along straight party lines to accept all of Hayes' electoral votes and declared him the winner.

The Election of 1876 was one of four elections where the winner of the popular vote lost—1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

The final vote count in 1876:

Hayes:  185 Electoral Votes - 4,034,311 popular votes
Tilden:  184 Electoral Votes - 4,288,546 popular votes.

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  1. And with their entry into politics, there went every shred of honesty and integrity either ever had. Much the same as with today's politicians. Good post.

  2. Thanks, JD. Not much has changed. Only the players.

  3. In an attempt to unite the country after the election, Hayes promised not to run for president again. He kept that promise.Politics is always a nasty business but I think Hayes came out with less bruises than most. Thanks for the fine post, Tom.

    1. Hi Jim--Yes, he did keep his promise. Imagine that. Not much of that going on today.

  4. BTW. "Westcrazed" is Jim Meals. I always believe in signing my posts.

  5. Humpf! A thorough post but about politics? I don't think much has changed. I'm with JD McCall, except to say that money, power, and politics is much more corrupt today. Perhaps the only difference is people are too busy struggling today to make much of our corrupted political process.

    1. Charlie, it's amazing how the two words "corrupt" and "politics" are so tightly linked--almost like one word. People, generally, accept it as inevitable and react with predictable apathy.

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  7. I was aware of the contention of this election but not how close it really was. Thank you. As usual you added some wonderful pieces to 'the rest of the story' Doris McCraw/Angela Raines