His Fraudulency: Rutherford B. Hayes and the Contested Presidential Election of 1876

An 1876 pamphlet reads, "[O]ur nation's choice, Rutherford B. Hayes, William A. Wheeler."
An 1876 pamphlet reads, "[O]ur nation's choice, Rutherford B. Hayes, William A. Wheeler." / Library of Congress (LC-DIG-ppmsca-44761)

The events of the 1876 fight for the White House likely sound familiar to Americans today: Voter intimidation. The threat of violence. An unprecedentedly nasty Presidential campaign. Talk of a Supreme Court poised to rule in favor of the candidate that shared a party with their majority. And though it was nearly 150 years ago, the outcome of the presidential election of 1876 reverberates in America even now.

Hayes vs. Tilden

The election was a showdown between New York governor Samuel Tilden, a Democrat, and Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican. Tilden was well-known—active in national and New York politics, earlier in his career he had been a key player in helping send corrupt Tammany Hall leader Boss Tweed to prison. Hayes, on the other hand, was a virtual unknown.

The country was in turmoil: The economy was suffering thanks to the Panic of 1873, and racial tensions were high following the Civil War. Hayes’s Republican Party supported federal power and the rights of Black citizens, while Tilden’s Democratic Party wanted to limit rights for formerly enslaved people and let the South govern more independently.

The campaigns quickly grew contentious—at one point, Hayes's backers reportedly said Tilden had rampant syphilis that had impaired his mental capacity (he didn’t), while rumors circulated that Hayes had shot his mother while drunk (he hadn’t). But insult-slinging was just the tip of the iceberg.

Democrats urged some prominent militias to make threatening appearances at party meetings and polling places, specifically asking them to target Black citizens in South Carolina. Each Democrat, the party said, should seek to “control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine.” Decades later, Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina proudly admitted that the party had gone to extreme measures to swing the vote, including killing members of the opposition.

The presidential race was thought to be so firmly in the Democrats’ grasp that newspapers had already printed headlines declaring Tilden’s victory. But despite their best efforts, the polls were a lot closer than anyone had expected—including the candidates. On election night, Tilden won the popular vote by more than 250,000 votes, but remained a single electoral vote away from achieving the 185 he needed to win the election. Hayes was at 165, and went to bed assuming he had lost, writing in his diary, “We soon fell into a refreshing sleep, and the affair seemed over.” Of course, it wasn’t.

The Battle for Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina

Three states were too close to call: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. If Hayes took all three of them, the presidency would be his. However, the Republican-controlled Louisiana election board offered to say that the vote had gone to Tilden for the princely sum of $1,000,000. It was believed that the other two close-call states made similar offers, but Tilden’s party refused to take the bait—and it may have cost them the election.

Election boards in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina voided a number of Democratic votes for a variety of reasons—including because the inspectors at one Florida precinct went to dinner and left the box holding the ballots unattended—which suddenly made Hayes the clear winner. But then other issues emerged, such as the one in Oregon, where it came out that one of the state’s Republican electors was employed as a postmaster and was thus unable to cast his vote for Hayes. He quit his job and was reappointed as an elector, but the governor certified a Democratic elector instead and threw the Oregon votes into question.

Weeks of uncertainty dragged into months, and with every day that passed, the country became more deeply divided. Many worried, quite seriously, that another civil war was on the horizon. And if there wasn’t a decision by March 4, interregnum would take effect, leading to the potential for yet more chaos.

Senate Republicans wanted to let the Republican-majority Supreme Court decide the outcome of the election, but Democrats cried foul. Both parties finally agreed to an electoral commission made up of five members of the Senate (split 3-2 in favor of the Republicans), five members of the House (split 3-2 in favor of the Democrats), and five members of the Supreme Court. Two of the member Justices were considered affiliated with Democrats, two with Republicans—and together, those four would vote on a fifth justice to round out the commission.

It’s widely agreed the fifth justice was intended to be Justice David Davis, who was known for his independence—as an 1893 article about the commission in The Atlantic noted, “If the ideal were half Democrat and half Republican, how could it have been more perfectly realized” than by nominating Davis. But as the Electoral Commission Act was moving through Congress, Democrats and Independents in Illinois elected Davis to the U.S. Senate, and Davis withdrew his name from consideration for the commission. The fifth seat was ultimately filled by Justice Bradley who, though respected for independence, was a Republican, giving the Republicans an 8-7 majority.

While the commission deliberated, other deals were being made behind the scenes. Republicans sought to convince southern Democrats to stop blocking the counting of electoral votes. If they backed off and allowed Hayes to be elected, the Republican Party agreed to a number of concessions on issues that impact the United States even today. Later known as the Compromise of 1877, the informal agreement is thought to have included: the removal of troops from the South; the promise that a southerner would be appointed Postmaster General (or a member of the cabinet); that funds would be directed to help rebuild the South; and that racial issues would be left up to the states to decide, not the federal government.

Unsurprisingly, the electoral commission split down party lines—all eight Republicans said Hayes deserved the votes in all the disputed states, and all seven Democrats voted against him. The majority won, and because of the Compromise, the Democratic Party stopped contesting the results. Rutherford B. Hayes was privately sworn in as the 19th President of the United States on March 3, 1877, and publicly on Monday, March 5.

The Lasting Effects of the Compromise of 1877

The disputed election results hung over Hayes’s head his entire presidency, with detractors referring to him as “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.” And true to the terms of the 1877 Compromise, Hayes removed troops from the South a month after his inauguration, definitively ending Reconstruction and paving the way for the Jim Crow South.

As historian Eric Foner wrote in Interpretations of American History Vol. I: Patterns and Perspectives, the failure of Reconstruction, for Black people, was “a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.” Foner argues that the failure of Reconstruction completely altered the development of America, writing, “Reconstruction’s demise and the emergence of Blacks as a disenfranchised class of dependent laborers greatly facilitated racism’s further spread, until by the early 20th century it had become more deeply embedded in the nation’s culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our entire history.”

Hayes opted not to run for a second term for president, and left office in 1881. As for Tilden? Although he was considered a presidential possibility in 1880 and again in 1884, the campaigns never came to fruition. He continued to remind people that he was the winner of the popular vote, saying, “I can retire to private life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.” He died in 1886. Inscribed on his memorial: “I Still Trust the People.”