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Lessons From the Contested Election of 1876

I'll be honest. I thought the election of 2000 was the first time an election night ended without a definitive winner. Shame on me for not knowing my history. But to defend myself, my teachers never really discussed the election of 1876. Oh, they mentioned it I'm sure, but there were no detailed discussions to emphasize the importance of this event. Shame on these teachers. Then again, they have to cram a lot of history in just a few weeks time. So I'll give them a little leeway.

But I will stress that Americans today need to understand this election and the impact it has on the world of politics today. The election of 1876 shows us that politics was just as ugly over a hundred years ago as it is today. Today's political climate is nothing new. We are not experiencing a unique decline in gentlemanly politics. We are just rehashing old scenes with new scripts and new technology.


The Candidates in 1876

In the previous contested election of 1824, it became apparent the damage that too many candidates can bring to the table. After that election, the two main parties stepped forward to lead the election process. We know them now as Republicans and Democrats; before the Civil War, there were different parties in control, but they began to morph and change. Now we were down to the two main ones we recognize today.

In 1876, the candidates were:

Democrat: Samuel Tilden

Republican: Rutherford B. Hayes

Which name is familiar? If you know, you already know who the winner was, but it wasn't so obvious during and right after the election.

The Votes

The popular election was won by Tilden with 4,288,546 votes, which ended up as 51.5% of the total votes. Hayes got only 4,034,311 votes, which was 48.4% of the total.

It might seems that Tilden was the winner, but that is not how the Electoral College works. Each state looks at who won their popular vote. They get so many votes based on population. That helps to level out the voting playing field so the most populous states weren't' the only ones deciding on who would lead all people within the country.

Also, the winner in the presidential race has to get a certain percentage of the college. At that time, 185 electoral votes were required to win. So what were the electoral votes before the final results came from the states?

  • Tilden got 18.
  • Hayes got 165.

But three states had issues making a clear declaration of who they voted for.

The Disputes

Three states caused this problem. Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina did not have clear results.

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Accusations of fraud are not new in the political world though we act as though they are. This election was fraught with those claims. To sum it up, according to Sheila Blackford of UVA's Miller Center, election investigators "argued that fraud, intimidation, and violence in certain districts invalidated votes, and they threw out enough Democratic votes for Hayes to win."

Oregon had a government employee in the College which was deemed illegal. He was Republican, which caused the Democratic governor to push to exclude him so that the governor could appoint a voter of his choosing. I think you know which direction that wind blew.

The other states had a variety of issues that were discovered which resulted in the Democratic lead to be taken away. RBHayes sums it up:

  • "Repeaters" were used to stuff the ballot boxes.
  • Fraudulent ballots were printed in order to trick illiterate blacks into voting for Democratic candidates.
  • Ballot boxes were held back in some areas so that more votes could be added later.
  • There was evidence that Blacks were intimidated away from the polling places keeping the Republican vote count low.

Think today's fraud claims are the worst ever? Even claims of racism are nothing new. Think of the time period. This was during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Former slaves had the right to vote, which was an abomination to most Democrats of the time. It is not surprising that they felt fraud was needed to take away from that large group of people the ability to vote and swing the election outcomes in an direction undesirable to the Democrats of the time.

The Results

No one knew how to handle this situation. The House couldn't exactly handle it fairly as the Democrats had control and the Republicans controlled the Senate. So it was agreed "the two sides compromised by creating a bipartisan electoral commission with five representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices." ( Some adjustments were made after the fact, but it was something both sides would agree on.

Most of the contested arguments came before the final outcome was decided, but ti opened up the door for improvements in many areas.

The Ultimate Outcome of the Election of 1876

This election marked the official end of Reconstruction. In order to reach a compromised solution to the questionable election results, Hayes agreed to pull back the Federal troops that had been placed throughout the South to protect "Union Sympathizers." It was a true compromise.

Hayes agreed to cede control of the South to Democratic governments and back away from attempts at federal intervention in the region, as well as place a Southerner in his cabinet. In return, Democrats would not dispute Hayes’s election, and agreed to respect the civil rights of Black citizens. (

History shows that Hayes kept his promise while the Southern Democrats did not. Blacks were continually harassed and laws were passed at local levels that would impede all the steps forward former slaves had found after the war. It would take another uphill battle for them to find a degree of relief.

Side note here: today, we see Democrats as the main party for African Americans, but when the Republican party was formed, it supported Blacks more than other parties did. Over time, the main parties traded places in their stance on supporting African Americans.


MG Singh from UAE on August 01, 2021:

This was a very interesting article and made fascinating reading. Thanks for sharing.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 31, 2021:

Somehow I missed that history lesson also. As time moves on, so many things continually change. Even the names of some countries change. As more history develops, it would take a longer course to hit all the relevant high spots. Thanks for writing about the 1876 election.

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