Democracy Can Be Messy – Example: 1876

Democracy word play, GoGraphics This image outlines some of the elements that play a part in America.

While Americans were eager to find out who would be the 46th U.S. President this week, I went backwards in time to discover the 1876 election of the 19th President. After President U.S. Grant left the stage under the cloud of Teapot Dome, whether deservedly or not, the 1876 Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden Presidential race came on with all the steam the Republicans and Democrats could muster. Smithsonian Magazine called it “The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever.”

When Republican Rutherford Hayes went to bed election night, Democrat Samuel Tilden led in the popular vote, eventually stretching ahead 260,000 votes. But eventually there were 19 electoral votes in dispute that denied the Electoral College to either candidate. (Stay tuned for key tips about the Electoral College.)

Trivia questions: 1) Who were the Five Presidents who lost the Popular Vote, but won the election?

2) Which Presidential election yielded the highest number of voters?

A bipartisan Electoral Commission went to work and devised The Compromise of 1877, which seems from here to have been a dirty bargain. During intense closed-door meetings, Democratic leaders agreed reluctantly to give Hayes all 20 outstanding electoral votes in return for the withdrawal of federal troops put in place after the Civil War in the last two still-occupied states—South Carolina and Louisiana. Republicans agreed to several handouts and entitlements, including federal subsidies for a transcontinental railroad line through the South (which never materialized).

The compromise ended Reconstruction and turned the South over to the Democratic “Redeemers,” who disenfranchised black voters.  Jim Crow laws were strengthened in the South, suppressing Black votes and within time pushed a vast migration from the South into the Northern industrial towns. Support for Reconstruction had dwindled as plummeting cotton prices ushered in the economic downturn of 1873 and the severest depression the South had experienced since 1861-65. This paired with the allegations of corruption in Republican Grant’s Administration helped Democrats win control of the House in the 1874 Midterm Election—for the first time since the war.

We cannot determine what the results would have been if a fair election had been held without the violence and intimidations throughout the South that disenfranchised many African Americans made eligible to vote under the 15th Amendment. But it is likely that Hayes would have won 189 electoral votes to Tilden’s 180. (The term “bulldoze” came from this election — meant to intimidate by violent means, sometimes by whipping or flogging. Both Democrats and Republicans used this intimidation technique on political opponents and African Americans in Southern states, particularly Louisiana). Black voters now eligible to cast a ballot under the Fifteenth Amendment made up the majority population in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana would likely have voted for Republican Hayes. Florida with a majority White population would have gone to Tilden.

Wonder why America did not address racial issues during the Bicentennial?

Three years prior the Supreme Court came into play, not in the election per se, but through the Slaughterhouse Cases, which delivered a blow to Reconstruction. The Court ruled the 14th Amendment’s promise of due process and equal protection covered violations of citizen’s rights by the states, but not by individuals.  This ruling made it more difficult to prosecute anti-Black violence perpetrated by the Klan and White supremacist groups, disenfranchising Black voters and reassert White control of the South. In 1876 the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of three white men convicted in connection with the massacre of more than 100 Black men in Colfax, Louisiana, three years earlier, as part of a political dispute. The men had been convicted of violating the 1870 Enforcement Act, which banned conspiracies to deny citizens’ constitutional rights and had been intended to combat violence by the Ku Klux Klan against Black people in the South.

Election 1876: Historic voter turnout

This election was the second of five presidential elections in which the person who won the most popular votes did not win the election (see Trivia question), but the only one in which the popular vote winner received a majority of (rather than a plurality) the popular vote—Tilden 50.9% to Hayes 47.9%.  In the end, Hayes recorded the smallest electoral vote victory (185 Hayes – 184 Tilden). This election yielded the highest voter turnout of eligible voters in American history (81.8%). Final tallies for 2020 election are running at 41%, although the vote totals for mail-in ballots, triggered by the Pandemic, will likely be the highest number of ballots cast, but there were fewer Americans in 1876, so the percentage was higher.

President U.S. Grant considered running for a third term, but in 1873, the House by a vote of 233-18 passed a resolution declaring the two-term tradition put in place to prevent a dictatorship. This came for two reasons, to follow George Washington’s two-term example, and because the Teapot Dome and other financial shenanigans had come on Grant’s watch, whether he was involved or not the buck stopped on his desk.

The Republican National Convention had met in Cincinnati, Ohio, giving Ohio Governor Hayes a leg up and helping him reach 384 by the seventh ballot.  In St. Louis, Tilden, the New York Governor and prosecutor who sent political boss William M. Tweed to jail, had a clear path among the Democrats from the beginning, eventually receiving 738 votes.

Here are accounts of each candidate, neither completely capturing its subject:  Henry Adams, a historian of the period, said of Hayes, a wounded Civil War Major General: “A third-rate nonentity whose only recommendation was that he is obnoxious to no one.” Newspaperman John Defers described Tilden: “A very nice, prim, little withered-up, fidgety old bachelor, about 120 pounds avoirdupois (overweight), who never had a genuine impulse for many or any affection for women.” A bit cruel, in this era maybe even libelous without facts to back it up, but a picture from one reporter. (Holt, Michael F., By One Vote, University Press of Kansas, 2008, pg. 129)

Southern states and future elections

No Republican presidential candidate until Warren G. Harding in 1920 would carry any state that seceded and joined the Confederacy. That year he carried Tennessee, which never experienced a long period of occupation by federal troops well before the first Presidential election of the Reconstruction period (1868).

Long memory in the South: None of the Southern states that experienced long periods of occupation by federal troops after the Civil War (until 1876) was carried by a Republican again until Herbert Hoover in 1928. (He won Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.) This was the last election in which the Republican candidate won Louisiana until 1956, when World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower carried it. And the last in which the Republican candidate won South Carolina, until 1964 when conservative Republican Barry Goldwater carried it along with four other Deep South states (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia), and his home state—Arizona, but nothing else. When we look at the birth of Red states and Blue states next week, we will see what changes have taken place.

The Electoral College—how did it come to America?

  1. The Holy Roman Empire used an Electoral College from the Middle Ages through 1792. When the Founders met in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention (1787), this was one of the more challenging issues. The greatest number did not want Congress (and its politicians) to select the President, but rather the American people. Electors were to be from each state, but NOT politicians.
  2. Actually “Electoral College” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and 12th Amendment to the Constitution refer to “electors” not the College. The words do not appear in federal law until 1845.
  3. Today the electors are bound either to a political party or a state
  4. Nothing is in the Constitution about how the states allot the electoral vote. Now all the states, except Maine and Nevada, have passed laws giving electoral vote to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state.  Electors are no longer independent but promised to the state’s winner. They gather in their state capitols about six weeks after the election to cast their ballots.
  5. Founders expected the House of Representatives would decide if no one won majority—each state one vote.
  6. Founders figured there would be lots of candidates, which would help decide the electoral vote. In the beginning, there were no separate ballots for Vice President. The person with the second most votes became VP. But early on (see Jefferson-Burr run off) this did not work out, so they changed it. National parties formed and number of political parties shrank. Only two Presidential elections have been decided by House—the last in 1824 John Quincy Adams v. Andrew Jackson.

Much talk occurs during every Presidential Election about whether the system would favor the popular vote without the Electoral College, but then smaller states and rural areas might be short-changed. Eliminating the Electoral College is easier said than done, since to do so would require a 2/3 supermajority in Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment. Then the amendement would need to be ratified by 2/3 vote in each of the states. A high bar.

Next week: How did America become divided into Red Republican states and Blue Democratic states?

We’ll update an article by Robert David Sullivan, a senior editor at America magazine laid out in 2016: “How the red and blue map evolved over the past century.” The blog on the road trip across America in Union will come after that.

Trivia 1) 5 elected Presidents  John Quincy Adams beat out Andrew Jackson, who led in popular vote in 1824 and was ahead in the Electoral College, but Jackson lacked the winning number in the Electoral College. Jackson was shy 32 electoral votes, so it went to the House. After another deal, Adams won.

Rutherford Hayes (above) 1876

Benjamin Harrison 1888 beat Democrat Grover Cleveland, who won popular vote by 90,000. Cleveland lost electoral vote 233-168. Following election Cleveland took the prize.

George Bush 2000. Al Gore took the popular vote by 500,000, but the electoral votes came down to Florida and Gore lost, 271 to 266.

Donald Trump 2016 won 304 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227 but lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes.

Trivia 2. An overwhelming number of Americans voted in 2020, but per capita the number of eligible voters who cast a ballot in 1876 nearly doubled 2020’s percent with 81% voting. At the time of this writing 41% of those Americans eligible to vote in 2020 did. About 150 million Americans out of 239, 931, 921 eligible voters. Not all 309 million Americans are eligible. (Census figure)

Notes: Gilbert King, “The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever,” (Tilden’s opposition had called him everything from a briber to a thief to a drunken syphilitic.) September 7, 2012,

John Kelly, “What in the Word?” The racist roots of bulldozer, Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press.

Between 1828- 1928. Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2008. The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara.

Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (1973)

Table 397. Participation in Elections for President and U.S. Representatives: 1932 to 2010. Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. U.S. Census Bureau.

Morris, Roy, Jr. (2003) Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 168, 239. ISBN 978-0-7432-5552-3.

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