The last time a US presidential race was as closely contested as today’s was back in 1876 when the favorite Democrat Samuel J. Tilden found himself locked in a death-match with his Republican challenger, three-time Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes.
That year there were disputes over the presidential returns in South Carolina, Louisinana, Oregon and Florida. An electoral commission was formed (which was extra-constitutional), but behind the scenes, the party bosses came up with the “Bargain of 1877,” which effectively awarded the White House to the Republicans but gave control of the South to the Democrats, which, as Nation contributing editor Eric Foner recently pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, led to the abandonment of Reconstruction and with it the idea of federal responsibility for protecting the rights of black Americans. Following are excerpts from The Nation‘s coverage of this presidential saga.
November 9, 1876
As we go to press, Mr. Tilden appears to have secured 184 electoral votes, one less than a majority, with Florida, Louisiana, Oregon and Wisconsin, still in doubt. The vote is close enough to permit a good deal of “claiming” to be still done.
November 16, 1876
There is at this writing no perceptible change in the political situation. The contradictory telegraphing to the newspapers from both sides continues, and makes the bulletin boards very amusing reading.
November 23, 1876
The election returns in South Carolina have been taken in hand by the Supreme Court, which directed the Canvassing Board merely to “aggregate the statements furnished to them by the boards of county canvassers” and certify the result to the Court…. The Democrats, however, protested against the certificate of the count made by the State Board, on the ground that material errors and omissions exist in the county returns, which can only be corrected by a comparison of them with the original returns of the “managers” at the election precincts. In Florida, the Democrats want to have the State Board of Canvassers canvass the returns as they come in, while the Republicans say they need not do this, taking the legal ground that they have the whole of the five weeks allowed by local law to begin operations.
The want of confidence felt in the decision of the Louisiana Returning Board caused a certain number of men more or less prominent in their respective parties to go down to New Orleans to “watch the count.”
November 30, 1876
The final stage in the South Carolina voting imbroglio began on Sunday, when General Grant issued an order [to the effect that] “the Government has been called upon to aid with the military and naval forces of the United States to maintain republican government in the State against resistance too formidable to be overcome by the State authorities.”