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.”
Every business interest continues to suffer from the protracted contest over the Presidential election, and in many departments of trade the dullness amounts to stagnation. Bankers and merchants who were partisans before the election have laid aside their partisanship and now only ask that the rightful decision, whatever it be, may be speedily rendered, and that the business interests of the country not be wrecked by political tricksters.
November 7, 1876
One great advantage of the pending crisis is that it is bringing to the surface the very dregs and sediment of party immorality, the deposits of years of cultivated mental and moral obliquity. As we look into the vat we hear psalm-singing, but we smell brimstone.
The suggestion that somebody in the Electoral College should so cast his vote to throw the election into the House, and thus deliver the country from the mischief of a disputed election, have drawn out in some quarters the enquiry why, in the present crisis, the Republicans only should be called on to make the necessary sacrifices.
December 14, 1876
The result of the Electoral vote in Oregon, through the appointment of a Democratic elector, is to give Tilden 185 votes, and we wish very much that this, or the other “count” which gives Mr. Hayes the same number of votes, could be considered a settlement of the Presidential contest; but instead of settling anything it has merely introduced new complications.
The Presidential contest has now entered another stage. Hayes has received on the face of his returns 185 votes, having secured the three disputed states, and Tilden has also received 185 votes by the aid of one disputed vote in Oregon, from which state Hayes claims three. This Tilden vote from Oregon has been secured in appearance, at least, by the award of a certificate to the Democratic candidate having the next highest number of votes to a Republican candidate who was found to be disqualified by reason of his being a postmaster–all this means that the wisest course for the Democrats and everybody is to allow Hayes to take the Presidency quietly and without further dispute.
December 28, 1876
In what way a rational solution of the problem will be reached is no plainer than it has been.
The Florida Supreme Court has unanimously ordered a recount of the vote of that State, and has made rulings in the matter that the recount will necessarily result in giving the vote to Tilden.
January 4, 1877
In Florida, the new canvass of the State under the orders of the Supreme Court was not satisfactory to the judges, as the canvassers had in some respects disobeyed directions which they pretended to follow, and a third canvass has been ordered and made, with what result still remains to be seen.
March 8, 1877
The Democratic filibusters kept up their fight against the Electoral count till the end, although it was known a week ago that their efforts would be unavailing…. Finally, after scenes of great excitement, the proceedings were closed by the counting of the vote of Wisconsin and the announcement, at 4:10 a.m., that Hayes and Wheeler had received 185 votes, and were consequently elected.