The Political Situation
In 1876, Americans marked their centennial as an independent
nation with celebrations ranging from small-town barbecues to
The festivities reached their peak in Philadelphia,
historic site of the Continental Congress and Constitutional
Convention, which hosted the first World’s Fair held in the
It was also fitting in that anniversary year that the
oldest existing democracy should hold a presidential
election—the capstone event of American representative
government which had endured even a civil war.
Amidst such jubilation, few would have dared to predict
that the selection of the nation’s chief executive would itself
become a challenge to the constitutional system of government.
The first returns on election day, Tuesday, November 7, 1876,
indicated a clear victory for the Democratic presidential
nominee, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York.
He had won his home state, the swing states of
Connecticut, New Jersey, and Indiana, and was expected to carry
the solid South and most of the West.
Both Tilden and his Republican challenger, Governor
Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, went to bed assuming that the
Democrats had captured the White House for the first time in
Similarly, the New York Tribune and other major newspapers across the country
reported Tilden’s victory in their morning editions.
In dismay, Republican Daniel Sickles decided to attend the
theater in New York on election night. The colorful Sickles was
a former congressman who had been acquitted in 1859 of fatally
shooting his wife’s lover on a Washington D.C. street in broad
A courageous Union general, he lost his leg at the Battle
of Gettysburg in 1863, and later served as U.S. minister to
At nearly midnight, on his way home on election night,
Sickles stopped by the Republican headquarters to check the
He soon realized that if Hayes lost no more Northern
states and won the states of Florida, Louisiana, and South
Carolina, then the Republican nominee would win the Electoral
College tally by one vote. Sickles rushed off telegrams to
Republican leaders in those states, under the signature of
Republican national chairman Zachariah Chandler, who was
sleeping off a bottle of whiskey, urging them to hold their
states for the Republicans.
At 3 a.m., Republican governor Daniel Chamberlain
South Carolina is for Hayes.
Need more troops.”
When John Reid, managing editor of the
New York Times and an ardent Republican, received insistent
inquiries from Abram Hewitt and D. A. Magone, respectively the
national and New York state chairmen of the Democratic party,
demanding an immediate dispatch of the Republican paper’s
electoral count for Tilden, he deduced that the Democrats were
in doubt. Unlike other newspapers, the New York Times did not project the Democratic nominee as the assumed
The early edition of the
on November 8 characterized the election as undecided; “The
Results Still Uncertain,” read the headline.
Its second edition gave Hayes 181 electoral votes, with
Florida too close to call.
At 6 a.m. on November 8, Reid rushed to Republican
headquarters to rally the party leadership. He and Senator
William Chandler of New Hampshire roused Zach Chandler out of
bed and sent additional telegrams to the uncertain states to
hold the Republican line.
When the dust settled, Tilden had won the popular vote, with
4,284,020 (51%) to Hayes’s 4,036,572 (48%), a margin of less
The only thing that mattered, though, was the Electoral
College count, and there, Tilden’s 184 electoral votes were one
short of a majority, while Hayes’s 165 electoral votes left him
20 ballots shy of the presidency.
The remaining 20 electoral votes were in dispute:
one from Oregon and 19 from the three Southern states
which still retained Reconstruction governments—Florida (4),
Louisiana (8), and South Carolina (7).
In the three Southern states, both parties were claiming victory
in close elections and charging the other party with vote fraud.
Being the party in power in those states, the Republicans
had a majority on the returning boards, which would certify the
They threw out enough Democratic votes to give the
election in their states to Hayes and the Republican
In Louisiana and South Carolina, Democrats declared their
gubernatorial candidates elected, established rival state
administrations, and certified Tilden the winner in their
In Florida, the state supreme court ruled in favor of the
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, but let Hayes’s margin of
The new Florida governor promptly appointed a Democratic
returning board which announced that Tilden had carried the
The lack of an Electoral College majority in 1800 between Thomas
Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, led to the election
of Jefferson by the House of Representatives and to the eventual
passage of the 12th Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution, which required electoral votes to be cast
separately for president and vice president.
In 1824, the lack of an Electoral College majority among
four presidential nominees resulted in the House choosing John
Quincy Adams over the winner of a plurality of the popular vote,
The Constitution, however, did not provide for the unprecedented
scenario of 1876:
disputed, multiple Electoral College returns from four
The 12th Amendment merely stated that the
president of the Senate shall open and count the election
certificates before a joint session of Congress, without any
mention of who had the authority to determine contested returns.
Since the death of Vice President Henry Wilson in 1875,
the president pro tempore of the Senate was Republican Thomas
Ferry of Michigan.
The Democrats did not want him to determine which returns
Since the Democrats controlled the House in both the
outgoing and incoming Congresses, the Republicans did not want
that body to choose the new president.
The Electoral College controversy would drag on for
months, not reaching resolution until almost the eve of the
scheduled inauguration on Monday, March 5, 1877.