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The Southern Three:  Intimidation, Fraud, and Bribery

After the Civil War, federal troops were stationed throughout the South in order to keep the peace, ensure the enforcement of Reconstruction policies, and to protect the rights of the former slaves and their white supporters.  Between 1869 and 1875, federal troops were removed from political duty in all of the other former Confederate states, except for Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.  When that occurred, the biracial, Republican state governments established under Reconstruction soon collapsed and were replaced by white-only, Democratic “Redeemer” administrations.  

Because of their race and association with the Republican party, Southern blacks were often intimidated with threats or acts of violence by paramilitary groups of Democrats in order to keep black men from casting their ballots. In East Feliciana, Lousiana, for example, the majority of registered voters in 1876 were black and Republican, yet the election results recorded only one Republican vote for the parish.  In South Carolina, the paramilitary Red Shirts were a formidable force in preventing blacks from voting.  In Florida, Democrats distributed Tilden tickets decorated with Republican symbols among the illiterate former slaves.  In all three states, ballot boxes were stuffed with multiple Democratic votes. Had elections in 1876 been free and fair, Hayes and the Republicans might have carried not only the three contested states, but other Southern states as well.

At the same time, the Republican returning boards in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina left themselves open to reasonable charges of conflict of interest and even corruption.  The members of the boards were appointed state government officials whose self-interests were vested in Republicans retaining control of their states and the White House.  Before the enactment of a merit bureaucracy, patronage was the lifeblood of the party system, and this was especially true in the South where Republicans were fighting for their political lives.  The returning board in Louisiana rejected over 13,000 Democratic ballots and nearly 2,500 Republican ones, thereby delivering the election to Hayes and the state governorship to the Republican, Stephen Packard.  

Outright corruption was even more of a concern than conflict of interest and, in fact, it undermined the notion that the boards were resolutely loyal to their party.  The head of Louisiana’s returning board, James Madison Wells, tried to sell the state’s electoral votes locally at a price of $200,000 for each Republican board member, but both parties rejected the corrupt deal.  He then sent his associate, Colonel John T. Pickett, to Congressman Abram Hewitt, chairman of the Democratic party, with an offer to sell the votes for $1,000,000.  Hewitt and Tilden refused the offer.  However, Tilden’s nephew, Colonel William Pelton, did negotiate with Wells and with Republicans in Florida in an attempt to buy an Electoral College victory for his uncle, allegedly without the nominee’s knowledge, even though he lived in his bachelor-uncle’s house.  The negotiations lasted too long to produce results, except for a series of incriminating coded telegrams, which were later used as evidence in a Congressional investigation in 1878.

The Trouble in Oregon

In Oregon, Tilden and his Democratic surrogates disputed a Republican elector, John Watts, on a technicality.  The U.S. Constitution stipulates that no elected or appointed official may serve as a presidential elector.  Watts served in the appointive position of postmaster, but resigned his job a week after winning a slot as one of Oregon’s electors and well before the scheduled meeting of the Electoral College on December 6.  The Democratic governor of Oregon removed Watts as an elector and replaced him with C. A. Cronin, the Democrat who received the most votes of any Democrat in the race for presidential elector.  At the December 6 meeting of the Electoral College in Oregon, the two Republican electors refused to recognize Cronin and recertified Watts.  The three Republicans then cast their ballots for the Hayes/Wheeler ticket.  On his own accord, Cronin reported his vote for Tilden and two votes for Hayes.  The Oregon situation was important to the Democrats because they hoped it would force an investigation of the electoral returns, rather than just deciding which certification to accept.

The Reaction to the Controversy

During the Electoral College controversy, both political camps hurled accusations, debate sometimes reached a fever-pitch, and General William Sherman ordered four artillery companies to the nation’s capital to maintain order. The crisis sent newspaper sales soaring, although responsible commentators tried to quiet fears of renewed civil war. The presidential candidates themselves remained publicly mum during the tense interval.  As he searched through law books for legal precedents, Tilden’s characteristic silence prevented him from convincing the public that the winner of the popular vote should become president.  Hayes used the time to conciliate Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, who had let it be known privately that he believed Tilden had carried Louisiana.

Earlier, a Democratic victory in the 1874 elections led Colorado's congressional delegate to convince his party colleagues to support a statehood bill for the territory because Colorado was solidly Democratic.    When Congress reconvened in December, following the election, some Democrats wanted the House to refuse to recognize Colorado’s legitimacy as a state, and thus render its electoral votes null and void.  After much debate, the House passed a resolution confirming Colorado as a state and seating its elected representative.

More militant Democrats warned that Tilden would be inaugurated as president or there would be blood in the streets. Henry Watterson, congressman and editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, threatened that 100,000 men would march on Washington if Tilden was not installed.  The headlines in other Democratic newspapers screamed, “Tilden or War!”  For all of their bellicose rhetoric, Democrats were restrained in their actions by the presence in the White House of the Union war hero, General Grant, whom many political opponents could envision establishing a military dictatorship if provoked.  

In reality, President Grant was not concerned about personal or partisan empowerment.  In a November 10 telegram to General Sherman, Grant firmly stated:  “No man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it if counted in or placed there by fraud.  Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result, but the country can not afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns.”  The president could have been referring to Hayes as readily as to Tilden.  As the situation unfolded, Grant refused to recognize the Republican gubernatorial administrations in Louisiana and South Carolina.

Republicans, in fact, found themselves more divided than the Democrats.  Senator Oliver Morton of Indiana and congressman-elect Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts wanted a vigorous defense of the Republican claims to the presidency and governorships.  Senators Roscoe Conkling and James Blaine, both of whom lost the Republican nomination to Hayes and looked forward to 1880, were more amenable to a Tilden presidency.  Black Americans were reportedly anxious that a Democratic victory could lead to the reestablishment of slavery.
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