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”
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
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
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
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
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
The Reaction to the
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
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
After much debate, the House passed a resolution
confirming Colorado as a state and seating its elected
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
In reality, President Grant was not concerned about personal or
In a November 10 telegram to General Sherman, Grant
“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
Republicans, in fact, found themselves more divided than the
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.