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Electoral Commission Deliberation

On February 1, 1877, the Senate and House met in a joint session of Congress to count the electoral votes for president and vice president.  Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, the Republican president pro tempore of the Senate, opened the electoral reports and began the count of state votes in alphabetical order.  The procedure went smoothly until two sets of conflicting returns were presented for Florida, which were then referred to the Electoral Commission.  

Over the next several days, the Electoral Commission met as a court in the Supreme Court chamber, listening to lawyers for both parties give arguments on the Florida returns and also on whether to admit into evidence information about the conduct of the elections and the returning boards, as the Democrats desired.  On February 8, on a party-line vote of 8 to 7, the Electoral Commission ruled that it would not admit additional evidence; the next day, it ruled by the same margin that Florida’s electoral votes belonged to the Republican ticket of Hayes and Wheeler.  

Over the following few days, Congress assembled in joint session to receive the commission’s finding on Florida, then met separately to vote on the issue.  The Republican-controlled Senate swiftly affirmed the commission’s directive, but the Democratically-controlled House, two days later, rejected it.  Under the terms of the Electoral Commission Act, however, both houses had to reject the commission’s ruling in order to nullify it legally.  Congress reconvened in joint session, and Florida’s votes were counted for Hayes.  The same procedure and the same results followed for Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina.  

Some Democrats used delaying tactics by calling into question electors from other states while in joint session, and calling for roll calls and other dilatory measures while in the House chamber.  Although the Wormley House negotiators thought they had cleared the way for Congressional approval of the Electoral College’s granting of all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes, a faction of House Democrats tried one last filibuster in the last days before the scheduled inauguration.  After South Carolina’s votes were recorded for Hayes and Wheeler, Congressman Abram Hewitt of New York, chairman of the Democratic party, objected to Vermont’s electoral count, then to Wisconsin’s.  Meeting in separate session, the Senate quickly voted down the objections, but a filibuster began in the House.  The boisterous House session lasted from 10 a.m. on March 1 to 3:38 a.m. on March 2, at which point the filibuster ended and the joint session resumed.  At 4:10 a.m., the last of the electoral votes were counted, with the Hayes/Wheeler Republican ticket receiving all of the 20 contested ballots, giving them a one-vote Electoral College majority, 185-184. 

The Results

On Monday, March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in publicly as president of the United States.  As anticipated, within two months, President Hayes removed the remaining federal troops in the South from political duty (guarding the statehouses), Democratic state administrations gained power, and the era of Reconstruction formally ended.  Democratic senator David Key was named to the cabinet position of postmaster general.  The key job of secretary of state went to William Evarts of New York, the Republican chief counsel before the Electoral Commission and, previously, counsel to President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial in 1868.  Carl Schurz, a leader of the 1872 Liberal Republican movement, was named secretary of the Interior.  In 1880, James Garfield, one of the Wormley House negotiators and Electoral Commission members, was the compromise presidential nominee of the Republican party.  His narrow election victory that November demonstrated that the Republicans could win the White House without carrying any Southern state.  The issue of black civil rights would largely remain off the national political agenda until the mid-twentieth century.

Sources consulted: William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents; Alexander Clarence Flick, Samuel Jones Tilden:  A Study in Political Sagacity; Eric Foner, Reconstruction; Harper’s Weekly via HarpWeek; Ari Hoogenboom, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes; David Jordon, Roscoe Conkling of New York; Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia:  The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction; Sidney I. Pomerantz, “Election of 1876,” in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., ed., American Presidential Elections; Donald Ritchie, “1876,” in Running for President:  The Candidates and Their Images, Vol. I:  1789-1896, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.; Mark Summers, The Era of Good Stealings.

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