In 1876, Americans marked their centennial as an independent nation with celebrations ranging from small-town barbecues to big-city parades. The festivities reached their apex in Philadelphia, historic site of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, which hosted the first World's Fair held in the United States. 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.

Although the Republicans still controlled most of the national government, they stood on uncertain ground as the 1876 campaign season commenced. The Panic of 1873 and the ensuing economic depression had allowed the Democrats to recapture the House of Representatives in 1874 for the first time since before the Civil War. As Northern white support for Reconstruction waned and federal troops withdrew, white voters returned the Democratic party to power in most Southern states as well. In addition, several well-publicized and investigated scandals involving prominent officials in the Grant administration burdened the efforts of all Republicans in that election year.

Furthermore, the Republican party was increasingly divided. From its inception in the mid-1850s the Republican party consisted of diverse elements held together first by opposition to the spread of slavery, then by preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery, and finally by the reconstruction of the union with basic civil rights for black Americans. By 1876 those unifying issues were gone or rapidly receding, causing Republican factionalism to rise to the fore. Three major groups made up the GOP: Stalwarts, or conservative supporters of President Grant; moderate "half-breeds"; and liberal reformers, many of whom had bolted the party in 1872.

The Republican Nomination  
The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 was U.S. House minority leader James G. Blaine of Maine, who had served previously as Speaker of the House (1869-1875). Blaine was a talented politician who had become leader of the moderate wing of the Republican party. At first, the main obstacle on his way to the White House seemed to be its current occupant, Ulysses S. Grant, who had indicated in May 1875 that he would accept the nomination for a third term, if offered. A few months later the new Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution reasserting the two-term tradition, with Blaine voting in the affirmative.

The former speaker, however, became tarred with the taint of corruption. It was alleged that as speaker he had influenced legislation favorable to a railroad company in return for a large cash payment for nearly worthless bonds. Rumors of the Blaine scandal began to circulate in February 1876, gained momentum after being leaked to the press by aides of two of his Republican presidential rivals, Benjamin Bristow and Rutherford Hayes, and culminated in a well-publicized House investigation in late May. Evidence known as the "Mulligan Letters" seemed to implicate Blaine, and his effort to defend himself was less than candid. The House, however, took no action against him when it lost jurisdiction upon his appointment to the U.S. Senate to fill the remaining term of Lot Morrill who had replaced Bristow as Grant’s treasury secretary.

Benjamin Bristow of Kentucky, the former treasury secretary, had become the favored presidential candidate of the Republican reform wing. Initially given a mandate by President Grant to clean out the corrupt Treasury Department, Bristow earned Grant’s enmity when his thoroughness in prosecuting the Whiskey Ring scandals implicated the president’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock. Unwilling to back down, Bristow resigned and threw his hat into the presidential ring. While most 1872 Liberal Republicans returned to the Republican party to support first Bristow, then Hayes, a few would back Democrat Samuel Tilden, the reform governor of New York. Another leading contender for the Republican nomination was Senator Oliver Morton from the crucial swing-state of Indiana. But besides uncertain health, his close ties to Grant made reformers uneasy, while his Radical Reconstruction and inflationist views put off conservatives.

The real surrogate for Grant was Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, who had received the president’s blessing when Grant decided not to run again himself. As "boss" of the New York Republicans, Conkling represented the type of "machine" politician who was anathema to the civil service reformers. In contrast, Rutherford Hayes had gained the deserved reputation as a reformer during his two terms as governor of Ohio (1868-1872), and had campaigned vigorously for Grant’s reelection in 1872. After his inauguration for a third (non-consecutive) term in January 1876, Hayes’s star rose as a presidential hopeful and he was generally regarded as the top vice-presidential choice. Rounding out the field was Governor John Hartranft, favorite-son of the politically significant state of Pennsylvania.

The Republican National Convention in Cincinnati on June 14-16 marked the first time since 1860 that the Republican nominee was not known ahead of time. Delegates to the 1876 convention adopted a platform endorsing equal rights under the law and the Constitution, the separation of church and public school, a protective tariff, conservation of public lands, and pensions for Union veterans. The Blaine scandal had been seemingly resolved and had faded from the newspapers. A rousing nomination speech by Robert Ingersoll generated a frenzy for Blaine, "a man who has preserved in Congress what our soldiers won upon the field." Spinning vice into virtue, the silver-tongued Ingersoll depicted Blaine as "a plumed knight … [who] threw his shining lance … against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the malingers of his honor."

To Blaine’s detriment, though, after the nominating speeches the convention adjourned until the next day, thus allowing the excitement for Maine’s new senator to wane and his rivals’ deputies to take counter-measures. Hayes’s men gained the promised support of the Bristow and Morton delegates if their candidates were unable to break through the Blaine bloc on the early ballots. The Morton forces were assured of high judicial office for John Marshall Harlan (whom Hayes later named to the Supreme Court), while the Blaine, Conkling, and Hartranft factions were kept in the dark. Hayes had several advantages: he was acceptable to both reformers and Grant loyalists; he had no negative traits like other candidates; his campaign managers were skilled and effective; and his partisans filled the convention hall in Cincinnati (a locale originally expected to benefit Bristow and Morton).

With 378 needed for nomination, Blaine led on the first ballot with 285, followed by Morton with 124, Bristow with 113, Conkling with 99, Hayes with 61, Hartranft with 58, and scattered votes for a few others. That pattern held steady through the fourth ballot, except for Bristow with 126 votes taking over second place from Morton who dropped to 108. On the fifth ballot, the Bristow and Morton delegates began shifting to Hayes, who edged out Blaine on the seventh ballot, 384 to 351 (with 21 for Bristow), to win the nomination. The convention then named Congressman William Wheeler of New York as the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Wheeler had received 3 votes for president and had led a special House committee, but was so obscure that Hayes had not known of him until a few months before the convention. In his letter of acceptance, Hayes endorsed the party’s platform and promised to serve only one term (a reform popular with Republicans of Whig inclinations, and seen as a way to undercut the patronage system).

The Democratic Nomination
Meanwhile, the Democrats believed, with justification, that they had their best chance of recapturing the White House in twenty years. The elections of 1874 had resulted not only in a Democratic House, but in the elevation of a new set of party leaders, including Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Most of Tilden’s political career had been spent behind the scenes as chair of the New York Democratic party (1866-1874) and national campaign manager for Horatio Seymour’s unsuccessful 1868 presidential bid. Tilden used his authority as party chair to help topple William Tweed, the corrupt political boss of New York City, then won a seat in the state legislature in 1872. As governor he solidified his record as a reformer by prosecuting the Canal Ring. Tilden’s stature as a reform governor of the nation’s most populous state made him the Democrats’ obvious choice for their standard-bearer in 1876.

The Democratic National Convention took place on June 27-29 in St. Louis, the first national party convention site west of the Mississippi River. Tilden easily won the necessary two-thirds of the delegate vote on the first ballot, getting 535 votes to 140 for Governor Thomas Hendricks of Indiana and 75 for General Winfield Hancock. The result was made unanimous on the second ballot, then Hendricks was selected as the vice-presidential nominee. Hailing from the pivotal state of Indiana, Hendricks’ support of soft-money balanced Tilden’s hard-money stance on the divisive "money question." The Democratic platform demanded repeal of the 1875 specie-resumption act (which ensured that paper currency would be backed by gold—primarily—or silver); condemned Grant administration malfeasance; reaffirmed the Reconstruction Constitutional amendments, while denouncing Congressional Reconstruction as unjustly coercive and corrupt; and supported a tariff for revenue only, conservation of public lands, and civil service reform.

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