The 1876 Presidential Election Was Similar to the 2020 Election

Some of you might think we are in uncharted territory with respect to election fraud. We aren’t. Here is a piece of a much longer article I wrote for a hobby magazine more than a decade ago. You might note that some aspect of history do repeat themselves.

First the major party nominees depicted on vintage 1876 presidential campaign tokens. These pieces are scarce.

Republican Rutherford B. Hays.

Democrat Samuel J. Tilden

On election night both candidates went to bed believing that Tilden would be the next President of the United States. Hays even admitted that he had lost the election to reporters. The national vote count indicated that Tilden had won the popular vote by a margin of 250,000, and he had 184 confirmed electoral votes.
But Republican Party chairman Zachariah Chandler had not given up the fight. Twenty electoral votes, one for Oregon and 19 from three southern states that were under Republican military control, were in still in dispute. If the Republicans could grab all 20 of those votes, Hays would be president. Chandler telegraphed election officials in the three southern states and informed them, “Hays is elected if we carried South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Can you hold your state? Answer at once.” The answer was that they could hold their states, and the southern Republicans set out to cook the ballot boxes, by tossing out Democratic votes.
What were the actual results? No one will ever know for sure. Had there been voter fraud? Yes. Racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan had intimidated and threatened Black voters and kept them from the polls. Conversely the Army had made special efforts to get Black voters to the polls and had sometimes times followed the adage that those voters could “vote early and often.” By the best estimates the Republicans probably won in South Carolina, but the Democrats probably took Florida and Louisiana, which would have won the election for them.
The only undisputed Republican vote among the 20 was in Oregon. There the voters had supported Hays, but one of the Republican electors was a postmaster. Since the Constitution stated than no federal officeholder could be an elector, he was disqualified. The governor of Oregon, who was Democrat, appointed a Democrat in his place. In the mean time the original elector resigned his federal job and reclaimed his vote. Later the Democratic Party chairman who had asked the governor to send the Democratic elector admitted that he asked the governor to appoint a Democrat to offset the frauds that were going in a Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina.
Under the Constitution disputed presidential elections were to be settled by a vote in the House of Representatives. Each state, regardless of size, had one vote. Since the Democrats controlled the House, that scenario would have resulted in the election of Tilden. The Republicans had a veto power over that because they controlled the Senate where the Electoral College vote was counted and certified. The Senate could elect Hays by accepting the Republican Electoral College votes over the Democratic delegates.
Given this political impasse, it was decided that a 15 man commission would settle the presidential election. The commission would consist of five members each from the House, Senate and Supreme Court. Since the Democrats controlled the House, it sent three Democrats and two Republicans. The Senate sent three Republicans and two Democrats. The Supreme Court sent two from each party and David Davis who was thought to be an independent.
In yet another quirk of fate the Illinois legislature elected Davis to the Senate, and he became ineligible. Davis’ replacement was Joseph Bradley who was a Republican and a Grant appointee. It was thought that Bradley had an open mind concerning the election, but when the votes were taken he voted with the Republicans. Thus Rutherford B. Hays was elected president by an 8 to 7 Election Commission vote and a 185 to 184 vote in the Electoral College.
The reaction among rank and file Democrats, especially in the South, was quick and potentially violent. Some called for an armed rebellion and a march on Washington that would force the inauguration of Tilden at the point of a gun if necessary. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats threatened a filibuster that would have run past the March 4, 1877 inauguration deadline, which would have resulted in a Constitutional crisis. The country was very near to another civil war. Wisely Tilden asked his supporters to accept the decision in the name of national unity. The question of who would be the 19th President of the United States had hung in limbo from the close of the polls on November 7, 1876 until March 2, 1877 when Hays took the Oath of Office.
Later Tilden would say that he had gotten the better end of the bargain. The nation had honored him by electing him president yet he had not had to bear the responsibility of the office. That was the kind of rationalization that characterized Tilden’s hands off approach that he had taken through out the election controversy. It was a reflection of Tilden’s oddly detached attitude that drove some Democrats to distraction. After the election that anger would be vented in an interesting series of medalets.
Hays did not gain the presidency without paying a price. Some people would call him “Ruther-fraud” in view of how he had been elected president, but there were substantial political concessions as well. The concessions included a significant commitment to federally sponsored capital projects in the South and the appointment of a Democrat to the Hays cabinet. Hays would also appoint Democrats to many local offices in the South.
The most significant concession was the withdrawal of the federal troops from the South and the end of Reconstruction. Hays had privately stated before the election that the occupation would have to end, and that part of the bargain with the Democrats made it official. By 1877 the Republican Party had changed its priorities from civil rights to reviving the economy. “The Negro,” as the Nation magazine predicted, “will disappear from the field of national politics,” and that prediction would prove accurate for most of the next century. From that time the Republican Party would move back toward its antebellum pro-business Whig roots.
By ending Reconstruction, the Republicans delivered their southern freedman supporters into almost a century of Jim Crow laws, loss of voting rights and segregation. Although it was a national tragedy, even the staunchest supporters of Reconstruction agreed and still agree that it was probably inevitable. The Radical Republicans had been seeking a revolution in the true sense of the word. They were trying to impose a shift in political and economic power from the wealthy planter class to the freedman and the poor whites. Some Radical Republicans had even pushed for the confiscation and redistribution of southern lands to the freedmen that were owned by the plantation owners.
Such revolutions are difficult to maintain, and historically have usually resulted in a conservative authoritarian backlash. The English Revolution ended with Cromwell’s Protectorate and the restoration of the monarchy. The French Revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution ended with the Bolsheviks, Lenin, Stalin and “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” It would take new generations and a profound shift in racial attitudes to bring true change to the South, and the process continues to this day.

Here is an admission ticket that the bearer could use to watch the counting of the Electoral votes.

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