The Election of 1876

Little more than 10 years after the Civil War, the nation was again in a state of crisis. Hysteria abounded in both the Republican and Democratic parties, and there were rumors that another civil war between North and South might break out. Just in case, President Ulysses S. Grant discreetly strengthened the army in Washington.

The cause for such agitation was the presidential election of 1876. Not since the election of 1860, which brought Abraham Lincoln into the White House and prompted the Southern states to secede, had the nation been in such tumult over a national election.

The conflict began with the election returns in certain Southern states. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was running against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes had promised to withdraw federal support for the Republican regimes in Louisiana and South Carolina. The election results revealed that Tilden had carried South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. But his overwhelming win caused many to question whether the votes were counted fairly.

Most Republicans knew about the intimidating tactics that Southern Democrats used to keep blacks and Republicans away from the polls. So the Republicans set up "returning boards" to make sure the vote count was accurate. The presidency hung in the balance as the returning boards recounted. From the states being recounted, Republican Hayes needed all 19 of the available electoral votes to win the presidency. Democrat Tilden needed only one.

The returning boards' recounts reversed Democratic victories in all three states, awarding the states to Hayes. Outraged Democrats refused to accept the results. In both South Carolina and Louisiana, the Democrats and Republicans each inaugurated their own governors and legislatures.

Something had to be done. Two governments could not exist simultaneously in these states. The main issue was how to count the election returns in a way that would satisfy both parties. Unfortunately, the Constitution offered no guidance on the matter. Congress attacked the problem by creating an electoral commission. The commission was made up of 15 members. Ten representatives from Congress were split evenly along party lines. Added to this were five Supreme Court Justices who were expected to act impartially.

The new president had to be inaugurated on March 4, so the committee worked quickly. The final vote was divided seven to seven until Justice Joseph Bradley, the last to vote, sided with the Republican returning boards. During the deliberations, Republicans had negotiated with Southern Democrats and promised to end harsh Reconstruction policies in the South if the Democrats would support Hayes. In the end, Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated as America's 19th president. A private ceremony took place at a White House dinner on March 3, 1877, and was followed two days later by a public inauguration.

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