United States presidential election, 1876

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The election was the first since the civil war which was highly contested. The Republicans chose popular Ohio Governor, Rutherford B. Hayes, as their candidate. The Democrats chose popular New York Governor, Samuel J. Tilden, for theirs. The campaign was hard fought and filled with slanders, although both candidates did not approve of the name-calling that took place throughout the campaign.[1] The election results showed:

candidates popular vote electoral vote
Rutherford B. Hayes 4,036,572 185
Samuel J. Tilden 4,284,020 184
Peter Cooper 81,737 0

The election remains among the most disputed in American history, though it is undisputed that Tilden won the popular vote. The controversy surrounding the election centered on three states (Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina) which sent in two separate electoral returns (one by the Republican governors, who were the officially-recognized chief executives of the respective states, and another by Democrats) and the question as to whether one elector in Oregon (John Watts, a Republican elector and a former Postmaster) was eligible under Article II, Section 1, of the United States Constitution, since he was a "person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States" (there was no dispute that Hayes won the popular vote, and therefore should have won all three of the state's electors under the state's "winner-take-all" system; however, the Democratic governor unilaterally dismissed Watts to replace him with a Democratic elector, leaving Oregon's electors split 2-1 for Hayes). If all disputed electors were to go to Hayes, he would have a one-vote majority in the Electoral College.

The main contention between the parties was the meaning of the 12th Amendment, the text of which reads: "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted." The Republicans claimed that the only task is to open the certificates and count the votes: as the Senate was controlled by the Republicans, they would count all disputed votes for Hayes. The Democrats argued that the process should follow the practice in place since 1865, which was that no state's electoral votes would count unless both houses concurred: the Democrats had a significant majority in the House and by throwing out even one disputed state's vote, Tilden would win.

In order to avoid a potential stalemate, Congress passed a bill calling for an Electoral Commission of 15 members: five members of the House (three by the Democrats and two by the Republicans), five members of the Senate (three by the Republicans and two by the Democrats) and five Supreme Court Justices (two Democrats and two Republicans, who would choose the fifth member).

The Justices chose David Davis, a political independent considered to be objective. In an attempt to buy his vote, the Democrat-controlled Illinois Legislature elected Davis to serve as one of its two United States Senators[2]. However, they badly miscalculated: Davis promptly resigned his seat on the Court and was no longer on the Commission. The Justices then selected Joseph P. Bradley, who was considered to be the most "impartial" remaining member; however, Bradley sided with the Republicans on every decisive vote, giving Hayes the Presidency.

In an attempt to avert a potential second Civil War, Hayes promised to remove the military occupation in the South, in exchange for the support of Representatives in accepting the contested electoral votes in his favor. The Southern Democrats agreed; upon the end of Reconstruction they implemented the racist Jim Crow policies which would mark Southern politics for nearly a century.

This was the first instance in which the electoral majority went to a candidate who did not receive the most popular votes. (A similar crisis was settled in 1824 by a direct vote in the House.) The Democrats labeled his term "His Fraudulency".


  1. Encyclopedia of Presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, by Zachary Kent, Children's Press, 1989.
  2. Prior to the 17th Amendment, Senators were chosen by state legislatures.