1876: Now there was a crazy year

This year’s presidential election appears to be all over but the shouting, and of course there’s plenty of that.

Despite the claims of Donald Trump and many of his supporters, the numbers show that Joe Biden won both the Electoral College vote and the popular vote by comfortable margins. Trump’s legal challenges have been rejected by courts across the nation.

It was a hard-fought election. But it pales in comparison to the election of 1876, the most contentious in American history.

That one took a 15-member commission and the dubious Compromise of 1877 to finally pick a winner.

The election took place in the centennial anniversary year of the republic. Back then, the nation was only 11 years out from the end of the Civil War. Federal troops still occupied a number of Southern states, and newly enfranchised former slaves and white Republican “carpetbaggers” controlled much of the region. Republican Ulysses S. Grant, the former commanding general for the United States in the Civil War, was finishing his second term as president.

Democrats had nominated New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden, 62, as their choice to succeed Grant in the White House. 

Tilden was a reformer in his state, hamstringing the power of the corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic machine in New York City. He was the perfect choice to contrast with Grant, whose presidential administration had been riddled with bribery and other wrongdoing.

The Republican nominee was Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, 54, who also had built a reputation for high public moral standards and had defended several fugitive slaves before the war. Republican politicos thought he would help blunt the seedy reputation the Grant administration had accumulated in the early 1870s. 

Both candidates were Ivy League-educated lawyers, Tilden at Yale and Hayes at Harvard.

By 1876, enough states had been added to the Union that the number of electoral votes at stake was 369. It therefore took 185 electoral votes to win. 

As returns came in on Election Night, it appeared Tilden had won. Newspapers were dubbing him the new president. He amassed a popular vote margin of 250,000 votes. Hayes went to bed thinking Tilden had won.

But Republican operatives (who had slimed Tilden as a briber, a thief and a drunken syphilitic) realized that without South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, which were still under federal military control, Tilden’s electoral vote count came only to 184, one short of victory.

Before Election Day, armed white supremacist Democratic marauders had roamed the South, cowing many Blacks from voting either by threats or bribes. The Republican governments in three federally controlled states declared the election on hold because of those bullying tactics. 

Both sides succumbed to temptation to tilt the results in the three disputed states. To counter the Democratic intimidation of Black voters, Republican canvassers stuffed ballot boxes with GOP votes and destroyed Democratic votes. In Florida, Republicans claimed to have won by 922 votes out of about 47,000 cast, and Democrats claimed a 94-vote victory.

In addition, in Oregon, all sides agreed that Hayes had won the popular vote. But the Democratic governor of the state learned that one of the Republican electors was a postmaster, and therefore a federal employee, which made him ineligible to serve as an elector. The governor replaced him with a Democrat. But the postmaster resigned his postmaster position and claimed the right to serve as a Hayes elector.

The competing parties in all four states — South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Oregon — submitted two slates of electors. So Congress, in an attempt to resolve the situation, appointed a commission of 15 to determine the outcome: five U.S. representatives, five U.S. senators and five Supreme Court justices. There were seven from each party, totaling 14, and the fifth justice, David Davis, was an independent.

Davis was from Illinois. A vacancy had opened in one of the Illinois U.S. Senate positions, and the Democratic Illinois state legislature appointed Davis to fill the vacancy.

So Congress named U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, a moderate Republican with a reputation for fairness, as the 15th member of the commission.

The evening before the commission was to vote, Democrats visited Bradley at his home, and Bradley told them that in his opinion, Florida’s three electoral votes should go to Tilden, thereby giving him the victory.

But later in the evening, a Republican senator and the secretary of the Navy also went to Bradley’s home, and convinced him that a Democratic presidency would be a “national disaster.” Bradley thereupon cast his commission vote for Hayes in all four disputed states, giving the Republican an electoral vote victory of 185 to 184.

Democrats didn’t give up.

The Constitution at that time required a president to be named by March 4. Democratic senators threatened to filibuster the commission’s decision. If that happened, the nation would sail into uncharted territory, with possible chaos as the result.

So Democratic and Republican dealmakers converged on the Wormley Hotel in Washington in February 1877, three months after the election, and over a two-day negotiation hammered out the Compromise of 1877.

Under its terms, the Democrats handed the Republican Hayes the presidency and promised to respect Black civil and political rights in the former Confederacy. 

In return, the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, name a prominent Southern white leader to the cabinet, and provide federal funding for Southern improvements such as railroads.

Some of the Southern infrastructure funding never came through, but neither did the guarantee of the rights of Southern Blacks. 

After federal troops left Southern states, Southern white Democrats promptly eliminated Black rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments, and Jim Crow laws and traditions governed the South for almost another 100 years.

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