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Election season: Remembering the strange election of 1876

During the era of Obama and Romney, historian Roy Morris Jr. looks back at the contested nineteenth-century race.

By Randy Dotinga / November 5, 2012

Rutherford B. Hayes (l.) and Samuel Tilden (r.) were the candidates in the strange election of 1876.

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Let's put it this way: you can't take me anywhere.

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About 13 years ago, I visited the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta with some friends. For some reason, I decided it would be fun to pose for a photo in the chair behind the desk in the mock Oval Office.

First I tripped over the velvet museum rope. Then the desk chair swung backwards as I sat in it, nearly flipping me over. Finally, I held up the desk's "The Buck Stops Here" sign for the photo and watched helplessly as its little metal holder fell off and clattered onto the floor.

That's when the security guard arrived on the scene. "Step away from the desk, sir."

I did as ordered. But we weren't evicted and even got to continue our tour.

Since then, I've joked that while they're pretty lenient at the Carter museum, folks are even more easygoing at the museum of the mostly forgotten Rutherford B. Hayes. There, you can stay the night in his bed and go home with a piece of his living room couch!

That's not true. (I checked, just in case I ever find myself in Fremont, Ohio.) But Hayes is definitely one of our most obscure presidents. It's a funny thing, since he landed in office thanks to one of the most remarkable – and crooked – presidential elections in American history.

As pundits dream of a tie in the Electoral College this year, I contacted historian Roy Morris Jr., editor of Military Heritage magazine and author of 2005's "Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876."

From his home in Chattanooga, Tenn., Morris talked about the bitter battle over the disputed results, the chicanery that cast the entire election in doubt and the shrewd tactics that turned Hayes into a winner.
 
Q: Set the scene for us. What happened during the presidential election of 1876?
 
A: The Democratic nominee was Samuel Tilden, governor of New York, and the Republican nominee was Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.

The country had just lived through eight years of the Grant administration and all its scandals. Tilden got the nomination because he was a squeaky clean reformer and had run the fight against Boss Tweed corruption in New York. Hayes got the nomination as a kind of compromise.

On election night, both candidates went to bed thinking Tilden had been elected because he had massive majorities of votes.

He was ahead by the modern equivalent of 1.3 million votes. In terms of the Electoral College, he needed 185 and he had 184 definitely.
 
Q: That's when an infamous character named Daniel Sickles entered the picture, right?
 
A: He'd been a Union general and a congressman and was notorious because he shot and killed an unarmed man who was having an affair with his wife, Francis Scott Key's nephew. Sickles was acquitted in the first acquittal based on a temporary insanity defense.

On election night, he was going to back to his house on Fifth Avenue in New York City and dropped by the Republican national headquarters a few blocks away to see what was going on.

There was only one person there, a clerk who was boxing up the office. He said, "Tilden's been elected."

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