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.
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But Sickle knew that Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana still had Reconstruction governments. They had 19 electoral votes, and both Republicans and Democrats had sent telegrams wondering who'd won those states.Skip to next paragraph
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Sickles figured out that if Hayes was declared victor in one of those states, he'd win by one electoral vote. He sent out telegrams to governors of those states and said, hold onto your states for Hayes, and if you do, he's elected.
Q: But you can't do that. You can't tell a governor to hold a state, right?
A: But he did.
Enough doubt was created in people's minds – sort of like with Bush and Gore in 2000 – that nobody knew exactly who had won. The first stories started coming out, and the Republican newspapers including the New York Times, said the election was undecided and Hayes claims victory.
Q: So the Republicans started controlling the narrative?
A: That's exactly right.
Q: How long did the stalemate last?
A: You went through several weeks of nobody knowing who had won.
Congress would meet in January and open the returns. The problem was that in those three Southern states, there were multiple sets of election results, one sent by the Republican governor and one by the Democratic governor-to-be.
To make it even more complicated, the Constitution at the same time said the president of the Senate would open the ballots.
The Republicans said that means he can decide which returns to accept, but the Democrats said he only can open them if there aren't two sets of results. If there are, he'd have to set them both aside, in which case nobody would have the majority of votes and it would then be turned over to the House to decide who'd be president.
Q: What happened next?
A: An election commission voted 8-7 that Hayes had been elected. He was sworn in secretly a day earlier than the scheduled inauguration because they were afraid that Tilden would go to Washington D.C. and declare himself president.
Q: This all happened just 11 years after the Civil War. How tense did things get?
A: A lot of the Democrats were saying that they would just march on Washington and seat Tilden. The slogan was "Tilden or blood."
Then there were secret meetings between Hayes supporters and Southern Democrats. The Democrats said that if he would end Reconstruction in these three states, they wouldn't prevent him from being inaugurated. They wanted control of their state governments more than they wanted a Northern liberal being elected president.
Q: What did Tilden, the Democratic candidate, do?
A: It was very similar to Bush vs. Gore. The Democrat was much more of a hands-off kind of guy in the interim, and the Republicans were much more active about making sure they claimed the election.
One reason Tilden lost was that he was a lawyer and assumed that if they followed the letter of the law, he'd be elected.
The Republicans in both 1876 and 2000 were much more active in pressing their case and controlling the narrative beforehand by claiming that they'd won in the first place. Gore, in 2000, and Tilden took a more admirable or patriotic position.
Q: Do you think the 1876 election was stolen?
A: I certainly do, although some historians feel it was justified because Hayes would have won if the Democrats hadn't intimidated black voters in sufficient numbers.
I give a lot of credit to Tilden. He said he wouldn't be seated at the point of a gun, and that was a powerful statement. If he'd said, "I consider myself president" and said he'd be seated, there may have been bloodshed.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.