Politics has always been a nasty business. Contests between Adams and Jefferson, Jackson against Adams against Calhoun, are just a couple of examples of how bad politics can be. Have you ever heard about the election between Hayes and Tilden? If the pundits are correct, we may need to revisit history for 2020.
The presidential election of 1876 was supposed to be decided as it had always been (well, except for a couple). Except it wasn’t. Instead, disputes over the election outcome would continue all the way through March. The Electoral College unexpectedly helped the country that year: It isolated election disputes to only four states. Without the Electoral College, every vote in every state could have been contested.
In those post-Civil War years, the nation was starkly divided between North and South. Many in the South were outraged over Reconstruction. The carpetbaggers had mistreated them by cheating them out of land and money. Many Blacks had still not voted, and the Southern Democrats had prevented many more from voting.
The scene was set for a hotly contested political contest. Republicans had nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, the Governor of Ohio. Meanwhile, Democrats had nominated Samuel J. Tilden, the Governor of New York.
The results on Election Day led to chaos. Hayes appeared to have about 250,000 fewer popular votes nationwide than Tilden; however, the all-important electoral vote was still up for grabs. Twenty electors were disputed in four states. In Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, state officials couldn’t agree on who had won. Thus, multiple slates of electors were submitted from each of those states. One electoral vote in Oregon was also disputed. Hayes needed all 20 of these electors to win. Tilden needed just one.
Can you imagine what the mainstream media will do if the results of this election are the same? Americans in 1876 didn’t have the benefits of modern technology to give them minute by minute updates. Instead, they had to wait for weeks to see which candidate would be declared the victor in a normal election. This was no ordinary election.
The situation prompted plenty of political grandstanding!
The Senate was then controlled by Republicans, while Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. No one knew what to do about the conflicting sets of election returns; however, Congress finally created an Electoral Commission. That Commission was supposed to be evenly divided, with seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent Supreme Court Justice. But, it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, Independent Justice David Davis was elected to the Senate by the Illinois state legislature. His spot on the Commission was taken by Justice Joseph Bradley, a Republican appointee. So, no surprise, the Republican-controlled Commission soon decided all 20 disputed electoral votes in favor of Hayes, throwing the election to him.
Naturally, Democrats were upset, and a filibuster nearly sidetracked congressional acceptance of the Commission’s findings. Eventually, though, Congress brokered a compromise: Republicans indicated that they would be willing to bring Reconstruction to an end. In return, southern members of Congress began withdrawing their objections.
Hayes was finally declared the winner of the election at about 4:00 a.m. on March 2. The action came about mostly because Congress had its back up against a wall: Only two days then remained in President Ulysses S. Grant’s term. After all the turmoil, Rutherford B. Hayes was finally sworn in as the country’s 19th President on March 4, 1877.