The election of 1876 was one of the most rancorous, divisive and probably corrupt in American history.
Both Governor Rutherford Hayes (R-OH) and Governor Samuel Tilden (D-NY) were honest, decent men, albeit bland and uncharasmatic. Any scandals or machinations done in their names were done with no overt support from either of the candidates. (Whether or not there was tacit approval, or more likely “blind eye” is always open to conjecture.)
Hayes had a solid reputation. He was a successful Ohio attorney, a Union Major General – wounded four times, Ohio Congressman and three-term Ohio Governor. He was sincerely respected and even beloved by his soldiers. He was a devoted family man, married nearly twenty-five years, with five surviving children.
Samuel Tilden had a credible record as a New York behind-the-scenes politician – a man reputed to have a brilliant legal mind. He never married, and was reputed to be a loner and cold-fish in personality. Nevertheless, he had served New York capably and honestly, successfully prosecuting Boss Tweed!
The Problem Was…
Ten years after the Civil War, few people believed that a Democrat could ever reach the White House. They were the party of rebellion. They were the party that started the Civil War. So how did the Democrats get so close? How and why did the Republicans steal the election?
General Grant had been President for two terms in 1876. He had won in a walk in 1868, following the mess of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings. He had won in 1872 in a strange situation. Horace Greeley, a lifelong Republican newspaper publisher, ran against the victorious General – on the Democratic ticket. He lost – and then promptly died.
General Grant’s administration has always been considered fraught with corruption. Grant was never personally corrupt, but his poor choices in cabinet members and those closely associated with him are undeniable. The problem got even worse during Grant’s second term. Reform was in the air! Problem was that the “reformers” were about as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal, and “reform” as a campaign issue, was in the same category.
Meanwhile, many parts of the South, still under a severe thumb of Reconstruction, military districts and soldiers, were flexing political muscle. If they were to rejoin the Union per se, they wanted above all, for the soldiers to go away. Both candidates promised an end to Reconstruction.
The Election of 1876
Many books and articles have been written about the fractious “stolen” election of 1876. It was very complicated. The fact that both Hayes and Tilden chose to rise above it all speaks well of both candidates. Hayes was a decent enough President; we can only conjecture that Tilden would have been the same.
But the basic problem with the election centered on a) while Tilden unquestionably won the popular vote; b) the electoral vote (ay, there was the rub), was in question. It appeared that Tilden had also won the electoral count, but FOUR states were questionable, and there was indication (plausible) that there may have been finagling involved.
The Republicans were infuriated that after only a decade since the Civil War, the party of rebellion might claim the Presidency. Unthinkable!
The bottom line was that IF the Republicans could demand a recount in those four states, and IF they could “un-finagle” and “re-finagle” in their own behalf, and IF they could claim the electoral votes for ALL FOUR questioned states, they could claim the election victory. That was a lot of IFs. It remained iffy for months. Nobody really knew who the next President would be.
Ballots were re-counted. A special committee was named: five Congressmen, five Senators and five Supreme Court Justices (8 Republicans, 7 Democrats) to investigate the suspected finagling.
And, as only politicians can do, ALL FOUR of those suspect states were determined along party lines to have their electoral votes line up in the Hayes column. The final decision was made only two or three days before the Inauguration! And, as one might expect, there were a lot of people who were unhappy with the decision.
General Grant’s Final Decision
President Ulysses S. Grant had truly enjoyed his eight year residence in the White House. The recent election, however, was troublesome, and he, for all intents and purposes, sat it out. He did not participate in the campaign, and instead focused on his personal plans for a trip around the world, which would last the better part of two years.
Concerned that the dissonance in the country might seriously impact the Inauguration proceedings, the President had arranged for extra security, soldiers and whatever means could be taken for preventative measures. In addition, it so happened that March 4, 1877, the day Constitutionally assigned for the Inauguration, fell on a Sunday. In deference to the Sabbath, the Inauguration would not take place until Monday, March 5.
Meanwhile, the President and First Lady hosted an elegant dinner party on Saturday night, March 3, their technically-last-day in the White House. Congressmen and Cabinet members and Court Justices and assorted other notable were invited for a big “farewell” bash. President-elect Hayes and his wife were included.
As the guests were gathering that evening, Grant asked Hayes to join him for a few minutes in the Blue Room. He also asked a few congressmen, and Chief Justice Morrison Waite to join him as well. Then, to insure against confusion that might result in having the United States without a duly inaugurated President – even for a day – he asked the Chief Justice to administer the Presidential Oath to Hayes a day early to insure continuity.
The witnesses were unimpeachable, but it was not made public at the time. Sunday, March 4, came and went with no disturbances. On Monday, March 5, ex-President Grant escorted incoming President Hayes to the Senate chamber where he formally re-took the oath of office.
Nobody was the wiser about the premature-oath until afterwards.
Rehnquist, William – Centennial Crisis – Alfred Knopf, 1974