“If Anybody Says Election to Me, I Want to Fight”: The Messy Election of 1876

tags: racism, Reconstruction, elections, presidential history

Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is the author of the forthcoming The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865–1915.

Between now and the inauguration of the next president, we may hear a lot of references to the election and compromise of 1876–77. Though that messy race is often cited as a distant precedent for a post-vote battle for electoral votes, no contest is more relevant or urgent today.

Fought in a climate of partisan violence and racial unrest, the 1876 race drew the highest voter turnout in US history (82 percent), and was ultimately resolved in a scramble for electoral votes. By the time it was over, five months after election day, some citizens were grumbling “if anybody says election to me, I want to fight,” while others feared that “we can never expect such a thing as an honest election again.” Even after it was settled (some say stolen), the disaster of 1876 cast a long shadow over popular faith in American democracy. 

Everyone knew that 1876 would be a rough race. Nationwide, partisan loyalties were tightening, as Republicans and Democrats battled over Black voting rights, the memory of the Civil War, and an awful depression. Each party held massive midnight rallies, and some leaders on both sides urged voters to come to the polls armed. The few southern states still controlled by African American–friendly Republican governments—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana—were especially tense. In 1876, the legacy of one Civil War, and fears of another, were on the ballot.

And yet both parties chose dull candidates. Democrats went with Samuel Tilden, a cunning New York politician widely viewed as a reclusive oddball, while Republicans selected Rutherford B. Hayes, an uninspiring Ohio governor, “offensive to no one.” Both men ran as upright reformers, even while their parties used aggressive campaign tactics.

On election night, most believed that the Democrats had won. Even Hayes went to sleep that night convinced that Tilden was victorious and “the affair was over.”

But late that night, other Republicans were stirring. Dan Sickles, a former Civil War general and notorious Republican politician, spent the evening calculating votes in the party’s headquarters. Sickles realized that, although the Democrats had won the popular vote, 20 electoral votes needed to win the presidency remained undecided. South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon might still give their votes to Hayes. 

The election of 1876 had disastrous long-term effects on American democracy.

As soon as doubt emerged about the electoral votes in question, both parties set out to steal victory. Politicos flooded into South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana to influence the “returning boards” that would determine each states’ electoral votes. Backed by state officials, cash, and the US Army, Republicans began to disqualify Democratic votes. In Louisiana, the board dismissed nearly 10 percent of the state’s ballots, 85 percent of which were cast for Tilden. The official boards in these states certified their electoral votes for Hayes, while rival Democratic factions sent certificates to Congress giving Tilden the election.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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