Ugly 1876 presidential election included fraud, voter intimidation and maybe a backroom deal
By RONALD G. SHAFER | Washington Post | Published: November 24, 2020
About midnight on his way home from a play in New York City on Election Day in 1876, Daniel Sickles stopped by Republican national headquarters at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The place was nearly deserted. GOP presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes was losing so badly that the party chairman had gone to bed with a bottle of whiskey.
Sickles, a former Union general, noticed something about the early returns, which gave Democratic New York Gov. Samuel Tilden a large lead. If four states where the results already were in dispute went to Hayes, he would win the presidency by one electoral vote.
Sickles sent telegrams under the name of the sleeping party chairman to Republican leaders in the four contested states urging them to safeguard votes for Hayes. "With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state."
Thus began the longest fought and closest presidential election in U.S. history. Much as President Donald Trump is doing now, backers of Hayes, the governor of Ohio, said the election was being stolen. The difference was that, unlike now, there was clear evidence of fraud and voter intimidation. The outcome in the tense, post-Civil War atmosphere not only decided a presidency but led to nearly a century of racial segregation in the South.
The next day, Democratic newspapers trumpeted a Tilden victory. "GLORY! Tilden Triumphant," the Buffalo Courier headline said. "Solid South Buries Sectional Hate," blared the Kansas City Times.
But the New York Times - citing disputed results in Florida, Louisiana, Oregon and South Carolina - declared, "Results Still Uncertain."
Back in Ohio, Hayes was pessimistic. "I think we are defeated in spite of the recent good news," he said.
As the days passed the uncertainty increased. Tilden led by more than 250,000 votes in the popular vote in the 38 states. But he was one vote short of the 185 electoral votes needed for victory. Hayes had 165 votes.
All eyes focused on charges of intimidation of Black Republican voters in the three disputed Southern states. (In Oregon, the issue was a disputed elector.) Southern Whites were rebelling against Black political power granted under Reconstruction. Republican President Ulysses Grant had already sent federal troops to the states to help keep the peace.
In South Carolina, a majority Black state, armed White men belonging to "rifle clubs" and dressed in red shirts had harassed Republicans. The "Red Shirts" killed six Black men in the Hamburg massacre. The militant group backed a former Confederate general for governor and threatened to kill Republican Gov. Daniel Chamberlain.
On Election Day in Edgefield, S.C., more than 300 armed Red Shirts on horseback "packed their horses so closely together that the only approach to the windows, back of which was the ballot box, was under the bellies of the beasts," the Times said. In Barnwell County, one newspaper reported that there were "riflemen wearing red shirts, riding to and fro, cursing and threatening the negroes."
Voter intimidation also was rampant in Louisiana and Florida. Vote fraud was widespread on both sides. According to the Rutherford B. Hayes Library, the Democrats used "repeaters," who voted repeatedly. They printed fraudulent ballots to trick illiterate Black voters into voting for Democrats.
The national voter turnout was 81.8%, still the highest ever for a presidential election. But the number clearly was inflated. In South Carolina, despite voter suppression, the official turnout was 101% of eligible voters.
Republicans contended Hayes would have won easily with honest voting. A leading advocate was "Devil Dan" Sickles, who had campaigned for Hayes, a fellow Union general. Sickles had gained infamy in 1859 when, as a first-term congressman, he shot and killed his wife's lover - the son of "Star-Spangled Banner" author Francis Scott Key - in broad daylight in the park across the street from the White House. Sickles became the first alleged murderer acquitted because of temporary insanity.
On Dec. 5, 1876, all states had sent their official results to Washington to be counted and then announced by the president of the Senate. In the four contested states, Republican and Democratic officials filed separate tallies for Hayes or Tilden, throwing the election into chaos.
Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats controlled the House. In late January, Congress created a 15-member Electoral Commission of five senators, five House members and five Supreme Court justices. The commission voted separately on the four disputed states. It awarded all of the states - a total of 20 electoral votes - to Hayes by an 8-to-7 vote.
Democrats charged that the election was being stolen from Tilden. House Democrats began a filibuster. Amid cries of "Tilden or blood," one Washington newspaper reported on plans "to send a threatening and bellicose mob to the National Capital to see that the count is made according to their wishes."
Then, on March 2 - nearly four months after the election and two days before Inauguration Day - Congress reached agreement. After heated debate, at 4:10 a.m. the president of the Senate formally announced that Hayes had been elected the 19th president by an electoral college vote of 185 to 184.
On March 3, Grant hosted Hayes at the White House, where he was sworn in as president by the chief justice. On March 5, there was a public inauguration ceremony.
Tilden continued to maintain that "the country knows that I was legally elected president." Dissenters dubbed Hayes "His Fraudulency."
Historians differ on what ended the standoff. Many believe Republicans made a deal to appease Southern Democrats in a secret meeting at Washington's Wormley's Hotel, which was owned by African American James Wormley. In his inauguration speech, Hayes said the time had come to allow the Southern states to govern themselves again. He soon withdrew federal troops from the South.
The rights of Black citizens in the South were devastated as a result. White rule soon prevailed, ushering in Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Thirty years later on the Senate floor, South Carolina's Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, a leader of the Red Shirts, boasted about the vote frauds of 1876.
"We set up the Democratic Party with one plank only, that this is White man's country, and White men must govern it," Tillman said. "Under that banner, we went to battle. It was then that we shot them. It was then that we killed them. It was then that 'we stuffed ballot boxes,' because this disease needed a strong remedy."
Tillman added: "I do not ask anybody to apologize for it. I am only explaining why we did it."