Election of 876

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The year 1876 was the most notable time period in American history. It was the end of the Secession, the beginning of the war with Spain, and the one-hundredth anniversary of independence. This was also the time of an election that resulted in a strange controversy testing the country’s political outlook and face of an evolving nation. The presidential election of 1876 is better known for its controversial aftermath than for the campaign that preceded it. The Democratic candidate, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, had carried a majority of the popular vote, and by the morning after the election he had 184 of the 185 electoral votes necessary for a majority.[1] Tilden’s Republican opponent, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, had at best 166 electoral votes (or 165 if the eligibility of one of Oregon’s three electors was successfully challenged). The nineteen votes from the three ex-Confederate states Republicans still controlled—Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina—were in dispute. According to the Democratic version of events, corrupt returning boards in the three southern states had overturned Democratic majorities of the popular vote and awarded the electoral votes to Republicans. Crying foul, the Democratic electors from those states sent their own votes to Washington as well for Congress to consider when it officially counted the nation’s electoral votes in February 1877. With control of Congress split between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, disagreement about exactly who could count the votes produced a constitutional crisis that evoked threats of armed violence from some Democratic quarters. To resolve it, Congress created an unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated Federal Electoral Commission consisting of fifteen members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court. There was no bargain, usually described as the Compromise of 1877, to end Reconstruction; the Commission’s Republican majority, voting on a party line of 8-7, awarded all twenty disputed votes to Hayes. The resulting 185-184 victory proved the narrowest margin in American history. Bitter Democrats declared the election “the Fraud of the Century.”

The 1876 race elicited the highest rate of voter turnout in American history, 81.8 percent nationally. In six northern and three southern states over 90 percent of the potential electorate came to the polls. To be sure, in a few states—Florida and South Carolina, for example—fraud clearly helped inflate turnout rates The election occurred in the midst of a severe depression that had begun in the fall of 1873. Hard times are usually poisonous to incumbent parties, and the Republicans were then the incumbents. In the depressions starting in 1837, 1893, and 1929, the “out” party won the off-year congressional elections following the onset of hard times, and then also won the following presidential election. Anti-Republican candidates, including a few Independents, did win the majority away from the Republicans in the House of Representatives in the congressional elections of 1874–1875, but the incumbent Republicans regained a significant number of their House seats and retained both their majority in the Senate and the presidency in 1876. Yet this unique comeback was not simply the result of stolen electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In all those states both Democratic and Republican officials were guilty of fraud, lying, and attempts at bribery to sway the returning boards that decided who had won their electoral votes. The Republicans’ remarkable recovery in 1876 occurred primarily in the North, where Republicans carried eighteen of twenty-two states, two-thirds of the region’s congressional seats, and a popular-vote majority of more than a quarter of a million votes.[2] Both the heavy turnout rates and the Republican comeback in the midst of ongoing hard times cry for explanations. both parties sought to win the support of the group that each regarded as the...
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