The Presidential Election of 1876
By 1876 the two leading political parties in the United States were the Republicans, who had dominated presidential elections since the Civil War, and the Democrats, who had risen in strength in Congress as Reconstruction brought more former Confederate states back into the Union. The presidential election of 1876 became the most controversial in American history, at least until the mid-twentieth century. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden, and trailed in the Electoral College. But he won the Presidency.
The preceding year Ulysses S Grant gave serious consideration to running for a third term, but opted out after the House passed a non-binding resolution recognizing the two term tradition as a protection against tyranny. Several smaller political parties influenced the election, including the new Prohibition Party and the Greenback Party, which pushed for the issuance of greater amounts of paper money in the money supply. There was no popular vote in Colorado, which had not been able to establish a state wide voting system in time, as it had too recently been admitted to the Union.
The Greenback and Prohibition candidates received popular votes which amounted to less than 1.5% of the total, which was won by Tilden with over 50% of the votes cast. Hayes, a former congressman from and Governor of Ohio, trailed by more than 200,000. In several southern states including South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, Republican dominated electoral commissions questioned the results and refused to certify the election. Questionable tactics to award Oregon’s electoral votes were used as well. By the time the shenanigans were over Hayes held an Electoral College lead of one vote, enough to win the election.
Because of the manner in which Electoral votes were counted – by the President of the Senate (then a Republican) in the presence of both Houses, and the objections of the solidly Democratic House of Representatives to a Republican likely counting disputed votes, Congress created a Commission of fifteen members, five from the House, five from the Senate, and five from the Supreme Court, to settle the election by resolving the issue of the disputed votes.
The Commission may have resolved the issue via the Compromise of 1877, which was an informal and unwritten agreement that the new President Hayes would remove the remaining Federal troops in the South, allowing Reconstruction to end and giving the Democrats a solid political base there. All of the disputed electoral votes in the South were then awarded to Hayes, who became president. The compromise was never publicly admitted, but Democrats dominated presidential elections in the deep South for the next fifty years and beyond.