We’ve seen some messy elections in this country. The Bush-Gore campaign of 2000 was one of the most contentious in history. But the title of messiest election belongs to the 1876 battle between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden.
The midterm election of 1874 forecasted a big shift in policy. It was a huge win for the Democrats. This swing happened even as former Confederate leaders were taking important roles in the Democratic Party.
As election time neared in January 1877, tensions rose around the country and in Washington. Democrats were particularly motivated, claiming their candidate was well ahead in the popular vote. However, they would lose in the electoral college. Emotions were running high and they threatened “Tilden or War.”
Ohio Republican congressman James Monroe summed up the situation. He said that if the Republican Senate should declare disputed votes for Hayes, the House would elect Tilden. There would then have been a dual presidency, a divided army and navy, a divided people, and probably civil war.
Eventually, President Grant\created a bipartisan commission to deal with the situation. After some intense manuevering, the commission awarded Hayes the disputed votes.
But the Democrats were angry; they felt Tilden had been robbed. Uncertainty reigned as the March 3 Inaugural Day approached. Emissaries from the Hayes and Tilden camps privately met several times to negotiate the settlement. A “secret deal” was formulated only days before the end of the Grant Administration.
The agreement ended the Reconstruction Era and removed Federal troops in the southern states that were still resisting black rights. It allowed southern states to control their own affairs without Federal intervention, which eventually led to the oppressive “Jim Crow” laws of the Deep South. It may have prevented a second civil war, but at a high price.
About the Author
Len Wilcox is a retired scientist who also ran a newspaper and has written for agricultural publications since the 1980s. He was a regular contributor to California Farmer Magazine. His commentary “The Western View” is a regular feature on Farm City Newsday and AgNet West.