By 1876, the (white) leadership of Hayes’ party had grown tired of Reconstruction. The Radical Republican Party of the 1860s was fast fading into the past. The significant, albeit incomplete, steps toward full freedom and equality that Black Americans had taken since the end of the Civil War, along with the political power they’d won, were already being rolled back in much of the South, and were highly vulnerable in the rest of the region. Without federal troops on the ground to help enforce Black rights in the midst of a hostile and powerful white majority, those rights and that power would soon disappear completely in the former Confederate states.
The Democratic nominee was New York Gov. Samuel Tilden. Tilden played a leading role in bringing down Tammany Hall’s William “Boss” Tweed and his organization, as well as thwarting the fraud and theft perpetrated by the Erie Canal Ring. He then parlayed his reputation as a reformer into the Democratic nomination. Tilden, however, was no progressive. On economic issues, the Democratic Party of his day was dominated by business interests and led by so-called Bourbon Democrats such as Tilden and, later, President Grover Cleveland.
On racial issues, Tilden ran in 1876 on a party platform that demanded an end to both Reconstruction—condemned as “the rapacity of carpet-bag tyrannies”—and the federal enforcement of equal rights for Black Southerners. Those rights largely still existed only in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida—three states where federal troops remained, and where white segregationist Democrats did not yet dominate. Tilden, in other words, was directly allied with Jim Crow segregationists. In fact, Southern Democrats engaged in widespread voter intimidation and violence during the campaign; the notorious Hamburg Massacre, carried out by white supremacist terrorists referred to as “Red Shirts,” had taken place in South Carolina just months earlier, on Independence Day.
Back to Election Day. By late evening, it looked like Tilden would become the next president. His lead in the popular vote was substantial—he ended up winning 51%-48%, and remains the only candidate to win over 50% of the popular vote and not become president. Tilden had already locked down 184 electoral votes, one shy of a majority, and the chair of the Republican Party decided that the time had come to empty a bottle of whiskey, as his services no longer appeared to be required.
Before Tilden could declare victory, however, three states—Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida (a list that should sound familiar)—were “too close to call.” I can’t even write those words without a bleary-eyed, jacketless Steve Kornacki popping into my brain.
Into party headquarters strode Daniel Sickles, a top Republican, who calculated that if Hayes could just sweep those remaining three states, his party would come out on top. One might call him the Nate Silver of his day—or one might just call him a guy with a pencil who could do three-figure addition. There are other things one can call Sickles, such as the first American to be acquitted of murder on the grounds of temporary insanity: He knocked off his wife’s paramour, who just happened to be the son of the guy who wrote our country’s national anthem. Talk about historical connections.
In any case, once Sickles put out the message on behalf of his incapacitated-by-whiskey party leader: Hayes could still win. And so the four-month post-election saga began.
Over those four months, election integrity was nowhere to be found on either side. Republicans and Democrats alike tried to bribe and steal their way to victory, with dollars flowing like water and ballot boxes apparently winding up in the water. In that regard, the election of 1876 looks nothing like 2020, where numerous independent election monitors have stated that widespread voter fraud simply did not occur.
Although both sides committed widespread chicanery in 1876—in South Carolina, for example, turnout came in at a robust 101% of the number of eligible voters—it was racist voter suppression that proved most decisive, according to Columbia University historian and widely acknowledged expert on the Reconstruction era Eric Foner. “This election was flawed from top to bottom,” Foner says. “There was violence throughout the South against African American voters to try to … make it impossible for them to vote. If there had been a fair election in the South, there's no question, Hayes would have won by a large margin.”
There were actually four states where electoral votes remained up for grabs. In addition to the aforementioned and disputed three, the appointment of a single elector from Oregon was challenged by Democrats because he was a federal employee, something forbidden by the Constitution. Each of the four states’ Democratic and Republican officials simply nominated their own slate of electors. They did so not on the basis of any objective counting of votes, but instead out of their simple desire to win. In Florida, the Democrats “determined” that Tilden had won by a razor thin 94-vote margin, but in reality, we’ll never know the actual vote count. In the end, Congress had to decide which sets of electors were the rightful ones.
More than two months after the election, a compromise was struck, and Congress created an Electoral Commission—something never mentioned in the Constitution—and gave that body the power to decide which candidate would receive the disputed Electoral College votes.
The Democratic-controlled House appointed five members, as did the Republican-controlled Senate, and each party selected two Supreme Court justices. Those four justices chose the final “independent” member from among their remaining colleagues; and, after he was elected to the Senate, the justices chose his replacement—a Republican. He voted with the other seven Republicans right down the line, and the Commission awarded all 20 of the outstanding electoral votes to Hayes, giving him 185 to Tilden’s 184, and making him president. Congress signed off on this ridiculous decision just two days before Inauguration Day, capping off the most drawn-out election in our history. At every step, partisanship ruled the vote-determination process.
The so-called Compromise of 1877 contained another, unwritten element. As previously noted, the Democrats were on record as wanting the remaining federal troops in the South to be withdrawn. It’s no coincidence that the only ex-Confederate states where Hayes even had a chance of winning were ones where federal troops were still deployed as occupying forces. Democrats—the party of the Klan at the time—knew that if Hayes as president brought the removal of those troops, that was a bargain well worth taking … and they sold out Tilden. But far more importantly, the compromise marked the last step in the federal government’s total abandonment of approximately four million African Americans living in the South. Both parties shook hands, and together, they ushered in the Jim Crow era and all of its cruelty.
What happened with the election of 1876—and which resembles most what Trump has been haplessly trying to do since Election Day—was the utter partisanization of the process of states certifying which candidate won. The kind of professionalism and upholding of oaths we’ve seen this year from election officials were nowhere to be found in the post-Election Day Hayes-Tilden clash.
The aforementioned Roy Morris wrote that Hayes—who came to be known as “His Fraudulency” or “Rutherfraud B. Hayes”—ended up in the Oval Office because of a decision issued by an appointed body, whose members acted in a manner “every bit as partisan and petty as the shadiest ward heeler in New York City or the most unreconstructed Rebel in South Carolina.”
We in 2020 are extremely fortunate that some Republican officials refused to put party first. Although you’ve likely heard of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, there are other, lesser known Republicans like Aaron Van Langevelde, one of four members of the Michigan State Board of Canvassers, who also deserve great credit for rejecting Trump’s baldly partisan entreaties.
A better method of electing presidents would not contain the vulnerabilities that ours does. It would not have chokepoints where partisanship and a willingness to steal victory can, at the very least, cause chaos and confusion and, with the involvement of enough corrupt individuals, actually swing the results. As Michael Li from the Brennan Center for Justice notes, “It’s easy to laugh at the Trump challenges, just because they’ve been so out there. But what’s scary, is you step back from that a bit and see how many people were willing to go along with it until fairly deep in the process.” Too many are still “going along with it” as of this writing.
Top Republicans such as Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and others, have made another flawed comparison: Namely, that the crap the Orange Julius Caesar has been pulling since Nov. 3 is really no different from the recount and related legal challenges Al Gore pursued in 2000. There is, however, no comparison. Barry Richard, who in 2000 represented Gore’s GOP opponent George W. Bush, clearly summarized why: “There (are) not a lot of similarities. In 2000, there was clearly a problem with the defective ballots. Nobody was claiming fraud or improprieties. It was all about how we made sure everybody’s vote counted.”
More broadly, Gore didn’t level any of the ridiculous voter fraud charges of the kind Trump’s team has made this time around—did you hear the one that Borat sequel star Rudy Giuliani spit out about the food trucks that supposedly smuggled in votes in Detroit? What, did they slip a ballot inside each Coney dog?
What Gore did was simply ask for the votes to be counted properly in a single state where there really were problems with the mechanics of counting—hanging chads, anyone?—and where the margin between him and Bush came down to less than a hundredth of a percent—537 votes out of six million cast, to be exact. Plus, winning that state’s electoral votes would’ve given Gore the presidency. Yes, it took a while, but he never questioned the integrity of the votes, merely whether he or Bush got more of them.
The convoluted, undemocratic Electoral College system that allows popular vote losers like George W. Bush and the Orange Menace to become president is a travesty. Within it, however, the one thing that’s supposed to operate without too much controversy is that voters decide which candidate receives the Electoral College votes awarded by each state. Once the counting of votes is complete, certification should be relatively uncontroversial, with state officials simply signing off on the verdict rendered by voters (though Trump will surely attempt to complicate things).
In the weeks since Election Day, however, we’ve all seen The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (Again) do his damnedest to corrupt that certification process and steal the presidency. Although he has failed, if he ever opened a history book and learned what happened after the election of 1876, that may well have given him hope that he might succeed.
This time, thankfully, it appears that history will not repeat itself.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas).