President Tilden: A Hard Bargain 1876 CE – 1877 CE

In the fall of 1987 I was talking with the engineering director of a hybridoma production and selection system project we were working on about the vagaries of the American electoral system. I made passing reference to Tilden winning the vote for president in 1876 CE.

“I attended the Tilden High School in Brooklyn” he noted.

“Named for the same man I believe.”

“I know about his cleanup of Tammany Hall,” he said, “but I’ve never heard of a President Tilden.”

“I said he won the election, not that he served as president.”

The 1876 presidential election is seldom given its due in American history courses below the college level, and often not even in such environments. It is usually treated as an anomaly or curiosity, disregarding its key role in the social development, or lack thereof, of the United States for roughly 90 years.

In 1876 the Republican Party had effectively controlled the Federal Government since the Civil War [1861 – 1865]. The states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were still under Federal military occupation. Where Federal troops had been withdrawn from the South, white supremacist Southern Democrats had gained power and ended Reconstruction, often by means of physical attacks on or intimidation of newly enfranchised Negro voters.

In 1876, Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, ran against Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee. Both men were honest by the standards of the time, and both generally decent in their personal relations with African-Americans. Tilden, however, was supported by virulently racist Southern Democrats, and Hayes allowed a cynical deal to be made that won him the presidency at the cost of betraying black supporters of the Republican Party.

The election results were contested. Tilden won the popular vote by roughly a quarter million ballots, but the Electoral College decision was in dispute because Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina each sent two sets of very different results, putting 20 Electoral College votes up for grabs. A vote from Oregon was also questionable, but easier to resolve.

Tilden had 184 of the 185 Electoral College votes he needed to win the presidency.

If just one of the contested states went his way, Tilden would clear the hurdle of the Electoral College and become president.

For Hayes to become president, he would have to receive all the contested Electoral College votes.

Republicans objected with reason that the violence and threats against black voters invalidated the questionable votes for Tilden. Democrats pointed out with accuracy widespread ballot fraud in the election results favoring Hayes.

Congress formed an Electoral Commission that met in early 1877. There were rumors of military mobilizations on the part of Southern whites opposed to Federal efforts to deny Tilden the presidency. Concern that civil insurrection if not civil war might break out was justified.

The Electoral Commission voted along party lines, awarding all contested Electoral College votes to Hayes, giving him the presidency. Tilden supported the outcome for reasons sometimes referred to as The Compromise of 1877. This informal, unwritten deal gave Hayes the presidency in return for ending Reconstruction and Federal military occupation of the South, and promised a number of economic aid projects to help the South recover and develop. Tilden’s acceptance of these terms is widely held to have prevented insurrection from breaking out.

Hayes was widely referred to as “His Fraudulency” and “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes for his term of office and beyond. He is honored in Paraguay for saving 60% of that nation’s territory after its overwhelming defeat in the War of the Triple Alliance [1864 – 1870].

Grant removed Federal troops from Florida before he left office. Hayes did the same for Louisiana and South Carolina shortly after he became president. Southern Democrats quickly took control and effectively ended the franchise for African Americans in the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted and enforced. Despite this, almost all Southern blacks remained loyal to the Party of Lincoln until it egregiously bungled the response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

A suitably busy and slightly fatuous 1879 painting of The Florida Case before the Electoral Commission, by Cornelia Adèle Strong Fassett, hangs in the U.S. Senate. It was not commissioned and she had to wait seven years to get paid, and then she received much less than she had asked for.

A personable young man who worked for Senator Kerry, guiding my family and my sister’s through the Capitol Building in December of 2000, did not know the story behind the picture, despite the recent Gore – Bush election dispute. He thought that Tilden might be governor of Florida. I gave him a volume of Massachusetts colonial history as a token of appreciation for the tour of the building, but decided not to test his patience with the story of the election of 1876.

Further Reading:

• Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr. provides a clear and balanced account of the events.

• John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America describes the disaster that ended the Republican hold on black voters in the South, and its contribution to the African – American migration from the South to the North.

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