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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Election of 1876

The morning of Monday, March 5, 1877 was cold and overcast as Americans anticipated the Inauguration of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes after a long, tense, and disputed election. Hayes’ narrow win had only been decided three days earlier, defeating Democratic candidate and New York Governor Samuel Tilden by just one electoral vote, 185-184. The only caveat: Hayes was already the President of the United States. After discussing the transition with President Ulysses S. Grant, Hayes took the Oath of Office during a secret ceremony in the Red Room of the White House on the evening of Saturday, March 3. On Monday morning, reporters broke the news that Hayes had already been sworn in. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted in a headline: “Oath of Office Administered Quietly Done on Saturday Night.” This article included a “special dispatch” from March 4: “The President elect was quietly sworn in last night, so that in case there should be any trouble in New Orleans or elsewhere he could act promptly…”1 The secret oath concluded one of the most turbulent elections in American history and soon after resulted in the end of Reconstruction (1865-1877).2

When Ulysses S. Grant took office on March 4, 1869, he represented a refreshing change from President Andrew Johnson’s contentious administration.3 Grant’s status as a military hero and symbol of the Union propelled him to a landslide victory over his Democratic opponent, Horatio Seymour. During Grant’s early years in office, he made advances with Reconstruction, sending federal troops to the South to enforce civil rights legislation and protect Black Americans from violence while working with the newly created Department of Justice to suppress the Ku Klux Klan’s efforts to disenfranchise and terrorize Black communities.4

This portrait of New York Governor Samuel Tilden was completed c. 1876.

Library of Congress

However, Grant’s later years in office were mired in controversy. The Panic of 1873 sent the United States’ economy into a severe depression that lasted until 1877. At the same time, a series of scandals befell Grant’s administration, including the resignation and subsequent impeachment of Secretary of War William Belknap after he received kickbacks from Caleb Marsh, the operator of Fort Sill, a military trading post in Oklahoma. Today, Belknap remains the only person that resigned his position and still faced impeachment and conviction for his actions while in office.5

In addition to the economic depression and administration scandals, Reconstruction policies were failing by 1876. Despite the successful passage and ratification of the Thirteenth (1868), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments, which granted citizenship and civil rights protections to Black Americans, support for equality waned in the North while violence against African Americans grew across the South. Grant supported the passage of the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 and the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, signing each of these bills as president. These laws aimed to protect civil rights and halt violence.6 Although these acts enjoyed some temporary success, they ultimately failed to stop the disenfranchisement and violence against Black Americans and were weakened significantly when the Justice Department curtailed prosecutions of the Enforcement Acts during Grant’s second term.7

Additionally, several Supreme Court rulings during the 1870s, including the March 1876 ruling in United States v. Cruikshank, undercut the Fourteenth Amendment. In this ruling, the Supreme Court tossed out convictions of three men charged with violating the 1870 Enforcement Act. In 1873, a group of armed white men murdered an estimated 150 Black men in the Colfax Massacre. The massacre occurred after a Black militia took over a courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, fearing that Democrats would seize control of the regional government following a contested gubernatorial election. A white militia soon arrived and surrounded the courthouse. After a skirmish, the militia inside the courthouse surrendered and were subsequently massacred by the ensuing white mob.8 After initial conviction, the defendants appealed the case, and the Supreme Court overturned the convictions on the grounds that the Enforcement Acts only applied to actions by the state. The court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to actions taken by the state; it did not apply to actions taken by individual citizens, leaving murder and conspiracy charges under state rather than federal jurisdiction. This ruling weakened the Fourteenth Amendment and demonstrated that despite its passage, Reconstruction legislation was susceptible to political and legal challenges.9

This oil on canvas portrait of President Rutherford B. Hayes was completed by Daniel Huntington in 1884.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

As the election of 1876 approached, public opinion in the North had shifted significantly. The Radical Republicanism that had governed the country in the aftermath of the Civil War was losing ground. The Democratic Party nominated New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden as the Democratic candidate for president, while the Republicans nominated Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes signaled that he did not intend to pursue Reconstruction policies, believing that the harsh measures taken against the South went too far. In his letter accepting the Republican nomination, he stated his intention to serve as a president for a single term and revealed his thinking about the South and Reconstruction:

“The moral and material prosperity of the Southern States can be most effectually advanced by a hearty and generous recognition of the rights of all, by a recognition without reserve or exception... the efforts of the people of those States, to obtain for themselves the blessings of honest and capable local government. If elected, I shall consider it not only my duty, but it will be my ardent desire to labor for the attainment of this end. Let me assure my countrymen of the Southern States that if I shall be charged with the duty of organizing an Administration, it will be one which will regard and cherish their truest interests and the interests of the white, and of the colored people both, and equally; and which will put forth its best efforts in behalf of a civil policy, which will wipe our forever the distinction between the North and South in our common country.”10

By promising the “blessings of honest and local government,” Hayes signaled his support for bolstering state and local governments. This also indirectly signaled that Hayes favored removing federal troops from the South and reducing Reconstruction policies such as the Enforcement Acts. These statements reflected Northern sentiment at the time as many had come to view military intervention in the South negatively.

The election shaped up to be a close race. Political violence and suppression of the Black vote continued across the South, particularly in South Carolina, where Reconstruction historian Eric Foner notes, “A reign of terror reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan days swept over Edgefield, Aiken, Barnwell, and other Piedmont counties, with freedmen driven from their homes and brutally whipped, and ‘leading men’ murdered.”11

On election night, returns leaned toward a Democratic victory and New York Times editor George F. Jones sent a telegram to Hayes informing him of his defeat. However, Hayes soon realized that if he held in the North and carried more states in the South, he would win the Electoral College by a single vote. Republican election boards in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana all declared Hayes the winner. However, Democrats disputed these returns and rival state governments in South Carolina and Louisiana formed, sending a competing slate of Electoral College certificates and leaving twenty electoral votes in jeopardy. In Oregon, Hayes won the vote, but a conflict of eligibility with one of the electors also threw these results into dispute.12 Although Tilden won the popular vote by more than 200,000 votes, disputed results in these four states left Tilden one electoral vote shy of the 185 votes needed to secure the presidency.13

As the outcome of the election remained unknown throughout the winter, groups from both political parties claimed victory and threats of violence and insurrection increased. Cries of “Tilden or War” erupted among some Democrats across the country and in Congress, as newspapers reported the increased tension.14 Although violent rhetoric swirled, neither Tilden nor Hayes openly advocated for seizing control of the White House or challenging Congress’ power to determine the election outcome.

In order to settle the election disputes, Congress established an independent election commission. Most congressional Democrats voted in favor of the commission, along with enough Republicans to pass the legislation in both houses of Congress. Although the commission was created in late January 1877, Tilden argued that the commission was an “abandonment of the constitution” while others questioned its validity. Despite these protests, the commission appointed fifteen members: five congressmen from the House of Representatives, five senators, and five Supreme Court Justices. Both parties were permitted five representatives each to serve on the commission. For the Supreme Court Justices, four were named in the bill and those named were given the opportunity to select a fifth judge.15

This oil on canvas portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant by Henry Ulke was completed in 1875.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Originally, the fifth judge selected for the panel was Associate Justice David Davis who was considered a political independent. Tilden backers believed that Davis would award the votes of at least one disputed state to Tilden, thereby securing his victory in the Electoral College. However, the Illinois legislature unexpectedly elected Davis to the Senate. Some believed this maneuver was a method to compel Davis to vote for Tilden, while others believed that Illinois Republicans were working to disqualify Davis behind the scenes with this conflict of interest.16 In a surprising move, Davis chose to resign his position as a Supreme Court Justice, forfeiting his spot on the commission to serve in the Senate. With Davis disqualified, the fifth justice became Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley, who was nominated to the court by President Grant in 1870. This commission voted on the disputed electoral votes and through a series of 8-7 decisions, electoral votes from all four disputed states were awarded to Hayes.17

However, in the House of Representatives, Tilden supporters sought to stall the final counting of electoral votes by introducing a number of “dilatory” measures. This led to increased anxiety that a final result would not be reached before the March 4 Inauguration date.18 Behind the scenes, more negotiations were underway. On February 26, five Republicans and four southern Democrats met at Wormley House, a hotel owned by James Wormley, a wealthy Black entrepreneur. During this meeting, Democrats ultimately agreed not to block Hayes’ election on the condition that Republicans withdraw federal troops from the South, allowing Democrats to consolidate power in the region and reestablish control.19

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Samuel Randall, a Democrat, asserted his majoritarian control over the House, ruling dilatory motions out of order. His actions helped to end the delay and prevent further chaos. On the morning of March 2, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was finally declared the winner of the 1876 election with the Electoral College vote standing at 185-184.20

Despite the determination of Hayes’ win, tensions brewed. Fearing potential violent outbreaks or a coup ahead of or during Hayes’ Inauguration, President Grant considered an alternative scenario. In 1877, March 4 fell on a Sunday, meaning that Hayes’ Inauguration would not take place until Monday, March 5. President Grant insisted that Hayes take the Oath of Office early. Hayes departed from Ohio on March 1 and traveled to Washington, D.C., hearing on the journey that he was finally declared the victor. Once he reached Washington on the morning of March 3, he met with President Grant and arranged to return to the White House that evening for a dinner hosted in honor of President-elect Hayes and his wife, Lucy Hayes. According to Hayes:

“It was arranged that I should in the evening, before the state dinner at the White House, be sworn by the Chief Justice to prevent an interregnum between Sunday noon (the 4th) and the inauguration, Monday. This was the advice of Secretary Fish and the President. I did not altogether approve but acquiesced.”21

While the evening’s thirty-eight guests proceeded from the East Room to the State Dining Room, President Grant and Hayes slipped away to the Red Room where they gathered with Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite. Standing near the fireplace, Rutherford B. Hayes took the Oath of Office secretly before his public Inauguration on Monday, March 5.22

This arrangement established an interesting conundrum—who was president following Hayes taking the Oath of Office on the evening of March 3, 1877? Law and precedent for a March 4 Inauguration at noon suggests that Grant’s term would have officially ended four years from the time when he took the Oath of Office in 1873, meaning that Grant’s term would end on March 4, 1877 at noon. Therefore, Hayes was considered president at noon on March 4, although newspapers did not report on his March 3 swearing in until the morning of March 5, his public Inauguration.23 Click here to learn more about the history of the March 4 Inauguration.

However, the arrangement was highly unusual. President Grant actually remained at the White House until the public Inauguration on March 5, despite the fact that his successor had already taken the Oath of Office. Newspaper articles indicate that Grant returned to the White House on March 5 following the Inauguration to introduce Hayes to the White House before departing. Meanwhile, according to Hayes’ diary, he stayed at the home of Senator John Sherman conducting interviews and meetings with members of Congress and other politicians as he arranged his Cabinet. This activity was typical of a president-elect in the days prior to Inauguration. He does not mention conducting any official business during this time.24 Notably, President Grant is not recorded as conducting official business after March 3 and newspapers do not indicate that he signed any last-minute legislation. On the morning of March 5, Hayes traveled to the White House from Senator Sherman's house with his son. At the White House he met Grant and they traveled by carriage to the Capitol together where Hayes took the Oath of Office once again.25

This pencil sketch by Albert Berghaus is of Inauguration Day 1877. Outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant and President-Elect Rutherford B. Hayes leave the White House for the ceremony at the Capitol. Berghaus was a Reconstruction-era American illustrator who worked for Frank Leslie's Weekly. Berghaus' original works are extremely rare and few are in private collections. This sketch appears to be preliminary, with details such as the detailed stonework over the entrance to the North Portico only partially completed, as though Berghaus intended to use it for a larger work or finish the sketch later.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Newspaper articles reveal existing tensions about the timeline and safety of Hayes’ Inauguration. A New York Times article published the morning of the Inauguration celebrations reported on several rumors. Although news that Hayes was already sworn in broke on March 5, it was unclear on March 4. A dispatch from March 4 stated: “The quidnuncs have been busy all day trying to find out whether President Hayes has taken the oath of office or not, and if not, whether he is President or not, or whether the country is to be without a President until to-morrow noon.” In addition to these rumors, there were also rumors that Samuel Tilden had also taken the Oath of Office in New York and was traveling Washington on the evening of March 4. This rumor ultimately turned out to be untrue and all questions about the presidency were brought to rest at noon on March 5, 1877 when Hayes was publicly Inaugurated.26

Hayes’ Inauguration marked the end of Reconstruction and ultimately the end of any significant federal presence in the South, which led to further disenfranchisement and intimidation of Black voters. President Hayes withdrew troops surrounding South Carolina and Louisiana courthouses within two months of taking office, indicating that the army “would no longer play a role in political affairs.”27

Thank you to Dr. Thomas J. Balcerski, Associate Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University, for his contributions to this article.