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Volusian Confusion: Tilden-Hayes

1876 Tilden-Hayes presidential election smacks of 2000 Gore-Bush contest, even down to Florida.

As a presidential election comes down to the wire, it becomes quite clear that securing Florida's electoral votes is the key to winning the office. The initial count shows the virtually negligible margin of 931 votes between the candidates. A major New York newspaper trumpets the headline, "The Result - What Is It? Something that no fellow can understand. Impossible to name our next President. The returns too meager." The New York Times dubs it "A Doubtful Election". Oregon's margin is similarly slim (500 votes); Democrats claim to take Louisiana by 20,000 votes while Republicans announce their own victory by 4,000.

Everyone freaks out. Both parties send old-school dignitaries (dubbed "visiting statesmen" by the press), grand old political men of esteem and pasts of loyal service, to oversee the recounts in Florida and elsewhere. With trepidation, these supposed sages await reports of fraud and undue influence from the other side, and, with forced calm, tell their colleagues that the election is most decidedly going in their favor.

The proceedings have the potential to last months. The words "constitutional crisis" are bandied about.

Sound familiar? We're not talking about this year's Presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, although we could be. This year's electoral contest bears an eerily uncanny resemblance to that of the 1876 race between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Republicans In The South? No Way

As the evening of November 7, 1876 dragged on, it grew evident that things were not going well for Republican candidate Hayes. Republicans had had a history of not doing well in Southern states; this had something to do with the fact Republican Abraham Lincoln tore them a new one a little over a decade beforehand. (It's worth noting that Lincoln wasn't even on the Presidential ballot in ten of the Southern states in 1860, the year he won the Presidency. As one might well imagine, this aided the secession movement considerably.) Indeed, Hayes was ready to concede defeat: he wrote in his journal that night that he spent the evening consoling his wife, and "soon fell into a freshing sleep and the affair seemed over."[1]

It had been an ugly race. Democratic candidate Tilden had been called "a liar, a traitor, a hypocrite, a briber, a conspirator, a thief, a counterfeiter, a defrauder, a perjurer, a robber, a swindler, a railroad wrecker," a drunkard, a syphilitic, a criminal, and a disgrace.[2] In response, various gun clubs and marauding gangs of Democrats in the South acted to prevent blacks from voting. Republican-voting black field workers found themselves unemployed; similarly-minded tenants got evicted.

Neither candidate was particularly inspiring. Despite catching heaps of invective from the opposition concerning his alleged maliciousness, Tilden was stupendously dull at age sixty-two and devoid of passion. He had confided to at least one colleague that he had never slept with a woman. Presidential historian James Fisher commented, "Samuel Tilden was either asexual, or he was the first gay man to run for president." Hayes was also devoid of personality, although he had fathered five children. His fruitful, multiplicative wife would also eventually ban all liquor and wine from the White House.

Musical Propaganda
Musical Propaganda

The Press Attempts To Intervene -- Nothing New Here

As the results slipped in from the election, the Democratic National Committee chairman called the then-rabidly Republican New York Times, and demanded to know the electoral count of the Southern states. The editor of the Times, John C. Reid, realized at that precise moment that the Democrats themselves didn't know who was winning, and that the final results of the election might be manipulated. He quickly cabled his Republican friends down South: HAYES IS ELECTED IF WE HAVE CARRIED SOUTH CAROLINA, FLORIDA AND LOUISIANA. CAN YOU HOLD YOUR STATE? ANSWER IMMEDIATELY. If it smells like the media was trying to throw the election, that's because it was.

Thus began the schemes. Later investigations revealed both camps tried to influence the outcome of the election, and some districts had to work to keep it honest. Volusia County, for example, sent two sets of ballots to the capital, anticipating that one batch might get intercepted and molested (they were right; the dummy ballot box was hijacked).

Florida's canvassing board consisted of two Republicans and one Democrat. The ostensible purpose of the board was to prevent voter fraud and manipulation of the results. Unfortunately, under state law, the boards had power to discard votes it found to be, according to law, "irregular, false or fraudulent". In the words of historian Louis W. Koenig, this more or less meant the Republicans were "applying 'discretionary' powers and tossing out Democratic ballots on the flimsiest pretexts," to remove the Republican majority in what was historically a Democratic region. Koenig later writes, "The Republicans, finding themselves widely in control of local voting machinery in the South on election day, could practice the time-honored techniques of fraud: stuffing the ballot boxes, sometimes to the point of where the number of votes cast exceeded the local population, [and] throwing out Democratic votes."

And after the election proper was over, those on the canvassing boards realized the true power of their positions. House Speaker James A. Garfield (yes, that one) remarked that the Louisiana state canvas board was a "graceless set of scamps."[3] Strong historical evidence suggests that the Louisiana board offered to sell itself to the Democratic National Committee to the tune of around $1,000,000.

Tilden: None for me, Thanks
Tilden: None for me, Thanks

Gators and Law Evaders

Florida was no cleaner. For example, when 219 more names mysteriously showed up on the Alachua County rolls, and the Republicans magically received 219 more votes, the result was allowed to stand, despite its appearance of impropriety. The Florida canvas board consisted of two Republicans and one Democrat, Samuel B. McLin, who was assured he "would be taken care of" if Hayes won.[4] Indeed, following Hayes' victory, he was up for a position as associate justice for the New Mexico Supreme Court, had Florida's Republican Senator Simon P. Conover not hampered and eventually blocked his confirmation. His travels between New Mexico and Florida took sufficient toll on his health that he died in 1879, thereby chalking up a three-pointer to poetic justice.

Predictably, this whole election situation didn't sit well with the Democrats. As Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida's status were in doubt, both parties prepared bodies of electors to send to the state capitals. As such, two sets of electoral votes were sent from these three states to Washington, DC: one set of Democratic, and one set of Republican. Which was the proper set?

In Oregon, things got even uglier. Republicans took the state, but Democrats noticed that one of the appointed electors held an illegally-appointed job and unseated him. Conveniently forgetting that Oregon state law stipulated leftover electors choose any replacements, the Democratic governor of Oregon, L.F. Grover, took it upon himself to appoint a Democratic elector. This new elector, E. A. Cronin, ventured to the capital and wisely got in front of the Oregon Secretary of State as he carried the electoral ballots into the room. Cronin snatched the ballots from the Secretary in a grammar-school Hail Mary maneuver and ran into a corner, unwilling to pass them out to his Republican compadres. Try as they might, they were unable to remove the votes from his greedy clutches.

Cronin formed his own little one-man branch of the Electoral College in a corner of the room, picked two buddies, and voted away. The two original Republican electors left the room and formed their own consortium. Cronin and his band cast three votes: one for Tilden and two for Hayes. The argument went that this way, the Democrats wouldn't look overly manipulative, but his tactics make no sense whatsoever. He later received $3,000 from the DNC for his efforts. So, like some Southern states, Oregon had two sets of electoral votes going to Washington. One was entirely Republican, and the other mostly so.

Presumptive President Hayes
Presumptive President Hayes

The country was now awash in potentially illegitimate electoral votes. Some, like the Republican ones from Louisiana, were forged, because the electors couldn't get to the capital on time. Others, like Oregon's, were created without the blessing of state law. They were all to go to the Senate, which had the odious task of counting them.

It was here that things got even stickier: the Constitution decreed that it was the Senate's job to count the votes. Should a dispute arise, it was the House's job to pick the next President. The Senate was Republican, the House was Democratic. Which electoral votes was the Senate going to count? Predictably, each side argued that its own body of legislators was supposed to be the arbiter of the electoral college and resolver of murky elections. Neither one had a particularly compelling case.

As it looked like the country was careening towards an implacable constitutional crisis, an astonishing compromise sprung into being. The legislative branch created an Electoral Commission, created of five Senators, five Representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. There were to be seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and the last member was supposed to be the famously impartial justice David Davis. However, at the last minute Davis was replaced by justice Joseph P. Bradley of New Hampshire, who was supposed to be just as even-handed. With Davis, as we'll see, all bets were off.

The Electoral Commission heard the arguments from the phalanxes of lawyers representing both sides. On the evening before the decision was to be rendered, a nervous Democratic National Committee chairman Abram S. Hewitt dispatched a buddy to get the dope from swing-vote Bradley. Bradley read him aloud the decision he'd made, siding with the Democrats, and, upon hearing the news about midnight, Hewitt exulted in what he thought was victory.

It All Came Down To Being Henpecked

Shortly after the Democratic representative left Bradley's house, New Jersey Senator Fred Frelinghuysen dropped by. He managed to convince the pliable but domineering Mrs. Bradley that a Democratic executive branch would be truly evil and destructive toward the well-being of the nation, and together they managed to bend Bradley's will over the next eight hours. The following morning, he handed down a decision in favor of the Republicans, stunning the Democrats and elevating the vacuous Rutherford B. Hayes to the office of the Presidency. The Democrats tried to force a second crisis by filibustering past March 4, at which point the Constitution did not provide for a contingency plan should the presidency vacate (President Ulysses S Grant would have stepped down, but there would have been no one to take his place). However, Tilden capitulated, and, with two days to go, Hayes was sworn in as the country's twenty-third President.

It was another decade before laws were passed to allow states to certify their own electors; it wasn't until 1933 when the twentieth amendment to the Constitution passed detailing a coherent line of succession.

However, we still have the existing anachronism that a candidate can win the popular vote but still lose the Presidency. Indeed, Tilden won the popular vote by 264,292 but lost electorally 185-184.

As such, it's possible the upcoming weeks will be a farce. There's ample precedent. Let's just hope the Presidency isn't decided by a browbeaten spouse who capitulated to the pressures of a tense household. Anybody know how Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' marriage is holding up?


  1. Koenig, p.6
  2. Harmon kindly directs the reader to two other sources for a "complete list" of Tilden epithets. That must be quite a list; Harmon lists nearly twenty himself.
  3. Koenig, p.99
  4. Clark, p.435


  1. Clark, James C.. "The Fox Goes to France: Florida, Secret Codes, and the Election of 1876". Florida Historical Quarterly, 69(4). . p.430-456
  2. Harmon, Mark D.. "The New York Times and the Theft of the 1876 Presidential Election". Journal of American Culture, 10(2). . p.35-41
  3. Koenig, Louis W.. "The Election That Got Away". American Heritage, 11(6):4-7. . p.99-104
  4. Olmsted, Roger.. "The Cigar-Box Papers: A Local View of the Centennial Electoral Scandals". California Historical Quarterly, 55(3). . p.256-269

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