In 1876, Americans celebrated the country's hundredth birthday and its very first world’s fair. But just over a decade after the Civil War, there were dark divisions that still threatened the fragile democracy.
Although Blacks had won freedom and rights in the wake of the Civil War, white paramilitary groups in the South were now waging viciously effective campaigns against Black citizens, Republicans, and Reconstruction. Groups including the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the Red Shirts, and the White Brotherhood attacked and murdered thousands in their efforts to restore white supremacy in the region. Meanwhile, federal troops maintained martial law in three of the Southern states—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. And the country was reeling through a financial panic that had crushed eighteen thousand businesses and thrown more than three million people out of work. In 1876, a hundred years after its founding, America was wounded and still painfully fractured.
It was also the year of a presidential election. With Ulysses Grant ineligible for a third consecutive term in the White House, Republicans were jockeying for position. Rutherford B. Hayes—who had recently won a third term as Ohio’s governor—won the Republican nomination. Although some critics called him “a plaster saint” and “a third-rate nonentity,” others praised him as a “neutral man…without flaw or spot”—competent, affable, and offensive to no one—who was fit to lead America into its second century.
On the morning after the November 7 election,
the New York Times announced that Hayes was elected president,
while the New York Sun declared Tilden the winner.
His Democratic opponent for president was Samuel Jones Tilden, the governor of New York. Pale and slight, with no personal charisma, the sixty-two-year-old was a quiet bachelor who had suffered a stroke and had a drooping eyelid. With two colorless candidates, the presidential contest was “flat and tame,” according to the New York Herald. But it was a nerve-wrackingly close race—so close, in fact, that on the morning after the November 7 election, the New York Times announced that Hayes was elected president, while the New York Sun declared Tilden the winner. While most newspapers put Tilden ahead, returns were still coming in.
A Dark Foreshadowing
The race was excruciatingly neck and neck. Tilden, it became clear, had won the popular election by a margin of more than two hundred fifty thousand, but he fell short—by one vote—of winning the Electoral College. He had swept seventeen states, with 184 of the 185 he needed. Hayes had just 166 electoral votes. But three states were still in play—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. If those three Southern states went for Tilden, he would run away with the election. But if they went for Hayes, their combined electoral votes would put the Ohio governor over the top, with 185—exactly the number that he needed to win. Over the next four months, the ferocious battle over vote counting in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana triggered an explosive constitutional crisis that rocked America’s democracy on its hundredth birthday and foreshadowed perilous election disputes more than a century later, in the years 2000 and 2020.
Most rebel states, by 1876, had successfully thrown off the yoke of Reconstruction. But Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana remained under federal control, with Republican governors protected by U.S. troops. The election in all three states hung by a razor’s edge. In Florida, Tilden seemed to have won by less than a hundred votes. In both South Carolina and Louisiana, the electoral margins were also exceedingly thin—with Hayes winning, apparently, in South Carolina and Tilden in Louisiana. But widespread reports of fraud and electoral violence—mostly targeting Black voters and Republicans—threw the counts of all three states into dispute.
The explosive constitutional crisis rocked America's democracy
on its hundredth birthday and foreshadowed
perilous election disputes in 2000 and 2020.
In South Carolina, where Blacks had a large voting majority, armed white rifle clubs had roamed the state to suppress their participation at the polls. In September, more than five hundred armed whites had threatened to kill or whip Blacks in the town of Ellenton if they voted Republican. As many as a hundred Black citizens were massacred in the resulting riot. The mayhem was even worse in Louisiana. At the instigation of the state’s central Democratic committee, masked and heavily armed bands of white supremacist night riders terrorized Black communities—attacking, murdering, and mutilating men, women, and children. Beyond these hellish cruelties, blatant corruption threatened the election. The state canvassing board in Louisiana was said to have offered to certify the election for Tilden for a bribe of a million dollars.
President Grant was so worried by these reports that he sent federal troops to all three states to maintain civic order until returns were certified. He also deployed troops to secure Washington’s bridges and the federal arsenal. There were rumors that a Democratic militia planned to attack the capital and install Samuel Tilden as president. Meanwhile, prominent Republicans hurried to Florida to monitor the official count.
Three states submitted a second set of election certificates to Congress, claiming that Tilden had won the election instead of Hayes.
The observers watched closely as the Republican-controlled state canvassing board counted the votes and rejected ballots from districts where Democrats had perpetrated fraud or intimidation. When their tally ended, Louisiana went for Hayes. So did Florida and South Carolina, with their Republican-controlled boards. With all three of the states now in the Republican column, it looked like Hayes had precisely the 185 electoral votes that he needed to win the presidency—by a one-vote margin—when the electors would formally send their election certificates to Congress on December 6.
A Constitutional Crisis
But that constitutional process erupted in chaos. Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana claimed that their Republican-dominated returns boards had committed fraud, and all three states submitted a second set of election certificates to Congress, claiming that Tilden had won the election instead of Hayes.
Many Americans had a renewed sense of dread. As former New York Times editor John Bigelow wrote in his diary, “Another civil war may be the consequence of this state of things, and we may enter upon the next century under a different form of government.” There were rumors of a coup d’état. In early January 1877, a Democratic congressman called for a hundred thousand partisans to rally in Washington for the inauguration of Tilden. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, urged them to come to the capital “fully armed and ready for business.” In Chicago, a former general supposedly recruited veterans to steal weapons from federal arsenals. The White House was even warned that Tilden supporters in Missouri were planning to seize seven hundred cannons and “fixed ammunition, enough to supply an army of sixty thousand men” from the federal arsenal in St. Louis. Democrats, meanwhile, feared that President Grant would use the military to install Hayes.
In early January, a congressman called for 100,000 partisans to rally in Washington. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer urged them to come to the capital
"fully armed and ready for business."
To resolve the crisis, at the end of January, Congress created an independent electoral commission to rule on the competing certificates. With fifteen members—seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent—it would be “a tribunal whose authority none can question and whose decision all will accept as final.” It included five congressmen, five senators, and five justices of the Supreme Court. On February 9, after long deliberations that lasted far into the night, they decided the Florida case in favor of Hayes. One week later, after another marathon session, they decided Louisiana for Hayes, too, on a party-line vote. The South Carolina decision still hung in the balance. The atmosphere in Washington crackled with political peril. Congressmen were carrying pistols on the House floor for protection.
A Bloody Compromise
Finally, at Washington's Wormley’s Hotel on the night of February 26, 1877—amid a festering constitutional crisis—a group of Republicans and Southern Democrats gathered to confirm an agreement. Earlier that day, the electoral commission had examined South Carolina’s competing certificates and awarded its electors to Hayes. He would win the presidency, when Congress finished counting the votes. But Democrats threatened to delay that conclusion by staging a filibuster in the House. If the delay lasted longer than March 4—when President Grant’s term officially ended—the country, for the first time, would have no president at all.
On March 2—only two days before the inauguration—at 4:15 in the morning, after an 18-hour session in which congressmen yelled, drew their pistols, and almost pummeled each other with fists, the final electoral counts were announced: 184 for Tilden and 185 for Hayes.
To avoid that disaster, those who gathered at Wormley’s that evening endorsed a deal. Democrats would accept Hayes if he agreed to end Reconstruction. Federal troops would be withdrawn from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina—leaving their Black populations defenseless in the face of new Jim Crow laws that would strip them of their voting and civil rights. Although most of the agreements had been worked out before the meeting, they came to be known as the “Wormley Compromise”—ironically reached at a property owned by a Black businessman. Three days later, on March 1, the Democrats dropped their filibuster, and on March 2, at 4:15 in the morning—after an incendiary eighteen-hour session in which congressmen yelled, drew their pistols, and almost pummeled each other with fists—the final electoral counts were announced: 184 for Tilden and 185 for Hayes.
Rutherford Hayes was elected president, but for half the population, he had no right to the office. He was, to them, "His Fraudulency," "Rutherfraud B. Hayes," and "The Great Usurper."
Excerpted and adapted from An Assassin in Utopia by Susan Wels