In the late 1800s the citizens of the United States were becoming more polarized on the issue of political parties. The question of which party controlled the White House had become a matter of national concern that could cause consequences that would last for citizens’ lifetimes. By the election of 1876, Democrats and Republicans had become the primary parties of the American political system. The two parties were divided on a number of issues, but one of the most significant was each party’s perspective on Reconstruction, the recovery of the South following the U.S. Civil War. Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, supported federal involvement in Reconstruction efforts and work to integrate former slaves into American society with equal rights under the law. Democrats, primarily represented in Southern states and with many of the same ideals that had led to the Confederacy seceding from the Union, opposed federal involvement in the South

On the evening of the 1876 election, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden appeared to be the clear winner with 184 of the 185 required electoral votes. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes ended the evening with 165 electoral votes, twenty short of those required to win.  In the days following the election, however, it became quite clear that the results were not cut and dry. Although Hayes had won 51% of the popular vote, the electoral votes of four states − Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina − were being disputed. Both parties claimed victory in those states and accused the opposing party of election fraud ranging from Republicans accusing Democrats of refusing to count votes from African Americans and other registered Republicans to Democrats accusing Republicans of damaging pro-Tilden ballots by smearing them with ink. Those 20 electoral votes were enough to give either candidate the presidency.

While the election of 1800 had resulted in the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided some clarification of what was to happen in the result of a tie or disputed electoral votes, the situation of four states with electoral votes in dispute was unprecedented. After months of debate and consideration, an Electoral Commission appointed by Congress and made up of five Senators, five members of the House of Representatives, and five Supreme Court Justices, had the final word. On a party line vote, the Electoral Commission voted 8 to 7 to give all of the disputed electoral votes to Hayes.

Democrats, unsurprisingly, were very concerned with the continuation of Republican leadership. The 1876 election occurred only eleven years after the conclusion of the Civil War and Republicans had held the executive office throughout the entire decade. A smooth transition to the Hayes presidency was secured with the Compromise of 1877, which removed federal troops from the South, provided federal funding for internal improvements in the South, and ensured a prominent Southerner would be named to the President’s cabinet. To satisfy that requirement of the compromise, David M. Keys of Tennessee was appointed as Postmaster General. The removal of troops from the South effectively ended Reconstruction, meaning that the Federal Government would no longer be involved in preventing racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in Southern states. After troops were removed, the Republican governments in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina collapsed, bringing a formal end to Reconstruction and returning the Democratic Party to power throughout the South. Without federal involvement in Southern affairs, legislatures in the South were able to pass segregation laws known as “Jim Crow laws” which established “separate but equal” facilities for people of different skin colors, as well as the disenfranchisement of African American voters through strict, race specific voting requirements. Segregationist practices would be part of life in many Southern states for nearly one hundred years, until the successes of the 1960’s civil rights movement.

Want to read more? Leading up to November 8th, we will be looking at major U.S. presidential elections and the impact that they have made on the country. Check out our previous post on the election of 1800.


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