Documents Related to the Disputed General Election of 1876


Wynell Schamel, Lee Ann Potter, and Katherine Snodgrass

The election of 1876 between Democrat Samuel L. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes occurred at a precarious time. The end of the Civil War had brought economic expansion that unfortunately was short-lived. A devastating depression followed the Panic of 1873, causing the closure of banks and businesses, and widespread strikes, unemployment, and homelessness. President Ulysses S. Grant, a war hero, was unable to guide the nation through the economic crisis. Scandals in his administration undermined his ability to lead and further eroded confidence in his presidency.

Adding to the anxiety of the times, hopes for a national reunion on the eve of the centennial of the American Revolution were threatened by strong sectional differences. Blacks were voting Republican in the traditionally Democratic South. White southerners were eager for Radical Reconstruction to end and for federal troops to leave the region. Northern Republicans were concerned about the election of former Confederates to Congress and attempts to limit the civil rights of blacks in the South.

The Democrats selected New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden as their choice for president. Tilden was well known for having been instrumental in prosecuting corrupt politicians in New York. He had amassed a fortune as a corporate lawyer, railroad reorganizer, and land and stock speculator. He was a Jeffersonian Democrat and believed in a high standard of morals for government officials. Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana was selected as the vice-presidential candidate.

Delegates to the Republican convention, amidst disagreement and doubt, selected Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio as their candidate. Hayes was a Harvard-trained lawyer with a creditable military record as a Union army general. As a member of the House of Representatives, he had supported Reconstruction and campaigned for giving blacks the right to vote in Ohio as well as in the South. He was a three-term governor of Ohio and was known as a loyal party member and a reformer. His running mate was William A. Wheeler of New York.

During the campaign, the Democrats focused on the corruption in the southern “carpetbagger” governments and the scandals in Grant’s administration. They stressed Tilden’s honesty and history of being a reformer. The Republicans emphasized Hayes’s pledge to work for civil service reform and his willingness to end Reconstruction in the South.

On election night, newspapers reported Tilden the winner. He had, after all, received about 3 percent, or 250,000, more popular votes than Hayes. He did not, however, receive the majority of votes from the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was invented by the framers of the Constitution as a compromise between those who favored letting Congress select the executive and those who advocated direct popular election. Originally, the plan for the Electoral College included the eight major points described in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution:

1. Each state would be allocated a number of electoral votes equal to the sum of its senators and representatives in Congress.

2. Each state legislature would decide the method for choosing electors in its respective state.

3. Electors would meet in their own state capitals and each cast two votes on one ballot.

4. The president of the Senate would open and count the electoral votes before a joint session of Congress.

5. The candidate who received the largest number of votes and who won a majority of the Electoral College would become president.

6. The candidate who received the second largest number of votes would become vice president.

7. In the case of a tie between candidates or if no one received a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives would choose the president from the candidates. Voting would be by state, each state having one vote, with a majority needed for a choice to be made.

8. In the case of a tie between two or more candidates having the second-largest number of votes, the Senate would choose the vice president from among them.

The framers of the Constitution carefully crafted the Electoral College, hoping that it would provide an effective system for electing the president. But the system was not long in use before the first of several problems with its structure was revealed. This occurred in the election of 1800 as a result of the rise of political parties.

In 1800, the two political parties nominated their candidates for president and vice president, and in each state, chose a slate of electors to vote for their party’s candidates. Voters in the general election cast their ballots not for the candidates themselves, but for electors. The Democratic Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and the Federalists nominated John Adams and Charles Pinckney, for president and vice president, respectively. Jefferson and Burr won the election, both receiving 73 electoral votes, while Adams received 65, Pinckney 64, and John Jay one vote. Since Burr and Jefferson tied, both receiving a majority, the choice was sent to the House of Representatives. The House cast 36 ballots before it finally chose Jefferson. This election highlighted the problem with the double-voting system as described in the Constitution, and led to demands for an amendment requiring separate votes for president and vice president. The Twelfth Amendment was approved by Congress in 1803, and ratified in time for the next election in 1804.

The only other time a president was selected by the House of Representatives occurred in the election of 1824, when no candidate for president received a majority of the electoral votes. In that election, Andrew Jackson received 99 electoral votes, John Quincy Adams 84, William Crawford 41, and Henry Clay 37. Jackson also led in the popular vote. In accordance with the Twelfth Amendment, the top three candidates’ names were placed before the House, where the votes controlled by Clay would decide the election. Clay’s support went to Adams, who was thus elected president even though Jackson had more electoral votes and a larger popular vote. Clay was eventually appointed secretary of state by Adams.

The election of 1876 proved to be the next major challenge to the electoral system. Although Tilden won the popular vote, he had only 184 undisputed electoral votes (one vote shy of the 185 majority by then required to be elected). Hayes had 165 electoral votes. There were 20 contested electoral votes.

One of the contested electoral votes came from a disqualified elector in Oregon. It was readily resolved in Hayes’s favor. The other disputed electoral votes came from Florida (4), Louisiana (8), and South Carolina (7). In these states, the Republican-controlled election boards claimed Hayes as the winner, while the Democrats maintained that the actual winner was Tilden. Each of these three states submitted two conflicting certificates of election. Tilden needed only one of these states to become president, while Hayes needed all three. The Constitution provides for the House to choose a president if no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College. The Democratic majority in the House would have elected Tilden.

In December, following the election, Congress reconvened in a state of stalemate. The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House quarreled over who should determine which electoral returns from the three southern states to accept. The Twelfth Amendment states only that “the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.”

The Republicans in the Senate argued in favor of the Senate’s right to count the disputed electoral votes, while the Democrats in the House argued that only the two houses acting together could determine which votes were legitimate. Eventually, the Senate and House created committees to consider compromise solutions. Meeting in January 1877, the congressional committees recommended creating a nonpartisan electoral commission composed of five representatives (three Democrats and two Republicans), five senators (two Democrats and three Republicans), and five members of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Justices (two were known to be Republicans and two were Democrats) were to select a fifth justice. Everyone understood that an independent would be selected. When Supreme Court Justice David Davis, an independent who it was presumed would become the fifth member from the Supreme Court, resigned from the Court to take a seat in the Senate, the position was filled by a Republican. Thus, there were eight Republicans and seven Democrats on the commission.

The fifteen-member commission was to hear legal arguments from each side and then determine whether or not to further investigate the circumstances of the disputed elections. Many citizens from the three states wrote to their congressmen and senators urging them to accept or reject the disputed votes. Many special interest groups recruited signatures on petitions from citizens in their congressional districts and forwarded them to Congress.

Private negotiations between Democrats and Republicans now took place in an attempt to keep the situation from erupting into violence. Meeting at the Wormley Hotel in Washington, D.C., at the end of February, Hayes supporters agreed that, if elected, Hayes would withdraw all federal troops from the South, appoint a southerner to the Cabinet, and assist in the rebuilding of the war-torn South. Tilden refused to speak out against the behind-the-scenes negotiations, warning his party’s firebrands that another civil war would “end in the destruction of free government.”

Congress began the electoral ballot count on February 1, 1877. When the ballots from Florida were reached, two envelopes holding what were claimed to be the official set of ballots were in the box. The problem was referred to the commission. By a partisan vote of 8-7, the commission decided not to investigate the Florida returns any further, and accepted those signed by Florida’s Republican governor for Hayes. The House (with a Democratic majority) rejected the commission’s findings, but the Republican Senate approved. Hayes received Florida’s votes. The same 8-7 commission vote followed by Senate approval gave Hayes the votes from Louisiana and South Carolina.

On March 2, Senate pages marched in procession to the House chamber, carrying two mahogany boxes filled with electoral ballots. The House galleries were filled with excited citizens when, at 4:00 in the morning, the ballots were counted and Hayes and Wheeler were declared elected.

Ten years later, in 1887, legislation was passed that gives final authority to each state to decide on the legality of a set of electoral votes. This legislation, which is still current, also requires a concurrent majority of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to reject any disputed electoral vote.

The first document featured in this article is the electoral ballot from Louisiana that was rejected by the commission. It is drawn from the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46. The second featured document is a letter from William Kellogg, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, calling the electors into question. It is drawn from the Records of the House of Representatives, Record Group 233.


Teaching Activities

1. Direct students to read Article II, section 1, clauses 2 and 3 of the United States Constitution, and the Twelfth Amendment. Ask students to explain the major components of the Electoral College System. List these on the board.

2. Provide students with copies of the two featured documents. Lead a class discussion using the following questions:

3. Make a transparency of the accompanying chart showing the electoral votes by state in the 1876 presidential election and project it for students to view. Ask students to determine how many votes each candidate received and how many votes were needed to receive a majority. Next, direct students to look at the votes recorded for the state of Louisiana. Ask them to compare the information on the chart with the information provided in the first featured document. Explain to students that the electoral votes for South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana (and one Oregon vote) had been disputed. Ask students to determine what the outcome of the election would have been if Tilden had received the votes from these states. Direct students to read, or provide them with information from, the background essay about how the election of 1876 was finally decided.

4. Inform students that the election of Hayes is often referred to as part of the Compromise of 1877. Democrats in Congress agreed to the election of Hayes in exchange for the end of Reconstruction. They were promised the withdrawal of troops from the South, the appointment of at least one southerner to the Cabinet, and substantial appropriations for Southern internal improvements. Direct students to conduct research into these three promises. Ask them to find out when and to what extent they were fulfilled. Ask them also to find out what this compromise boded for the rights of black people in the South.

5. Divide students into three groups, and assign the groups to research the role played by (1) the states, (2) Congress, and (3) the National Archives in the current Electoral College process. Ask a representative from each group to report its findings to the class. (Note: the Federal Register’s Electoral College Home Page at, and the website of the Federal Election Commission at, provide valuable information.)

6. Assign small groups of students to research possible alternatives to the Electoral College (e.g., direct popular election, district plan, proportional plan, and national bonus plan). After each group reports its findings to the class, lead a discussion comparing and contrasting these plans. Challenge students to write persuasive speeches describing which process of electing the president they prefer and why. Ask volunteers to read their speeches.


About the Authors

Wynell Schamel, who serves as editor for this regular department of Social Education, and Lee Ann Potter are education specialists in Public Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Katherine Snodgrass is a member of the Center for Legislative Archives staff at the National Archives.

This article is based on two lesson plans developed by Gerri Soffa, teacher at Dodson Middle School in Rancho Paolos Verdes, California, and Mary Frances Greene, assistant principal at Avoca West Elementary School in Glenview, Illinois.