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Presidential Election of 1876: Significance, Issues & Summary

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  • 0:01 The Election of 1876
  • 2:04 Too Close to Call
  • 3:26 Compromise
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
The election of 1876 was one of the closest races in American history. It tested the Constitution and resulted in a compromise that ended Reconstruction in America. In this lesson, develop an understanding of the election of 1876 and test your knowledge with a short quiz.

The Election of 1876

Despite allegations of corruption and scandal that swirled around Ulysses S. Grant at the end of his second term, he was eager to run again in 1876. However, scandal and the two-term tradition stopped him from moving forward with his desires. James G. Blaine of Maine emerged as the frontrunner of Grant's Republican Party. But, like Grant, and many of the other Republicans associated with his administration, scandal tainted Blaine as well. At the Republican convention that year, the party put its hopes in the Ohio native Rutherford B. Hayes. Three times elected as the governor of Ohio, he had made a name for himself as a civil service reformer. His greatest strength, however, was that he did not offend the radicals or the reformers.

In St. Louis, at the Democratic convention, there was little debate about who would be put forward as candidate for president. Samuel Tilden, the millionaire, corporate lawyer, and reform-minded governor of New York, would be the choice. Tilden gained notoriety when he went after the infamous ring of Boss Tweed that controlled New York City politics through bribes and graft.

The campaign of 1876 generated no burning issues. The main issues of the day centered around how to reconstruct and administer the South as well as reforming civil service work. Both Hayes and Tilden favored conservative rule in the American South and both favored civil service reform.

With little of substance to focus on, each camp turned to mudslinging. The Democrats aired the Republicans' dirty laundry, reminding voters of the scandals and corruption present during the Grant years. In response, the Republicans linked the Democratic Party with secession and with the outrages committed against black and white Republicans in the South. Some Republican leaders went so far as to comment that every man who tried to rip the country apart was a Democrat and reminded the public that Abraham Lincoln's assassin was a Democrat.

Too Close to Call

Early election returns showed Tilden would score a victory. In most of the country, Tilden had an edge of just over a quarter million in the popular vote and 184 electoral votes by most estimates, just one shy of a majority. In some southern states, the outcome was uncertain. Fraud and intimidation on both sides made accurate returns doubtful. In fact, three southern states - Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina - sent in disputed returns. The Constitution offered no guidance on how to deal with this situation. Even if the procedure of the day empowered Congress to sort out the disputed votes, the Democratic House and the Republican Senate wouldn't have been able to reach a final agreement.

Finally, on January 29, 1877, the two houses decided to set up a special Electoral Commission to investigate what had happened. The Commission had fifteen members, five each from the House and Senate, and five from the Supreme Court. The decision on each state went by a vote of 8 to 7, along party lines, in favor of Hayes. The Democrats threatened to filibuster, or hold up the decision, but in the end, the House voted to accept the Commission report and declare Hayes the winner. It would be an electoral vote of 185 to 184.

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