"Another Look at the Election of 1876"

 By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

Presented on the occasion of the 16th Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 19, 2006, in the Hayes Museum auditorium. 

Two years ago I accepted an invitation from the University of Kansas Press to contribute to a new series it was planning on American presidential elections. I was not much interested, however, in writing about either of the choices they offered me—1848 or 1860 - primarily because I had worked on antebellum politics for forty years and wanted to look at something else. So I suggested the election of 1876. I have hardly finished my research, let alone started to write, but I want to talk tonight about some of the things that attracted me to that election and some of the things I’ve discovered that strike me at least as news.

Most historians identify that election, not with Rutherford B. Hayes’s victory, but with the dispute over contested electoral votes which preceded it. Since Florida was one of the states whose electoral votes were disputed and since both the Republican and Democratic parties there sought favorable court rulings to legitimize their own electors, that struggle eerily prefigured the Bush/Gore election of 2000. The electoral vote stalemate and how Congress eventually resolved it with an electoral commission are certainly major parts of this story, but what intrigued me was a crucial, yet little examined event, which produced the electoral vote dispute in the first place.

Let me quickly remind you of the basic facts. By the morning after election day in November 1876, it was clear that Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, had 184 electoral votes, one shy of the necessary majority, while Hayes had 165. Twenty electoral votes were in dispute: 19 from the three southern states Republicans still controlled - Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana - and one from Oregon, which Republicans had clearly carried but where one of their three electors was ineligible because he held a federal job. Tilden and his Democratic allies, indeed, would plead with the Democratic governor of that state to substitute one of the Democratic electors for the disqualified Republican to give Tilden the one vote he needed.

But Tilden needed one more vote only because Colorado, with three electoral votes, had been admitted as the Centennial State in July 1876. Without its admission, Tilden would have won the election with 184 votes. Democrats had a heavy majority in the House of Representatives, so I asked myself how they could have been so stupid as to allow Colorado’s admission prior to the election, especially since Colorado, like most western states, was safely Republican?

Answering that question took some work since no book on Reconstruction or the election of 1876 that I had read provided an answer. This is what I found in congressional records. Residents of Colorado were initially given permission to form a state government in 1863 at the same time Nevada was, but that year and on several subsequent occasions popular referenda in Colorado opposed statehood. In the spring of 1874, when Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress, Republicans in the House pushed through a bill offering Colorado statehood once again. The Senate, however, took no action on the bill during that first session of the 43rd Congress. Then in its second session between December 1874 and March 1875, after Democrats had won crushing victories in the congressional elections of 1874 that guaranteed them a huge majority in the House during the 44th Congress, Senate Republicans rewrote the House bill. The new legislation stipulated that Coloradans could not hold a referendum on statehood until July 1876 but that if statehood passed in that vote before July 4, 1876, then the President could admit Colorado as a state without any further action by Congress. In short, Republicans neutered Democrats in the next Congress by prohibiting them from voting on Colorado statehood. Most Democrats recognized this, and they had the votes in both chambers to defeat this bill in 1875 under a rule requiring a two-thirds majority because in each chamber it came up on the final day of the session. But in both chambers a few Democrats, for reasons unknown, broke ranks and voted with Republicans for statehood. Coloradans voted for statehood on July 1, and on August 1 President Grant proclaimed its admission as a state.

But I discovered something else when I was looking at the congressional debates during the second session of the 43rd Congress. Fully aware that Democrats would have a massive majority in the House in the next Congress, Republicans in the Senate as early as December 1874 predicted that there would be a dispute over counting the electoral votes after the 1876 election. These predictions stemmed partly from the vagueness of the Constitution about who could count the electoral votes, an imprecision that caused much of the uproar in early 1877. The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution simply said that each state was to send its electoral votes, specifying how many popular votes each candidate for president and vice president received, under seal to the president of the Senate. Then, “the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall be counted.” But counted by whom? In 1877 some Republicans would claim the Republican president pro tem of the Senate, Thomas Ferry of Michigan, alone had authority to count the votes. Democrats, in turn, said the language meant the entire body of Representatives and Senators, where Democrats would have a large majority, should decide. Only the creation of the famous 15-man Electoral Commission that would award Hayes all twenty disputed electoral votes by an 8 to 7 vote resolved that dispute in 1877.

In late 1874 and early 1875, however, Republicans were much more worried by a 22ndjoint-rule that Congress had adopted in February 1865 to deal with disputed electoral votes, a rule that was still on the books. This rule held that if anyone disputed an electoral vote during the counting before the joint-session, the Senate and the House would retire to their separate chambers and decide by majority vote whether or not to accept that state’s electoral vote. The hooker was that if either chamber refused to accept a state’s electoral votes, then those votes were declared null and void and no longer counted for either candidate. At the same time, however, they still would count toward the total number of electoral votes from which the winning candidate required a majority. What Senate Republicans feared and what they repeatedly warned during the winter of 1874-75, therefore, was that House Democrats would challenge and throw out so many electoral votes after the 1876 elections that no one could get the necessary majority. In that case, according to the Constitution, the decision would go to the House where the Democratic majority could name the winner even though each state had only one vote.

One product of these fears was a flood of constitutional amendments proposed by Republicans, both in the second session of the 43rd Congress and in December 1875 at the start of the 45th Congress, to change the way electoral votes were counted. The details of these amendments varied, but the majority contended that Congress should be eliminated entirely from the counting of electoral votes and that the Supreme Court should decide who won presidential elections. Though none of these amendments passed, in December 1875 Senate Republicans, over Democratic objections, did unilaterally rescind the 22nd joint-rule, meaning that no method was in place to decide disputed electoral votes after November 1876.

What I’ve learned about the disputed electoral vote is fascinating, but it is not even what most interested me about the 1876 election. Rather two other aspects of it did. First, like many other political historians I think it stabilized and for the very first time assured the longevity of the system of two-party competition between Republicans and Democrats. You might find it surprising, but from the birth of the Republican party in 1854 until 1876 there were repeated attempts to displace it with a differently configured anti-Democratic party, forcing Republican politicians repeatedly to justify the existence of their party. These calls for a new party, often from leading Republican politicians and editors, became especially numerous after the Civil War. In 1869, for example, the Republican New York Times announced “that the work of the Republican party ends with the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment,” and that it was time for a major political reshuffling in which the Republican party would and should be displaced. As late as 1876 itself, indeed, Republicans felt it necessary to justify their continued existence by announcing in their national platform that “the work of the Republican party is unfinished.”

Party politics and popular voting behavior were most volatile between 1870 and 1875 when a host of new parties sprang up to challenge both Republicans and Democrats for voters’ allegiance. \In the West and Midwest these were usually clean-government or economically-oriented reform parties with a host of names such as Independent, Anti-Monopoly, Granger, Greenback, Greenback-Labor, and the like. The most famous, however, was the Liberal Republican movement which emerged in the Border States in 1869 and then spread to the North in 1872. Grant, of course, walloped the Liberal Republican/Democratic candidate Horace Greeley in 1872 by over 700,000 popular votes, but one of the things I’ve found most surprising in the Hayes and Tilden manuscript collections and newspapers is that the Liberal Republican movement did not fade away after that rout. Liberal Republicans ran in and carried several congressional districts in 1874, and as late as May 1876 Liberal Republicans held a meeting in New York City to decide if they should run their own candidate again that year. The Hayes and Tilden manuscript collections, indeed, make it crystal clear that both Republicans and Democrats considered Liberal Republicans as the key swing group in 1876 whose allegiance would determine the outcome of the election. Both parties, therefore, engaged in a bidding war for Liberals, a bidding war that largely shaped the campaign strategy of both. Arguably, indeed, the main reason Hayes won the Republican nomination in 1876 was that once the favorite of the Liberals, Benjamin Bristow, was stopped at the Republican convention, Hayes seemed the most likely alternative to attract Liberals’ support because of his honesty and commitment to specie resumption.

The second thing that spurred my interest in the 1876 election is that it is the only presidential election in American history to occur during the midst of a severe depression when the “out” party, in this case the Democrats, failed to win the presidency after carrying the preceding congressional elections. After the Panic of 1837, Whigs won the congressional contests of 1838 and the presidency in 1840. After the Panic of 1893, Republicans won the congressional elections of 1894 and the presidency in 1896. After the crash in 1929, Democrats won the 1930 congressional elections and the White House in 1932. Hayes’s victory in 1876 is therefore an anomaly, and I wondered what explained it.

Some might vehemently protest that Democrats did in fact win the election of 1876. Tilden outpolled Hayes by over 300,000 popular votes, and between 1872 and 1876 the increase in the Democrats’ popular vote more than tripled the increase in the Republican popular vote. In short, Democrats benefited from a massive voter realignment that had typified other depressions. Only Republican chicanery in the electoral vote count - “the fraud of the century,” as one recent historian of the election hysterically puts it explains why Hayes won.

Yet, as I try to show in the tables I have passed out, a closer look at election trends between 1872 and 1876 reveals a much more complex pattern and a decided Republican comeback in the North after the party’s crippling losses in 1874. As is well known, the Democratic vote was unusually low in 1872 because of dissatisfaction with Horace Greeley, a long-time Whig and Republican. Indeed, total voter turnout in 1872 was the lowest since 1852 in terms of the proportion of the eligible electorate who bothered to vote, and it would remain the lowest for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Democrats, then, might expect a return of their voters to the polls. Nonetheless, the real story of the 1874 congressional elections, in which Republicans lost 87 seats and Democrats converted a 102-seat Republican majority in the House of Representatives into a 70-seat Democratic majority was the huge abstention by previous Republican voters in every geographical region of the country. Indeed in those elections and the few held in 1875, Democrats won the majority of House seats in every region of the country.

Between those off-year congressional contests and November 1876, however, the story was dramatically different. In every sub-region of the North Republicans out-gained Democrats, and the surge of Republican support in the Midwest was especially impressive. Starting in the border states, which Democrats dominated as early as 1870, and moving south however, Democrats increasingly out-gained Republicans. The net results of this voter volatility are shown in Table II. In 1872, Republicans dominated every sub-region in the country, except the border states, and they were stronger in the Deep South than the Upper South. In 1874, 75 Democrats enjoyed popular vote majorities in every sub-region, save New England and the West, and even in those two regions the huge Republican margins of 1872 had been slashed. In 1876, Republicans rebounded in most of the North, save the Mid-Atlantic states that were the most competitive in the nation, while the Deep South had replaced the border states as the nation’s most Democratic region.

A comparison of the 1876 congressional results with those of 1874/1875 points to the same pattern. The South by 1876 had joined the border states as a Democratic fiefdom while, aside from four new seats Republicans managed to pick up in Missouri, they scored a stunning comeback in the North by capturing 39 seats from Democrats and, just as importantly, from Independents who had usually been supported by Democrats. The question, then, is what explains these voter swings.

It’s considerably easier to account for the South than the North. For a variety of reasons brilliantly explained by the historian Michael Perman, Southern Democrats, at least outside the border states, did not deploy the race card against Republicans until 1873 and thereafter. But once they portrayed Republicans as the party of Blacks and anointed themselves as the champions of white supremacy, they not only drew the bulk of the white minority that had previously supported Republicans, but far more important they mobilized hundreds of thousands of Whites who had previously abstained because of Democratic silence on the race issue.

In the North, dissatisfaction with Republicans’ inability to restore prosperity and perhaps with Republican corruption probably accounts for the huge abstention by Republican voters in 1874/1875. But it’s also apparent that independent reform candidates, especially in the Midwest and west, drained off some normal Republican voters who would never dream of ever voting Democratic. The dramatic rebound by Republicans between 1874 and 1876, especially in the Midwest, however, is more difficult to explain, for the economy showed no signs of improving that year. Indeed, the depression would drag on well into 1878.

The question is what allowed Republicans to mobilize former and new supporters in 1876 even though hard times and the massive unemployment they produced still gripped the nation. Or to phrase the question more pointedly, how did Republicans prevent a coalition of the economically aggrieved from sweeping them from office as would happen in the 1890s and 1930s? These are the answers I would offer at this point in my research.

At least two of the major issues in the 1876 campaign were a partisan wash. Both parties pledged to secure a resumption of Specie payments for the unbacked legal tender notes or greenbacks that had been issued during the Civil War, although Democrats also pledged to repeal the Specie Resumption Act Republicans had passed in January 1875 fixing January 1, 1879 as the date by which resumption must be achieved. Both parties also pledged to end corruption in government and achieve civil service reform. These commitments were absolutely critical in appealing for Liberal Republican support. Predictably, moreover, each party insisted that the other could not be trusted to achieve either of these goals.

Republicans, however, relied primarily on two other issues to divide the northern electorate along non-economic lines, and in this attempt I think they succeeded. First, they intentionally and cynically stirred up anti-Catholic animosity against Democrats. In September 1875 that supposed baby politician Ulysses Grant told a reunion of the Army of the Tennessee that the greatest threat facing the United States now was the demand by Catholics and the Democratic politicians who represented them to share tax revenues for public schools with Catholic parochial schools. Thomas Nast, a ferocious anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigot, then published a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly showing Grant on his hands and knees with hammer in hand driving the anti-Catholic plank into the Republicans’ platform for 1876. In December 1875 he asked Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to prevent this, and James G. Blaine, the leading aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 immediately introduced such an amendment in the House. Republicans then endorsed such an anti-Catholic amendment in their 1876 national platform.

Rutherford Hayes himself was intensely interested in the Catholic school issue, and many historians believe that Ohio Republicans’ exploitation of it explains Hayes’ election as governor in 1875. Until the very last months of the 1876 presidential campaign, indeed, Hayes would urge Republican congressmen and speakers to keep a spot-light on Catholics’ and Democrats’ purported threat to the public school system.

Democrats understood how lethal the pro-Catholic stigma could be, and they took steps to neutralize the school issue. A number of Democratic state platforms in 1876, like the Democrats’ national platform, praised public schools and vowed they must remain free of any sectarian influence. Much more surprising to me, Democrats in the House passed the Blaine Amendment by the necessary two-thirds majority in a vote on which the vast majority of House Republicans abstained entirely.

Not to be outdone, Senate Republicans rejected the Blaine Amendment as hopelessly inadequate when it reached that chamber, and they substituted a far more detailed, prolix, and pointedly anti-Catholic amendment for it. The Senate vote on that amendment broke on sharp party lines, but it fell far short of the two-thirds majority necessary for constitutional amendments. To the extent that Protestant voters could be swayed by anti-Catholic appeals, therefore, Republicans had the edge.

Far more important, Republicans once again waved the bloody shirt to remobilize Union army veterans and civilians. A victory for Tilden, they charged, would put ex-Confederates in command of the national government, and by August Hayes personally recognized that this charge was the most powerful weapon in the Republican arsenal. It helped of course that Hayes had served courageously in the Union army while Tilden had remained a civilian during the war. But Republicans occasionally went over the top in their charges of Democrats’ wartime disloyalty and pro-Southern sympathies. First, they falsely charged that Tilden personally had written the notorious peace planks in the 1864 Democratic national platform. Even more outrageously, late in the campaign they charged that Tilden was committed to securing federal pensions for Confederate veterans and federal compensation for southern civilians who had lost property during the war.

Nonetheless, Democrats themselves provided some ammunition for Republican attacks. “We charge the Democratic party,” rang the final plank of Republicans’ 1876 national platform, “as being the same in character and spirit as when it sympathized with treason; with making its control of the house of representatives the triumph and opportunity of the nation’s recent foes; with reasserting and applauding in the national capitol the sentiments of unrepentant rebellion; with sending Union soldiers to the rear, and promoting Confederate soldiers to the front.” I once thought that final phrase was sheer rhetoric. It was not. Incredibly, when Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, they fired the Republican officials like clerks, sergeant-arms, house postmaster, etc., many of whom were Union army veterans and replaced them with Confederate army veterans. How could any party be so dumb?

Yet an even more important strategic blunder by Democrats, I think, helped the Republicans. Democrats didn’t win the presidency during the depression of 1876 because they didn’t run against hard times. Instead, Tilden and his inner circle of advisors were so intent on attracting the Liberal Republican vote that they focused almost exclusively on the issue of Reform. At Tilden’s behest, Manton Marble, the editor of the Democratic New York World, wrote the Democratic national platform weeks before the Democratic national convention met, and every plank began with the word “Reform.” Tilden’s exceedingly long letter accepting the Democrats’ nomination also stressed reform and spelled out what he meant by it. It was not simply throwing the rascals out and putting honest Democrats in their place. It stressed instead retrenching government expenditures at all levels of the federal system and cutting taxes at all levels of the federal system. Indeed, Tilden implausibly blamed the depression of the 1870s on the amount of tax revenues extracted from the public since 1865 by Republican regimes, an amount that by his calculations totaled $7.5 billion. Government had sucked too much money from the private economy, Tilden charged, and he was determined to reduce government expenditures and taxes.

There is no question that during the depression of the 1870s taxpayers across the nation felt overburdened, but this program of reducing government expenditures rather than increasing them to deal with economic hardship had a cost. That cost is illustrated by two revealing letters. Immediately after Tilden’s nomination, a furious Kentuckian sent a letter to a Philadelphia newspaper vowing to oppose Tilden and instead marshal support for the separate Greenback candidate who wanted to print more paper money to promote economic recovery. “Our motto,” he wrote, “will be ‘relief’ and not Tilden reform.” Then, on October 25 Horatio Seymour, who had been the Democratic presidential candidate in 1868, wrote the following to Tilden:

“I have reason to know that your opponents in and out of the party count upon the large towns to defeat you. They rely upon deserters among Democrats, hard times & the role of money. The word ‘reform’ is not popular with working men. To them it means less money spent and less work. Most of these men are Catholics. You will see that the Republicans have dropped the school question. I think it important that some quiet judicious person should visit the large towns and see the leading Irishmen and call their minds back to the hostility of Hayes and the Republicans to their nationality & religion. There is danger of a loss of votes among this class.”

No evidence exists of any substantial swing of Irish Catholics, Democrats’ most loyal constituency, to Hayes in 1876, and even abstention seems unlikely given the growth in the Democratic vote. Unemployed Protestants, however, are another matter. They too wanted an increase, not a decrease, in public expenditures. Tilden, in short, may have bet on the wrong horse. During hard times promises of relief may have trumped reform among all but the silk-stocking Liberal Republicans. With Democrats offering no program for immediate economic recovery and Republicans stirring up still-visceral sectional and religious hatreds, the Republican comeback in 1876 becomes more understandable.


Differentials in Parties’ Proportions of the Major-Party Popular Vote by Region as measured by Republican Margin





New England
















Border States




Ex-Confederate-Upper South




Ex-Confederate-Deep South




(New England includes : Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Mid-Atlantic includes: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Midwest includes : Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Plains/West includes : Nebraska, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, and California. (Although Colorado was admitted as a state in July 1876, it held no popular vote for president that year.) Border States include : Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Ex-Confederate-Upper South includes : Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Ex-Confederate-Deep South includes : South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.)

Interpreting this table is simple. If the Republicans got 55% of the vote and Democrats 45% in a region, the score would be + 10. If the proportions were reversed, the score would be -10.


Results of Congressional Elections by Region, 1874-1876*









Border States




Ex-Confederate States










Border States




Ex-Confederate States




*These figures are based on the authoritative returns for elections held in these years in Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788-1997: The Official Results(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998). Special elections required by the deaths of Congressmen-elect before the new Congress opened changed the partisan balance slightly in Republicans’ favor in each case. According to Dubin, the partisan count at the start of the 44th Congress in December 1875 stood: Democrats, 176, Republicans, 106, and various Independents, 10. For the start of the 45th Congress in October 1877, it stood: Democrats, 150; Republicans, 141, and Independents, 2. In short in 1876 Republicans reduced a 70-seat Democratic majority to 9 seats. (In defiance of a congressional statute passed in 1872 requiring all states to hold congressional elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years, New Hampshire insisted on holding its congressional contests in March of the following odd-numbered year, as it had done for most of the nineteenth century.) 


Swings in the Republican and Democratic Popular Vote by Region, 1872-1876





New England












































Border States











Ex-Confederate-Upper South











Ex-Confederate-Deep South