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The Election of 1876 Made Bush V. Gore Look Like a Picnic

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” - Mark Twain
Library of Congress

Many are saying that the uncertainty surrounding the aftermath of the upcoming presidential election will be unprecedented, but if a prolonged dispute stemming from contested results is in the cards like some are expecting it to be, it won’t be unprecedented at all. 

American voters have enjoyed a long tradition of not having to wait until after Election Day to find out the conclusive results of a presidential race, but a small handful of election cycles have been decided much later. Arguably the most notorious and chagrin-inducing of these was the 2000 presidential election, in which George W. Bush and Al Gore engaged in such a heated and quarrelsome race that the Supreme Court had to select the victor. 

We all know the story behind this: Florida, a rescinded concession, hanging chads, one faithless elector… People remember it as a tumultuous chapter in electoral politics, and rightfully so, but at least voters had the satisfaction of finding out the results in December rather than, say, March. God only knows what calamity would have ensued had the entire nation spent four whole months on the edge of its seat, but that exact delay happened during the Election of 1876.

As if to fan the flames for the same dissent and animosity against the electoral college, the winner of the 1876 election, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden by over 250,000. And just like with the 2000 election, newspapers and pundits alike were so cocksure in the Democratic candidate’s victory. 

But there was compelling evidence of voter fraud and poll tampering. While this wasn’t being alleged by a leader with a demagoguery akin to that of our current president, it was nonetheless argued to the satisfaction of the bipartisan Electoral Commission, a congressional body created for the sole purpose of settling this impassioned dispute. 

For example, an estimated 101% of South Carolina’s electorate participated in the election, which is a self-evident mathematical impossibility and indictment of fraud on its own. There are numerous factors that play into this, but perhaps the most contentious of these was that white Georgians flocked to South Carolina en masse and illegally voted for South Carolina’s Democratic nominee for governor, Wade Hampton. 

South Carolina was one of three disputed states in this election, joining Florida and Louisiana to account for a total of 19 electoral votes out of 369. Moreover, one elector from Oregon was ousted from the college for being an elected official, so an aggregated total of 20 votes were on the line. Each vote was crucial, as 185 electoral votes were required to win the election, and with these disputed electors excluded, Tilden had 184 votes over Hayes’ 165. 

Hayes was at a sharp disadvantage, as his opponent only needed one electoral vote to win, whereas he needed all of them. But against all odds, and much to the seething infuriation of Democrats, Hayes successfully fought that uphill battle and acquired all 20 electoral votes. 

This tight-jawed concession on the part of Democrats was struck in Congress the following March as both parties brokered the unwritten Compromise of 1877. Under this agreement, Democrats acquiesced and gave Hayes all 20 electoral votes, in exchange for the federal government agreeing to pull federal troops out of the post-Civil War South, an act that effectively ended Reconstruction and gave southern states the autonomy to roll back civil rights reforms and disenfranchise Black voters. 

Southern Democrats were livid, but this was not a small consolation prize for them. Hayes’ predecessor, Ulysses S. Grant, struck an alliance with the anti-slavery Radical Republicans and was expected to run for a third term, so Hayes being in the Oval Office actually gave southern states the ability to shift the Overton window to the right. 

Still, this defeat was a Metformin pill for Democrats to swallow, and with Republicans enjoying an era of political dominance from the 1860s to the early 1930s, unrest and bitterness festered in the south, most of which Black Americans took the brunt of. 

Of course, the racial dynamics of the parties would gradually change after the demise of this Republican golden age. A pro-civil rights contingent of the Democratic Party consisting of Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey saw a gradual rise, just as members of its segregationist wing such as Strom Thurmond and James Eastland resisted racial equality (Thurmond even left the Democratic Party and became a Republican immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) 

But no matter how much these political factions and their surrounding milieu have changed, the machinations of the electoral college have consistently been advantageous to Republicans. Over the last 150 years, there have only been four presidential candidates who have successfully gotten elected despite losing the popular vote. All of these candidates (Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Bush and Trump) were Republican, and as previously mentioned, the first and third of these races escalated to the dockets of public officials after reaching a democratic impasse. 

Never in American history has a branch of government decided the results of an election without causing hideous ripple effects, but Hayes’ victory made public life far more barbaric than Bush’s. The Compromise of 1877 gave Republicans an unparalleled advantage over Democrats that would be considered anachronistic to modern standards. While, yes, the 2000 presidential election was a profoundly vexing period for the Democratic Party, it enjoyed a period of reinvigoration during the tenure of President Barack Obama. Some are even predicting that the current Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, will defeat President Donald Trump in a landslide on Nov. 3. 

That’s obviously a moot point if the election “end[s] up in the Supreme Court,” as Trump himself predicted it would, but pundits and analysts are exploring other possible scenarios, like Congress once again deciding the winner (as it did in not only 1877, but in 1800 and 1824.) It’s natural to anxiously sift through the pages of history in search for precedence amid such uncertainty, but no amount of precedence will make the transfer of power (or lack thereof) more amicable. 

It didn’t in 1876, it didn’t in 2000, and it won’t in two weeks.

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