Posted January 15, 2021
Lessons Learned from the 1876 Election of Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums Staff Historian
Much has been published recently about the presidential election in 1876 because of Senator Ted Cruz’s evocation of that event as justification for a modern version of an Electoral Commission. In 1876, Congress created such a commission of 15 individuals to determine the results of that election when conflicting returns were counted in three contested states.
Many of the articles that have appeared in the last few days comparing the two elections make a common point: that Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republican Party made a deal with Democrats that compromised African American civil rights in the South in exchange for the presidency. This is often used to argue against the creation of an Electoral Commission today since it resulted in such a “corrupt bargain” in 1876. I disagree with reading this moment in this way. Not only is it historically inaccurate (Congress had already eliminated many civil rights gains and the majority of federal troops in the South prior to the 1876 election), but placing the tragedy of civils rights struggles in the South on one man and one event is actually a scapegoat for the larger sins of our ancestors and prevents us from looking into our society’s much deeper structural racism. The topic of racism is imminently important to us today and needs to be a continuing discussion that is much bigger than one election.
Cruz further claimed that only through a thorough investigation into the 2020 returns can we restore faith in that election. Let us also not equate today’s claims of election fraud, which have been roundly disproven, with voter fraud during the 1876 election. There was documented evidence of voter suppression in 1876, which created an ambiguity of the returns that needed investigation. There has been no evidence of election fraud at nearly the scale that would overturn the results of 2020.
Instead, I believe the 1876 election points to something else. Both Hayes and his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, publicly displayed an emotional maturity, and refused to allow the currents of popular uprising to overtake their larger objective of upholding the nation’s democratic principles. As they canvassed the returns in the contested states of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, both parties (as we might expect) found evidence of their victory. And, both presidential candidates (as we might expect) found reasons why their justifications for victory were superior to the other. In perhaps an eerie parallel to President Trump’s pressuring Vice President Pence, Hayes wrote, “I believe the Vice-President alone has the constitutional power to count the votes and declare the result,” a point of which Tilden rightfully objected.
Yet, both Tilden and Hayes were willing to ignore their internal rumblings about their just cause, and accept the outcome without inciting action from their followers. After the initial returns in the 1876 election, it appeared that Hayes had lost. He wrote, “I can, on personal grounds, accept defeat, if that is the issue, with the greatest composure, and almost with satisfaction.” He, nonetheless, thought he should have won: “While I believe that with a fair election in the South, our electoral vote would reach two hundred, and that we should have a large popular majority…”. Tilden, too, showed a willingness to accept defeat. He is reported to have remarked, “Be of good cheer. The Republic will live. The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame. The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and re-established.” This is a magnanimous show of the importance of the larger American project of democracy.