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The Election That Got Away
A loophole in the Constitution made it possible for the winner of the popular majority in 1876, Tilden, to lose to Hayes in the electoral college amid bitterness, fraud, and chicanery. It could happen again
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
Nevertheless, Democrats across the land were confidently and jubilantly celebrating the victory, and newspapers were proclaiming it. In Tilden’s own New York City, the Tammany wigwam on Fourteenth Street resounded with songs and huzzas, and soon after midnight joy broke all bounds when a message arrived from Tilden himself hailing the glorious triumph. Meanwhile, at the Governor’s comfortable mansion on Gramercy Park, the congratulatory messages were pouring in. “Hully for us!” “Hey! Sammy!” “Reform at last!” and so they went.
In Columbus, Ohio, all was gloom. Governor Hayes, surrounded by his family and a few old friends, received the election news from a procession of telegraph messenger boys trooping through his parlor with the latest dispatches. Shortly after midnight, Hayes went to bed convinced of his defeat “after a very close contest.” His first concern, he wrote in his diary, was to console his wife Lucy, “with such topics as readily occured of a nature to make us feel satisfied on merely personal grounds with the result. We soon fell into a refreshing sleep and the affair seemed over.”
But not everyone was so resigned. At the New York Times, an editorial council in a dirty office littered with proof sheets was charting the position to be taken in commenting on the election in the impending morning edition. The interest of the Times editors had been aroused by an inquiry from D. A. Magone, the New York State Democratic chairman, and Senator William Barnum of Connecticut, concerning the status of the election returns, nationally. Barnum also asked specifically about Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In poring over their check lists of voting data by states, the bitterly anti-Tilden managing editor, John C. Reid, and his associates noticed that only the most fragmentary information was on hand from the three states Barnum had mentioned, the only ones still under Republican control in the South. Even more significant, the Democratic managers in those states had not sent in their reports of the popular vote cast—the usual basis of party daims to the electoral vote. In light of the unexplained Democratic silence the Republicans might conceivably, by the wildest conjecture, claim those three slates, although ultimately any suchclaims would have to be vindicated be the official count of the popular votes.
The Times editors, all solid realists, were not expecting any sudden dramatic upsurge of votes for Hayes in the unreported southern returns. Their hopes turned on one possibility: that in each of the three states in question the official canvassing boards could, if their ethical sense was numb enough, manipulate a popular majority for Hayes that in turn could be transformed into electoral votes. Indeed, as computed by Reid and his now thoroughly agitated colleagues, the twenty electoral votes of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina, when added to the 165 already attributed Io Haves, would give the Republican candidate 185 electoral votes (the bare majority required by the Constitution for election) to 184 for Tilden.
The editors decided that the headlines of the morning edition should declare, “Results still Uncertain. A Solid South, except Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina for the Democracy.” Being a practical man of action, Editor Reid also saw the necesssity of forestalling the Republican national organization from conceding the election to the Democrats until he had had a chance to communicate with key Republicans in the three doubtful states. He raced to the national party headquarters at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and there was given authority by the national chairman, Zachariah Chandler, to telegraph D. H. Chamberlain, Republican governor of South Carolina: HAYES IS ELECTED IF WE HAVE CARRIED SOUTH CAROLINA, FLORIDA, AND LOUISIANA. CAN YOU HOLD YOUR STATE? ANSWER IMMEDIATELY. Similar messages were sent to trusted party officials in Florida and Louisiana, and a warning against possible frauds in Nevada and Oregon was dispatched to western friends.
Thereupon Reid returned to his office to prepare the November 9 edition of his paper, which proclaimed unqualifiedly that “Hayes has 185 electoral votes and is elected.” The Republican national chairman made an identical assertion of victory. South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana were put in the Hayes column even though the Associated Press on the very same day was reporting Democratic claims of having carried Louisiana by 20,000 votes.
Among the Republicans who immediately entrained for Florida were E. F. Noyes, Senator John Sherman, and Congressman James Garfield, all Ohioans and close friends of Hayes; Senator John A. Kasson of Iowa; General Lew Wallace, romantic novelist and future author of Ben Hur; and General Francis C. Barlow, President Grant’s personal representative. Soon similar battalions of important citizens of both political parties—“visiting statesmen,” the newspapers called them—were descending upon all three southern states. Their mission was to watch out for their party’s interests locally and to gather evidence for presentation to the state canvassing boards and eventually to courts and congressional investigating committees.