The Election That Got Away

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President Grant was not confining himself to the dispatch of personal agents. On November 10, he ordered General William T. Sherman to alert all troops in Louisiana and Florida to any attempted molestations of the boards of canvassers in the performance of their duties. Additional companies were sent to likely trouble spots in both states. South Carolina was already well-stocked with federal troops.

The friends of Mr. Tilden, and probably Mr. Tilden himself, were sorely distressed by the President’s military moves. August Belmont’s alarums were typical, Grant’s military order, he was convinced, had erected an armored façade behind which the canvassing boards could count Tilden out of the Presidency. In Columbus, the prevailing mood was no happier than at Gramercy Park.

The common tasks of the canvassing boards of South Carolina and Florida and of the returning board, as it was known in Louisiana, were to investigate the accumulating allegations of violence, fraud, or other irregularities in local voting on November 7, to eliminate irregular ballots, and ultimately to certify the official count of the legally cast popular vote. Whichever candidate a board decided had received the greatest number of popular votes in a given state was entitled by law to that state’s entire electoral vote.

By now, as late returns were received and tabulated, both press and Democratic party spokesmen were claiming that Tilden had received a popular majority in all three states. But Tilden’s backers feared that the Republican-controlled canvassing boards, applying “discretionary” powers and tossing out Democratic ballots on the flimsiest pretexts, would nibble away at these majorities and actually reduce them to minorities. The Democratic visiting statesmen therefore contended, before the boards themselves and subsequently in the courts, that the function of the boards was limited under law to the “ministerial” or non-discretionary act of counting the popular vote actually cast. But the Democratic spokesmen were consistently and unqualifiedly defeated on this point in all three states. Many a Democrat interpreted the combined defeats as nothing less than the end for the Tilden cause.

The situations that came before the canvassing boards for investigation and decision followed a distinct pattern. The Republicans, finding themselves widely in control of local voting machinery in the South on election day, could practice the time-honored techniques of fraud: stuffing the ballot boxes, sometimes to the point where the number of votes cast exceeded the local population; throwing out Democratic votes; and making things as easy as possible for Republican “repeaters.” As for the Democrats, their favorite weapons were violence and intimidation. Their chief object of attack in 1876, as it always had been since the Civil War, was the Negro voter, whose affinities were predominantly Republican. The Democrats, organized as rifle clubs and night riders, sometimes employed the most barbarous extremes imaginable. Most of their outrages, however, did not take the form of mayhem. Economic and social pressures were the more standard practice. Unco-operative Negro renters were threatened with eviction. Negro field hands who professed Republican politics tended to become unemployed.

The canvassing boards were swamped not only with the facts of actual outrages and irregularities, but with hearsay, gossip, and the patently fabricated stories of witnesses carefully coached by unscrupulous Democratic and Republican partisans. Given the difficult task of the boards to sift the true from the false, and the enormous implications of their decisions, service on them would seem to have been a duty only for citizens of the highest competence and probity. In point of fact, unfortunately, the canvassing boards were by and large composed of the least admirable elements of the body politic. Investigating a Louisiana election just one year before the electoral crisis of 1876, James A. Garfield, Republican leader of the House of Representatives, summarily declared that the state returning board was a “graceless set of scamps.”

As events unfolded in 1876, the Louisiana board fully measured up to its infamous reputation. The mere fact that it was Republican in make-up did not mean that its decisions would automatically go Republican. The board, through its president, made abundantly clear that its decision was for sale. There is strong evidence that it offered to certify, in consideration of $1,000,000, that the Louisiana popular vote had gone Democratic. The deal, which was offered to the Democratic National Committee, was promptly rejected. In South Carolina and Florida, rumors of bribes and invitations to be bribed were rife.