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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
But the big Democratic money never materialized, and the boards in all three southern states settled down to the hard business of finding ways to award the popular vote to Hayes. To reach the desired conclusions in Florida and Louisiana required the most arbitrary and callous indifference to elementary fair play. Florida, as several careful historians have pointed out, was “naturally Democratic.” It was the only one of the three disputed states where the majority of the population was white. This necessitated the most strenuous hocus-pocus on the part of the state canvassing board, but the board was equal to it. Never deterred by the weight of the evidence, no matter how overwhelming, the board consistently and ruthlessly used its discretionary powers in favor of the Republicans. In Archer Precinct No. 2 of Alachua County, for example, when unrefuted proof was offered that 219 names had been fraudulently added to the polling list and the same number added to the Republican majority, the total vote was allowed to stand. Cambellton and Friendship Church precincts in Jackson County ran up enormous majorities for the Democrats; the board coped with this formidable threat by throwing out the entire vote of the county on the meagerest of technicalities. In Louisiana, justice was also pitilessly mangled.
The more sensitive Republicans were repelled by the cumulative foul play. General Barlow openly voiced his disgust and his conviction that under a fair count Florida would have gone for Tilden by a small majority. Murat Halstead, eminent midwestern editor, leading Republican, and close friend of Rutherford B. Hayes, confided to the Governor that many of their party brethren were “staggered at the idea of taking the Presidency by throwing out 13,000 votes in Louisiana.” But Mr. Hayes was not among the staggered. “I have no doubt,” he wrote to Carl Schurz, of the result declared in Louisiana, “that we are justly and legally entitled to the Presidency.” If Hayes was consumed with any sentiment, it was that of enduring gratitude: when he became President the members of the several canvassing boards and their families were rewarded or, as the New York Sun put it rather more strongly, “debauched,” with good Administration jobs.
The next stage in the drama of 1876 entailed the disposal of the electoral vote. On the basis of the canvassing board findings, the Republican electors were declared elected in all three states, and in December they assembled in their respective state capitals and cast their votes for Hayes. The Democratic electors gathered independently, voted for Tilden, and also forwarded the results to Washington. From Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, accordingly, the president of the Senate had on his hands two sets of conflicting electoral votes.
It was in the climactic hours of these proceedings that what is probably the worst irregularity of all in this wretched history was perpetrated. The culprit was T. C. Anderson, who carried Louisiana’s Republican electoral votes to Washington. Upon examining the certificates accompanying them, the Senate’s president, Senator Thomas W. Ferry of Michigan, noticed that the electors had not properly endorsed them. Ferry allowed Anderson to haul the certificates back to New Orleans to tidy up the defect. Under the deadline specified by law, Anderson had but a day to secure the endorsements—too short a time to allow two electors from remoter counties to reach New Orleans. So Anderson had their signatures forged. According to Republican scorekeepers, the count now stood at 185 for Hayes, 184 for Tilden, and Hayes was elected.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, the Democratic hopes, so badly crushed by events in the South, were suddenly uplifted by a totally unexpected development. Although the state had gone for Hayes by a narrow margin, it was discovered that a Republican elector, John W. Watts, was employed as a fourth-class postmaster at an annual salary of $268. The office, the Democrats were quick to argue, was one of “trust” and “profit” prohibited to presidential electors by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.
Oregon’s Democratic Governor, L. F. Grover, with the enthusiastic encouragement of his fellow partisans, state and national, ruled that Watts was ineligible and replaced him with a Democratic elector, E. A. Cronin. Actually, Grover was acting without legal authority. The existing state electors act provided that the remaining electors, and not the governor, fill any vacancy in the college. However questionable his appointment, Mr. Cronin’s constituted the one electoral vote Samuel J. Tilden needed to win the Presidency, for if Watts’ Republican vote had been thrown out and Cronin’s Democratic one substituted, the count would have been reversed, and even if Hayes had been awarded the twenty votes in the South, the final result would have been the election of Tilden, 185 to 184.