Skip to main content

Stealing The Presidency

July 2024
1min read

I would like to have witnessed the dawn meeting that took place in the Fifth Avenue Hotel on November 8, 1876. Present were John C. Reid, the managing editor of The New York Times , Zachariah Chandler, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and one or two other politicians. The subject: How to steal the Presidency of the United States.

During the preceding night it had become apparent that Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic candidate, was ahead by some two hundred and fifty thousand in the popular vote. Almost every newspaper in New York, including the Republican Tribune , had conceded victory to the Democrats. But John Reid discovered that not even the Democrats knew who had carried Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, three states the Republicans theoretically controlled, thanks to the federal troops still stationed on their soil. If the Republicans could hold these states, their candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, would win by one electoral vote.

As a lifelong student of American politics, I would love to know what they said —and thought—as they went about perpetrating the most terrific act of corruption in our history. Reid soon persuaded Chandler to send telegrams to Republican leaders of the disputed states, containing such pointed suggestions as “Don’t be defrauded.” Within hours, emissaries with bags full of money were riding south to make sure that the officials counting the votes were properly motivated.

Each state had a “canvassing board,” which was empowered to throw out the vote of a county if it was tainted by fraud or violence. Enough counties were disqualified to provide Republican majorities—in Florida’s case a breathless fortyfive votes. A few years later, copies of telegrams found in the files of Western Union and leaked to the press revealed that the Democrats had also tried to buy up the canvassing boards on November 8, 1876, but thanks to John Reid and Zachariah Chandler, the Republicans got there firstest with the mostest cash.

All in all, it makes Watergate look like tiddlywinks.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.