Dickinson College, Spring 2024

Author: Sarah Boyd

Election of 1876: Down to One Vote

Republican Nomination in the 1876 Election

“Another danger is imminent – a contested result. And we have no such means for its decision as ought to be provided by law. This must be attended to hereafter. We should not be allowed another Presidential election to occur before a means for settling a contest is provided.” – Governor Rutherford B. Hays in October 1876

The election of 1876 has been agreed upon to be one of the most disputed elections in the history of the United States. On that Election Day, November 7, 1876, both political parties assumed that the Democratic Party had secured victory for the presidential race. The election was between two major politicians, Governor Samuel J. Tilden on the Democratic side and Governor Rutherford B. Hayes as the Republican nomination.

As a Whig, Governor Hayes’ platform stood for conservative and traditional values. He had been a defender of slaves and joined the Republican Party. His platform became vital as he served on Congress and supported the Southern Reconstruction. However, prior to 1876 and after many defeats in the political world, Hayes opted to retire from politics. The Republicans had a different plan for him though, and nominated him as their presidential ticket in the 1876 election with the running mate of William Wheeler.

On the one hand, Tilden had carried much of the South and his home state of New York; on the other hand, Hayes had held much of New England, the Midwest and many of the Western states.On the evening of the election, Hayes went to bed believing he had lost the presidency to Tilden quite handedly. He wrote in his diary, “I never supposed there was a chance for a Republican success.” Unaware to both candidates, the executive office was torn between just one electoral vote. Headlines across the country had even stated that Tilden had secured the victory. For many days, Hayes was not sure of the outcome of the race. Rumors of electoral fraud raged throughout the nation. The final electoral vote was Tilden with 184 and Hayes with 185. Without this knowledge, both parties considered themselves the winners. Both Hayes and Tilden lay low as their representatives dealt with the anticipating public.

The Disputed Election: Who Will Win?

To combat these growing controversies, the House and the Senate created an Electoral Commission with a company of fifteen people: seven Republicans seven and seven Democrats. Of these fifteen people, the makeup was: five senators, five house members and five Supreme Court justices.

Though Tilden had won the popular vote, the Commission swung in favor of Hayes. On March 2, 1877, the Commission finally announced that Hayes, with his running mate William Wheeler, were to be the new President and Vice President elect by an electoral vote of 185-184. But on that day of March 5, 1877, when President Hayes was finally inaugurated into office, he knew that his struggle was far from over. The Southern Democrats threatened radical action to be taken if Hayes did not meet their needs. In what C. Vann Woodward titled “The Compromise of 1877,” Hayes agreed to withdraw troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction.

The Election of 1876 is extremely important to the electoral history of the United States. As one of the most disputed elections of recent history, it enabled the politicians of America to take action in the Post-Civil War era. Rurtherford B. Hayes’ role was subtle yet powerful as he stepped his way into the presidency over Samuel Tilden and the strong Democratic Party. Hayes kept calm and stayed in the background until he emerged and accepted the presidency after almost four months of debate.

McClellan and the Election of 1864: Election Amid the War

Republican Lincoln vs. Democratic McClellan

“Conscious of my own weakness, I can only seek fervently the guidance of the Ruler of the Universe, and, relying on His all-powerful aid, do my best to restore Union and peace to a suffering people, and to establish and guard their liberties and rights.” – General George B. McClellan

The Election of 1864 was one of the few elections to take place amid a wartime setting. The two candidates were friends on opposing sides. The Republican Party nomination went, of course, to Abraham Lincoln for reelection and he ran under the National Union Party.  The Democratic Party went a different route in nominating General Gorge B. McClellan, a “young Napolean” war general and one of the leading men of Lincoln’s Union Army.

The Democratic Party was torn between the War Democrats and the Peace Democrats. This duality placed a certain strain onto the Party, thus dividing it and making it all the more weaker in comparison to the united Northern Republicans. At the Democratic Convention in August of 1864 brought McClellan to the forefront of the Democratic Peace Party, also known as the Copperheads. Though he stood for much of what the political group represented, an immediate cease-fire and negotiation with the Confederacy, McClellan was more pro-war did not agree altogether with the cease-fire. He instead promised a stronger effort for the Union to stop the war in the hopeful near future. Unfortunately for the Peace Party, his pro-war stance worked against the Democratic Party and sent more votes Lincoln’s way. McClellan attempted to keep himself at a distance from the strong anti-war sentiments of the Peace Party. In his acceptance speech for his nomination he wrote, “The Union must be preserved at all hazards.” He did not believe in attempting to bring peace into a country where there was no immediate, peaceful resolution.

As the Election grew nearer, Lincoln’s campaign gained momentum as the McClellan Democratic Party continued to lose supporters. The War raged on in the North and the South. On September 2, Atlanta fell to the Union Army. This victory almost so close to the election date brought further motivation for Republican votes and “boosted Union morale.” Lincoln’s re-election seemed more certain with each passing day.

Finally on Election Day, McClellan realized his loss. It was rather inevitable with the events leading up November 8, 1864. The Republican Abraham Lincoln defeated General McClellan a whopping 212-21 in the Electoral College votes. McClellan won in merely three states, Kentucky, Delaware and his home state of New Jersey. It was a sound victory for Lincoln, as he became only the second president in the history of the United States since Andrew Jackson to be victorious for a second election. On that day, the defeated and, albeit exhausted, General McClellan wrote to his friend, “For my country’s sake I deplore the result, but the people have decided with their eyes wide open and I feel a great weight has been removed from my mind.” On that same day he wrote his letter of resignation from the Union Army. General McClellan went happily into retirement.

The Election of 1864 is significant in the elections of United States history. Not only does it occur during wartime, but it also provides insight into the politics of the Civil War. The race between Lincoln and McClellan was not close. McClellan was placed into a tight spot with his divided party and unique views. Though unsuccessful in his quest, he put up a valiant effort against the popular and famous Abraham Lincoln.

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