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Similar Circumstances

The 1876 presidential election bears some resemblance to this year’s contest and was cited many times during Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court hearing. Here are some facts in that memorable race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden:

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Tilden, a New York Democrat, received 4,288,546 votes to 4,034,311 for Hayes, the governor of Ohio. Initially, it also seemed Tilden led Hayes in the electoral college vote, 184 to 165. At that time, 185 votes were needed to win. But the results of three states remained in dispute: Louisiana, South Carolina and, yes, Florida.

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Each side thought it had won those three states, and each state offered up two sets of electors--one for Hayes, one for Tilden.

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The Tilden and Hayes camps argued over which were the correct slates, and the day for the electors to meet, Dec. 6, 1876, came and went without resolution. After six weeks of bitter partisan fighting in Congress--and even threats of another Civil War--an electoral commission was created to resolve the mess.

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The commission was made up of five representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices. The intention was to have seven Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent. But the independent, who was a Supreme Court justice, was named to an open Senate seat by Illinois Republicans and replaced on the commission by another Supreme Court justice, this one a Republican.

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The commission then set about deciding who had won which state. On straight party lines, every vote dispute was decided in Hayes’ favor--including Florida, which historians believe was almost certainly won by Tilden. On March 1, the electoral vote was officially tallied in the Congress giving Hayes 185 to 184 for Tilden, the thinnest margin in electoral college history.

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Hayes was sworn in the next day. During his single term in office, many Democrats called him “His Fraudulency.”


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