Hayes Becomes President

In one of the most fiercely disputed elections in U.S. history, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the presidency through a compromise in which he promised to end Reconstruction in the South.

Summary of Event

Rutherford B. Hayes won the U.S. presidency through the Compromise of 1877, the last great compromise between the North and the South, and the compromise also ended Reconstruction in the South. This agreement, which had its antecedents in 1787, 1820, and 1850, came as a direct result of the disputed presidential election of 1876. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1876
Presidency, U.S.;Rutherford B. Hayes[Hayes]
Compromise of 1877
Hayes, Rutherford B.
[p]Hayes, Rutherford B.;election of 1876
Tilden, Samuel Jones
Republican Party;election of 1876
[kw]Hayes Becomes President (Mar. 5, 1877)
[kw]President, Hayes Becomes (Mar. 5, 1877)
Presidency, U.S.;election of 1876
Presidency, U.S.;Rutherford B. Hayes[Hayes]
Compromise of 1877
Hayes, Rutherford B.
[p]Hayes, Rutherford B.;election of 1876
Tilden, Samuel Jones
Republican Party;election of 1876
[g]United States;Mar. 5, 1877: Hayes Becomes President[4940]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 5, 1877: Hayes Becomes President[4940]

The 1876 presidential election found the Republicans attempting desperately to retain the power that they had held since their first victory in 1860, but it was no easy task in 1876. The party was rent by feuding between regulars, known as Stalwarts, who supported President Ulysses S. Grant, and reformers, who had supported the unsuccessful Liberal Republican Liberal Republican Party candidacy of Horace Greeley in 1872. The Liberal Republicans Liberal Republican Party;election of 1876 had quit the party chiefly as a result of the issues of corruption, civil service reform, and southern policy.

In its search for a candidate in 1876, the Republican Party, conscious of the danger to its hegemony, steered between Stalwarts and reformers. It finally settled on Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, who had risen to the rank of brevet major general in the Union army during the Civil War and had served as both a congressman and a governor of Ohio. Hayes was a regular. He had not bolted in 1872, but he was not a spoilsman, and he had indicated that perhaps the southern policy needed revision. In his letter accepting the party’s nomination, Hayes espoused reform of civil service and promised southerners the right to govern themselves without further federal interference.

The Democrats Democratic Party;election of 1876 had gone into the presidential election believing that 1876 would be their year. They had been out of power since 1860, but their optimism in 1876 was based on political reality. During the 1870’s, many northerners had grown tired of Reconstruction programs and Republican rule; they were eager for change. The existence of the Liberal Republicans Liberal Republican Party in 1872 illustrated that feeling and reflected an underlying racism that had existed among northerners before the Civil War. Many northerners were willing to believe stories of the incompetence and corruption of “Negro-Carpetbag” “Carpetbaggers”[Carpetbaggers] governments in the South because they opposed any Republican government at all, honest or dishonest.

The promise of Reconstruction Reconstruction;and election of 1876[Election of 1876] had failed, too, as a result of racism and economic and class considerations. The southern Republicans were divided within and from their larger base of support in the North on the basis of class differences. The Republican Party retreated from southern agrarian reform as it retreated from northern working-class reform during the 1870’s. Immigrant factory workers and black field hands were both feared as threats to Republican order and individual property rights. Traditional Republican ideology warned against entrusting the propertyless masses with political power. Thus, it was easy for northerners to accept Democratic charges of corruption in the Republican South and to be unsympathetic to the demands of the southern poor for economic independence.

Furthermore, northern Republicans hoped that conciliation with the South would produce a coalition of northern and southern conservatives. Many former Whigs and Unionists in the Southern Democratic Party were business-oriented and had little in common with antebellum farmers. They shared the economic and political philosophies of the northern wing of the Republican Party. During the 1876 electoral crisis, they demanded railroads, manufacturing plants, banks, and internal improvements for the South. The promise of federal funds for their demands gave the South hope that industry and transportation would complement agriculture and produce unparalleled prosperity.

The Democrats therefore were able to capitalize on the northern eagerness for change. The return of Democratic control in all but three of the former Confederate states helped the party on a national level. In the congressional elections of 1874, the Democrats had won a majority of seventy seats in the House of Representatives and had almost gained control of the Senate. By 1876, the Democrats were poised to oust the Republicans through their presidential nominee Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York.

Currier & Ives campaign poster for Rutherford B. Hayes and his running mate, William A. Wheeler (1819-1887), a New York congressman who retired from public life after completing his term as vice president.

(Library of Congress)

The election results were unprecedented. Tilden won a national majority of more than 250,000 popular votes, but the count of electoral votes failed to reveal a winner. With 185 electoral votes needed to win, Tilden had 184 undisputed votes, while Hayes had only 165. A serious dispute erupted over 19 electoral votes in the South: 8 in Louisiana, 7 in South Carolina, and 4 in Florida. Both parties claimed to have carried those three states, and conflicting sets of returns from each state had been sent to Washington, D.C. There was also a minor dispute over 1 electoral vote from Oregon, but the real battle occurred over the 19 from the three southern states.

A grave constitutional problem arose because the U.S. Constitution, Constitution, U.S.;and presidential elections[Presidential elections] while stipulating the procedure for counting electoral votes, gave no indication what should be done when more than one set of returns came in from a single state. The Constitution stated that the president of the U.S. Senate, in joint session of the House and Senate, should open the electors’ certificates and then the votes should be counted, but it did not say who should count them. If the president of the Senate—at that time a Republican—were to count the votes, he would be expected to count the Republican electors’ votes that were in dispute. If the Speaker of the House—a Democrat—were to do the counting, he presumably would count the disputed Democratic votes. With no specific guidelines and Congress divided between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, there was real danger that inauguration day would arrive before some solution could be reached.

On January 29, 1877, after weeks of uncertainty, Congress established an electoral commission to determine which of the disputed returns should be counted. The commission was to comprise fifteen members: five from the Senate, five from the House, and five from the Supreme Court. There would have seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent—David Davis Davis, David , an associate justice of the United States. When the Illinois legislature elected Davis to the Senate, his place on the commission went to Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley Bradley, Joseph P. , a Republican.

Powerful forces operated to bring about the creation of the commission and agreement on a peaceful settlement. Northern businessmen, Republicans and Democrats alike, adamantly opposed any resort to violence. Equally important was the insistence by southern Democrats that threats of violence were absurd; one civil war had been enough for them. Tilden adopted an unyielding pacifist stance. Many southerners, eager for economic largesse for levees, river and harbor improvements, and a western railroad across Texas, hoped that Hayes would triumph, because his party was disposed to extend government economic aid.

When the commission met on February 9, it soon became apparent that the eight Republicans would stand united and award the presidency to Hayes. The Republican members insisted that the commission could not question the returns but had to accept those certified by the legal authorities of the states. Because Republicans controlled Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina at the time of the election in 1876, all the legally certified returns were, in the commission’s sense, for Hayes. Thus the commission allowed Hayes all the disputed votes and declared him the winner.

However, the commission’s ruling was not final, as the electoral votes still had to be officially counted in a joint session of Congress. Many Democrats were unhappy about the commission’s decision and threatened to filibuster or otherwise to disrupt the proceedings of Congress in order to prevent the legal election of Hayes. Cooler heads, influenced by the same forces that earlier had stood against violence, prevailed. Some southern Democrats worked out a compromise with the Republicans, whereby they would support Hayes’s election in return for promises that federal troops would be withdrawn from Louisiana and South Carolina, that Hayes would appoint a southern Democrat to his cabinet, and that the Republicans would support a federal subsidy to build the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Hayes got the electoral votes that he needed.


On March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated the nineteenth president of the United States. As promised, he appointed a southern Democrat to his cabinet. In April, he formally ended the Reconstruction era by ordering the withdrawal of federal troops from South Carolina South Carolina;Reconstruction in and Louisiana. Louisiana;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] He had extracted promises from the southern Democrats who would control the state governments that they would observe the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments’ guarantees of African American civil rights, but southern politicians soon forgot those promises. Meanwhile, the United States would not see another presidential election whose results were as controversial as that of 1876 until 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to declare another Republican, George W. Bush Bush, George W. , the winner over the Democrat Al Gore Gore, Al , who had beaten him in the popular vote.

Further Reading

  • Bedford, Henry F., and Trevor Colbourn. The Americans: A Brief History to 1877. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. Chapter 11 discusses the radical, presidential, and congressional plans of reconstruction and the price paid for Hayes’s election.
  • Davis, Allen F., and Harold D. Woodman. “Reconstruction.” In Conflict and Consensus in Early American History. 7th ed. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1988. Examines the failure of Reconstruction and the flare-up of northern racism.
  • Hoogenboom, Ari. Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Revisionist history that refutes historians who depict Hayes as a southern sympathizer or an example of Gilded Age greed. Hoogenboom argues that Hayes was a devout and pragmatic supporter of civil rights.
  • Morris, Roy, Jr. Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Written partly in response to the disputed presidential election of 2000, this study of the 1876 election provides information on the lives and characters of both candidates as well as the nature of the political process.
  • Patrick, Rembert Wallace. The Reconstruction of the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Provides a detailed, interpretive account of Reconstruction. Where necessary, emphasis shifts from the national to the local scene.
  • Polakoff, Keith Ian. The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. Superb study of the election that argues that negotiations between southern Democrats and Hayes’s friends had no effect on the settlement, that both parties were faction-ridden, that Hayes held the Republicans together better than Tilden held the Democrats together, and that in actuality Congress drifted into a settlement.
  • Rehnquist, William H. Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876. New York: Random House, 2004. Examination of the legal issues behind the 1876 election by the chief justice of the United States who presided over the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 election.
  • Richardson, Leon Burr. William E. Chandler: Republican. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940. A detailed biography of the man who was the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1876.
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Rutherford B. Hayes. New York: Times Books, 2002. Brief but informative account of Hayes’s life and career, focusing on his Ohio governorship and his presidency. Part of a series of books about American presidents.

Twelfth Amendment Is Ratified

Reconstruction of the South

Civil Rights Cases

U.S. Election of 1884

McKinley Is Elected President

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Hayes, Rutherford B.
[p]Hayes, Rutherford B.;election of 1876
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