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December 9, 1876

Thomas Nast

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Presidential Election 1876; U.S. Military;

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"What is the meaning of this in the Washington shop windows, and so near Christmas? Speak, and let the worst be known."

The winner of the 1876 presidential election remained uncertain for nearly four months from election day on November 7, 1876, until March 2, 1877, three days before the scheduled public inauguration of a new chief executive.  The Democratic candidate, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, won a narrow majority of the popular vote against the Republican nominee, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.  However, both parties believed they had captured the presidency in the Electoral College, with each claiming twenty electoral votes from four states桳ouisiana (8), South Carolina (7), Florida (4), and Oregon (1).  Without them, Tilden抯 tally of 184 electoral votes was one short of a majority, while Hayes抯 165 electoral votes left him 20 ballots shy of the presidency.  

As both Republicans and Democrats hurled heated accusations of corruption and violence against each other, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered General William T. Sherman to reroute four artillery companies to the nation抯 capital, where they were to maintain order. At first, the reason for the move was not made public, provoking artist Thomas Nast to inquire in this cartoon why the soldiers were in Washington. Perhaps because Grant was his hero, Nast asks the question amid the innocent imagery of Christmas shopping and toy soldiers. Yet, the title of the cartoon mimics the refrain of a Civil War song, 揥e are coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 more.  It was written in response to President Abraham Lincoln抯 request in July 1862 for additional volunteers for the Union army. In the first few weeks of the Electoral College controversy there was considerable fear that another civil war might start.

More militant Democrats warned that unless Tilden was recognized and inaugurated as president there would be blood in the streets. Henry Watterson, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky and editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, threatened that 100,000 men would march on Washington, D.C., if Tilden was not installed as chief executive. The headlines in other Democratic newspapers screamed, 揟ilden or War! For all of their bellicose rhetoric, though, Democrats were restrained in their actions by the presence in the White House of the Union war hero, General Grant, whom many political opponents feared might take the opportunity to establish a military dictatorship if provoked.

In reality, President Grant was not concerned about personal or partisan empowerment.  In a November 10 telegram to General Sherman, Grant firmly stated: 揘o man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it if counted in or placed there by fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result, but the country can not afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns. The president could have been referring to Hayes as readily as to Tilden. As the situation unfolded, Grant refused to recognize the Republican gubernatorial administrations in Louisiana and South Carolina.

The Electoral College crisis sent newspaper sales soaring, although responsible commentators tried to quiet fears of renewed civil war. Some black Americans, though, were reportedly anxious that a Democratic victory could lead to the reestablishment of slavery.  The presidential candidates themselves remained publicly mum during the tense interval. As he searched through law books for legal precedents, Tilden抯 characteristic silence prevented him from convincing the public that the winner of the popular vote should become president. Hayes used the time to conciliate Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, who had let it be known privately that he believed Tilden had carried Louisiana.

In January, Congress established an Electoral College Commission梒onsisting of 15 members from the Senate, House, and Supreme Court梩o settle the dispute.  They voted on a partisan basis, 8-7, to award all the contested electoral votes to the Republicans, and Hayes was therefore inaugurated as the 19th president of the United States on March 5, 1877.  For more information, visit HarpWeek抯 website on the Electoral College controversy .

Robert C. Kennedy

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April 19, 2024

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