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Presidencia, 1876, reconstrucción

The 1876 Election: The End of the Reconstruction Era and Lincoln’s Legacy

The 1876 election pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden against Republican Rutherford Hayes, an election that ended in a Republican victory, but where the “redeeming Democrats” won a great victory for themselves: ending Lincoln’s legacy

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Many times the facts of the present are related to the events of the past. Thus, history becomes a beacon of light, many times revealing, other times blinding, but always necessary. What is happening in the United States, with the elections between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, has features and similarities with other elections; the most recent and remembered between Bush and Al Gore in 2000. But there is also another event, much more distant, though equally important: the great struggle for the presidency in 1876, the elections that led to the end of the Reconstruction Era, one of the great legacies of Abraham Lincoln.

Historical context

The United States was immersed in one of the times of Reconstruction. Eleven years had passed since the Civil War and the nation was at a turning point in terms of civil rights and freedoms.

During this period, three constitutional amendments were made to abolish slavery, granting civil rights to people who were slaves and had just won their freedom.

In that context, with all that that implied for the time, the presidential candidates Samuel Tilden, Democrat and governor of New York, and Rutherford Hayes, Republican and governor of Ohio, measured electoral forces in 1876 in a great fight for the presidency.

The election, as it happened this year, was really even. Democrat Tilden took the popular vote and, in the first instance, the electoral college almost enough to win the election. But who would take the victory, four months later, was Republican Hayes.

This is how the count was going: the Democrat had about 184 electoral colleges, against 165 for the Republican. The minimum to win the election was 185 colleges, with Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon in contention.  

What was going on? According to the BBC: “Both parties in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina had declared their own candidates as winners. That is, there were two winners in each of those states.

The problem is that in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina the Democrats generated some ballots with the objective of confusing the voters.

Ballots designed to handle

This is not the first time there is talk of “illegal voting” or “fraudulent ballots” in the United States. As the BBC explains, at that historical moment, there was still a strong illiteracy, therefore, to combat this problem at the time of going to the polls, the parties designed their ballots or election ballots with their symbols. The Democrats used a rooster, which was their mascot, and the Republicans used the figure of President Abraham Lincoln, one of their greatest political references in history.

The parties themselves printed their ballots, and the Democrats in the states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina not only put their mascot the rooster on their ballots, but also put Tilden’s name next to Lincoln’s face.

These misleading votes or ballots were eliminated, due to the confusion that was generated in many voters who wanted, in effect, to vote for Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and ended up voting for Samuel Tilden.

Beyond the fact that the problem was detected and those votes were annulled, the reality is that this political move took a lot of votes away from the Republicans in those three states.

Alison LaCroix, a professor at the University of Chicago and an expert in U.S. legal history, explained to the BBC that there were “many irregularities and corruption in the elections. There were bad practices on both sides, but especially on the part of the Democrats.

“Many (former) slaves took (Democratic) ballots that had the Republican symbol on them when they most likely intended to vote for Hayes,” LaCroix said.

Lincoln, 1876, reconstrucción, asesinato
Illustration of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia)

We must remember that Lincoln’s face at the time had a strong impact. The Civil War that pitted the southern states against the northern states after the Republican was elected president was still a very recent development. In fact, the northern states that advocated the abolition of the slave system and won the war left military troops in the southern states to ensure respect and rights for all civilians, especially former slaves.

How was the problem of the presidency resolved in 1876?

This electoral problem had many consequences and negative connotations, especially for southern Republicans in the United States.

To resolve this situation in 1876, in a great struggle for the presidency, Congress formed an electoral commission that was made up of five representatives, five senators and five members of the Supreme Court. The big problem was that the party line of all members (eight Republicans and seven Democrats) did not contribute to a quick resolution of the conflict.

With the commission in place, two more long months passed, four after the elections, until they finally gave the Republican Hayes as the winner of the elections.

To this end, “both parties signed the ‘1877 Compromise’ that same month. Through this agreement, the Democrats agreed to cede the 20 electoral votes to Hayes, who ended up with 185, one more than Tilden,” the BBC reports.

But that pact was not signed without concessions. The price of reaching that agreement was quite high: the Democrats asked that the northern states withdraw their troops from the south, in order to have greater autonomy and be a little more independent in their ways of governing.

The Democrats, eleven years after the end of the Civil War, still did not agree with the abolition of slavery, so the military sent to the southern states had a clear objective: to preserve civil rights and the Age of Reconstruction. By agreeing to withdraw troops from the South, the Republicans indirectly agreed to end that era and the Democrats ultimately won much more than an election.

The story was compelling. After the 1877 Compromise to define the great presidential race of 1876, the Democrats who became known as “redeemers” gradually gained political space by restricting the rights achieved by black people. In fact, by 1905, almost all black men were disenfranchised by the state legislatures in the Southern states.

In the United States, the great struggle for the presidency in 1876, which lasted four long months after the elections, ended with a Republican party winning the presidency, but giving the Democrats something much bigger: the end of the Reconstruction era, one of the great legacies of Abraham Lincoln.

But that pact was not signed without concessions. The price of reaching that agreement was quite high: the Democrats asked that the northern states withdraw their troops from the south, in order to have greater autonomy and be a little more independent in their ways of governing.

The Democrats, eleven years after the end of the Civil War, still did not agree with the abolition of slavery, so the military sent to the southern states had a clear objective: to preserve civil rights and the Age of Reconstruction. By agreeing to withdraw troops from the South, the Republicans indirectly agreed to end that era and the Democrats ultimately won much more than an election.

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