The Inauguration of the 19th President was but three days away. The problem was that though the election had been held four-month prior, there was little telling who that would be. New York Governor Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote by over 280,000, he had a clear majority of 50.9% to Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes 47.9%. What’s more is he had to believe that he had edged out his Republican opponent in the Electoral College. He had taken 184 seats, one shy of the majority he needed to be sworn in, compared to Haye’s 165. With 19 out of the 20 electors in question being from the South, Tilden had to believe that he could manage to pick up one state before his opponent in that bitterly fought race would take all three. Yet even if he did, even if Hayes did take those three states, which seemed unlikely, Oregon Governor Lafayette Grover had given him the vote he needed when he replaced a Republican Elector, John Watts, with a Democrat, C.A. Cronin.
The truth was that the Democrats had every right to believe that they could win the election. Having had been in political exile since earliest of days of the Civil War, the Panic of 1873 had given them their opening. The next year they would make significant gains in the Senate, but more importantly, for the first time since the 1860 election they would take the House. By 1876 corruption, scandal and a lagging economy so plagued the Republican Party that many in the party feared that President Ulysses S. Grant would become an albatross around their neck as he ran for a third term, and there was nothing they could do about it. Though the legendary General, having seen his once golden reputation now tarnished by the political arena, would, in fact, step down, the emergence of the virtually unknown Rutherford B. Hayes as the conventions dark horse, had all but handed the election to Tilden. Had the charismatic Senator James G. Blaine of Maine not been embroiled in scandal they might have stood a chance. Instead they were straddled with a compromise on the 7th ballot as the Governor who placed 5th on the first two ballots became their candidate.
Even as the election turned dirty, even as his opponents tried to tar Tilden as briber, thief and drunken syphilitic he believed was the man to do the job no other Democrat could. He was, after all, the one who had gone against the political machine. He was the great reformer who had sent Boss Bill Tweed to prison. No amount of “Waving the Bloody Shirt” was going to distract from the fact that Tilden was the only man capable of cleaning up the mess of the previous Republican Administration.
Though there was allegations of fraud and intimidation, with South Carolina, for example, reporting 101% voter turnout of all eligible voters even as African-American votes more likely to be Republican than Democrat were suppressed, it was a bump in the road. He had little doubt that the newly appointed 15 Member Election Commission, selected by Congress to resolve the issue when the College could not name a clear winner, would undoubtedly give him the final legitimacy he needed.
It would take until March 2nd, 1877 but finally it had been decided by the 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats who comprised the Commission. Though Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican, had indicated that he would vote to award Florida to Tilden the night before, the end vote would be right along party lines, and, without a majority of both the House and Senate, it was finalized. As he travelled to Washington by train, Rutherford B. Hayes was informed that he had secured the 20 electoral seats necessary to defeat Governor Tilden by a single vote in the College. By the narrowest of majorities, the election had been decided with Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and that third vote from Oregon going to Hayes to give him a single seat edge over the more popular Tilden. For the first time in history the nation would have a President who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
The Democrat controlled House would filibuster to prevent the results from becoming official, knowing that it needed to be finalized by the 4th or interregnum would occur as the normal functions of government would be suspended. It would take the compromise of 1877 to eventually resolve the issue, with Hayes agreeing to appoint a Democrat as the Post-Master General, and to remove all Federal Troops from Government Buildings in Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina, ending Reconstruction. Though Republicans would celebrate, with papers like the New York Times declaring, “Indeed, some of them go so far as to say that no matter what may come, the country is well rid of the pretender Tilden. For that person no one has a good word.” many Democrats would not, dubbing Hayes as “His Fraudulency” and “The Usurper”. In many senses he would never be their President. Four years later he would not subject himself to another election, reaffirming his commitment to a single term as he stepped aside for James Garfield. Tilden would go to the grave in 1886 believing he had been robbed what was rightfully his by the “Boss Thief”, declaring, “ I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.”