The Ugliest Presidential Election in History: Fraud, Voter Intimidation and a Backroom Deal

Historians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, presidential history, 1876, Samuel Tilden, Rutherford Hayes

As the days passed, the uncertainty increased. Tilden led by more than 250,000 votes in the popular vote in the 38 states. But he was one vote short of the 185 electoral votes needed for victory. Hayes had 165 votes.

All eyes focused on charges of intimidation of Black Republican voters in the three disputed Southern states (In Oregon, the issue was a disputed elector). Southern Whites were rebelling against Black political power granted under Reconstruction. Republican President Ulysses S. Grant had already sent federal troops to the states to help keep the peace.

In South Carolina, a majority Black state, armed White men belonging to “rifle clubs” and dressed in red shirts had harassed Republicans. The “Red Shirts” killed six Black men in the Hamburg massacre. The paramilitary group backed a former Confederate general for governor and threatened to kill Republican Gov. Daniel Chamberlain.

On Election Day in Edgefield, S.C., more than 300 armed Red Shirts on horseback “packed their horses so closely together that the only approach to the windows, back of which was the ballot box, was under the bellies of the beasts,” the Times said. In Barnwell County, one newspaper reported there were “riflemen wearing red shirts, riding to and fro, cursing and threatening the negroes.”

Voter intimidation also was rampant in Louisiana and Florida. Vote fraud was widespread on both sides. According to the Rutherford B. Hayes Library, the Democrats used “repeaters,” who voted repeatedly. They printed fraudulent ballots to trick illiterate Black voters into voting for Democrats.

The national voter turnout was 81.8 percent, still the highest ever for a presidential election. But the number clearly was inflated. In South Carolina, despite voter suppression, the official turnout was 101 percent of eligible voters.


Thirty years later on the Senate floor, South Carolina’s Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a leader of the Red Shirts, boasted about the vote frauds of 1876.

“We set up the Democratic Party with one plank only, that this is White man’s country, and White men must govern it,” Tillman said. “Under that banner, we went to battle. It was then that we shot them. It was then that we killed them. It was then that ‘we stuffed ballot boxes,’ because this disease needed a strong remedy.”

Tillman added: “I do not ask anybody to apologize for it. I am only explaining why we did it.”

Read entire article at Washington Post

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