Photograph courtesy the Library of Congress
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Allegations of voter fraud and intimidation. A back-room deal. The Hayes-Tilden election was so controversial it spawned today’s vote counting process.


The 1876 election was the most divisive in U.S. history. Here’s how Congress responded.

In 1876, a decade after the U.S. Civil War ended, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes competed against Democrat Samuel Tilden in a bitterly contested presidential election. Ultimately, Congress appointed Hayes the winner in a back-room deal with consequences that reveberate today.


On January 6, the U.S. Congress will convene to count and certify the results of the Electoral College vote, the last step to formally naming Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. But Republican members from both houses of Congress, many with presidential ambitions of their own, have announced they intend to contest the results.

Under pressure from President Donald Trump, and despite the fact that the Department of Justice has found no evidence of voter fraud, one faction of Republican legislators is calling for an investigation into the president’s fraud allegations before the vote is counted—and invoking an extraordinary 144-year-old compromise as a model.

“In 1877, Congress did not ignore those allegations [of fraud],” wrote Texas Senator Ted Cruz and 10 other senators in a joint statement. “We should follow that precedent.”

But what is that precedent, and could it really apply in 2021? To find out means delving into the unsavory history of an election that, until 2020, was deemed the nation’s most divisive—and that led to an unusual compromise with weighty consequences. Here’s what you need to know about the 1876 election and why it still looms large in American history.

A nation united, but still divided

In 1876, the nation was still scarred and divided by the Civil War, which had ended a decade earlier. During the war’s aftermath, approximately four million enslaved people were freed. In what would become known as the Reconstruction era, a Republican-controlled Congress moved swiftly to restore the former...

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