By Stanley Bowling, Content Digitization Manager
When asked if he intended to vote in the election, a presidential candidate stated that “Most assuredly I shall not. I have never for a moment entertained the idea of voting for myself.... Neither have I ever voted against my principles by casting my ballot for an opponent. If my vote is necessary to elect me President, I shall not be [the] successor.” An acquaintance standing by noted that “Every vote counts, you know." (1)
The friend pointed out that in presidential elections, “you will not just exactly be voting for yourself...You only vote for Electors.” (2) In this instance, the young friend of Rutherford B. Hayes was showing some prescience about the election – Hayes won by a single vote!
The Electoral College in 1876 was literally split down the middle, with Hayes winning 185 to Samuel J. Tilden‘s 184. Much as the Chicago Daily Tribune famously announced, “Dewey Defeats Truman” in 1948, the election of 1876 saw rival newspapers announcing different winners on November 10, 1876. The New York Tribune headlined Hayes Probably President (3), a bit more cautious than Nashville’s The Daily American that claimed with Tilden’s Triumph, “Our Rooster Still Stands the Cock of the Walk!” (4)
Governor Hayes did not believe a single vote mattered when he chose not to vote at all, much less not to vote for himself. Governor Tilden knew the value of a vote, as he voted publically, waiting in line to vote and then “when his turn came he voted the straight Democratic ticket from ‘stem to stern,’ as he remarked.” (5)
Reminiscent of modern times, Tilden had mentioned his duty as a taxpayer but was reminded of his recently “released” tax forms that showed him under-reporting his income 14 years earlier by 90%! Tax returns creating an election issue is certainly nothing new. And with one candidate not voting against his opponent and another facing up to his tax misdeeds, perhaps there was a little civility that is often missing in our more enlightened and modern age.
It would be remarkable if we could once again hear a national figure state that “of the two great political parties which have divided the opinions and feelings of our country, the candid and the just will now admit, that both has contributed splendid talents, spotless integrity, and ardent patriotism, and disinterested sacrifices, to the formation and administration of this government” (6) as a writer for the National Intelligencer reported in the Connecticut Courant on March 15, 1825. Those remarks came on the heels of the inauguration of John Quincy Adams – even though Adams had ended the election with 17 fewer electoral votes than Andrew Jackson. That election was settled in the House of Representatives, and the one with more votes ended up losing.
While the 1876 election did produce a majority winner, Hayes, it took a Congressional Electoral Commission to resolve disputed elector ballots, and despite the candidate’s sentiments about not voting, the commission voted along party lines and gave the disputed ballots to Hayes.
- American politics are fraught with elections decided by a small number of votes, and anyone can look at the 1960 election, with John Kennedy winning the popular vote over Richard Nixon by less than 0.2%, but winning the electoral vote going away.
- Four decades after that, the 2000 election – Al Gore vs George W. Bush – revealed that individual votes and hanging “chads” made the difference in deciding who would be president. (“Believe me,” Al Gore told a Florida rally crowd on November 11, 2016, “Your vote really, really counts. You can consider me Exhibit A of that.”)
1. Chicago Daily Tribune 21 Nov 1876, p 2 “Tilden and Hayes:”
3. New York Tribune, 10 Nov 1876, p 1
4. The Daily American, 10 Nov 1876, p 1
5. Ibid, 1
6. Connecticut Courant, 15 Mar 1825, p 2, “The Inauguration"
Image: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. Significant Election Scene At Washington, June 3, 1867. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-3fc6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99