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The Disputed Election of 1876


There have been three contested elections in the history of the United States: 1876, 1888, and 2000. The election of 1876, between Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat) and Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican), came at a particularly difficult time for this country. Though the policies of Reconstruction had been in effect for almost a decade, tension still existed between the South and the North. This tension was embodied in the struggle between the states rights-supporting Democrats and the federal government-supporting Republicans. When the Electoral College could not determine the outcome of the election, each side asserted it should win and accused the other of voter fraud. Eventually, with the help of a committee of representatives, senators, and Supreme Court justices, and a compromise between Hayes and the Democratic leaders, Hayes was elected president.

In this lesson, students will model how the Electoral College works. They will learn about the disputed election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877, and relate the Compromise to compromises in their own lives. Finally, they will explore the politics involved in Reconstruction-era America.


Chalkboard, whiteboard, or overhead projector


  1. Have the class vote on the following question: which ice cream flavor is better, vanilla or chocolate? Count the votes and write the tally on the board.
  2. Divide the class into groups of seven. Each group should contain two electors and five citizens.
  3. Explain to the class that their electors will be voting on an issue. The electors will represent their groups of citizens.
  4. Have the citizens vote on the following question: which ice cream flavor is better, vanilla or chocolate? The electors should not vote now, but should pay attention to how the citizens in their group vote.
  5. Have each elector vote. Both electors can vote the way the majority of the group feels, each elector can vote for a different side, or electors can vote according to their own consciences. Remind the electors that they are representing the citizens.
  6. Count up the electoral votes and see which flavor won. Did the same flavor win as when everyone voted directly?
  7. Explain to the class that they have just modeled the Electoral College system, a process set up in the Constitution so that people in less populated states would have more of a voice in elections. In the real Electoral College system, the number of electors for each state is the number of representatives plus the number of senators. Presently, in most states, all electors vote for the candidate the majority chose. Only Nebraska and Maine choose to split their votes.
  8. Explain that the Electoral College system sometimes elects a different candidate than the majority of people support. This happened in 1867, just after the Civil War, in the election between Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat) vs. Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican). Many Democrats were from the South. They believed in state's rights and that the South should be allowed to continue to do things the way it wanted. Republicans supported a strong central government and wanted the south to adopt policies such as rights for African Americans.
  9. Write the following on the left side of the board or transparency:
    Tilden - 4,288,546
    Hayes - 4,034,311.
  10. Tell the class that Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote.
  11. Write the following in the middle of the board or transparency:
    Tilden - 184
    Hayes - 165
    Disputed - 20
  12. Tell students that it appeared Tilden had won the electoral vote (the one that matters!) but 20 votes were disputed, i.e. people didn't know if they were valid. Because nobody knew if those 20 votes should go to Tilden or Hayes, and if Hayes received them he would win, nobody knew how to decide the election.
  13. A panel was created to decide the election. It consisted of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Write the results of the panel's vote on the right side of the board or transparency:
    Tilden - 7
    Hayes - 8
  14. Announce that with the panel's decision, Hayes won the election! But the Democrats were not very happy about this. They thought Tilden should have won. They accused the Republicans of cheating, and they threatened to use violence, filibuster or disrupt the inauguration. So, before the inauguration, Hayes reached a compromise with the Democrats so they would peacefully allow him to be president.
  15. Have the class discuss briefly the meaning of "compromise" and what compromises they have made in their own lives.
  16. Explain that in the compromise, Hayes said he would remove the federal troops from Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, where they remained after the Civil War. This officially ended Reconstruction, the time of rebuilding the relationship between the North and the South. He also gave a southern Democrat a cabinet position, and threw his support behind a southern transcontinental railroad.
  17. Ask students if they think the way this election was resolved was fair. Ask them to stand along a continuum line that is labeled "Fair" on one end and "Unfair" on the other end. Students may choose to stand at any point on the line, but must be prepared to justify why they chose to stand where they did.
  18. Fair |_________________x _______________x _______________| Unfair 

Lesson Extensions

  1. Discuss with students the possible problems that occur in the voting process. The election of 1876 was filled with such problems.
    • Some ballots were illegible and some were missing.
    • African Americans in many southern states were barred from the polls or tricked with fake ballots.
    • Some ballot boxes were withheld from districts so they could be filled with fake ballots later.
    • The time restraint of the fast-approaching election meant that voting errors could not be investigated properly.
    How do voting problems affect elections today? Some possible topics include: Who counts the votes? What happens when a vote is illegible? Does electronic voting make elections more or less susceptible to fraud? Why was it not possible to hold a recount in 1876, like those that took place in Florida in the election of 2000?

  2. Have students create a pro-con chart for the Electoral College. This may require some outside research. What are the advantages of this system? The disadvantages?

This lesson was written by Gloria Moeller, El Cajon, CA; Shawn Cunlisk, Vancouver, WA; and contributing editor Claire Gould.