This article argues that the Tilden/Hayes election was the most contentious and ugliest in history. That is pretty hard to prove as there have been so many! I think the Jackson elections are pretty awful! But this one continues on a long time because it has to go the House of Representatives:For Rutherford B. Hayes, election evening of November 7, 1876, was shaping up to be any presidential candidate’s nightmare. Even though the first returns were just coming in by telegraph, newspapers were announcing that his opponent, the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, had won. Hayes, a Republican, would indeed lose the popular vote by more than a quarter-million, but he had no way of knowing that as he prepared his concession speech. He went to bed a gloomy man and consoled his wife, Lucy Webb. “We soon fell into a refreshing sleep,” Hayes wrote in his diary, “and the affair seemed over.”
But the ugliest, most contentious and most controversial presidential election in U.S. history was far from over. Throughout the campaign, Tilden’s opposition had called him everything from a briber to a thief to a drunken syphilitic. Suspicion of voter fraud in Republican-controlled states was rampant, and heavily armed and marauding white supremacist Democrats had canvassed the South, preventing countless blacks from voting. As a result, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were deemed too close to call, and with those states still in question, Tilden remained one electoral vote short of the 185 required by the Constitution to win election. With 165 electoral votes tallied for Hayes, all he needed to do was capture the combined 20 electoral votes from those three contested states, and he’d win the presidency. The ensuing crisis took months to unfold, beginning with threats of another civil war and ending with an informal, behind-the-scenes deal—the Compromise of 1877—that gave Hayes the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.
Tilden was attacked on many fronts: Tilden was attacked on everything from his chronic ill health and his connections to the railroad industry, widely viewed as rife with corporate corruption at the time. Sixty-two and a lifelong bachelor, he was respected for his commitment to political reform though considered dull. With corruption charges plaguing associates of the sitting president, Ulysses S. Grant, Tilden’s candidacy could not have been better timed for Democrats to regain national power.