The President Who Won by a SINGLE Electoral Vote

June 28, 2017

If you thought the 2000 election was bad–remember hanging chads?–just wait until you hear about this. The 1876 presidential election was the longest election process in our country’s history. It dragged on for four very long months and wasn’t resolved until just two days before the Inauguration.

For a country that was still in the reconstruction process, this wasn’t a good thing.

Why was the election process so unique? How did our president of the week, Rutherford B. Hayes, come out on top? Why was he the Republicans candidate in the first place? We’ll answer these questions and more.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Brittany’s son with the Rutherford B. Hayes statue in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota.

Since the Civil War began, only Republicans had been elected to office. Andrew Johnson, who took over for Abraham Lincoln, had a disastrous presidency. To follow him up, Americans needed someone bold: enter Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the Union. Since his presidency was tainted by one scandal after another, the Republicans needed someone as clean and untainted as possible.

Enter Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a squeaky clean politician, former Congressman from Ohio who was currently serving as governor. Plus, he promised he would only run a single term.


Rutherford B. Hayes had a somewhat hard childhood. His father died just a couple months before he was born. This left his mother alone with a baby and a young daughter (named Fanny). She raised the two children with the help of her brother Birchard (where the “B” comes from in Rutherford B. Hayes). Apparently he was raised in a super strict, quite overprotected environment. This left his relationship with his mother somewhat strained.

It is said that Rutherford didn’t even start school until he was 14 but quickly rose to the top of his class. At age 20, he graduated from Kenyon College as the class valedictorian. After a year of a law apprenticeship of sorts he was accepted to Harvard Law School. He would eventually establish a practice in Cincinnati.


Rutherford B. Hayes

“An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.”

Civil War

Rutherford B. Hayes didn’t hesitate to volunteer when the Civil War broke out. He served as a major, but was promoted to colonel and eventually major general. He was wounded four times and had several horses shot right out under him. Despite that, the war proved to be a bright spot in his life.

The soldiers loved him and so did those from his home state. They elected him to Congress months before the war ended but Hayes refused to leave the war to campaign. He didn’t take his seat until the war ended over seven months later.

Controversial Election

So how did such a man get his name in the hat for the presidency? Rutherford B. Hayes promised to run things differently than Grant. Instead of electing friends and basing appointments on paying back favors as Grant had (called the “spoils system”), Hayes promised to appoint people on their merit.

Even though he had some celebrity campaigners (like Mark Twain) on his side, Hayes didn’t think he could win.

New York Governor Samuel Tilden was his opponent. Apparently their campaign against each other was called “The Last Battle of the Civil War.” In a nutshell, on election night Tilden was several thousand votes ahead (a lot in those days). So Rutherford went to bed thinking he had lost.

He woke up the next morning to find out that yes, he had lost the popular vote. However, the Electoral College count was too close to call. Just as in the 2000 election, results from several states were still up in the air. However, if even one of those electoral votes went to Tilden, Hayes would lose. His chances were slim and he knew it.

Congress Steps In

After four months of debate, a special Congressional electoral commission was finally set up to settle it. The problem was that the commission was made up of eight Republicans and seven democrats. The results? All three of the disputed states electoral votes were given to Rutherford B. Hayes. This gave him the lead by a single, and controversial, electoral vote (185-184).

But the process wasn’t over yet. The House of Representatives still had to confirm it. Many democrats were so angry that they threatened to filibuster it. Many historians speculate that a “backroom” deal was eventually made by Hayes to push it through. No one is entirely sure what this compromise consisted of but there are guesses.

This all happened two days before the Inauguration. At that point, Hayes was already on his way to Washington when he heard the news.

Can you see why it was controversial? These speculations led to a few unflattering nicknames for the new president-election: Ruther”fraud” B. Hayes, “His Fraudulency,” to name just a few. Because of the controversy over his election, many felt the swearing-in shouldn’t be public. So, instead of being sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Hayes took the oath in the Red Room of the White House. He was the first president to take the oath of office inside the White House.

“No person connected with me by blood or marriage will be appointed to office.” Rutherford B. Hayes

The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidency (1877-1881)

Reconstruction of the South was still underway when Hayes took office, so he dedicated himself to its completion. In fact, as part of the “compromise” of the election, reconstruction was on the table.

Historians believe southern democrats were pledged at least one cabinet position. The withdrawal of federal troops from the South was also part of the deal. With those troops gone, the reconstruction in the South was officially complete (though far from perfect).

Unfortunately for Hayes, Democrats had the majority in Congress. This meant he got little done with civil rights and protecting the strides that had been made. Congress blocked every thing he tried to submit for civil rights and giving black Americans the right to vote.

Since Hayes couldn’t get much done with civil rights, he moved onto something he could do: civil service reform. The Ulysses S. Grant Administration was infamous for hiring family and friends. Hayes vowed to change that. He made it well known that he would never appoint anyone with connections to his family. He also vowed to only serve a single term.

Hayes traveled all over the U.S. during his presidency and was the first president to visit the West Coast. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was another stress in his presidency. Workers walked off their jobs to protest pay cuts. Hayes deployed troops to stop riots and workers had to return to their jobs (with no raise).


Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy

Rutherford and Lucy Hayes

Political Party

Republican. The Republican Party appealed to Rutherford mainly because of its anti-slavery opposition.


Rutherford B. Hayes became one of the most active former presidents in history. He traveled the country giving speeches for causes he cared about like education and humanitarian work. Hayes also served as trustee of Ohio State University, Western Reserve University, Ohio Wesleyan University, and Mount Union College.

Hayes was also a huge supporter of African-American rights and became a champion for their education. He was also a supporter of prison reform and served as the second president for the National Prison Association. Hayes also served as president of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, Ohio. He was also the national commander of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion. It didn’t stop there. He was also president of the Twenty-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry Association.


First Lady Lucy Hayes

Lucy Hayes

First Lady “Lemonade Lucy”

“Lemonade Lucy” is a nickname that came from a journalist during the early 20th century, so Lucy was never actually called that name during her lifetime. It refers to her refusing to serve alcohol at the White House.

She was the first First Lady to graduate from college (Wesleyan College). The Hayes couple are credited for filling in gaps in the White House portrait collection. They commissioned portraits of some of the Founding Fathers and other early presidents.

She and Rutherford had eight children, three of whom died before they turned two-years-old. They only had one daughter, named Fanny after Rutherford’s sister. It’s said after Lucy died, Fanny became her father’s constant companion.

Vice President

William Wheeler (Congressman from New York).

Why Rutherford B. Hayes Is Cool and Other Fun Facts

Hayes was the first president to have a telephone installed in the White House. He was the first president to have a presidential library and the first president to have graduated from law school.

For Kids

Not every election is won by popular vote, as was the case with President Rutherford B. Hayes and his election. His election was so controversial because not only did he not win the popular vote, but he also won by only one electoral vote. The Electoral College plays a huge role in our presidential elections and is often misunderstood by many U.S. citizens. Explain to your children why the Electoral College was set up and that with most things established by our Founding Fathers, compromise was the key reason for it.

Next Up

James Garfield. Destiny of a Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President is the most fascinating book. If you want to get a head start on learning about next week’s president, join me in reading it!


Rutherford B. Hayes is the first president to have a presidential library established. As with all presidential libraries, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums at Spiegel Grove, was a plethora of incredible information.

In addition, the Washington Post has the BEST podcast titled Presidential. I don’t even start writing these “president of the week” posts anymore until after I’ve listened to it. The podcasts are that insightful into the character of these great men! Rutherford B. Hayes’ episode is just as fascinating as all the others. It discusses the details of the controversial election, as well as the integrity and character of Hayes.

And, as always, here’s my favorite documentary on all the presidents. The History Channel put together a mini-documentary on each president and they’re fascinating. Here’s the longer (more expensive version) and here’s the shorter version.




Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Tara June 28, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    How interesting! I love your overviews of all the presidents. I need to go back to review your older posts! Thanks for the education 🙂

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