It has been called the most controversial finishes to a presidential election in America’s history — and, to date, it’s still the most tightly-contested finish in the electoral college: 1876, when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden by the narrowest of margins, 185-184.
Scott County played its own role in that 1876 election — splitting with much of the rest of Tennessee to vote for Hayes.
A loyal Republican county
As the November 2019 installment of Forgotten Times noted, Scott County — which had been formed by the Tennessee legislature in 1849 — became a reliable Republican county in the 1860s. While only one Scott Countian — Shadrack Lewallen — voted for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, a majority of Scott Countians voted for Lincoln when he sought re-election in 1864. In between, Scott County rejected secession from the Union by the largest margin of any county in Tennessee, and went so far as to declare its independence from Tennessee in protest of secession, adopting a resolution naming itself the Free and Independent State of Scott.
Slave ownership was not an important issue in Scott County. There were slaves owned in Scott County, but there were fewer here than just about anywhere else in the antebellum South. According to the 1860 census, there were 61 slaves in Scott County — making the county one of just two in Tennessee with fewer than 100 slaves. By contrast, there were twice as many slaves owned in Morgan County and three times as many in Fentress County.
So, with slavery considered unimportant and most people simply wanting to be left alone, Scott Countians overwhelmingly rejected secession. One can only speculate, but it probably didn’t help matters any that Nashville acted aggressively towards Scott County for its act of defiance. After being informed of Scott County’s resolution of independence, Gov. Isham Harris dispatched troops to the county with orders to arrest and hang members of county court, according to current county commissioner and author David Jeffers. While the troops turned back after encountering resistance, Scott County remained under Confederate control until the entire East Tennessee region was eventually liberated by the army of Union General William Burnside.
Jehu Phillips, Scott County’s first trustee, wrote for the Cumberland Chronicle in 1904: “Before the Civil War the Whig and Democratic parties were about equally divided in this county. I was raised a Democrat, but after the war nearly every citizen in this county voted the Republican ticket and have been doing so in this county since that time.”
Indeed, when Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency in an 1864 landslide, Scott Countians voted overwhelmingly for the former Union war general. More than 90% of local voters cast ballots for Grant.
That might not have been particularly noteworthy; most of Tennessee voted for Grant, and most of East Tennessee voted for him by margins that were similar to Scott County. But in 1872, when Grant sought re-election and again won in a landslide, Tennessee sided with his challenger, Liberal Republican Horace Greeley, who had the official support of the Democratic Party. While East Tennessee still voted lock-step for Grant, Scott County voted for the president by the largest margin of any county in the state — again, more than 90% of voters here cast ballots for Grant.
A contentious election
The 1876 election marked the triumphant return of the Democratic Party. The party did not field its own candidate in 1872, instead nominating Greeley, believing its only chance of unseating Grant was to unite around his challenger.
But in 1876, the Democratic Party fielded a strong candidate in popular New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden.
The Republicans, meanwhile, nominated Hayes, who was the governor of Ohio. And what followed was an election that could not have possibly been closer.
Tilden won the popular vote — capturing 50.9% of the nation’s vote, compared to Hayes’ 47.9%. Yet, Hayes emerged victorious in the electoral college, after being awarded all of the electoral votes in four contested states.
The process was an intriguing compromise between Democrats and Republicans, one that served as a catalyst for the end of the Reconstruction period. But Tilden refused to go down without a fight, and the constitutional crisis persisted into March 1877 before Hayes was finally sworn in without further dispute. Until the inauguration ceremony, Grant had been quietly building the U.S. Army’s presence in the nation’s capital and preparing for the possibility of martial law.
After the first count of votes in 1876, Tilden had 184 and Hayes had 165. But four states were disputed, including three in the South: South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana were joined by Oregon in dispute.
In all three of the disputed Southern states, Tilden was reported to have won the popular vote. However, there were widespread reports of electoral fraud, and black voters — who voted overwhelmingly Republican, for obvious reasons — endured threats of violence. In South Carolina, 101% of all eligible voters cast ballots. Democrats in Southern states printed the Republican symbol — Abraham Lincoln — on their ballots to entice illiterate voters to unintentionally vote for Tilden.
As the election improprieties came to light, the Republican-dominated election commissions in the three states — controlled by the GOP as a result of the Union’s Civil War victory and defeat of the Confederacy’s rebellion — discounted enough Democrat votes for Hayes to be declared the winner in each state. That gave Hayes a 185-184 lead in the electoral college.
Democrats, of course, cried foul. It appeared Congress would have to determine the election’s outcome. Since the Constitution states that the president of the Senate is to open and count electoral certificates, Republicans argued that the power to count votes lay solely with the president of the upper chamber — a Republican, Thomas W. Ferry. But Democrats countered that in each presidential election since the end of the Civil War, it had been the practice of Congress for contested votes to be counted by both houses. Since Democrats controlled the House, that would have tilted things in Tilden’s favor.
Eventually, a law was passed to form a 15-member Electoral Commission, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with the 15th member being Supreme Court Justice David Davis, an independent. Democrats attempted to sway Davis’s support; the state legislature of Illinois elected Davis to the U.S. Senate. But Davis surprised them — he resigned his position on the Supreme Court to assume his duties in the Senate. As a result, he was off the Electoral Commission, and all the remaining Supreme Court justices were Republicans.
The commission voted 8-7, strictly along party lines, to award all 20 contested electoral college votes to Hayes, thus making him the victor of the 1876 presidential election. As a part of the compromise that resulted, Democrats agreed to accept the decision — thus ending the constitutional crisis — in exchange for Republicans withdrawing federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana, the last two Southern states still being occupied by the military. As a result, Reconstruction ended.
Studies that have followed since the 1876 election have concluded that Hayes would likely have won the election by a wider margin if voter intimidation, fraud and violence had not occurred in the South. Because blacks made up a majority of voters in South Carolina and Louisiana, it has been considered likely that Hayes would have won those two states, along with Mississippi — where blacks were also a majority — while Tilden would have won Ohio, where white voters were in the majority. In those days, Mississippi had twice as many electoral college votes (8) as Florida (4).
Tennessee’s vote in 1876
Like most of the rest of the former Confederacy, Tennessee voted for Tilden in the 1876 election. The Democratic candidate captured nearly 60% of the vote in Tennessee; Hayes had just over 40%.
But the same geographical split that had developed during the secession battles of 1861 persisted: Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee voted blue, while East Tennessee — which, as a region, had been opposed to secession 15 years earlier — voted red.
And in Scott County, the future words of Jehu Phillips were being proven true. As it had done in 1861, on the referendum of secession, and as it had done in 1868 when Grant was re-elected, Scott County voted for Hayes by a larger margin than any other county in Tennessee. More than 80% of voters here cast ballots for the Republican. The only other county in East Tennessee where that happened was Sevier County.
In fact, with the exception of a handful of counties in eastern Louisiana’s plantation country, and one county in Mississippi, there was no other county anywhere in the South where 80% or more of the voters cast their ballots for Hayes.
The trends haven’t changed much in more than 150 years. Scott Countians voted for Republican Donald Trump by the second-largest margin of any Tennessee county in 2016, and they did the same for Republican Bill Lee for governor in 2018.