By Ken Zurski
On the evening of March 3, 1877, a Saturday, President Ulysses S. Grant, the popular Civil War general turned commander-in-chief, who had served two terms and was only days from leaving office, invited several friends to the White House for a private dinner.
On the guest list that night was the man who would succeed Grant as president, Rutherford B. Hayes.
Hayes had just been declared the winner of the contentious 1876 election over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, a Yale educated lawyer and governor of New York, who some say beat Hayes outright, but lost the bitter debate that followed. On November 9, the day after the general election, tallies showed that Tilden won the popular vote and picked up more electoral votes than Hayes at 184 to 165, with 20 still undecided.
In question were the southern states where Republicans accused the Democrats of widespread voter fraud, specifically the suppression of the black vote. No winner was declared and nothing was resolved. By the end of 1876, the Centennial year, a nation was left hanging by an undecided outcome. Grant was convinced that if the blacks in the south had been allowed to vote as law permitted, Hayes would have won easily.
In January 1877, thanks to a measure passed by Congress and approved by Grant, the election was put in the hands of an appointed committee, made up of a combined fifteen lawmakers and Supreme Court justices. Party membership was evenly divided between the ten congressmen. As for the five justices chosen, four were considered partisan – two Republicans and two Democrats – and one independent, presumably the deciding vote. But David Davis, the independent from Illinois, had just been elected to the Senate and would be leaving his associate judgeship post soon. In his stead, another justice Joseph Bradley, who was considered to be most politically neutral of the remaining judges, took his place on the committee.
In a decision known as The Compromise of 1877, Bradley voted in favor of the Republicans and tipped the balance to Hayes awarding him the presidency by one electoral vote. The so called “compromise” was an agreement by Republicans to pull the last federal troops out of southern states and effectively end the Reconstruction era.
So on Saturday, March 3, just days before he was set to relinquish the office, President Grant invited Hayes to the White House along with some other close friends for a welcoming dinner.
It turned out to be significantly more.
Also in attendance that night was Chief Justice Morrison Waite, whom Grant had appointed to the high court in 1874 and was eventually nominated to replace longstanding Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who died the year before. The day of the inauguration was by law scheduled for March 4. That year, the date fell on a Sunday. Hayes refused to be inaugurated on the Sabbath and it was changed to the following day, Monday, March 5, instead.
Grant was worried Tilden, still reeling from the committee’s decision, might stir up an angry base which had hinted at a government coup. Rumors persisted that Tilden, in an unprecedented act of defiance, would take the oath of office in New York on the actual inauguration date, March 4, and in effect protest the legality of Hayes appointment.
So Grant requested Hayes take the oath that night in private. That way if Tilden tried to undermine the process, at least the Republicans could counter that Hayes was already in charge. Hayes agreed and the three men along with a few witnesses quietly exited to the Red Room where Hayes raised his right hand, read the oath, and was sworn in as the 19th President of the United States.
As it turned out, Grant’s fears about Tilden were unwarranted. Two days later, without incident, Hayes repeated the words on the east portico of the Capitol.
The private ceremony was not a secret, although it’s significance was not easily defined. In 1887, Adam Badeau, a close adviser of Grant’s, tried to give it more clarity in his book Grant in Peace: Appomattox to Mount Gregor. It is perhaps the first time the Tilden angle is revealed. Although he doesn’t state it directly, Badeau was likely in the room that night. “It was a critical moment in the history of the country,” he clearly overstated.
Recent attitudes toward the 1876 elections paint a different picture. The decision to swear in the President-elect a few days early is either downplayed as political ostentation, based on an imminent threat to Hayes’s life, or attributed directly to Grant’s eagerness to leave the presidency.
No doubt, Grant was counting down the days.
Even though the country was still in a free fall from the war and Reconstruction was murky at best, no one was happier to get out of the Oval Office more than the former General, who planned a European tour with his wife Julia after his second term was over, which they satisfied by leaving the United States in May of 1877 and traveling abroad for more than a year. “I was never as happy in my life as the day I left the White House,” Grant wrote a friend. “I felt like a boy getting out of school.”
Hayes kept a promise to serve only one term. In the 1880 presidential election, Republican James Garfield won a close but undisputed contest over Democratic rival Wilfred Scott Hancock.
(Sources: Grant in Peace: Appomattox to Mount Gregor by Adam Badeau; Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret; The Man who Saved the Union by H.W. Brands)