|Rutherford B. Hayes|
19th President of the United States
Library of Congress
Most do not remember, however, that the Sunshine State was a key battleground in an even more bitter election fight. The election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden came down to a single electoral vote.
Author's note: As you read this, please remember that neither party of today resembles its 1876 version. Also, please note that the term "Radical Republican" is not an editorial comment, but rather was a commonly used name for the party at that time.
Florida was still a small state population-wise in 1876, but her tiny collection of four electoral votes was more than enough to swing the election in favor of Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The Carpetbagger Republicans who controlled the state government were determined to prevent that from happening, even if they had to steal the election and disenfranchise hundreds of voters.
The War Between the States (or Civil War) had been over for 11 years by 1876, but Radical Reconstruction was still the law of the land. U.S. soldiers could be sent to patrol civilian streets if there was even a hint that citizens might protest or otherwise "cause trouble." As the election of 1876 approached, in fact, a company of U.S. troops was sent to Jackson County:
|Samuel J. Tilden|
Rightful 19th President of the United States?
Library of Congress
Republican officials in Tallahassee had spread claims that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to attack African-American voters in Jackson County.
These warnings of violence appear to have been fabricated because there was no outbreak or even evidence of Klan activity in the county that year. A later investigation by the U.S. Congress would determine, in fact, that black and white voters in Jackson County were beginning to see eye to eye on the matter of Carpetbagger rule.
Reconstruction had been a time of great turbulence in the county. Claims of widespread political murder, however, have been debunked by recent archival research. This is not to say that some political killings did not take place in 1865-1876. Clerk of Courts Dr. John Finlayson was assassinated by an individual or individuals unknown and several other politicians - Democrat and Republican - were wounded. The actual number, however, was less than 10% of the more than 170 deaths claimed by some writers.
|Campbellton Baptist Church, built in the 1850s, was the|
home congregation of many of the voters disenfranchised
in the 1876 Presidential election.
Such issues affected citizens regardless of race. High taxes and outrageous filing fees were a burden to all small farmers and business people. People of both races wanted better educations for their children. They wanted a peaceful and prosperous community and an end to post-war bitterness.
These common desires led to a remarkable transition in Jackson County's voting demographics. Almost all of the "freedmen" or former slaves had supported the Republic Party since 1865. Many whites had not voted at all during the years following the War Between the States but were now raising the standard of the Democratic party in growing numbers. By 1876 they were joined by a small but growing number of their black neighbors.
|Friendship Church near Malone was at the epicenter of the|
contested Election of 1876. The polling place then was
described as a small log church with no light or heat.
A Congressional investigation found that election day of 1876 was for the most part peaceful in Jackson County. There were a few incidents here and there along with reports of long lines at some polling places, but the election system worked well and people voted freely. African-American voters from the Campbellton and Friendship Church precincts later testified that they willfully cast ballots for Democrat Tilden instead of Republican Hayes and that they only threats they received came from Republicans of their own race.
It was a cold day and there was no heat at Friendship Church so when the polls closed, the poll workers - both black and white - took the ballot boxes to Mosley's Store where they could count the ballots by the warmth of his fire. Both Republican and Democrat poll inspectors were present for the count and Samuel Tilden carried the precinct.
|Armstrong Purdee was a poll official at the|
Campbellton precinct in 1876.
The only other problem reported in Campbellton was the appearance of some loud men, but the poll officials made them leave and all was described by whites and blacks alike as "peaceful." A large crowd appeared just before poll closing, but there is no indication that anyone was denied an opportunity to vote. Tilden carried the precinct by a wide margin.
Once the vote totals arrived in Marianna, Republican officials were shocked to find that Jackson County had voted the Democratic Party ticket for the first time since the end of war:
|Jackson County Courthouse in Marianna as it appeared|
during the contested Election of 1876.
When the returns from Jackson County reached Tallahassee the state canvassing board declared fraud and threw out the results from Friendship Church and Campbellton. The board members were all Radical Republicans and their action disenfranchised hundreds of voters from the two state line precincts.
|Florida's historic Old Capitol as it appeared in 1876.|
Congressional investigators later interviewed a number of African-American voters from Campbellton and Friendship Church. Placed under oath, many of these men declared that they had cast their vote for the Democratic Party ticket and not the Republican one. Henry Olds, a 27-year-old African-American voter, explained to investigators for example that he voted a "Flag ticket." Asked if he knew whether that was a Republican or Democrat ballot, he responded, "Democrat, I suppose."
|John Wallace, African-American political leader in |
Florida during Reconstruction, accused his fellow
Republicans of widespread fraud. He believed that
the Presidential election had been stolen.
The battle shifted to Washington, D.C., where it was determined that Tilden could do nothing about the fraudulent electors from Florida. The decision by the canvassing board to abolish itself prevented the Democratic nominee from suing to obtain a court order regarding the Jackson County precincts.
Similar issues in South Carolina, Louisiana and Oregon were resolved in similar ways and the election came down to Florida's four electoral votes. The move by the canvassing board to block the voters of Campbellton and Friendship Church from the rightful exercise of their constitutional rights threw the election to the Republican Party.
Rutherford B. Hayes became President of the United States by just one electoral vote.
His victory was assured by the GOP shenanigans in Florida. Tilden and his allies fought to the end and were able to force the Republican nominee to agree to an end to Radical Reconstruction in the South. The end of Republican Party rule in the region for the next century soon followed.
The two parties, of course, have changed greatly since 1876. So has the election process in Florida. A look back in time to that bitter election shows, however, that every vote counts and even the voters of small rural precincts like those in Jackson County can hold the future of their country in their hands.