South Carolina’s Reconstruction Election of 1876


In the 1876 gubernatorial race in South Carolina, the Democrats nominated General Wade Hampton, one of the state’s most popular individuals among the white population, and Republicans re-nominated Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain who was appointed during reconstruction. Hampton led hundreds of armed supporters and while rifle clubs to disrupt Republican rallies.

Throughout Reconstruction in South Carolina, the Democratic Party did not have political tickets in statewide elections, main reason there was a large number of African Americans in the state and the Republican Party had a firm grasp on state politics. Democrats only hope was to exert pressure on one side of the Republican Party in order to go against each other. This strategy did produce noticeable gains for the Democrats, especially in 1874, but in 1876 they knew they needed more.

So, the Democrats were determined to have a campaign where they would have a Democratic ticket. They nominated for Governor Wade Hampton III, Hampton had been South Carolina’s highest-ranking Confederate officer, the Democratic strategy would rest on their ability to intimidate the Republicans into not voting, but without causing a need for federal intervention into the state’s matters.

Democrats wanted to subdue Republican enthusiasm by harassing Republican officials whenever they could at any planned speech, they would do this by having “Red Shirts” to cause trouble which they hoped would break up the rally. Even better, they would try to take over the rally to ensure the Democrats got their message out to the people. What the Democrats would do was either demanded equal time to respond to Republican speeches or they would disrupt Republican speakers by yelling so the speakers could not be heard.

Democratic Party partisan groups surfaced in South Carolina during the 1876 state and national campaigns. The people in these groups called themselves the “Red Shirts.” Their plan called for “Red Shirts” to be armed with rifles and pistols, in order that Democrats could hold to their belief they had to limit the black vote by intimidation in order to keep them away from polling places.

It was known throughout the state that Democrats were to attend every Republican meeting as the “Red Shirts” should go in large numbers and be armed. They were told to follow the rules at first and to be courteous, but as soon as Republicans began speaking the “Red Shirts” would start yelling to the people around them that they were liars and were only trying to deceive the uninformed Negroes.
There were times at these rallies that Democrats would wave their guns. While this strategy did not persuade voters around the state that Democrats ideas were better, but it was an effective strategy to show the Republican state government could not safeguard its own leaders or supporters.

On Election Day in 1876 many were armed at the polls as Democrats tried to prevent African Americans from voting in order to decrease the number that would vote Republican, this strategy was unsuccessful, as the Republican Party reached its highest vote total during the Reconstruction period as the incumbent Daniel H. Chamberlain was re-elected Governor.

As we look further into what happened during that time in November of 1876 you see there was a problem. According to an 1875 special state census, South Carolina had 74,193 white men over age twenty-one and 110,735 black men over age twenty-one. But when you look at the final vote, Democrats had 92,261 votes and the Republicans had 91,127 in 1876. Thus, either 18,000 African Americans voted for Hampton (as he believed) or his victory was caused by ballot box stuffing, repeat voting, or illegal voting.

All these methods were admitted by Democratic leaders in their memoirs, Georgians even crossed state lines to vote, Hampton’s Red Shirts went to different polling places to vote in each one. It was found that Democrats folded multiple “tissue ballots” inside their regular paper ballots and Edgefield County stated that they had two thousand more votes than it had eligible voters.

With fraud so obvious, the Republican-controlled State Board of Examiners took the opportunity to influence the election. They announced that the votes in Edgefield and Laurens Counties were invalid, both of these counties had gone heavily for Hampton even though they had being firmly Republican in the past. By throwing out these two counties it gave Republicans control of the state House of Representatives, this is the body which had the authority to determine who would be the Governor.

When the General Assembly met, the contested members from Edgefield and Laurens Counties were disqualified from voting, the House formed along Republican lines. The Democrats walked out in protest and, including the disqualified members, Democrats declared themselves a quorum.

The Democrats returned to the State House and began to conduct business and for the next four months South Carolina had two legislatures, each one debating bills and passing laws. The state had two governors as well, both Hampton and Chamberlain trying to implement the powers of the Governor’s office.

The election of 1876 had national and local impact. Presidential candidates Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes was so tight and deadlocked in electoral votes that South Carolina’s votes would determine who became president.

On the face of the returns Hayes, a Republican, won; but he had to wait for a national bipartisan election commission to side with him and Democrats to end their delaying tactics before his election was assured in late February 1877. Once elected, Hayes adopted a “hands off” policy toward the South. In April of 1877 Chamberlain, knowing that the federal government would not maintain him in office, resigned. Reconstruction in South Carolina was over.




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