I vaguely remember learning about the 1876 US Presidential Election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden in my AP US History class. Something about Tilden holding a slim lead in the popular vote, but Hayes winning the Electoral College through some shady backroom deal. Perhaps I would have remembered it better had I learned that one of the fifteen men that decided the outcome of the election was Josiah Gardner Abbott, a longtime resident of Wellesley who lived in a 53-room mansion on Linden Street and owned hundreds of acres of land that would become the Abbott Road neighborhood and part of the Cliff-Abbott Estates north of Route 9. Needless to say, he was one of the prominent men in the Commonwealth and well-known in political and judicial circles at the national level throughout the second half of the 19th Century.
Despite all this recognition, Abbott has never been more than a footnote in the Townsman and various Wellesley historical narratives. There is, however, one source — his memoir authored by Charles Cowley — that provides a wealth of information about Abbott. And for reasons unknown to me, no one from Wellesley has mentioned it in the 121 years since it was published. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to celebrate this man’s life. I will therefore attempt to bring Josiah Gardner Abbott back into the limelight by describing his role in the determination of the 1876 election. Then I’d like to focus on his connection to Wellesley.
This post is divided into two parts. Below is part one (on Abbott’s role in the 1876 election). Part two (on Abbott’s place in Wellesley history) will be posted in a few days.
I should probably begin with some background on the 1876 presidential election in case it’s been a few years since your last history class. Hopefully, you remember at least a little bit about the war between the Union and the Confederacy. What you may have forgotten, however, is that in 1876, only eleven years after the war ended, the nation was still very much on the edge of falling apart. Issues relating to Reconstruction — the era in which the Union was brought back together — created tension between Republicans (controlling the North and West) and Democrats (dominating the South). In particular, there was much debate on the role of the emancipated black population in post-bellum America. Many Southern Democrats were looking for any opportunity to split once again from the Union. Therefore, the 1876 general election that featured Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican governor of Ohio, against Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York, was more than just a typical election. The stability of the Union was at risk.
Things only got worse following Election Day. When voting closed, Tilden held a slight lead in the overall popular vote and looked to be on his way to the White House. But the results in three states — South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida — were disputed by Republicans, who accused Democrats of election tampering and voter intimidation. Therefore, the Republican-controlled state electoral commissions threw out a number of Democratic votes and gave the electoral votes to Hayes. In response, the Democrats protested these actions and claimed the electoral votes for Tilden. In addition, a controversy erupted over the eligibility of one of Oregon’s electors, which led to the appointment of a Tilden supporter even though Hayes won the state. These complications prevented determining a winner in the Electoral College — the winner needed 185 electoral votes, but Tilden had 184 uncontested electoral votes and Hayes had 165. Twenty electoral votes remained undeclared from those four states.
In order to settle this matter and thus declare a winner, Congress passed the Electoral Commission Act in early 1877. This legislation allowed for the formation of an electoral commission that had the power to decide the outcome of disputed election results. The commission would consist of fifteen members — seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Independent — chosen from the House, Senate, and Supreme Court.
So here’s where Wellesley’s Josiah Abbott comes into the picture. Abbott, who had previously served in the Massachusetts Legislature as a representative (in 1837) and senator (in 1842-43), was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1874 (after two failed US Senate runs in 1863 and 1869). Although he was only a freshman in the House, Abbott was well-respected by both parties’ leaders because of his stellar legal career. He had spent decades as counsel, but also served three years as a Superior Court judge in Suffolk County. A lifelong Democrat, Abbott had also been a trusted advisor to his party’s leaders. Therefore, when it came time to form the Electoral Commission, it was no surprise that Abbott was selected as one of the seven Democrats.
The problem with the Commission arose when trying to seat the one Independent. The legislation dictated that four party-affiliated Supreme Court justices would select an Independent justice, who was assumed to be Justice David Davis. The Democrats, however, in an attempt to swing the Commission’s decision in their favor, voted Davis into the Illinois State Senate during the Commission selection process. Unfortunately for the Democrats, this plan backfired when Davis resigned from the Supreme Court and was replaced on the Commission by Republican-leaning Justice Joseph Philo Bradley, tilting the balance of power to the Republicans. It was not surprising then that the Commission voted 8-7 (entirely along party lines) in favor of handing all of the twenty contested electoral votes to Hayes, giving him a narrow 185-184 Electoral College win.
Democrats throughout the nation were outraged over this decision. They believed that the Republicans stole the election for Hayes. Some called for violence against “Rutherfraud” supporters. Even the Democratic minority on the Commission went so far as to write an address — penned entirely by Abbott — that protested the decision. This address, however, was not published and the original copy was destroyed. (Although a copy was published after Abbott’s death and can be read in his memoir.) The decision not to publish it at the time was due in large part to Abbott’s belief that such an address would be detrimental to the future of the Democratic Party and could even threaten the stability of the nation. It was a difficult, yet noble and patriotic decision by Abbott. He and the other Democrats were ridiculed in the media and portrayed as weak and powerless. But that shouldn’t lessen the significance of his actions. Josiah Abbott may have very well saved the nation.
And that pretty much marked the end of Abbott’s political career. After one term in the House of Representatives and another unsuccessful campaign for the Senate in 1877, Abbott went back to practicing law in Massachusetts. He would continue to act as an informal advisor to many politicians, including Grover Cleveland, who in 1884 reportedly offered a Presidential cabinet position to Abbott, who gracefully declined. Abbott soon retired to his Wellesley homestead where he died in 1891.
(In 1887, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act, which gave state executives the power to determine disputed election results in the hopes that the 1876-77 fiasco would not be repeated. Unfortunately, this legislation was imperfect as well and played a central role in the Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, that decided the 2000 Presidential election.)
Part two of this post can be read here.
- New York Times: 3 June 1891
- Memoir of the Hon. Josiah Gardner Abbott, LL.D. by Charles Cowley (1892)
- Wellesley Atlas of 1897
- Wellesley Townsman: 8 June 1934; 22 June 1934; 2 April 1981
- Harper’s Weekly website: Finding Precedent: Hayes vs. Tilden
- Wikipedia.org [United States presidential election, 1876; Electoral Commission (US)]