Election Troubles in South Carolina - Election of 1876

After South Carolina rejoined the Union, African-American males could vote. In the years immediately after the Civil War was over, more blacks were involved in South Carolina's government than in any other Southern State.

This drawing—a colorized version of an original illustration published on January 6, 1877 in The London Illustrated News (at page 21)—depicts African-Americans in South Carolina's state house, in Columbia, after the election of 1876. History tells us that the 1876 election, for South Carolina's governor, was one of the most-fradulent in American history.

Daniel Henry Chamberlain was the sitting governor, in South Carolina, when he faced a challenge from Wade Hampton on November 7, 1876. Chamberlain was a Union Army veteran. Hampton was a Confederate Army veteran.

Chamberlain sensed that the election was fraud-ridden, in an effort to thwart the real wishes of South Carolinians—including many African-American voters—but there was little he, or anyone, could do about it. A Republican, who supported African-American participation in government, Chamberlain wrote these words to black and white Republicans in his state:

The government of the United States abandons you, deliberately withdraws from you its support, with full knowledge that the lawful Government of the State will be speedily overthrown ... [forsaking] the lawful State Government to a struggle with insurrectionary forces too powerful to be resisted.

Michael Trinkley, of the Chicora Foundation, tells us why this gubenatorial election was so controversial:

There was extraordinary fraud throughout South Carolina on election day. At one poll in Edgefield, armed Democratic horsemen surrounded the polling place. Allegedly their purpose was to prevent more than ten voters from approaching the poll at a given time, but the effect on blacks was obvious. At another Edgefield poll, armed men blocked access to the ballot box.

In other locations, election officers were intimidated. In Abbeville County, armed Democrats attacked several polls. In Greenville, an armed mob of Democrats tore down a fence built to control the crowds and rushed the ballot box. In Barnwell, Democrats fired on the polling place, driving off both voters and managers. The ballot box was then stolen.

An English observer reported the use of "gossamer" paper for ballot tickets. Several ballots were folded inside one ticket, which was shaken as it was placed in the ballot box. This forced loose the inner "tickets" so that a single voter might deposit a dozen or more votes. This may explain why some counties – such as Edgefield and Laurens – had more Democratic voters than total registered voters!

The Democrats also capitalized on the illiteracy of black voters. Thousands of tickets were printed with the heading "UNION REPUBLICAN TICKET" – but which listed only Democratic candidates. Laura Towne, the noted Penn Center teacher on St Helena Island, commented in her diary that more than a hundred such rigged ballots were confiscated at one poll alone.

When the initial count came in it appeared that Hampton had won the election by a very slim margin of 92,261 to 91,127 (a difference of only 1,134 votes). Then the county commissioners for Edgefield and Laurens reported fraud – in both counties the Democrats received more votes than there were voters.

For several months South Carolina was in turmoil. Hampton was locked out of the State House while two different houses were seated – a Republican House in the State House and a Democratic House in nearby Carolina Hall.

After much legal wrangling and even more threats of violence, United States military troops, which had initially been called in to maintain order, were removed. This ensured that Hampton would take office.

It was under such circumstances that Wade Hampton became South Carolina’s governor in 1877. Two years later, Chamberlain said this about the black freedmen who were involved in South Carolina's government:

No people or race [had overcome so much to earn] the very highest title to exercise the rights and assume the duties of self-government. (Quoted by John David Smith in A Just and Lasting Peace: A Documentary History of Reconstruction, at page 258 of the online version.)

Not everyone agreed that South Carolina's election results, from 1876, were a bad thing. Governor Wade Hampton went on to be known as the "Savior of South Carolina." He is known, among other things, for his efforts to help his state recover from Northern Reconstruction policies.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5186stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 19, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Sep 01, 2017

Media Credits

This image appeared in the Illustrated London News on January 6, 1877 at page 21. It is included in The Illustrated London News, Volume 70, online via Google Books. Public Domain due to lapsed copyright. This colorized version of the original 1877 drawing is online via Authentic History.


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"Election Troubles in South Carolina - Election of 1876" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 19, 2016. Apr 24, 2019.
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