The 1876 Presidential Election

On this election day, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at one of the United States’ more interesting and controversial Presidential elections – and one in which Colorado had a direct hand in the outcome.

Colorado became a state just three months before election day, 1876. That year, the Presidential race was between Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican, and Samuel J. Tilden, Democrat. As a territory, Colorado had been entitled to one Territorial Delegate to sit in the House of Representatives; Delegates were allowed to sit on Committees and to take part in debate, but could not vote. By 1874, Colorado leaned Republican, but a split in the party had resulted in Colorado’s leading Democrat, Thomas M. Patterson, being elected to the position of Delegate. During his two-year term, Patterson lobbied hard for statehood. Finally, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Colorado Enabling Act so that Colorado could indeed become the nation’s 38th state. It was largely due to Delegate Patterson’s efforts.

Part of the reason Patterson fought so strongly for statehood to occur that year was because he believed that, with Colorado’s Republican party fighting, Colorado would give its three electoral votes to the Democrats. But here Patterson made his error. Because Colorado became a state in August, and election day occurred in November, the new state did not have time to organize a Presidential election, so the Colorado legislature selected the state’s electors. The Legislature was controlled by the Republicans at the time – so Colorado’s three electoral votes went to the Republicans.

In one of the United States’ closest presidential elections, Rutherford B. Hayes won the race – but by only one electoral vote. If Patterson had held off his lobbying for just a few more months, Colorado would not have been a state yet – and Samuel J. Tilden would have been President.

The election of 1876 was controversial far beyond just Colorado’s role. Fraudulent voting and political intrigue occurred in several states, leaving some 20 electoral votes hotly contested. Even still, years later, after Patterson went on to be a successful lawyer, owner of the Rocky Mountain News, and United States Senator, “his speech reflected a note of pride that it was generally believed that a presidential election had been lost because of a lowly territorial delegate.”*

For the full story with all the details, see Robert E. Smith’s article in the Spring 1976 Colorado Magazine.  For more on Thomas Patterson, see also the Winter 1974 and Winter 1977 issues of Colorado Magazine; the Spring 2005 issue of Colorado Heritage, and the full-length biography, Tom Patterson: Colorado Crusader for Change, University Press of Colorado, 1995. All of these resources are available from our library.  

*Smith, Robert E. “Thomas M. Patterson, Colorado Statehood, and the Presidential Election of 1976.” Colorado Magazine, v.53 n.2, Spring 1976.