The 1876 Republican National Convention was held at Exposition Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio from June 14 to 16, 1876. James G. Blaine was the frontrunner and the favorite of party leaders, but he was tarnished by allegations of corruption; Oliver P. Morton, the choice of Radicals, was in ill health; Benjamin H. Bristow, the favorite of reformers, was hated by the still-popular President Grant; and Roscoe Conkling, the quintessential spoils politician, was unacceptable to reformers.
As the favorite son of Ohio, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes was a true dark horse candidate. He had much in his favor, however. Both regular and reform Republicans liked him. He was a war hero, had supported Radical Reconstruction legislation and championed Negro suffrage, came from a large swing state, and his reputation for integrity was excellent. Distasteful to no one, he was the second choice among the supporters of the other leading candidates. The convention teemed with Hayes supporters, and Hayes’ cause was championed by the powerful Ohio U.S. Senator, John Sherman. When none of the major candidates could muster the votes of the majority of the delegates, Hayes became the convention’s compromise choice for the nomination. William A. Wheeler of New York was selected as his running mate.
On June 19, Hayes wrote to Sherman expressing his thanks. “I trust you will never regret the important action you took in the inauguration and carrying out of the movement which resulted in my nomination. I write these few words to assure you that I appreciate and am grateful for what you did.” Four days later, Hayes’ diary states, “The nomination has been well received. The best people, many of them heretofore dissatisfied with the Republican party, are especially hearty in my support. I must make it my constant effort to deserve this confidence.”
That same day, he wrote a follow-up letter to Sherman discussing the nature of his to-be-written letter accepting the nomination. In it, he indicates that he is already being pressured by countervaling forces within the party to adopt their positions, that he wants to avoid getting pinned down by them, and is seeking to commit to as little as possible.
Autograph Letter Signed, Columbus, Ohio, June 23, 1876, to Sherman. “I am very glad to get your good full letter. The next thing in order for me is my letter of acceptance. I am advised to harden by some, and to soften by others the money plank, and so on. Perhaps I would do well to approve it as it stands. I shall hardly reply to the Committee before the end of the month, or till after the 4th. If you have suggestions, you will oblige me by making them. My inclination is to say very little. The people are already organizing meetings, are ratifying, and the letter of acceptance may as well perhaps be a purely formal affair, may it not?” This letter, illuminating the new candidate’s thoughts just days after his selection, is included in The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes. We do not recall having another like it for any presidential nominee.
In the end, he found it necessary to make his letter of acceptance, dated July 8, lengthier than he had hoped. In it, Hayes laid special stress on the necessity of reform in the civil service and declared his "inflexible purpose, if elevated, not to be a candidate for election to a second term," because he believed that "the restoration of the civil service to the system established by Washington, and followed by the early Presidents, can best be accomplished by an Executive who is under no temptation to use the patronage of his office to promote his own re-election." His letter also committed him to the protection of freedmen’s rights.
The presidential election of 1876 was until recently the most disputed in American history. Democrat Samuel Tilden defeated Hayes in the popular vote, and had 184 electoral votes to Hayes' 165, with 20 votes yet uncounted. These 20 electoral votes were in dispute: in three states (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) each party reported its candidate had won the state, while in Oregon one elector was declared illegal and replaced. The votes were all ultimately awarded to Hayes after a bitter electoral dispute. Senator Sherman would be appointed Secretary of the Treasury in the Cabinet of President Hayes.