It was the 1876 presidential election. And two candidates were matched almost evenly with each other in a contested race for the White House. In some ways it was almost reminiscent of Bush v. Gore. But the solution was much different: and it involved yet another corrupt bargain. This bargain became known as the Compromise of 1877, and would spell the end of Reconstruction as America knew it.
The two contenders were Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio, who stood on the Republican side, and Samuel L. Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York. The battleground of election territory: none other than the American South. After the presidential election of 1876, three southern states still had pro-Reconstruction Republican states in power: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. And support for Reconstruction was fast declining in the south.
Most people remember Reconstruction from their high school textbooks. It was a time dedicated to making amends for the horrors of slavery by granting freed blacks the right to vote, as well as citizenship. In order to ensure these rights, in the aftermath of the bloody Civil War, federal troops occupied the South. This was obviously much to the dismay of southern whites, who were enraged that their way of life had been uprooted.
During Reconstruction there were programs established to assist with the rights of African Americans. One of these, for example, was the Freedman’s Bureau (1865), which was enacted to help freed blacks to achieve economic and political rights. Unfortunately, this Bureau was later discontinued by Congress in 1872, due to political infighting and much pressure from southern whites.
Many of these southern whites utilized violence and intimidation to bar blacks from voting. Starting in 1873 were a series of Supreme Court decisions that limited the scope of Reconstruction-era laws, as well as federal support for both the 14th and 15th amendments. Corruption accusations against the Republican party for the Grant administration, along with economic depression made 1876 a very contentious year for election.
When accepting nomination, Hayes promised to bring self-government to the South. Tilden was firmly committed to ending what he and his fellow whites saw as “carpetbag tyranny” there. Hayes was likewise skeptical of the use of federal troops in the South. He wanted the Republican party to be a prominent force in this region. Originally he had championed an amendment for black voting rights during his run for governor. The measure later failed, and a narrow win only convinced Hayes that the cause of black civil rights was something too costly for his political ambitions.
Both southern Democrats and northern Republicans wanted to end Reconstruction. During the election of 1876, power was split between parties: Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats controlled the House. On Election Day the Democrats managed to net the swing states of Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York. And by midnight, Tilden had 184 of 185 needed electoral votes to win. He also led the popular vote by 250,000.
Sounds like a done deal, right? Wrong. Tilden’s apparent lead was called into question in three southern states where electoral votes were contested: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The contested southern states sent in two sets of election returns showing different results. In South Carolina particularly, supporters of the gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton, a Confederate general, employed the use of violence and intimidation against the African American voting majority. Several clashes even resulted in the deaths of blacks and whites.
Another state facing uncertainty was Oregon. After learning that one of the Republican electors was a federal employee, making them disqualified to serve, the state governor, a Democrat, replaced him with a Democratic elector. What threw the election into uncertainty was when the Republican elector resigned his compromising position, and declared his ballot for Hayes.
The situation would drag on into next year, prompting congressional intervention. In January 1877, Congress set up an electoral commission consisting of five U.S. representatives, five senators, and five Supreme Court justices. Politically, the commission was evenly stratified: 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and 1 Independent (well…almost evenly).
The commission hit a roadblock when its one independent member, Justice David Davis, refused to serve. He was later replaced by a moderate Republican, Justice Joseph Bradley, who would sway the commission’s vote to a 8-7 ruling in favor of Hayes. Basically this meant that all the disputed elector votes would go to him. As a result the Democrats threatened to filibuster the counting of votes, in order to stop Hayes from gaining the White House.
It was during deliberations that Hayes’ Republican allies met secretly with moderate southern Democrats in order to convince them not to block the counting of votes through filibuster. This would effectively hand the election over to Hayes. The day was in February: the place was the Wormley Hotel in Washington D.C. Here, the Democrats agreed to accept Hayes’ victory, on one crucial condition: that the Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, giving Democrats full control over it. Additionally, Hayes would have to install a leading southerner in his cabinet and support federal aid for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The Democrats “promised” that once the troops were gone they would respect the rights of African Americans.
On March 2, the congressional commission voted 8-7 (keeping party lines) to give the disputed electoral votes over to Hayes. The final score saw him with 185 votes, and Tilden with 184. Two months later, President Hayes ordered all federal troops from their posts at Louisiana and South Carolina statehouses. Since Florida already had a Democratic victory in the 1876 gubernatorial election, Democratic control was secure there.
This electoral bargain became known as the Compromise of 1877. Removing federal troops from the South effectively ended Reconstruction, as well as federal protections for the rights of southern blacks. They were now at the mercy of their Democratic governments. Despite their promise to respect the rights of African Americans, racial discrimination persisted in the South. Widespread disenfranchisement followed, legally sanctioned by states. From the 1870s on, Jim Crow laws were passed providing for segregation in schools, parks, public transportation, restaurants, and theaters. America would not see an end to this for over a hundred years.
Was absolutely EVERYTHING Hayes’ fault? Not completely. You had racist southern governments that were eager to keep freed blacks in a condition of perpetual slavery. You had wealthy white elites and terrorist organizations such as the KKK using violence to deter black civil rights.
But you also had Hayes: a man who placed ambition over integrity. He knew that southern whites were not willing to grant equal treatment to African Americans. But he was willing to overlook this, in order to consolidate party power. He effectively “sold out” on an issue that was no longer politically expedient for him. And because of this Compromise, the Reconstruction Era came to a sudden close, paving the way for more legally sanctioned, state-sponsored discrimination against African Americans.