Compromise of 1877: Definition, Summary & Results

Instructor: David Lobb
Political deals between parties have become commonplace in American politics. In 1877, one such political bargain resolved a disputed election, ended Reconstruction, and changed the fate of recently freed African Americans. Develop an understanding of the Compromise of 1877 and test your knowledge with a short quiz.

The Political Situation in 1876

Despite allegations of corruption and scandal that swirled around Ulysses S. Grant at the end of his second term, he was eager to run again in 1876. However, scandal and the two-term tradition stopped him from moving forward with Grant's desires. James G. Blaine of Maine emerged as the front-runner of Grant's Republican Party. But like Grant and many of the other Republicans associated with his administration, scandal tainted Blaine as well. At the Republican convention that year, the party put its hopes in the Ohio native Rutherford B. Hays. Three times elected as the governor of Ohio, he had made a name for himself as a civil service reformer. His greatest strength, however, was that he did not offend the Radicals or the Reformers.

Ulysses S. Grant

In St. Louis, at the Democratic convention, there was little debate about who would be put forward as candidate for president. Samuel Tilden, the millionaire corporate lawyer and reform-minded governor of New York, would be the choice. Tilden gained fame when he went after the notorious ring of Boss Tweed who controlled New York City politics through bribes and graft.

The campaign of 1876 generated no burning issues. Both Hays and Tilden favored conservative rule in the American South. And although it was a horribly corrupt election on both sides, they both favored civil-service reform. With little of substance to focus on, each camp turned to mudslinging. The Democrats aired the Republican's dirty laundry, reminding voters of the scandals and corruption present during the Grant years. In response, the Republicans linked the Democrats with secession and with the outrages committed against black and white Republicans in the South. Some Republican leaders went so far as to comment that every man that tried to rip the country apart was a Democrat and reminded the public that Abraham Lincoln's assassin was a Democrat.


The Election and Crisis

Early election returns showed Tilden would score a victory. Tilden had an edge of 300,000 in the popular vote and 184 electoral votes by most estimates - just one shy of a majority. In the South, the outcome was uncertain. Fraud and intimidation on both sides made accurate returns doubtful. In fact, three Southern states, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina, sent in disputed returns. The Constitution offered no guidance on how to deal with this situation. Even if Congress had been empowered to sort out the disputed votes, the Democratic House and the Republican Senate proved unable to reach a final agreement.

Finally, on January 29, 1877, the House and the Senate decided to set up a special Electoral Commission to investigate what had happened. The Commission had fifteen members: five from both the House and Senate and five from the Supreme Court. The decision on each state went by a vote of 8 to 7 along party lines in favor of Hays. The Democrats threatened to filibuster, or hold up the decision, but in the end the House voted to accept the Commission's report and declare Hays the winner. It would be an electoral vote of 185 to 184.

1876 Election
1876 election

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