Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, Republicans had tried to Reconstruct the South and secure equal rights for African American men. But a series of factors convened to bring Reconstruction to an end in 1877.
The End of Reconstruction
All summer, the presidential campaigns were fear-mongering, trying to convince the American people that the 'other side' would revive the war and that violence was finally cooling down or that they would drive the economy even further into the ground or that certain minority groups in the nation would never secure their equal rights. A bitter divide between Republicans and Democrats kept the country from even discussing solutions to the nation's problems. Each side accused the other of fraud, manipulation and deceit, and we aren't talking about 2012.
We're back more than a century and a quarter, when the future of Reconstruction rested in the outcome of the 1876 presidential election. In the end, the results couldn't be determined by the electorate. Instead, the supposed Compromise of 1877 chose America's executive officer and withdrew federal troops from the South. But regardless of who won the presidency, Reconstruction's time was probably up anyway. Let's rewind even further to see why.
Shifting Political Power
President Ulysses S. Grant
Have you ever had so much to do, you didn't even know where to start? Then maybe you can imagine what it might have been like to be a member of Congress in the 1870s. Just a few years earlier - beginning in 1865 - the only thing on everyone's mind was Reconstruction. But as the years wore on, Congress and the American people grew tired of the political struggle, the expense and the violence; they had new things to worry about.
Of course, Southern Democrats had opposed Reconstruction from the start and worked tirelessly to end it. The moderate presidential positions of Lincoln, Johnson and Grant allowed former Confederates to vote and regain political offices at the local level. Then, vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, used violence to scare away most of the Northern carpetbaggers, to intimidate Southern scalawags and keep many blacks from voting at all. By 1869, Democrats started to 'redeem' the South, taking control of state governments and passing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws to maintain white supremacy. A federal law, called the Civil Rights Act of 1875, made segregation illegal, but U.S. attorneys were not obligated to file claims on behalf of citizens. Each person would have to bring his or her own civil lawsuit against an offender. That was difficult and expensive. Few individuals even tried to challenge Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. By 1877, every Southern state had a white Redeemer government.
During President Grant's second term, the nation faced a severe economic crisis, called the Panic of 1873, when several banks and railroad companies failed. President Grant vetoed a bill that would have created even more inflation. That's good in some ways, but deflation makes it harder for people and businesses to pay off their loans. So, bankruptcies and unemployment rose. It was difficult for Northerners to keep focusing on Southern problems, like equal rights or restraining the KKK or readmitting former Confederate states, when their own households were struggling to pay the bills. Even though we can't pinpoint any one cause for the financial panic, people then (as now) tended to blame the president. Of course, scandals in Grant's administration didn't help him or his party's cause either. In the 1874 mid-term elections, Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in a quarter of a century, signaling the certain death for Reconstruction legislation.
Democrat Wade Hampton campaigned for the end of Reconstruction
Supreme Court Cases
A series of decisions from the Supreme Court helped the Redeemers in their quest to end Reconstruction and reestablish white supremacy. The Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 determined that the 14th Amendment (which guaranteed due process and equal protection) only applied at the federal level, not the state level. Ten years later, they said that the 14th Amendment didn't protect you from discrimination by other individuals, either; therefore, the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. In 1876, the Cruikshank case decided that only states could file charges under the Ku Klux Klan Act. But of course, the Redeemed Southern states supported the KKK; they were never going to prosecute anyone under the law! This left Republicans at the mercy of violent criminals. In theory, the 15th amendment guaranteed every man's right to vote. But in practice, it was difficult for Republicans - black or white - to exercise that right safely.
The Elections of 1876
So, this was the backdrop for the elections of 1876. With the Democrat Party on a winning streak and feeling confident they could take back even more offices - including the White House -they nominated New York Governor Samuel Tilden as their candidate. The Republican Party passed over Ulysses S. Grant in favor of Ohio governor Rutherford Hayes.
The Republicans' main strategy in all of their races that year was to 'wave the bloody shirt,' meaning they kept referring back to the Civil War, trying to convince voters that a vote for a Democrat was a vote for a rebel. Check out this political cartoon. On the left, the man is an enthusiastic Confederate. And there you see him again, on the right, and nothing has changed except his banners.
The Republican strategy was to remind voters that opponents had been rebels
While it may seem absurd, in many circumstances, the Republicans were actually right. Many Democrats, like Wade Hampton who successfully ran for Governor of South Carolina, openly campaigned for an end to Reconstruction and were supported by groups like the 'Red Shirts,' who resorted to murder to further their political agenda.
As for the presidential race, disputed results in four states meant that the election couldn't be decided on election night. Tilden, the Democrat, won the popular vote but not the Electoral College. It wasn't the first - or the last - time that scenario has played out in America. And like the most recent example (in 2000), the Democrats of 1876 pointed fingers at Republicans in Florida, claiming they had tampered with the ballots. A recount ensued. But in 1876, the evidence also points to obvious violations of the 15th Amendment in South Carolina and Louisiana in favor of the Democrats. Even today, historians don't agree on who would have won if there had been a fair election. A special commission was finally selected to determine the disputed electoral votes, but even that process was wracked with fraud since Democrats tried to buy out the one neutral Supreme Court Justice on the committee. Their plan backfired, and as no independents remained on the Court, a Republican was selected in his place. When the committee identified Hayes as the winner along a strict party-line vote, Democrats refused to accept the results.
Map depicting results of the 1876 election
In the end, the election was likely decided between party leaders behind closed doors with the so-called Compromise of 1877. Although some historians debate whether or not any agreement actually took place, here are the traditional details you need to know. Democrats would concede the presidency to the Republicans on several conditions; most importantly, all remaining federal troops (who had been enforcing the Civil Rights) would have to leave the South. Now, whether or not there was a shady deal in a smoke-filled room, this outcome effectively abandoned control of politics, race relations and civil rights in the Southern states to the Redeemers. Reconstruction was over.
Let's review. Although the supposed Compromise of 1877 is widely marked as the official end of Reconstruction, several factors were working against the decade-long struggle for equal rights. Northerners had grown weary of the effort and expense, and when the Panic of 1873 hit, they were more concerned about their own bottom line than they were in Southern problems. Democrats won a majority in Congress, ending Reconstruction legislation. The Supreme Court eventually declared the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional, made the Ku Klux Klan Act unenforceable and limited the protection of the 14th Amendment. Redeemers gained control of every Southern state. So when the presidency was granted to Republican Rutherford Hayes in exchange for withdrawal of federal troops from the South, there was no one left to protect the rights of African Americans. Reconstruction was over.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain why a lot of Reconstruction legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 15th amendment, were ineffective
- Understand other factors working against Reconstruction, such as the Panic of 1873, Supreme Court cases and the elections of Redeemers
- Summarize the election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877