The Compromise of 1877: A Political Bargain Seals the Election of 1876

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“Don’t forget to take the rifle!” 

“Yes, Mama!” shouted Elijah as he ran back to kiss her forehead before racing out the door, rifle slung across his back. 

Elijah hated guns. But he knew they were a necessity these days.

He prayed for the Lord’s peace as he made his way towards Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina. He was sure he would need it today — he was heading into the city to cast his vote. 

November 7, 1876. Election day. 

It was also America’s 100th birthday, which really didn’t mean much in Columbia; this year the election had been marked by bloodshed, not centennial celebrations.  

Elijah’s heart raced with excitement and anticipation as he walked toward his destination. It was a crisp fall day and although autumn was giving way to winter, the leaves were still clinging to the trees, resplendent in their deep shades of orange, crimson, and gold. 

He had just turned twenty-one in September, and this was the first presidential and gubernatorial election in which he would have the privilege to vote. A privilege neither his father or grandfather before him had. 

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States had been ratified just a few years back, on February 3, 1870, and protected the right of citizens of the United States to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” South Carolina had more Black politicians in positions of power than any other state in the South, and with all of the progress being made, Elijah dreamed that he might someday be on a ballot himself [1].

He turned the corner, the polling station coming into view. With it, his nerves heightened, and he absentmindedly tightened his grip on the rifle strap that hung over his shoulder. 

It looked more like a battle scene than a picture of free and democratic elections. The crowd was loud and intense; Elijah had seen similar scenes erupt into violence over the course of the election campaigns. 

Swallowing the lump that had settled in his throat, he took another step forward.

The building was surrounded by a rabble of armed White men, their faces scarlet with rage. They were hurling insults at senior members of the local Republican party — “Carpetbagger! You dirty scalawag!” — shouting obscenities, and threatening to kill them if the Democrats lose this election. 

To Elijah’s relief, their anger seemed largely directed at Republican politicians — on this day anyway. Maybe it was because of the federal troops that were posted across the street. 

Good, thought Elijah in relief, feeling the weight of the rifle, maybe I won’t have to use this thing today after all.

He had come to do one thing — cast his vote for Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes and Governor Chamberlain. 

What he didn’t know was that his vote would, effectively, be null and void. 

In a few short weeks — and behind closed doors — Democrats and Republicans would make a secret arrangement to trade 3 governorships for 1 presidency. 

What Was the Compromise of 1877?

The Compromise of 1877 was an off-the-record deal, struck between Republicans and Democrats, that determined the victor of the 1876 presidential election. It also marks the official end of the Reconstruction Era — the 12-year period after the Civil War, designed to help reunify the country after the crisis of secession.

In the 1876 presidential race, Republican front runner — Rutherford B. Hayes — was up against Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden in a tight race. 

The Republican Party, formed in 1854 around Northern interests and who had nominated Abraham Lincoln to run for president in 1860, had maintained their stronghold on the Executive Office since the end of the Civil War. 

But, Tilden was racking up electoral votes and was positioned to take the election. 

So, what do you do when your party is in peril of losing its long-held political power? You throw your convictions out the window, do whatever it takes to win, and call it “compromise.”

The Electoral Crisis and Compromise

Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, a popular general integral to the Union’s victory in the Civil War who leveraged his military career to gain prominence in politics, was on his way out of office after two terms plagued by financial scandals. (Think: gold, whiskey cartels, and railroad bribery.) [2] 

By 1874, Democrats had recovered on the national level from the political disgrace of being associated with the rebellious South, winning control of the House of Representatives [3]. 

In fact, the Democrats had recovered so much that their nominee for president — New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden — was nearly elected to office. 

On election day in 1876, Tilden had 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed to declare victory and was ahead in the popular vote by 250,000. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, was well enough behind with only 165 electoral votes.

 He even went to bed that night thinking he had lost the election [4]. 

However, votes from Florida (even to this day Florida can’t get it together for a presidential election) South Carolina, and Louisiana — the three remaining Southern states with Republican governments — were counted in favor of Hayes. This gave him the remaining electoral votes needed to win. 

But, it wasn’t quite so simple. 

The Democrats contested the results of the election, claiming that federal troops — which had been stationed throughout the South after the Civil War to keep the peace and enforce federal law — had tampered with the votes to get their Republican candidate elected.

The Republicans countered, arguing that Black Republican voters had been prevented from casting their votes in many of the Southern states by force or coercion [5]. 

Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were divided; each state sent two completely contradictory election results to Congress. 

Congress Creates an Electoral Commission

On December 4th, an embittered and suspicious Congress convened in an attempt to sort out the electoral mess. It was clear that the country was dangerously divided. 

Democrats shouted “fraud” and “Tilden-or-fight,” while Republicans retorted that Democratic interference had robbed them of the Black vote in all of the Southern states and that they would “yield no further.” [6] 

In South Carolina — the state with the most Black voters — there had already been considerable bloodshed initiated by both armed Whites and Black militias in the months leading up to the election. Pockets of fighting were popping up all over the South, and violence was clearly not off the table. Nor was the question of whether America could peacefully elect a new President without resorting to force. 

Back in 1860, the South had thought it better to secede rather than “accept the peacefully and regularly elected President” [7]. Union between states had been rapidly deteriorating and the threat of civil war loomed on the horizon. 

Congress wasn’t looking to go down that road again anytime soon. 

January 1877 rolled around, and both parties were simply unable to come to a consensus on which electoral votes to count. In an unprecedented move, Congress created a bipartisan electoral commission consisting of members from the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court to determine the fate of a once again fragile nation. 

The Compromise

So fragile was the condition of the country that the 19th president of the United States was the first, and only, president ever elected by a Congressionally appointed electoral commission.

But in reality, the election had already been decided by politicians on both sides of the aisle by way of a compromise that “didn’t happen” well before Congress officially declared the victor. 

Congressional Republicans met in secret with moderate Southern Democrats in hopes of convincing them not to filibuster — a political move where a proposed piece of legislation is debated over to delay or entirely keep it from moving forward — which would block the official counting of the electoral votes and allow Hayes to be formally, and peacefully, elected. 

This secret meeting took place at the Wormley Hotel in Washington; Democrats agreed to a Hayes victory in exchange for:

  • The removal of federal troops from the 3 remaining states with Republican governments. With federal troops out of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, “Redemption” — or return to home rule — in the South would be complete. In this case, regaining regional control was more valuable than securing the presidential election. 
  • The appointment of one Southern Democrat to Hayes’ cabinet. President Hayes did appoint one ex-Confederate to his cabinet which, as one can imagine, ruffled a few feathers. 
  • The implementation of legislation and federal funding to industrialize and jumpstart the South’s economy. The South had been in an economic depression that reached its depth in 1877. One of the contributing factors was that Southern ports had still not recovered from the effects of war — harbors like Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans were unusable. 

Shipping on the Mississippi River was almost non-existent. Southern shipping profits had been diverted North, freight rates in the South soared, and the obstruction of the ports greatly hindered any effort at Southern economic recovery [8]. With federally funded internal improvements, the South hoped it could regain some of the economic footings that were lost with the abolition of slavery. 

  • Federal funding of the construction of another transcontinental railroad in the South. The North already had a transcontinental railroad that had been subsidized by the government, and the South wanted one too. Although support for federal railroad subsidies was unpopular among Northern Republicans because of the scandal surrounding railroad construction under Grant, the transcontinental railroad in the South would, in effect, become a literal “road to reunion.” 
  • A policy of non-interference with race relations in the South. Spoiler alert: this turned out to be a really big problem for America and opened wide the doors for the normalization of White supremacy and segregation in the South. Post-war land distribution policies in the South were race-based and prevented Blacks from becoming fully autonomous; Jim Crow laws essentially nullified the civil and political rights they had gained during Reconstruction.  

The bottom line of the Compromise of 1877 was that, if made president, Hayes promised to support economic legislation that would benefit the South and stay out of race relations. In return, Democrats agreed to stop their filibuster in Congress and allow Hayes to be elected. 

Compromise, Not Consensus 

Not all Democrats were on board with the Compromise of 1877 — hence why so much of it was agreed to in secret. 

Northern Democrats were outraged at the outcome, rendering it a gigantic fraud and, with a majority in the House of Representatives, one that they had the means to prevent. They threatened to dismantle the deal between the “defector” Southern Democrats and Hayes, but as the record shows, they were unsuccessful in their efforts. 

Northern Democrats were outvoted by members of their own party, and the electoral votes from Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were counted in favor of Hayes. Northern Democrats couldn’t have the president they wanted so, like all typical three-year-olds — err, politicians — they resorted to name-calling and dubbed the new president, “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” [9]. 

Why Was the Compromise of 1877 Necessary?

A History of Compromises

We could, in good conscience, call 19th century America “The Age of Compromises.” Five times during the course of the 19th century, America faced the threat of disunion over the issue of slavery.

Four times the nation was able to talk it out, with the North and South each making concessions or compromises over “whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world.” [10] 

Of these compromises, the three most well-known were the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787), Missouri Compromise (1820), and the Compromise of 1850.

Of the five compromises, only one attempt failed — the Crittenden Compromise, the South’s desperate attempt to cement slavery in the U.S. Constitution — and the nation collapsed into brutal conflict shortly after. 

With the wounds of war still fresh, the Compromise of 1877 was a last-ditch effort at avoiding another civil war. But it was one that came at a cost. 

The Last Compromise and the End of Reconstruction 

For 16 years, America had turned her back on compromise, choosing instead to work out her differences with bayonets fixed to muskets and brutal total war tactics never before seen on a battlefield. 

But with the end of the war, the nation began working to mend its wounds, launching into a period known as Reconstruction. 

By the end of the Civil War, the South was in ruins — economically, socially, and politically. Their way of life had radically changed; most Southerners lost everything they owned, including homes, land, and slaves. 

Their world had been turned upside down and they were reluctantly subjected to the political and economic power of the North under the policies of Reconstruction in an effort to restore the Union, rebuild southern society, and navigate legislation surrounding the newly freed slaves. 

To put it gently, the South had grown tired of pretending to fit in with the North during Reconstruction. The post-Civil War laws and policies put into place to protect the rights of nearly 4 million freedmen were just not how they pictured life [11]. 

The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, was passed even before the end of the war. But once the war was over, White southerners responded by enacting laws known as “Black Codes” to prevent former slaves from exercising their hard-won rights. 

In 1866, Congress passed the 14th Amendment to cement Black citizenship in the Constitution, and in response White Southerners retaliated with intimidation and violence. In order to protect Black voting rights, Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1869. 

We all know change is hard — especially when that change is in the name of giving basic Constitutional and human rights to a rather large portion of the population who have spent hundreds of years being abused and murdered. But White political leaders in the South were willing to do anything to regain their political, social, and economic positions and preserve as much of their traditional society as possible. 

So, they resorted to violence and started dabbling in acts of political terrorism to get the federal government’s attention. 

Compromise to Curtail Another War

The situation in the South was getting more and more heated, and it wouldn’t be long before they were so committed to regaining political, social, and economic territory that they were willing to go to war once more. 

Political violence was on the rise in the South, and Northern public support for military intervention and interference in race relations in the South was dwindling. With the absence of federal military intervention, the South was quickly — and deliberately — collapsing into carefully calculated violence. 

If White Southerners could not prevent Blacks from voting at the polls by coercion, they did so by force while openly threatening to murder Republican leaders. Political violence in the South had become a conscious counter-revolutionary campaign in an attempt to oust Republican Reconstruction governments. 

Paramilitary groups that had — just a few years earlier — functioned independently were now more organized and operating openly. By 1877, federal troops would not, or possibly could not, suppress the overwhelming amount of political violence. 

What former Confederates had not been able to achieve on the battlefield — “the freedom to order their own society and particularly race relations as they saw fit” — they had successfully won through the use of political terrorism [12]. 

With that, the federal government yielded and brokered a compromise. 

What Was the Impact of the Compromise of 1877?

The Cost of Compromise 

With the Compromise of 1877, Southern Democrats conceded the presidency but effectively re-established home rule and race control. Meanwhile, Republicans “were abandoning the cause of the Negro in exchange for the peaceful possession of the Presidency” [13]. 

Although federal support for Reconstruction had effectively ended under President Grant, the Compromise of 1877 officially marked the end of the Reconstruction era; a return to home rule (a.k.a. White supremacy) and the revocation of Black rights in the South. 

The economic and social consequences of the Compromise of 1877 would not become apparent right away. 

But the effects have been so long-lasting that the United States is still facing them as a nation to this day. 

Race in Post-Reconstruction America

Blacks in America were considered “free” from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. However, they had never truly known true legal equality, in large part due to the effects of the Compromise of 1877 and the end of Reconstruction.

The era only had 12 years to make an impact before it was cut short with the Compromise of 1877, and it wasn’t enough time. 

One of the conditions of the Compromise was that the federal government would stay out of race relations in the South. And that they did, for 80 years. 

During this time, racial segregation and discrimination were codified under the Jim Crow laws and became tightly woven through the fabric of Southern life. But, in 1957 in an effort to integrate Southern schools, President Dwight D. Eisenhower did something unprecedented: he sent federal troops to the South, breaking the promise made during the Compromise of 1877 that the federal government would stay out of race relations. 

With federal support, desegregation was accomplished, but it was certainly met with resistance by staunch pro-segregation Southerners — a good example being Arkansas’ governor going to such great lengths that he closed all of the schools in Little Rock for a whole year, just to prevent Black students from attending White schools [14]. 

Just over 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act was passed on July 2, 1964, and Black Americans were finally afforded full legal equality under the law. 

Conclusion

The Compromise of 1877 was an attempt to keep America’s delicately stitched wounds of the Civil War from splitting wide open. 

In that regard, the Compromise can be considered a success — the Union was kept intact. But, the Compromise of 1877 did not restore the old order in the South. Neither did it restore the South to equal economic, social, or political standing with the rest of the Union. 

What it did do was assure that White influence would dominate nearly all facets of Southern life, guaranteeing nonintervention on matters of race policy and effectively abandoning the newly minted Constitutional rights of 4 million Black Americans. 

This, of course, then set the stage for an uncontested culture of racial segregation, intimidation, and violence in the South — one that still has a resounding impact in America today.

References

1. Rable, George C. But There Was No Peace: the Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. University of Georgia Press, 2007, 176.

2. Blight, David. “HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877.” HIST 119 – Lecture 25 – The “End” of Reconstruction: Disputed Election of 1876, and the “Compromise of 1877” | Open Yale Courses, Yale University, oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-119/lecture-25.

3. Younger, Edward E. “Review: THE UNKNOWN COMPROMISE OF 1877.” The Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 27, no. 3, 1951, pp. 444–448. JSTOR.org, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26439602, 445.

4. Freidel, Frank, and Hugh Sidey. “Rutherford B. Hayes.” The White House, White House Historical Association, 2006, www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/rutherford-b-hayes/.

5. ANCHOR. “The Compromise of 1877.” https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/anchor, www.ncpedia.org/anchor/compromise-1877.

6. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Little, Brown, 1966, 20.

7. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Little, Brown, 1966, 13.

8. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Little, Brown, 1966, 56.

9. Hoogenboom, Ari. “Rutherford B. Hayes: Life in Brief.” Miller Center, 14 July 2017, millercenter.org/president/hayes/life-in-brief.

10. “A Brief Overview of the American Civil War.” American Battlefield Trust, 14 Feb. 2020, www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/brief-overview-american-civil-war.

11.. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Little, Brown, 1966, 4.

12. Rable, George C. But There Was No Peace: the Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. University of Georgia Press, 2007, 189. 

13. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Little, Brown, 1966, 8.

14. “Civil Rights Movement.” JFK Library, www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/civil-rights-movement.

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