By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
Ulysses S. Grant’s election, the campaign against the Klan, and other things seemed to indicate that the North was still very much interested in making certain that the white South understood that it had lost the war, and that the world had changed. In fact, though, the North was rapidly losing its commitment to Reconstruction.
No Support for Republican Regimes in the South
Many white northerners believed that they had done everything within reason to guarantee everything that should be guaranteed for black people: the Thirteenth Amendment, emancipation, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
However, a new round of charges of corruption in Reconstruction governments, especially in Louisiana, alienated many white northerners, and turned many of them against further support for Republican regimes in the South.
It Was Time to Move On?
Northern support for black rights never had been profound, except among the radical wing of the Republican Party and among black and white abolitionists. Much of the pro-black legislation of the war, and the early postwar years, had not had as much to do with helping black people as it had with punishing rebels and punishing the strong slaveholding element of the Confederacy. In the case of emancipation, it had had more to do with winning the war and saving the Union; liberating slaves was meant to hurt the Confederacy and help save the Union.
Many northern Americans, after this long focus on sectional issues, were simply tired of hearing about the problems of the South. They wanted to focus on new priorities. They wanted to focus on the economy, on settling and peopling and exploiting the western territories and achieving the great national promise of the United States.
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In the off-year elections of 1874, Democrats won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 18 years. Massachusetts, among the most ardently abolitionist of all northern states, elected a Democratic governor in 1874. Republican Party leaders thought the bad economy was partly to blame for their losses. The Republicans also believed that voters were showing that they wanted an end to Reconstruction.
In 1875, they decided to unload the burdensome issue of carpetbag governments, lest they lose the presidential election of 1876. In the state elections of 1875, Democrats put into operation what was called the ‘Mississippi Plan’. This entailed economic and social pressure on the 10–15 percent of white Mississippians who called themselves Republicans, in an effort to bring them over into the Democratic Party.
It also entailed brutal intimidation of black voters. White Democrats used carefully orchestrated ‘riots’, whenever Republicans gathered at political picnics and other kinds of political speaking occasions, and so forth. Democratic rifle clubs would arrive, provoke an incident, and then open fire indiscriminately.
End of Reconstruction
Election day in Mississippi was very quiet, but the Democrats had been successful. In the previous election, the Republicans had had a comfortable majority in the state. This time, the Democrats had a comfortable majority in the state. In five of Mississippi’s most heavily black counties, Republicans polled 12, seven, four, two, and zero votes, respectively. These were counties where there were a lot of potential black voters.
The naked intimidation of the Mississippi Plan had worked. The election of 1876, and the Compromise of 1877, signaled the end of Reconstruction. By mid-1876, Republican governments had been unloaded in every southern state, except Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina.
Nomination of Tilden and Hayes
The second Grant administration had been rocked by another series of scandals. Grant himself was innocent, but many around him were not.
Democrats saw a chance to regain the White House, and they nominated Samuel J. Tilden, a reform governor of New York. Their platform used the word ‘reform’ 12 times and called for an end to the carpetbag governments.
The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. He had been a Union general in the war, not nearly as prominent as Grant, but with a good record during the war, and he was a moderate on Reconstruction.
More Votes for Tilden
Violence in the South marred the election tremendously. Republican strategists knew that if Tilden carried the whole South, he would need only New York and Indiana—or New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—to win the Electoral College. The rest of the North could go Republican; Tilden would still win.
On election day, it soon became apparent that Tilden had carried all four of those northern states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Indiana—and he seemed to have won the election. He also had about a quarter of a million votes in popular majority, although we have to reckon against that the fact that probably a quarter of a million Republican voters in the South were intimidated to the degree that they didn’t vote. We do know that officially, Tilden had a quarter of a million more votes than Hayes, but the Electoral College was not decided.
Victory of Hayes
The returns from the three southern states still in Republican control were in doubt. Tilden seemed to have won in Louisiana and Florida. Hayes seemed to have won in South Carolina. Both accused the other of fraud in these states. National attention focused on these three southern states, because if Hayes carried all of them, he would win in the Electoral College. If Tilden won any of them, he would be the next President of the United States, and the first Democratic President of the United States since James Buchanan in 1856.
The boards counting votes were controlled by Republicans in each of the states, and those boards declared Hayes the winner in each of the states. He was given Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. Passions throughout the country reached a fever pitch, and hotheads on each side talked about another Civil War.
Common Questions about the Election of 1876
The ‘Mississippi Plan’ entailed economic and social pressure on the 10–15 percent of white Mississippians who called themselves Republicans, in an effort to bring them over into the Democratic Party. It also entailed brutal intimidation of black voters.
Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden, and the Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes.
The election of 1876, and the Compromise of 1877, signaled the end of Reconstruction. By mid-1876, Republican governments had been unloaded in every southern state, except Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina.