By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
After the Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, won the Electoral College in 1876, passions throughout the country reached a fever pitch, and hotheads from both Republican and Democratic side talked about another Civil War. Congress set up a commission to examine the returns: five members from the House of Representatives, five members from the Senate, and five members of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Decision of the Commission
In theory, the commission had seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one Independent; Justice David Davis from Illinois was considered an Independent.
In late January 1877, President U. S. Grant approved the commission. Three months had already gone by since the election. Then came news that Davis had been elected to the Senate, by the Illinois legislature, and so Davis withdrew from the commission. The man who replaced him was a Republican.
Making a Point
There were no more Democrats on the courts, so now we had an eight-to-seven Republican majority on this commission. The commission then decided by an eight-to-seven party vote in every case that Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida had all been won by Rutherford B. Hayes.
The Senate accepted the decision, but Democrats in the House were very bitter. They talked about pursuing tactics that would keep the deadlock going until past March 4, when the new president should be inaugurated. It would bring enormous chaos, but it would allow them to make their point that Samuel J. Tilden had won the election, and that it was being stolen from him.
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Compromise to End the Crisis
While all this was going on, forces behind the scenes were at work for a compromise to end the crisis. Hayes’s moderate Republican supporters and moderate Democrats came to an unofficial set of agreements, with nothing written down.
It laid out this compromise: Number one, Hayes would be allowed to be president. The Republicans would, thus, have won five presidential elections in a row. Thus, the Democrats conceded the presidency to Hayes.
Negotiations of Rutherford Hayes
Hayes said he would support internal improvements in the South, including looking seriously at a Texas-Pacific Railroad, more money for levy rebuilding, and so forth. He also said he would consider naming southerners to his cabinet; southerners were most interested in the Postmaster General’s position because of all the patronage that went along with that. He would also let South Carolina and Louisiana’s state governments pass into Democratic hands.
In return, Hayes asked that at least some black rights be respected in these states. By the end of February 1877, negotiations had been completed, and Hayes was elected president.
He did name several Democrats and Liberal Republicans to appointive posts. He also withdrew the last federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana in April 1877.
Failed Democratic Promises
Democratic promises to respect black rights were, on the other hand, not kept. Abolitionists and radical Republicans denounced Hayes’s withdrawal of the last troops from the southern states, but the majority of Americans were probably happy to see this long trauma of Reconstruction end. Four years of war and a decade of uneasy peace had exhausted their patience. They were anxious to devote their full attention to things other than these vexing issues of sectional discord.
Soon, white Democrats held total control in the South, and over the next decades, it would turn out that African Americans sank into a condition that in many ways approximated servitude, in many parts of the South.
Did Reconstruction Fail?
Should Reconstruction, then, be deemed a failure because we know what happened to many black Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? A common view is that much more should have been accomplished during Reconstruction.
Here was a moment when, with a little more persistence, the United States could have gone in the right direction. It could have really guaranteed black rights. It could have seen that a more equal, biracial society was in place, that Reconstruction marked the end of a period where black people were freed, but they were denied almost everything else.
Laying the Groundwork
The phrase, ‘nothing but freedom’, is often used when talking about this period. It’s not remarkable that more wasn’t done; what is remarkable is that as much was accomplished as was accomplished during Reconstruction, considering the racial attitudes of most Americans in the mid- to late 19th century.
They had put on the books, not only an amendment ending slavery, but the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which went a long way in laying the groundwork for a society in which black Americans and white Americans would be treated much more equally under the Constitution, and under the laws of the United States.
A nation that really didn’t, in most instances, care much about black people, had done more than could reasonably be expected in many ways to further the cause; beginning with emancipation and continuing on into Reconstruction. Union and freedom were settled during this period; constitutional foundations were laid for the expansion of black rights; and the actual condition of black people was still up in the air.
Common Questions about Reconstruction
Congress set up a commission to examine the returns of the election in 1876. This commission consisted of five members from the House of Representatives, five members from the Senate, and five members of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Hayes said he would support internal improvements in the South, including looking seriously at a Texas-Pacific Railroad, more money for levy rebuilding, and so forth. He also said he would consider naming southerners to his cabinet. Plus, he said that he would let South Carolina’s and Louisiana’s state governments pass into Democratic hands.
Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana in April 1877.