The consequences of 1876 were enormous. To end the the election limbo, Democratic and Republican politicians worked out a shadowy deal in which Rutherford Hayes was declared the president (by one electoral vote!) and the Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction in the former Confederacy. The results of the “Compromise of 1877” were a total abandonment of the process of reforming the South from a land ruled by white supremacy and defined by slavery to one of freedom and equal rights. The federal government effectively washed its hands of Reconstruction and left the South to its own devices. The result was … not good. As one freedman, Henry Adams, described it: “The whole South – every state in the South – had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.” Today, as part of our series on elections, we’re talking about 1876, the election that ended Reconstruction, upended the accomplishments of the Civil War era, derailed civil rights, and allowed for the reign of Jim Crow. 

Transcript for Race, Politics, and Chaos in the Capitol: The Election of 1876

Written and Researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Sarah: Picture it: election day, a Tuesday in early November. Voters went to the polls across the United States, casting their ballots for either the Republican or Democratic candidate. As the night drew to a close, the outcome seemed clear. The New York Times even unofficially called the election.

Elizabeth: But the night wasn’t over just yet. While at first glance it seemed like the Democrat had won the Electoral college, the outcome was extremely close – just one electoral vote stood between the candidates. The Republicans alleged that voter fraud had swung the vote toward the Democrat and demanded recounts. Tempers flared and threats of violence – even civil war – filled the media. The country was on edge and democracy seemed to hang in the balance.

Sarah: Sound familiar?

Elizabeth: Sure does!

Sarah: Yeah it really does, but … we’re not talking about the election of 2020! (See what we did there??) Even though it sounds bizarrely similar, we’re actually talking about the disputed election of 1876. Just over ten years after the ‘war between states’ ended, with a beleaguered Grant administration on the way out, the nation still suffering from a depression, and the situation in the former Confederacy precarious, a lot was riding on this presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. But unlike the election of 2020, which is ostensibly over (ugh, Jan 20 cannot come soon enough) the election of 1876 wasn’t decided until literally days before the inauguration in early March. And while we won’t know for a long time what the long-term consequences of President-Elect Joe Biden and the 2020 election will be, we do know that the consequences of 1876 were enormous. To end the the election limbo, Democratic and Republican politicians worked out a shadowy deal in which Rutherford Hayes was declared the president (by one electoral vote!) and the Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction in the former Confederacy. The results of the “Compromise of 1877” were a total abandonment of the process of reforming the South from a land ruled by white supremacy and defined by slavery to one of freedom and equal rights. The federal government effectively washed its hands of Reconstruction and left the South to its own devices. The result was … not good. As one freedman, Henry Adams, described it: “The whole South – every state in the South – had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.”[1] Today, as part of our series on elections, we’re talking about 1876, the election that ended Reconstruction, upended the accomplishments of the Civil War era, derailed civil rights, and allowed for the reign of Jim Crow.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Elizabeth

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Sarah: I’m going to make you imagine again for a second. Imagine you had to explain the election of 2020 to future students, or your grandchildren, or some other young person someday. Where would you have to start to explain the extremely complicated situation that is (was?) this crazy election? You could start with the 2016 election – but really, you’d need to go back to the Obama administration to explain who Joe Biden was, and even farther to get into Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with Barack Obama. You might even have to go back into the 1990s to really get into the details of who the Clintons were, and Trump’s long and slimy backstory. I believe the election of 1876 is similar. In order to really understand how the United States got to yet another breaking point just a decade after the Civil War, and how the hard-won reforms of Reconstruction disintegrated afterward, we have to go way back. I don’t want this episode to grow to Dan Carlin-esque proportions – so we’re going to assume you have a general overview of the war years and we’ll start with just an overview of Reconstruction. But I’ll also say this: Eric Foner’s classic text Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, which is still considered the standard survey of the period, is almost 600 pages. And it’s not because Foner is wordy – it’s because Reconstruction is effing complicated. So you’ll just have to forgive us for simplifying and pick up some of our suggested readings to fill in the blanks.

Elizabeth: Let’s start with the most basic of basic introductions. What actually was Reconstruction? When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, the only thing that really ended was the shooting. Instead, the end of the war marked the beginning of what was arguably a bigger challenge. We talk a lot about the Civil War bringing about a new birth of freedom in the United States – but if that was to actually mean something, the war had to be followed by a lot more work to make it a reality. Up until 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, the American South had an economy and social structure entirely founded on white supremacy and chattel slavery. If the Civil War had to some extent dismantled that, the former Confederacy would have to be reconstructed to create a new society where equality and free labor were possible.

Sarah: This meant lots of things had to happen. On a very practical level, there was a massive population of formerly enslaved people that needed basic services, ranging from health care to resettlement assistance to legal help. Southern whites and former Confederates were not just going to start issuing fair labor contracts and providing civil rights overnight just because the federal government declared Black people ‘free.’ The South also had to be reconstructed in a literal sense. After four years of war, including a year of William Tehcumsah Sherman’s intense campaign of total war across the Southeast in 1864-1865, Southern infrastructure was wrecked, agriculture disrupted, and several cities in ashes. Not to mention the Southern economy had been haphazardly based on new Confederate currency that was by 1865 good for nothing but starting fires. But reconstruction would also mean rebuilding state governments without allowing the slaveholding and former Confederate elite to just return to the status quo antebellum. States needed new leadership and new constitutions. Reconstruction was nothing short of another attempt at state building.

Elizabeth: And in some ways, Reconstruction wasn’t just about rebuilding the South, but about completing the very process of building the American state begun by the so-called “Founding Fathers.” For instance, believe it or not, the Constitution had never directly addressed what it actually meant to be a citizen of the United States. This was finally solved by the second of the Reconstruction amendments: the 14th Amendment, which Eric Foner calls “the most important [amendment] ever added to the Constitution.”[2] David Blight has said that “the United States was invented at Philadelphia in 1787, but in many ways, the country you actually live in was invented in 1866 … it’s the country of the 14th Amendment.” The 14th Amendment established that all people born on American soil were American citizens and that all citizens had the right to equal protection under the law. For all the talk about freedom before and during the war, it was the Fourteenth Amendment that actually defined freedom for Americans, black and white, in a meaningful way. (And side note, Elizabeth did a very thorough episode on the 14th if you want more info!)

Sarah: But I want to give you a little breakdown of how all this reconstructing and rebuilding actually happened, because it will help us to understand the politics of the 1870s. The process of trying to come up with a plan for what would happen to the South after the war began as early as 1863, well before it was clear who would win. Abraham Lincoln released his plan for reconstructing the South in December 1863, which was called “the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.” The name should give you a clue to how Lincoln planned to deal with the post-war South: the operative word was ‘amnesty.” His plan would offer a full pardon and restoration of rights (except their former right to own slaves, of course) to all former Confederates as long as they signed an oath of loyalty to the federal government. A few people, like high-ranking Confederate politicians and generals, weren’t eligible to take the oath and would basically be stripped of their citizenship. Once 10% of a state’s population had taken the oath, the state could establish a new state government and draft a new constitution, and eventually get their representation back in Congress and be “admitted” back into the Union. That constitution had to abolish slavery, of course, but there weren’t many specifics requirements about what the new governments had to do to protect Black civil rights.

Elizabeth: Now, as you likely all know, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican – the first Republican president, of course. But Lincoln was a moderate compared to the liberal wing of the party, which had taken on the moniker “Radical Republicans.” The Radicals, who were often abolitionists or anti-slavery politicians before the war, thought Lincoln’s plan was way too conciliatory toward former slaveholders and traitors, and were appalled at how little the plan would do to provide formerly enslaved people civil rights. They responded with their own plan, detailed in a bill called the Wade-Davis bill, which envisioned a much more severe process in the post-war – but nothing came of it, because Lincoln killed it with a pocket veto. We have to remember, though, that all of this is happening before the war is even close to over. Abraham Lincoln’s plan does seem weak and conciliatory to us now, but we also need to remember that Lincoln’s plan was just that – a plan. It would certainly have changed when the war actually ended. But we also need to think about Lincoln’s plan within the context of 1863: according to Eric Foner, Lincoln likely saw the plan as a “device to shorten the war and solidify white support for emancipation.”[3]  Lincoln hoped that Unionists (people who opposed the Confederacy in Southern states) would go ahead and take the oath before the war was over, creating rival minority governments and undermining states’ ability to fight.

Sarah: All of this becomes irrelevant, though, in April 1865 when Abraham Lincoln is shot and killed. Then, the question of Reconstruction fell into the lap of Vice President Andrew Johnson, a former slaveowner who was born in North Carolina and lived most of his adult life in Tennessee. Johnson had been a Democrat until 1864, when Lincoln had decided he needed a “War Democrat” on his ticket to help win reelection. This political move may have seemed great at the time, but when Lincoln died, it meant he left behind a very different kind of President to oversee Reconstruction. At first, the Republicans had reason to believe that Johnson wouldn’t deviate too much from Lincoln’s plan – after all, in 1864 when he joined the presidential ticket, he had declared that “treason must be made odious, and traitors must be punished and impoverished.”[4] But it didn’t take too long for Johnson to change his tune. Even though Johnson embraced emancipation and welcomed the end of slavery, he was undoubtedly racist and believed that white men had to be in charge of rebuilding the South. “White men alone,” he declared, “must manage the South.”[5] Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction also called for loyalty oaths, but required that wealthy slaveowners and high ranking officials apply directly to him for pardons. (This, some historians have speculated, was because as a former small-time plantation owner, Johnson resented rich planters and wanted them to have to grovel to him). Also in his plan, former Confederates who took the oath could write new constitutions, which had to include a revocation of the state’s secession ordinance, abolish slavery, ratify the 13th amendment, and refuse to pay off any Confederate debt. Other than that, well, Southern state governments could do what they wanted. This is the phase of Reconstruction historians call “Presidential Reconstruction.”

 A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, 1865, entitled “The Rail Splitter At Work Repairing the Union”. The caption reads (Johnson): “Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever.” (Lincoln): “A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended.” | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: By the end of 1865, each of the former Confederate states had formed new governments, all with relatively paltry statements on abolition and no requirements for Black civil rights. These new state governments also passed laws that became known as Black Codes, which attempted to control Black Southerners. Mississippi required all Blacks to have written proof of employment, not just in the moment, but several months in advance. Black laborers worked under strong contracts, and they were denied wages – and potentially arrested – if they broke a labor contract, even if it was to get a new job. South Carolina actually exacted a tax on any Black person who worked in any occupation other than farming or household service. Other states had similar measures, even if they were couched in less transparently racist language. They controlled the sale of produce (Black people had to get permission from their “masters” first) controlled hunting and fishing rights, even grazing access. These laws were, in the words of US Army General Alfred Terry, an attempt to “reestablish ‘slavery in all but name.’”[6]

Sarah: The Radical Republicans were not going to stand for this. When the Republicans picked up seats in Congress in the fall of 1865, they refused to seat the newly elected representatives from these neo-Confederate governments. Then, flexing their mandate-muscle, they got to work putting into motion a third plan for Reconstruction, what historians call “Radical Reconstruction.” Unlike the previous plans, Radical Reconstruction wasn’t just focused on getting North and South reconciled and moving on. Instead, Radical Reconstruction was, in the words of Eric Foner again, “first and foremost a civic ideology grounded in a definition of American citizenship.”[7] This was a plan not just to whip the South into shape and get it readmitted into civic life, but to literally dismantle and rebuild the very society of the South –

and along the way, basically reform all of America. Remember, abolitionists had long claimed that the Constitution was fatally flawed by its acceptance of slavery. This was their opportunity to change not just the South, but to fix the flaws in the very blueprint of American government.

Elizabeth:  In 1866, leadership in Congress created a joint committee on Reconstruction to study the situation on the ground in the South. They brought in almost 150 witnesses to testify about the treatment of freedpeople, the attitudes of Southern whites, generally trying to find out what people in the South actually needed out of a Reconstruction plan. Would they benefit from schools, or hospitals? Did they need food? The joint commission report at the end of the investigation was that Presidential Reconstruction was – to put it very mildly – not working. They called it “madness” to allow former Confederates to go right back into power. Nothing had changed, and nothing would change, without radical action. (See what we did there?) Based on the committee’s findings, Republicans drew up legislation that they began to pass in the summer of 1866. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined citizenship and outlined the rights and responsibilities of being an American citizen for the first time. (Much of this law was formally enshrined in the Constitution in the form of the 14th Amendment, passed in 1866 and ratified in 1868). They renewed funding for the Freedman’s Bureau, the agency tasked with helping resettle formerly enslaved people. By 1869, they had also passed what became the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrined voting rights for all male citizens.

Freedmen voting in New Orleans in 1867
Freedmen voting in New Orleans in 1867. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: After picking up huge majorities in both houses of Congress, the Republicans set to work on the third attempt at Reconstruction. In 1866 and 1867, they write and pass the Reconstruction Acts, a series of laws that drew up a new process for the postwar South. Under these laws, the former Confederacy was broken up into five military districts, overseen by a general of the US Army. For instance, the first district was just Virginia, the second included both North and South Carolina, and so on and so forth. The commanding officers had control over the process of creating a new government in these states and oversaw elections, which meant that the force of the US Army stood behind the new Civil Rights laws, ready to enforce them if necessary. They were also responsible for helping to register voters – Black men, and white men who had not participated in the rebellion). Those qualified voters could then vote in delegates that would draft new state constitutions, which had to include Black voting rights and ratify the Reconstruction Amendments, and then they could be considered for readmission to the US. Quickly, Republicans –  a combination of Black men, carpetbaggers and scalawags – controlled Southern state governments.

Elizabeth: Southerners, unsurprisingly, screamed that this was tyranny. One Democratic newspaper declared “These constitutions and governments will last just as long as the bayonets which ushered them into being shall keep them in existence, and not one day longer.”[8] By 1870, terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camelia, and White Brotherhood, founded immediately after the war, had a foothold in every former Confederate state and used violence and intimidation to fight back against Republican control and punish Black people for trying to exercise their rights as American citizens. In Mississippi, freedman Jack Dupree, who worked as the president of a local Republican party club, was brutally murdered in front of his wife. When George Moore voted Republican in 1870 in Alabama, the Klan beat him and sexually assaulted his daughter. In South Carolina, white supremacists drove over a hundred freed people from their homes and murdered several prominent Republicans (both Black and white). Clashes over local elections devolved into massacres, such as the Colfax Massacre, in which white supremacists murdered around 150 Black Republicans who had come to the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana to defend the newly elected Republican government. These are just a few examples of the intense, violent backlash white supremacists perpetrated to resist Reconstruction.[9]

Sarah: The Radicals weren’t going to stand aside and let the Klan terrorize Black Southerners and destroy their political power in the South. In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed two Enforcement Acts, which allowed the President to use the federal courts and the US Army to protect civil rights in cases of election fraud and voter intimidation. A third Enforcement Act, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, made it a federal crime for state officials to deny citizens civil rights, as well as making many of the tactics used by the Klan federal crimes. It also gave the President extraordinary powers, including the ability to suspend habeas corpus, if the local authorities failed to intercede against the white supremacist groups.

Elizabeth: The Enforcement Acts are a prime example of what made Radical Reconstruction work: the attempts at change were backed by the military, political, and economic power of the federal government. The laws enraged Democrats, but Republicans (under the direction of President US Grant) insisted that this was not only necessary for reforming the South, but again, necessary to making the United States a modern nation. “If the Federal Government cannot pass laws to protect the rights, liberty, and lives of citizens of the United States in the states,” asked Republican politician and former Union general (and probable banger of Victoria Woodhull) Benjamin Butler, “why were guarantees of those fundamental rights put in the Constitution at all?”[10] And the federal government did exactly that in 1871, prosecuting hundreds of Klansmen, even turning the US army against the South Carolina Klan with such force that thousands of Klansmen actually fled the state to avoid prosecution. In short order, the KKK was more or less defunct. As one Mississippi Republican politician wrote, “the Enforcement Act has a potency derived alone from its source, no such law could be enforced by state authority, the local power being too weak.”[11] State or local governments could not have rooted out this domestic terrorism on their own – it was only the might of the army and federal government that made it possible.

Klansmen in Mississippi, 1871
Klansmen in Mississippi, 1871 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: And that is exactly the crux of the rest of this story: the might of the federal government. Because if the Reconstruction and Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s were the height of the power of the federal government to enforce Radical Reconstruction, it was certainly downhill from there. While the South was in the process of rebuilding, the North was changing in its own ways. Railroads boomed, and the railroad business led to the extraordinary wealth of the railroad barons like Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Railroads penetrated the American West, leading to booms in settlement and renewed military action against Native American peoples – which rivaled the South for the time, attention, and funding of the US army. Industry expanded, from grain production and processing to meat packing to logging and mining. With the explosion in industry came labor unrest, as factory laborers agitated for fair wages, safer conditions, and better hours and capitalists responded with strikebreaking and violence. And with the growth in capital came grift: the Grant administration was marked by the corruption of members of the administration and the Republican Party. (And no, I won’t explain the Credit Mobilier scandal, because that’s where my eyes start to really glaze over.)

Elizabeth: In 1872, the Republican Party was starting to splinter. The “moderate” and “Radical” wings of the party started to reorganize, and the reform-minded, more moderate members of the party even organized a rival convention and nominated their own candidate for president in 1872, the famous editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley. Ulysses S. Grant was still reelected in 1872, and the Republicans had electoral successes across the country, pushing back on Democratic attempts to ‘redeem’ the South from Republican control. But the pressure on the Radicals led to lasting changes in the party, and consequences for the South. Nervous about the challenge from within, the Radicals passed an amnesty law that counteracted section 3 of the 14th amendment, which prevented former Confederates from holding office. This might have appeased their critics, but it also provided a foothold for the very ‘redeeming’ process the Republicans were fighting against. And 1872 was also marked by a shift in how both parties talked about Reconstruction in their attempts to woo voters. The Republicans were still able to successfully mobilize voters based on a message of protecting Black Southerners and defending civil rights, but the number of Republicans who defected from the Radicals and supported Greeley showed that Radicalism was on its last legs. So while the election showed that Northerners still supported the work of Reconstruction, it also showed the first indications the Republicans were losing their extraordinary power and control.

Sarah: In less than a year, the second Grant administration faced a new challenge: a financial panic. The railroad boom went bust, banks failed, iron foundries closed, farmers struggled, and the New York Stock exchange plummeted. The railroads that had built up the postwar economy started to fold, leading to mass unemployment and a depression. The nation didn’t emerge from this financial crisis until 1879. Unsurprisingly, the depression didn’t inspire capitalists to remake the economy with social safety nets for struggling workers – instead, it inspired them to double down on their ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. The way out of the economic crisis would be through hard work, independence, and deregulation. And rich folks’ worries about an unruly public intensified as “tramp armies,’ or populations of homeless, jobless men, traveled the country on railcars, leading to anti-vagrancy laws that essentially punished poverty. Voters reacted in 1874 by destroying the Republican majorities in the House – in fact, 1874 was the “greatest reversal of partisan alignments in the entire nineteenth century” in which a 110 seat Republican majority turned into a 60 seat Democratic majority. One New York newspaper called it “not an election, but a revolution.”

Elizabeth: And as Democrats took back the House and the depression wore on, efforts to reconstruct the South suffered. Programs like the Freedman’s Bureau, which previously seemed like a vital way to support formerly enslaved people, now seemed like a foolish example of wasted tax dollars and government charity. “The laboring man should be as independent as the capitalist,” declared Georgia Republican John Bryant, who was himself a former Freedman’s Bureau agent (!!!). And the continued realizations of corruption among members of the Grant administration only made the Republicans, and by extension their attempts at Reconstruction, look riddled with corruption. And to be clear, there certainly was some corruption in the Reconstructed Southern governments just as there was in Northern governments – but the difference was that many of those Southern governments included newly elected Black office holders. Now, corruption and bad government was blamed on the inability of Black people to lead. And this also provided a great excuse for Republicans, who could essentially blame any of the problems in Reconstruction on Black Southerners themselves. More and more Republicans began to reject the larger project of racial equality and representation and instead embrace the idea that the South be governed by the ‘best (read: white) men’ in America since Black Americans obviously couldn’t govern themselves.

Sarah: During Grant’s second term (and especially after 1874) the gains in Reconstruction began to more or less disintegrate. As Elizabeth talked about in her excellent episode on the 14th

Amendment, a series of Supreme Court cases, like the Slaughterhouse cases and US v. Cruikshank, weakened the power of the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection and civil rights. The depression led to the failure of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, a bank that held the life savings of thousands of freedpeople. The bank speculated in railroads and real estate, and when the markets tanked, all that money (which of course wasn’t insured, because no FDIC yet) disappeared. Congress reacted slowly, managed to only compensate half of the people who lost money, and even then, they only got an average of $18 back. Republicans struggled to get a second Civil Rights bill passed in 1874, though it eventually was passed in the lame duck session before the Democrats took the majority in Congress 1875. The bill made racial discrimination in a wide variety of institutions illegal, but while Grant signed it into law, he did very little to enforce it. Southern Democrats, emboldened by the federal government’s waning attention, returned to their appeals to white supremacy to get votes. Since thousands of former Confederates had gotten their right to hold office back in the Amnesty Act, and most had re-earned the right to vote, Democrats shrunk Republican majorities in local and state governments, and outright redeemed Arkansas, in 1874.

Elizabeth: Things only got worse when Republicans lost much of their political control in 1874. Just before the election in Louisiana, white supremacists staged a kind of war against local Republican officials, murdering six and battling local militia and police under the command of none other than former Confederate general turned Republican, James Longstreet. Afterward, most Southerners assumed (more or less correctly) that the federal government had lost interest in Reconstruction, and so really stopped caring about trying to bide by the laws laid by Republican governments. Eric Foner writes that “unlike the crimes by the Ku Klux Klan’s hooded riders, those of 1875 were committed in broad daylight by undisguised men, as if to underscore the impotence of local authorities and Democrats’ lack of concern about federal intervention.”[12] White supremacist violence, often linked directly to the Democratic party, abounded.

Sarah: Black Southerners begged Republican politicians for help. Black Mississippians wrote to the Republican governor begging to help, vowing “we will not vote at all unless there are troops to protect us.”[13] The governor appealed to President Grant. Instead of sending the army, Grant asked his attorney general to develop a plan – but in the same letter, wrote this: “The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South and are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the Government.”[14] This quote is famous because it really encapsulates Northern sentiment about Reconstruction as the 1870s wore on. Northerners were tired of even hearing about the “autumnal outbreaks of violence,” since nothing ever seemed to stop them. The entire process of Reconstruction just seemed to suck all of the government’s time, attention, and tax dollars into the South. Many Northerners may have felt that was important and necessary in 1865, but by 1875, with unemployment high and the economy struggling, they were increasingly resentful.

Elizabeth: Remember how this episode was about the election of 1876? Well, in case you forgot, it is. Things were still somewhat bleak as the presidential election loomed – the economy was still struggling, and yet another story about corruption in the Grant administration broke. The Republican Party struggled to even field a candidate – James Blaine, a pretty famous Republican politician, seemed like a shoe in but then was hit with allegations that he had done some self-dealing in a railroad business. Eventually, the party landed on Rutherford B. Hayes, a Union veteran and governor of Ohio who was famously described as “a third-rate non-entity.” He wasn’t entirely unknown (he was a politician, after all) but he was a bit bland, not too radical, and free from scandal. The Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden, a longtime Democratic party operative and governor of New York State. As we mentioned at the top of the episode, on the night of the election, it seemed clear that Tilden had it in the bag. But sometime on election night, someone at Republican headquarters ran the numbers on the electoral map and realized that if Hayes could somehow carry South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, he could win by one point – and each of those states still had Republicans in control. (There are conflicting claims of who this person was, but one version claims it was Dan Sickles!) A flurry of telegrams was sent to the Republican leadership in those states demanding that the states be held for Hayes.

Hayes/Wheeler Campaign Poster
Hayes/Wheeler campaign poster | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The next morning, it was not entirely clear who had won the election. Tilden had obviously won the popular vote, which, as we are all painfully aware, means basically nothing. But four states – Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Oregon, were too close to call, leaving 22 votes in doubt. Members of both parties rushed to the disputed states to oversee the ballot counts. Initial counts in each of the disputed Southern states (SC, LA, FL) showed Tilden winning, but also in each of those states, Democrats and white supremacists had suppressed the Republican vote through violence and intimidation and everyone committed at least a little fraud. (South Carolina, for instance, reported a 101% turnout rate, with thousands of votes more than there were potential voters in many precincts.[15]) Thousands and thousands of Black voters had been kept from the polls, which undoubtedly allowed those states to swing for Tilden. The Republican-controlled board of elections threw out thousands of fraudulent votes while Democrats screamed about fraud and conspiracy.

Elizabeth: An example of how nuts this was – again unsurprisingly – South Carolina. (If Florida was the Florida of the 20th century, then South Carolina was the Florida of the 19th century.) Federal troops were still on the ground in South Carolina, and had been since 1865, but violence was still a problem – just months before the 1876 election, a dispute over a (legal) exercise held by a Black militia group led to a battle, and eventually massacre, in Hamburg, South Carolina, in which somewhere around a dozen mostly Black men were killed. President Grant sent additional troops to the state in October to help ensure a fair election, and turn out was high on all sides (too high, lol). In the end, the ticket was split: the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Wade Hampton, won, but Republican Rutherford Hayes also won. The State Supreme Court tried to intervene to get the board from certifying their results, but the board acted anyway. The SC Supreme Court responded by arresting all the members of the board, fining them, and throwing them all in jail. (They were out pretty quick.)

 Sarah: In Oregon, the fight was over just one of the state’s electors, a Republican named John Watts. Watts was an elected postmaster in a little town near Portland. But the Democratic governor of Oregon pointed out that the Article II of the Constitution stated that “no Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States shall be appointed an elector.”[16]  So the governor removed Watts, and replaced him with a Democratic elector. The Republican electors insisted that the state’s vote remained the same (3 votes for Hayes) while the new Democratic elector insisted that the vote tally was actually (2 for Hayes, 1 for Tilden) which would cost Hayes the election. Each side presented their own signed certificates attesting to the outcome. In other words, it was a hot mess. In early December, Congress reassembled with a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House. Both houses assembled their own special committees to investigate the election. Can you guess what they determined?

Elizabeth: Hmmmm … the Senate said Hayes won, and the House said Tilden won?

Sarah: How did you guess?! Tensions rose. As it looked like the mess in Oregon was going to be called for Hayes, Democrats cried fraud and the possibility the whole thing would devolve into violence increased. Someone was going to have to count and certify the electoral vote – but the Constitution didn’t actually make it clear who. Republicans claimed that it should be the President of the Senate, Republican Thomas Ferry; while Democrats claimed that it needed to be done by both Houses. 

Elizabeth: Now what we had here was a constitutional crisis. It simply was not clear who should decide who had won the election. Finally in late January, Congress passed a bill to create an Electoral Commission, made up of five congressmen, five senators, and five Supreme Court justices. This worked out in the end to 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats. The plan was to have the official count of the electoral votes take place in a joint session of Congress, and that any disputed votes would go to the Electoral Commission to be adjudicated. Each disputed vote would be argued like a court case. The oral arguments could last for hours and hours. Eventually, after lots of complicated legal stuff that I will not get into, the commission held a vote, and determined that Hayes had won the election. This process was repeated for each contested vote. Ugh.

Sarah: Do I even need to say that the Democrats objected? They did. As it became clear that the Commission was going to keep voting on the party line, resulting in a clear win for Hayes, some Democratic Congressmen found ways to interrupt the count. (Mitch McConnell would have been proud.) They raised a bizarrely unfounded objection to the obviously Republican vote from Vermont and Wisconsin and ground the proceedings to a halt with a filibuster. Southerners especially were desperate to get Tilden elected. “My poor Southern country is looking to you as their only hope for their constitutional rights,” a Virginian wrote to Tilden, “We are looking to you as our political savior.”[17] By the end of February, there still was no president-elect.[18] Remember, inaugurations used to be held in early March – and it was starting to look perilously like there wouldn’t be anyone to inaugurate. But Democrats also had to be realistic: their chances at getting the Commission’s vote to change, thereby changing the final electoral vote, were slim.

Elizabeth: Some Democrats started to defect from the party’s plan to continue to obstruct the voting, instead subtly indicating that they would oppose a filibuster if they could be assured that the Hayes administration would remove the remaining federal troops and allow the Democrats that had been elected governor in South Carolina and Louisiana to take office, even though it seemed clear that those elections had been just as affected by fraud and intimidation. As rumors about a deal circulated, nervous Democrats warned Tilden that things looked bad. One Washington Democrat wrote to Tilden that “there is danger of serious defection among southern democratic leaders. Certain of Hayes’ friends are making proposals to certain southern democrats and they are entertained and may accept.”[19]

Sarah: It was a group of Republican journalists who got to the heart of what it would take to convince Democrats to give up their strategy of obstruction. They had befriended a disgruntled Democratic operative named Andrew Kellar, who helped the Republicans determine what concessions would work. In addition to the governors in South Carolina and Louisiana and the removal of the federal troops in those states, Kellar said that they would need Hayes to promise that he would remove Blacks and Northerners from appointed positions, and publicly state that his administration would no longer enforce Reconstruction laws like the Enforcement and Civil Rights Acts. They wanted Southern Democrats in the cabinet and patronage positions in Washington and across the South, and funding for railroads in Southern states. Hayes apparently was noncommittal about these demands, probably in an attempt to make himself look like he was above the frantic negotiating his allies were undertaking. Just days before the March 5 inauguration date, things were still up in the air.[20]

 A political cartoon by Joseph Keppler (Puck, 1877) depicts Roscoe Conkling as Mephistopheles, watching as Rutherford B. Hayes strolls off with the prize of the “Solid South” personified as a woman. The caption quotes Goethe’s Faust“Unto that Power he doth belong Which only doeth Right while ever willing Wrong.” | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: At the end of February, a group of Hayes’ Republican allies from Ohio and a group of southerners met at the Wormley House hotel in Washington. The southerners promised that Black civil rights would still be protected if federal troops were removed. The Republicans were split – fellow Ohio Republican and Congressman James Garfield’s diary seems to indicate that Garfield was sort of grossed out by the negotiations and reluctant to make a deal. But other Republicans saw this as the opportunity to get Hayes elected and avoid an even larger crisis if there was no president to inaugurate. Another congressman, Charles Foster, wrote to prominent southern Democrats promising that Hayes would deliver on the southerner’s demands: “We can assure you in the strongest possible manner of our great desire to have him [Hayes] adopt such a policy as will give to the people of the States of South Carolina and Louisiana the right to control their own affairs in their own way.”[21]

Sarah: It’s not clear exactly what went down between the meeting at Wormley House and the final day of the electoral count in Congress on March 2. We don’t know what happened, as Lin Manuel Miranda would say, “in the room where it happens.” But what we do know is that some Southern Democrats continued to delay the count, Northern Democrats eventually voted with Republicans to certify the results, and on March 5, Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated president of the United States. Many of the demands detailed by Kellar were never acted on, and Democrats in Congress still fought the result, so it’s not actually clear how much the negotiations that became known as the Compromise of 1877 (or the Corrupt Bargain) actually made a difference. But what we also know is the longer outcome of that election. On the same day the final electoral vote was completed in Congress, lame-duck President Grant ordered the troops in South Carolina and Louisiana to return to their barracks and stop overseeing the gubernatorial counts, effectively allowing South Carolinian Wade Hampton and Louisianan Francis Nichols to take office as governors of those states. A few days later, Hayes reiterated the order. Now, it’s generally stated that Hayes removed the last troops from the South – that’s not technically accurate – but he did tell them to stand down, making their presence pointless. The result was Democratic, Southern governance in most formerly Confederate states, or “home rule.”

Elizabeth: And of course, the promises from southern Democrats that Black civil rights would be protected were a whole lot of smoke. The Democrats used paramilitary groups like Wade Hampton’s Red Shirts to ensure that Black Republicans could no longer hold office, vote, or exercise any political power. Democratic governments slashed state budgets and stopped state governments from providing things like education and services. In Louisiana, the new government slashed the public education budget so drastically that according to Eric Foner, it was only state that actually saw literacy rates in whites fall dramatically by the end of the 19th century. Attempts to build state colleges fizzled. In some states, where there was a larger white Republican population, the Republican party remained somewhat competitive for another 15 years or so, but in the Deep South, with much higher Black populations and lower white Republican populations, violence and voter intimidation made the Republican party presence essentially disappear.

Sarah: New laws made sharecropping, the form of farming most accessible to freedpeople, into a new form of slavery as landowners were able to control all the crop until tenants had paid off all debts and rents to the landowner’s satisfaction – and landowners were never satisfied. It was virtually impossible for Black southern to fight back. During the earlier 1870s, it was possible for Black militias to organize, for instance, and many Blacks owned firearms. But without the federal government and US Army there to enforce the law, white supremacist violence always overwhelmed any attempt Black people made to fight back. No wonder Blacks began to flee the South in the 1880s, becoming “Exodusters” seeking breathing room in places like Kansas and Oklahoma. (Though white supremacists would eventually find them there, too.) And all the while, Northern Republicans did essentially nothing to stop what amounted to the complete dismantling of the revolutionary reforms of Reconstruction. Foner writes that “among other things, 1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful nation state protecting the fundamental rights of all American citizens.” The magazine the Nation, I think, put it most clearly. After Hayes’ election, the editors wrote, “The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have anything more to do with him.” And it’s entirely true. With the ‘bargain of 1877,’ the South was redeemed by Southern Democrats and white supremacists and the era of Jim Crow began. The KKK remained dormant (at least until the 1910s) but white supremacist violence certainly did not – it’s just that what people used to do while hidden behind stupid looking white robes they now did in the open without an ounce of fear that they would be punished. After all, who would intervene? According to the Equal Justice Initiative, at least 4000 Black Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950, and it’s impossible to really statistically account for things like intimidation, property destruction, wage theft, and discrimination.

One of the most heartbreakingly accurate descriptions of Reconstruction comes from WEB DuBois, the first Black historian to earn a PhD whose book, Black Reconstruction, was absolutely critical in correcting Lost Cause narratives of the era. He wrote: “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”[22] Reconstruction was radical and revolutionary – and the very party that helped to create that revolution sat back in 1877, comfortably ensconced in the White House, and allowed it all to be dismantled by former Confederates and white supremacists.


DuBois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: The Free Press, 1998.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1865-1877. New York: Harper Collins, 1988.

Holt, Michael F. By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. Lawrence: Kansas State University Press, 2008.

Rehnquist, William H. Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion & Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1951.

[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1865-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 583.

[2] Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 114.

[3] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 17.

[4] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 82.

[5] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 84.

[6] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 97.

[7] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 106.

[8] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 142.

[9] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 187-189.

[10] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 196.

[11] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 197.

[12] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 235.

[13] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 236.

[14] Foner, Short History of Reconstruction, 236.

[15] Michael F. Holt, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008), 181, 255.

[16] William Rehnquist, Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876 (New York: Knopf, 2004), 110-111.

[17] Holt, By One Vote, 236.

[18] Rehnquist, Centennial Crisis, 176-177; C. Vann Woodward, Reunion & Reaction, 200-201; Holt, By One Vote, 236.

[19] Holt, By One Vote, 237.

[20] Holt, By One Vote, 241.

[21] Holt, By One Vote, 241.

[22] DuBois, Black Reconstruction, 30.


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