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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.”
The Compromise of 1877 was an unwritten deal, informally arranged among U.S. Congressmen, that settled the intensely disputed 1876 presidential election. It resulted in the United States federal government pulling the last troops out of the South, and ending the Reconstruction Era. Through the Compromise, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden on the understanding that Hayes would remove the federal troops whose support was essential for the survival of Republican state governments in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.
Under the compromise, Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives allowed the decision of the Electoral Commission to take effect.
The outgoing president, Republican Ulysses S. Grant, removed the soldiers from Florida, and as president, Hayes removed the remaining troops from South Carolina and Louisiana. As soon as the troops left, many white Republicans also left, and the “Redeemer” Democrats, who already dominated other state governments in the South, took control. The exact terms of the agreement are somewhat contested as the documentation is insufficient.
Black Republicans felt betrayed as they lost power, being subject to domestic terrorism to suppress their voting, and by 1905, virtually all black men were effectively disenfranchised by state legislatures in every Southern state.
Terms of compromise
The compromise essentially stated that Southern Democrats would acknowledge Hayes as president, but only on the understanding that Republicans would meet certain demands. The following elements are generally said to be the points of the compromise:
- The removal of all remaining U.S. military forces from the former Confederate states. At the time, U.S. troops remained only in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, but the Compromise completed their withdrawal from the region.
- The appointment of at least one Southern Democrat to Hayes’ cabinet. (David M. Key of Tennessee was appointed as Postmaster General.)
- The construction of another transcontinental railroad using the Texas and Pacific in the South (this had been part of the “Scott Plan”, proposed by Thomas A. Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad; he had initiated negotiations resulting in the final compromise).
- Legislation to help industrialize the South and restore its economy following the Civil War and Reconstruction.
- The right to deal with black people without northern interference.
After the Compromise, a few Democrats complained loudly that Tilden had been cheated. There was talk of forming armed units that would march on Washington, but President Grant was ready for that. He tightened military security, and nobody marched on Washington.
Hayes was peacefully inaugurated. Points 1 and 2 of the compromise took effect. Hayes had already announced his support for the restoration of “home rule”, which would involve federal troop removal, before the election. It was not unusual, nor unexpected, for a president, especially one so narrowly elected, to select a cabinet member favored by the other party. Points 3 and 4 were never enacted; it is possible there was no firm agreement about them.
Whether by informal deal or simply reassurances already in line with Hayes’s announced plans, talks with Southern Democrats satisfied the worries of many. This prevented a congressional filibuster that had threatened to extend resolution of the election dispute beyond Inauguration Day 1877.
Historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1951 that emerging business and industry interests of the New South found common ground with Republican businessmen, particularly with the railroads. They met secretly at Wormley’s Hotel in Washington to forge a compromise with aid to internal improvements: bridges, canals and railroads wanted by the South. However, Peskin notes that no serious federal effort was made after Hayes took office to fund a railroad or provide other federal aid for improvements. An opposing interest group representing the Southern Pacific actually thwarted Scott’s proposed Texas and Pacific scheme, and ultimately ran its own line to New Orleans.
Some historians, such as Allan Peskin, argue that the assurances offered to some Southern Democrats to prevent a filibuster were not a compromise but a foregone conclusion, as Tilden did not command sufficient support. Peskin admits that Woodward’s interpretation had become almost universally accepted in the nearly quarter century since he had published it. As not all terms of the agreement were met, Peskin believes there was really no deal between the North and South in 1877. He also suggests that Northern Democrats were more significant in quashing the filibuster than those from the South. For instance, Samuel J. Randall (D-Pennsylvania) was Speaker of the House and prevented the filibuster. He was more interested in ensuring that the Radical state government in Louisiana was abandoned than in any southern railroad.
Vincent DeSantis argues that the Republican Party abandoned Southern blacks to the rule of the racist Democratic Party in order to gain the support of Democrats for Hayes’ presidency.
In any case, Reconstruction ended. The dominance of the Democratic Party in the South was cemented with the ascent of the “Redeemer” governments that displaced the Republican governments. After 1877, support for white supremacy generally caused whites to vote for Democrats and the region became known as the “Solid South“. Until the end of the 19th century, black Republicans continued to elect numerous candidates to local office, although Democrats controlled most state representative and statewide seats, except for a brief period of fusion governments supported by Republicans and Populists. The majority of white voters supported national Democratic candidates well into the 20th century before shifting to the Republican Party. This later shift to the Republican party followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was introduced by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and supported by most Republicans and northern Democrats.
In The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization (2012), Gregory P. Downs rejects the idea that this was an era of easy reconciliation and political stability. Instead he shows many Americans feared “Mexicanization” of politics, whereby force would be used to settle a presidential election, as force had been used to settle certain state elections in the South. Downs explores how Mexicanization was roundly rejected and stability was achieved.
Whatever deals may or may not have taken place on the side, in formal legal terms, the election of 1876 was not decided by such acts, but by the official vote of Congress to accept the recommendations of the Electoral Commission they themselves had set up as a way out of the election impasse. The expectation in setting up the committee had been that its decisions would be accepted by Congress. It was only when certain Democrats disagreed with the commission’s decisions in favor of Hayes that this arrangement was jeopardized. This Democratic group threatened a filibuster (opposed by Republicans and Congressional Democratic leadership as well) that would prevent the agreed-upon vote from taking place. Discussions of the points in the alleged compromise were related to persuading key Democrats against accepting a filibuster. The very threat of a filibuster—a measure used by a minority to prevent a vote—indicates that there were already sufficient votes for accepting the commission’s recommendations.