Compromise of 1877: Definition, Summary & Results

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Political deals between parties have become commonplace in American politics. In 1877, one such political bargain resolved a disputed election, ended Reconstruction, and changed the fate of recently freed African Americans. Develop an understanding of the Compromise of 1877 and test your knowledge with a short quiz.

We also recommend watching Prohibition of the 1920s: Definition, 18th Amendment & Results and The Constitutional Convention: The Great Compromise

The Political Situation in 1876

Despite allegations of corruption and scandal that swirled around Ulysses S. Grant at the end of his second term, he was eager to run again in 1876. However, scandal and the two-term tradition stopped him from moving forward with Grant's desires. James G. Blaine of Maine emerged as the front-runner of Grant's Republican Party. But like Grant and many of the other Republicans

associated with his administration, scandal tainted Blaine as well. At the Republican convention that year, the party put its hopes in the Ohio native Rutherford B. Hays. Three times elected as the governor of Ohio, he had made a name for himself as a civil service reformer. His greatest strength, however, was that he did not offend the Radicals or the reformers.

In St. Louis, at the Democratic convention, there was little debate about who would be put forward as candidate for president. Samuel Tilden, the millionaire corporate lawyer and reform-minded governor of New York, would be the choice. Tilden gained fame when he went after the notorious ring of Boss Tweed who controlled New York City politics through bribes and graft.

The campaign of 1876 generated no burning issues. Both Hays and Tilden favored conservative rule in the American South. And although it was a horribly corrupt election on both sides, they both favored civil-service reform. With little of substance to focus on, each camp turned to mudslinging. The Democrats aired the Republican's dirty laundry reminding voters of the scandals and corruption present during the Grant years. In response, the Republicans linked the Democrats with secession and with the outrages committed against black and white Republicans in the South. Some Republican leaders went so far as to comment that every man that tried to rip the country apart was a Democrat, and reminded the public that Abraham Lincoln's assassin was a Democrat.


The Election and Crisis

Early election returns showed Tilden would score a victory. Tilden had an edge of 300,000 in the popular vote and 184 electoral votes by most estimates - just one shy of a majority. In the South, the outcome was uncertain. Fraud and intimidation on both sides made accurate returns doubtful. In fact, three southern states, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina, sent in disputed returns. The Constitution offered no guidance on how to deal with this situation. Even if Congress had been empowered to sort out the disputed votes, the Democratic House and the Republican Senate proved unable to reach a final agreement.

Finally, on January 29, 1877, the House and the Senate decided to set up a special Electoral Commission to investigate what had happened. The Commission had fifteen members: five from both the House and Senate, and five from the Supreme Court. The decision on each state went by a vote of 8 to 7 along party lines in favor of Hays. The Democrats threatened to filibuster, or hold up the decision, but in the end the House voted to accept the Commission's report and declare Hays the winner. It would be an electoral vote of 185 to 184.

1876 election

The Compromise

Critical to the outcome was the fact that several southern Democrats had defected and made deals with Republicans. In February of 1877, prominent Ohio Republicans and powerful southern Democrats struck a bargain. The Republicans promised that if elected, Hays would remove federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina. Federal troops had remained in the south after the war administering the law, a push made by Grant and the Radical Republicans. The removal would lead to the collapse of Republican governments in those states. In return, the Democrats promised to withdraw their opposition to Hays, to accept in good faith the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, and stop partisan attacks against Republicans in the South.

With this agreement in hand, southern Democrats could justify giving up on Tilden. The so-called Compromise of 1877 brought the designs of the Radical Republicans to an end, and restored 'home rule' to white Democrats.

end of reconstruction

The Aftermath

After Hays took office, most of the promises made were either renounced or forgotten. They had served their purpose of ending the political crisis. In April of 1877, Hays did remove federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina and the Republican governments there fell. As for the promises regarding the civil rights of blacks, only a few Democratic leaders, such as the new governors in Louisiana and South Carolina, remembered them for long. Over the next 30 years, those rights would crumble under the pressure of white rule in the South and the force of Supreme Court decisions narrowing the application of the reform-minded amendments. Radical Republican Reconstruction never offered more than an uncertain commitment to equality before the law, yet it would leave an enduring legacy. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were not dead, just made dormant by the Compromise of 1877, and they waited to be awakened.

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