The Compromise of 1877 Ends Reconstruction

In 1875, it was widely assumed that incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant would run for a third term as president, despite the 2-term tradition set by the first president, George Washington. Grant's inner circle advised him to go for a third term and he almost did, but the House passed a resolution declaring that the two-term tradition was to prevent a dictatorship. President Grant ruled himself out of running in 1876 and Ohio's governor, Rutherford B. Hayes was the eventual Republican nominee. New York's governor Samuel Tilden was the Democratic nominee. 

The results of the election remain among the most disputed ever. Although it is not disputed that Tilden defeated Hayes in the popular vote, after a first count of votes, Tilden won 184 electoral votes to Hayes' 165, with 20 votes from four states reporting disputed results. Both political parties' electors reported that they were the winners in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In Oregon, one elector was replaced after being declared illegal for being an "elected or appointed official". The question of who should have been awarded these electoral votes is the source of the continued controversy.

Congress created an Electoral Commission was created on January 29, 1877 to resolve the dispute.  It consisted of 15 members: five each from the House and the Senate, plus five Supreme Court justices. Eight members were Republicans; seven were Democrats. An informal agreement was struck that became known as the Compromise of 1877. Following the compromise, the Commission voted along party lines to award all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes, thus assuring his electoral victory by a margin of 185–184. 

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:

  1. The removal of all remaining 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.
  2. The appointment of at least one Southern Democrat to Hayes' cabinet. (David M. Key of Tennessee was appointed as Postmaster General.)
  3. The construction of another transcontinental railroad through the South and Texas
  4. Legislation to help industrialize the South and restore its economy following Reconstruction and the Civil War.
  5. The right to deal with African American citizens in southern states without northern interference.

Hayes was peacefully inaugurated in March of 1877. 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.

Point 5 had already begun in much of the south, but with when the remaining military forces were removed, African Americans across the south lost many of their rights. White supremacists took control of most governments and enacted laws and policies specifically designed to deny Black citizens their rights. 

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