Compromise of 1877

Author:C. Vann Woodward

Page 478

Four of the sectional compromises in nineteenth-century America were efforts to settle quarrels by mutual concessions and forestall danger of violence. Three of the four efforts were temporarily successful, and only the fourth, that of 1861, broke down in failure. For the next sixteen years, during the CIVIL WAR and RECONSTRUCTION, differences were resolved by resort to force. The Compromise of 1877 differed from the earlier ones in several ways, one of them being that its main purpose was to foreclose rather than to forestall resort to armed force. Since the Republican party was committed to force when necessary to protect freedmen's rights under the constitutional amendments and CIVIL RIGHTS acts of the Reconstruction period, any repudiation of such commitments had to be negotiated discreetly.

Under President ANDREW JOHNSON and President ULYSSES S. GRANT, the government had been backing away from enforcement of freedmen's rights almost from the start. In part the result of white resistance in the South, this retreat from Reconstruction was also a consequence of the prevalence of white-supremacy sentiment in the North. In the elections of 1874, regarded by some as a referendum on Reconstruction, the Republican House majority of 110 was replaced by a Democratic majority of sixty. And in the ensuing presidential election of 1876 the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, won a majority of the popular votes and was conceded 184 of the 185 electoral votes required for election. He also claimed all the nineteen contested votes of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, the only southern states remaining under Republican control. But so did his Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes, who also claimed the election. The impasse was solved by an agreement between the two political parties (not the sections) to create a bipartisan electoral commission of fifteen to count the votes. An unanticipated last minute change of one member of the commission gave the Republicans a majority of one, and by that majority they counted all contested votes for Hayes. That eliminated Tilden, but to seat Hayes required formal action of the House. The Democratic majority, enraged over what they regarded as a "conspiracy" to rob them of their victory, talked wildly of resistance and started a filibuster.

Foreseeing the victory of Hayes, southern Democrats sought to salvage whatever they could out of defeat. Their prime objective was...

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