The Grant Administration

The Grant Years

President Ulysses S. Grant presided over a country that had survived the Civil War, but which was divided over how to deal with the aftermath.

Learning Objectives

Examine the policies enforced by the Grant administration to bolster Reconstruction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ulysses S. Grant was elected president of the United States in 1868.
  • Immediately upon inauguration in 1869, Grant bolstered Reconstruction by prodding Congress to readmit Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas into the Union, while ensuring their constitutions protected every citizen 's voting rights.
  • Grant created new federal departments and ordered federal troops to suppress racial violence in the South.
  • Grant's administration was marred by a series of scandals.
  • Grant had both successes and failures during his two terms in office. In recent years, historians have elevated his presidential rating because of his support for African-American civil rights.

Key Terms

  • Fifteenth Amendment: An amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's, "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" (for example, slavery). It was ratified on February 3, 1870.
  • Ulysses S. Grant: The 18th president of the United States (1869–1877) and a leading general in the second half of the Civil War.

During the Civil War, many in the North believed that fighting for the Union was a noble cause—for the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery. After the war ended, with the North victorious, the fear among Radical Republicans was that President Johnson too quickly assumed that slavery and Confederate nationalism were dead and that the Southern states could return to the Union. The Radical Republicans sought out a candidate for president who would support their vision for Reconstruction.

In 1868, the Republicans unanimously chose Ulysses S. Grant to be the Republican presidential candidate. Grant won favor with the Radicals after he allowed Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical, to be reinstated as secretary of war. As early as 1862, during the Civil War, Grant had appointed the Ohio military chaplain, John Eaton, to protect and gradually incorporate refugee slaves in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi into the Union war effort and pay them for their labor. Grant also opposed President Johnson by supporting the Reconstruction Acts passed by the Radicals.

Grant's Reconstruction Efforts

Immediately upon inauguration in 1869, Grant bolstered Reconstruction by prodding Congress to readmit Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas into the Union, while ensuring their constitutions protected every citizen's voting rights. Grant met with prominent black leaders for consultation, and signed a bill into law that guaranteed equal rights to both blacks and whites in Washington, D.C.

During Grant's two terms, he strengthened Washington's legal capabilities to directly intervene to protect citizenship rights even if the states ignored the problem. He worked with Congress to create the Department of Justice and Office of Solicitor General, led by Attorney General Amos Akerman and the first Solicitor General Benjamin Bristow. Congress passed three powerful Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. These were criminal codes which protected the Freedmen's right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. Most important, they authorized the federal government to intervene when states did not act. Grant's new Justice Department prosecuted thousands of Klansmen under the tough new laws. Grant sent federal troops to nine South Carolina counties to suppress Klan violence in 1871.

Grant also used military pressure to ensure that African Americans could maintain their new electoral status, won passage of the Fifteenth Amendment giving African Americans the right to vote, and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which gave people access to public facilities regardless of race. To counter vote fraud in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, Grant sent in tens of thousands of armed, uniformed federal marshals and other election officials to regulate the 1870 and subsequent elections. Democrats across the North then mobilized to defend their base and attacked Grant's entire set of policies. On October 21, 1876, President Grant deployed troops to protect black and white Republican voters in Petersburg, Virginia.

Scandals and Declining Support


Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States: Official White House portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant, completed by Henry Ulke on March 2, 1875.

Grant's support from Congress and the nation declined due to presidential scandals during his administration and the political resurgence of the Democrats in the North and South. Furthermore, most Republicans felt the war goals had been achieved by 1870 and turned their attention to other issues such as financial and monetary policies.

By 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant had alienated large numbers of leading Republicans, including many Radicals, with the corruption of his administration and his use of federal soldiers to prop up Radical state regimes in the South. The opponents, called " Liberal Republicans," included founders of the party who expressed dismay that the party had succumbed to corruption. They were further wearied by the continued insurgent violence of whites against blacks in the South, especially around every election cycle, which demonstrated the war was not over. Leaders included editors of some of the nation's most powerful newspapers. Charles Sumner, embittered by the corruption of the Grant administration, joined the new party, which nominated editor Horace Greeley. The badly organized Democratic party also supported Greeley.

Grant made up for the defections with new gains among Union veterans and with strong support from the "Stalwart" faction of his party and the Southern Republican parties. Grant won with 55.6 percent of the vote to Greeley's 43.8 percent. The Liberal Republican party vanished, and many former supporters—even former abolitionists—abandoned the cause of Reconstruction.

The Election of 1868

The election of 1868 was the first presidential election to take place after the Civil War, during Reconstruction.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the differences between the Republican Party and Democratic Party during the election of 1868

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour after a series of failed ballots and pledged to pursue a softer Reconstruction.
  • Republicans favored " Radical Reconstruction," which sought to punish the South for its role in the war, and nominated war hero Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Grant took no part in the campaign and made no promises. A line in his letter of acceptance of the nomination became the Republican campaign theme: "Let us have peace."

Key Terms

  • Ulysses S. Grant: The 18th president of the United States (1869–1877) and a leading general in the second half of the Civil War.
  • Horatio Seymour: An American politician who ran against Ulysses S Grant during the presidential election of 1868. He was the 18th governor of New York from 1853 to 1854 and from 1863 to 1864.
  • Radical Reconstruction: Republican policies proposed after the election of 1866, which granted greater opportunities to freedmen and sought to punish the South for its role in the Civil War.

The U.S. presidential election of 1868 was the first presidential election to take place after the American Civil War, during the period referred to as "Reconstruction." Three of the former Confederate states—Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia—were not yet restored to the Union and therefore could not vote in the election.


The incumbent president, Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency in 1865 following the assassination of President Lincoln, was unsuccessful in his attempt to receive the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead of Johnson, the Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour, chairman of the convention, after a series of failed ballots with several other candidates vying for nomination. Seymour and the Democratic Party wanted to carry out a Reconstruction policy that would emphasize peaceful reconciliation with the South, a policy similar to that advocated by Abraham Lincoln and President Johnson. Many Democrats sought to undo the progress that African Americans had made after the Civil War, especially on the issue of suffrage. The slogan for the 1868 Democratic National Convention was, "This is a white man's country; Let a white man rule."

The Republican platform supported black suffrage and political rights in the South, but agreed to let Northern states decide for themselves whether to enfranchise blacks. The platform also opposed using greenbacks (paper currency issued by the government during the Civil War) to redeem U.S. bonds, encouraged immigration, endorsed full rights for naturalized citizens, and favored "Radical Reconstruction" as distinct from the more lenient policy of President Johnson.

By 1868, Republicans felt strong enough to drop the Union Party label, but still badly needed to nominate a popular hero for their presidential candidate. The Democratic Party controlled many large Northern states that had a great percentage of the electoral votes. General Ulysses S. Grant announced he was a Republican and was unanimously nominated on the first ballot as the party's standard bearer at the Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois, held on May 20–21, 1868.

The Campaigns

The campaign was conducted vigorously. The Republicans were fearful as late as October that they might be beaten. The Democrats were out of favor, and their candidate Seymour had been called a traitor and a troublemaker. Seymour answered none of the charges made against him, but made a few key speeches. Some newspapers exaggerated his faults. As governor, Seymour had sent troops to Gettysburg, but some press tried to portray him as disloyal to the Union. Because several Southern states were not yet reintegrated into the Union, the votes of thousands of southern Democrats would not be counted.

Grant took no part in the campaign and made no promises. A line in his letter of acceptance of the nomination became the Republican campaign theme: "Let us have peace." After four years of civil war, three years of wrangling over Reconstruction, and the attempted impeachment of a president, the nation craved the peace Grant pledged to achieve. The voters were told that if they wanted to reopen the Civil War, they need only elect Horatio Seymour, and some spread stories of bloodshed in the South to prove that Radical Reconstruction was necessary.


Horatio Seymour polled 2,708,744 votes against 3,013,650 for Grant, a fairly close race, but ultimately Grant carried the Electoral College and won the election. Many alleged that had the remaining Southern states taken place in the election, Seymour would have won, but the possible outcome is impossible to know for sure.

Portraits of the two nominees framed by an American eagle and the American flag.

Republican nominees for the election of 1868: Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax were Republican running mates in the 1868 presidential election.

The Government Debt

Ulysses S. Grant's administration pursued a series of policies to strengthen public credit, reform the Treasury, and reduce the debt.

Learning Objectives

Identify the strategies used by the Grant administration to strengthen the economy after the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Grant's first move upon taking office was signing the Public Credit Act of 1869, which ensured that all public debts, particularly war bonds, would be paid only in gold rather than in greenbacks.
  • Grant protected the wages of U.S. government employees through another act he signed in 1869.
  • Treasury Secretary George S. Boutwell reorganized and reformed the U.S. Treasury by discharging unnecessary employees, starting sweeping changes in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving to protect the currency from counterfeiters, and revitalizing tax collections to hasten the collection of revenue.

Key Terms

  • national debt: Any money owed by the government of a nation.
  • George S. Boutwell: An American statesman who served as secretary of the Treasury under President Ulysses S. Grant, the 20th Governor of Massachusetts, a senator and representative from Massachusetts, and the first commissioner of internal revenue under President Abraham Lincoln.
  • greenbacks: Paper currency issued by the U.S. government during the Civil War by the Treasury Department.
  • The Public Credit Act of 1869: A U.S. congressional bill from 1869 that declares that bondholders who purchased bonds to help finance the Civil War would be paid back in gold.

Grant and the Government Debt

In the first two years of Ulysses S. Grant's presidency, Treasury Secretary George Boutwell helped reduce federal expenditures to $292 million in 1871, which was down from $322 million in 1869. The cost of collecting taxes fell to 3.11 percent in 1871. Grant reduced the number of employees working in the government from 6,052 on March 1, 1869, to 3,804 on December 1, 1871. He also increased tax revenues by $108 million from 1869 to 1872. During his first administration, the national debt fell from $2.5 billion to $2.2 billion. The United States had debt prior to the Civil War, but it increased sharply during the war. One reason for the increase of debt was the selling of bonds to citizens to pay for the war efforts.

Grant's first move upon taking office was signing the Public Credit Act of 1869, which the Republican Congress had just passed. It ensured that all public debts, particularly war bonds, would be paid only in gold rather than in greenbacks. The price of gold on the New York exchange fell to $130 per ounce—the lowest point since the suspension of specie payment in 1862. The measure is significant because it was a step to help alleviate the financial struggles faced by the United States after the Civil War. The United States was already indebted before the war, and the issuing of greenbacks to keep currency circulating during the war increased the indebtedness significantly. The country had no central bank or monetary policy at the time and was desperate to improve its position to maintain itself as a global economic leader. One effect of the bill was creating a shortage of much needed cash for farmers in the western states and territories.

On May 19, 1869, Grant protected the wages of those working for the U.S. government. In 1868, a law had been passed that reduced the government working day to eight hours. However, much of the law was later repealed in order to allow day wages to also be reduced. To protect workers, Grant signed an executive order that, "no reduction shall be made in the wages" regardless of the reduction in hours for the government day workers.

Boutwell and the Treasury

Portrait of George S. Boutwell

George S. Boutwell: George S. Boutwell served as secretary of the Treasury under Ulysses S. Grant.

Following in line with the Republican Party national platform of 1868, Secretary Boutwell advocated that the national debt must be reduced and the United States return to a gold specie economy. Boutwell believed that the stabilization of the currency and the reduction of the national debt was more important than risking a depression by withdrawing greenbacks from the economy.

On his own, with neither the knowledge of President Grant nor other Cabinet members, Boutwell controversially began to release gold from the Treasury and sell government bonds in order to reduce the supply of greenbacks in the economy. As secretary, he opposed a rapid lowering of taxes and favored using surplus revenues to make a large reduction of the national debt. In 1870, Congress, at his recommendation, passed an act providing for the funding of the national debt and authorizing the selling of certain bonds, but not authorizing an increase of the debt.

Boutwell also reorganized and reformed the U.S. Treasury. First, he discharged unnecessary employees. Second, he started sweeping changes in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving to protect the currency from counterfeiters. Then, he improved bookkeeping with customs houses. Finally, he revitalized tax collections to hasten the collection of revenue. These changes soon led the Treasury to have a monthly surplus. By May 1869, Boutwell reduced the national debt by $12 million. By September, the national debt was reduced by $50 million.


Ulysses S. Grant's administration was plagued by a series of scandals, many involving individuals close to Grant.

Learning Objectives

Identify at least two scandals that plagued Grant’s administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Grant pursued different courses for prosecution depending on his friendship with those indicted, which caused controversy.
  • The Black Friday scandal, which involved Grant's brother-in-law, was a scheme to control the gold market. When it failed, it rocked the U.S. economy.
  • The Whiskey Ring scandal, which involved Grant's personal secretary, was a scheme to defraud the IRS of whiskey taxes.
  • Grant himself was deposed as part of the Whiskey Ring scandal.

Key Terms

  • Black Friday: A scandal (also known as the "Fisk-Gould" scandal and the "Gold Panic"), occurring on September 24, 1869, that was caused by two speculators' efforts to corner the gold market on the New York Gold Exchange. It was one of several scandals that rocked the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Whiskey Ring: A U.S. scandal, exposed in 1875, involving diversion of tax revenues in a conspiracy among government agents, politicians, whiskey distillers, and distributors.
  • speculation: An investment involving higher than normal risk in order to obtain a higher than normal return.

The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was marred by a series of scandals. Grant's standards in many of his cabinet appointments were low, leading to widespread charges of corruption. Beginning with the Black Friday gold speculation ring in 1869, corruption was uncovered during Grant's two presidential terms in seven federal departments. Reform movements were initiated by both the Democratic Party and the Liberal Republicans, a faction that split from the Republican Party to oppose political patronage and corruption in the Grant administration. Nepotism was prevalent, with more than 40 of Grant's family members or relatives benefiting from government appointments and employment.

Black Friday

The first scandal to taint the Grant administration in 1869 was Black Friday (also known as the "Gold Panic"), which was an attempt by two financiers to corner the price of gold without consideration for the nation's economic welfare. This intricate financial scheme was primarily conceived and administered by Wall Street manipulator Jay Gould and his partner James Fisk in September 1869. They managed to involve Grant's brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, in the scheme in order to access Grant himself. Gould also had given a $10,000 bribe to the assistant secretary of the Treasury, Daniel Butterfield, in exchange for inside information. Corbin himself had $2 million invested in the gold market, and had given both First Lady Julia Grant and Grant's personal secretary, Horace Porter, $500,000 speculative accounts. On September 6, 1869, Gould bought the Tenth National Bank with the intention of using it as a buying house for gold, and Gould and Fisk began buying gold in earnest.

Secretary Boutwell tracked the situation and found that the profits made in the manipulated rising gold market could ruin the nation's economy for several years to come. By September 21, the price of gold had jumped from $137 to $141; Gould and Fisk jointly owned upward of $60 million of it. Boutwell and Grant finally met on September 23 and agreed to release gold from the Treasury if its price continued to rise. On the same day, Boutwell also ordered the closing of the Tenth National Bank. Then, on September 23, 1869 (known infamously as "Black Friday"), the price of gold soared to $160 dollars an ounce. This spurred Boutwell to release $4 million in gold specie into the market and buy $4 million in bonds. The gold market crashed, foiling Gould and Fisk, while ruining many investors financially.

The gold panic devastated the U.S. economy for months. Stock prices plunged, and the price of food crops such as wheat and corn dropped severely, devastating farmers.

Whiskey Ring

The most infamous scandal associated with the Grant administration was the Whiskey Ring of 1875, which was exposed by Treasury Secretary Benjamin H. Bristow and journalist Myron Colony. Whiskey distillers in the Midwest were no strangers to evading taxes, having done so since the Lincoln administration. This intensified during the Grant administration, as whiskey distillers bribed Treasury Department agents, who in turn helped the distillers evade taxes to the tune of up to $2 million per year; the agents would neglect to collect a duty of 70 cents per gallon, then split the bonus profits. The ringleaders had to coordinate distillers, rectifiers, gaugers, storekeepers, revenue agents, and Treasury clerks by way of recruitment and extortion.

On May 13, 1875, Bristow, with Grant's endorsement, struck hard at the ring, seized the distilleries, and made hundreds of arrests. Missouri Revenue Agent John A. Joyce and two of Grant's appointees, Supervisor of Internal Revenue General John McDonald and private secretary to the president, Orville E. Babcock, were eventually indicted in the Whiskey Ring trials.

After Babcock's indictment, Grant requested that Babcock go through a military trial rather than a public trial, but the grand jury denied the request. Grant unexpectedly issued an order not to give any more immunity to persons involved in the Whiskey Ring, leading to speculation that he was trying to protect Babcock. Because Bristow needed distillers to testify with immunity in order to pursue ringleaders, the order caused friction between him and Grant. Prosecutor Henderson accused Grant of interfering with Secretary Bristow's investigation.

The accusation angered Grant, who fired Henderson as special prosecutor. Grant then replaced Henderson with James Broadhead, who had little time to research the facts surrounding Babcock's case and those of other Whiskey Ring members. At the trial, President Grant read a deposition stating that he had no knowledge of Babcock being involved in the ring. The jury accepted the president's testimony, and quickly acquitted Babcock of any charges. Broadhead went on to close out all the other cases in the Whiskey Ring. McDonald and Joyce were convicted in the graft trials and sent to prison. On January 26, 1877, President Grant pardoned McDonald.

Grant's Reputation

Grant's associations with these scandals tarnished his personal reputation while he was president and afterward. According to public perception at the time, the scandals revealed that Grant reacted too readily to protect his team, to cover up misdeeds, and to get rid of whistle-blowers and reformers. His acceptance of gifts from wealthy associates showed poor judgment. He was reluctant to prosecute cabinet members and appointees viewed as "honest" friends, and those who were convicted were set free with presidential pardons after serving a brief time in prison. Despite the scandals, by the end of Grant's second term, the corruption in the Departments of Interior, Treasury, and Justice were cleaned up by his new cabinet members.

The tide is beginning to turn concerning Grant's presidential legacy. Since the mid-1990s, his presidential reputation has improved as historians emphasize his enforcement of African-American civil rights in the South and his peace policy towards American Indians.

White Terror

"White Terror" refers to white-supremacy groups formed in the South in reaction to recently freed African Americans after the Civil War.

Learning Objectives

Describe how white-supremacy groups responded to social and political changes after the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The White League was a paramilitary group formed to intimidate African-Americans and Republican officeholders.
  • The Ku Klux Klan was formed by Confederate veterans and quickly developed a coherent hierarchy.
  • Nathan Bedford Forrest was the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan during the height of its activities in the late 1860s.

Key Terms

  • White League: A white paramilitary group started in 1874 that operated to run Republicans out of office and to intimidate freedmen from voting and organizing politically.
  • Ku Klux Klan: A secretive vigilante group in the United States, founded after the end of the Civil War, which has advocated extremist reactionary currents, such as white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through violent terrorism.

After the Civil War, a number of white-supremacist groups formed as a reaction to the liberation of African-American former slaves, who were free to compete for paying jobs and opportunities in the South.

White League


White League and Klan opposition to Reconstruction: A Harper's Weekly cartoon from October 1874 depicting White League and Klan opposition to Reconstruction. It shows a black family cowering, surrounded by a burning schoolhouse and a man hanged in a tree. Above them appear the words, "Worse than Slavery." A man from the White League and the KKK shake hands as they loom over the family. Written at the top: "The Union as it was. This is a white man's government. The lost cause."

The White League was a white paramilitary group started in 1874 that worked to turn Republicans out of office and intimidate freedmen from voting and organizing politically. Its first chapter, established in Grant Parish, Louisiana, was made up of many of the same local Confederate veterans who had participated in the earlier Colfax Massacre, in April 1873. Chapters were soon founded in other areas of the state and in New Orleans. During the later years of Reconstruction, the White League was one of the paramilitary groups described as, "the military arm of the Democratic Party."

Although sometimes linked to the secret vigilante groups of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as to the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League and other paramilitary groups of the later 1870s displayed significant differences. They operated openly and solicited coverage from newspapers, and the members' identities were generally known. They had a specific political goal: to overthrow the Reconstruction government. They directed their activities toward intimidation and removal of Northern and black Republican candidates and officeholders. Made up of well-armed Confederate veterans, the group worked to turn Republicans out of office, disrupt their political organizations, and use force to intimidate and terrorize freedmen to keep them from the polls. Backers helped finance purchases of up-to-date arms, including Winchester rifles, Colt revolvers, and Prussian needle guns.

In 1874, White League members murdered Julia Hayden, a 17-year-old black woman from Tennessee who was working as a schoolteacher in Hartsville, Louisiana. The Coushatta Massacre occurred in another Red River parish: The local White League forced six Republican officeholders to resign and promise to leave the state. The League assassinated the men before they left the parish, together with between five and twenty freedmen (sources differ) who were witnesses. Generally in remote areas, the White League's show of force and outright murders always overcame opposition. They were Confederate veterans, experienced and well armed. The White League was effective; voting by Republicans decreased and Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1876.

Ku Klux Klan

Six well-educated Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee, created the original Ku Klux Klan on December 24, 1865, during Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan was one among a number of secret, oath-bound organizations—including the Southern Cross, in New Orleans (1865), and the Knights of the White Camelia (1867), in Louisiana—using violence as a political weapon. Historians generally see the KKK as part of the post-Civil War insurgent violence related not only to the high number of veterans in the population, but also to their effort to control the dramatically changed social situation by using extrajudicial means to restore white supremacy. In 1866, Mississippi Governor William L. Sharkey reported that disorder, lack of control, and lawlessness were widespread; in some states, armed bands of Confederate soldiers roamed at will. The Klan used public violence against blacks as a method of intimidation. They burned houses and attacked and killed blacks, leaving their bodies on the roads.

In an 1867 meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Klan members gathered to try to create an hierarchical organization with local chapters reporting up the line of command to a national headquarters. Because most of the Klan's members were veterans, they were used to the hierarchical structure of the organization; however, the Klan never operated under this centralized structure. Local chapters and bands were highly independent.

Portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest: Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest became Grand Wizard of the KKK, claiming to be the Klan's national leader. Forrest became involved sometime in late 1866 or early 1867. A common report is that Forrest arrived in Nashville in April 1867 while the Klan was meeting at the Maxwell House Hotel, probably at the encouragement of a state Klan leader, former Confederate general George Gordon. The organization had grown to the point where it needed an experienced commander, and Forrest fit the bill. In Room 10 of the Maxwell, Forrest was sworn in as a member.

Klan members adopted masks and robes that hid their identities and added to the drama of their rides at night, their chosen time for attacks. The Klan attacked black members of the Loyal Leagues and intimidated Southern Republicans and Freedmen's Bureau workers. When they killed black political leaders, they also took heads of families, along with the leaders of churches and community groups, because these people had many roles in society. Agents of the Freedmen's Bureau reported weekly assaults and murders of blacks. Klan violence worked to suppress black voting, and campaign seasons were deadly. More than 2,000 persons were killed, wounded and otherwise injured in Louisiana within a few weeks prior to the presidential election of November 1868. The KKK killed and wounded more than 200 black Republicans, hunting and chasing them through the woods. Thirteen captives were taken from jail and shot; a half-buried pile of 25 bodies was found in the woods. The KKK made people vote Democratic and gave them certificates of the fact.

Reform and the Election of 1872

Grant remained popular after his first term and was renominated as the Republican Party's presidential candidate for the 1872 election.

Learning Objectives

Examine the liberal Republicans' issues with the party at large

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Liberal Republicans, who thought the mainline Republicans were prolonging Reconstruction unnecessarily, split from the main Republican Party and nominated Horace Greeley for president.
  • The Democrats, with no strong candidate of their own, adopted Greeley as their candidate.
  • The Republicans, who were content with their Reconstruction program for the South, renominated Ulysses S. Grant and Representative Henry Wilson in 1872.

Key Terms

  • Republican Party: One of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party.
  • Liberal Republicans: A political party, organized in Cincinnati in May 1872, to oppose the reelection of President Ulysses S. Grant and his Radical Republican supporters.
  • Horace Greeley: An American newspaper editor, a founder of the Liberal Republican Party, a reformer, a politician, and an outspoken opponent of slavery. He was soundly defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election.

Grant remained popular throughout the nation, despite the scandals evident during his first term in office. Grant had supported a patronage system that allowed Republicans to infiltrate and control state governments. In response to President Grant's federal patronage, in 1870, Senator Carl Schurz from Missouri, a German immigrant and Civil War hero, started a second party known as the "Liberal Republicans." They advocated civil-service reform, a low tariff, and amnesty for former Confederate soldiers. The Liberal Republicans thought that the Grant administration, and the president personally, were fully corrupt. More importantly, they thought that the goals of Reconstruction had been achieved. These goals were first, the destruction of slavery, and second, the destruction of Confederate nationalism. With these goals achieved, the tenets of republicanism demanded that federal military troops be removed from the South, where they were propping up allegedly corrupt Republican regimes.

Portrait of Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley: Horace Greeley was soundly defeated as the candidate of the Liberal Republican Party during the election of 1872.

The Liberal Republicans successfully ran B.G. Brown for the governorship of Missouri and won with Democrat support. Then in 1872, the party completely split from the Republican Party and nominated New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley as candidate for the presidency. The Democrats, who at this time had no strong candidate choice of their own, reluctantly adopted Greeley as their candidate with Governor B.G. Brown as his running mate. Frederick Douglass supported Grant and reminded black voters that Grant had destroyed the violent Ku Klux Klan.

The Radical Republicans, who were content with their Reconstruction program for the South, renominated Grant, with Representative Henry Wilson as his running mate in 1872. Grant had remained a popular Civil War hero, and the Republicans continued to wave the "bloody shirt" as a patriotic symbol intended to remind voters that the Democrats did not support the war effort. The Republicans favored high tariffs and a continuation of Radical Reconstruction policies that supported five military districts in the Southern states. Grant also favored amnesty for former Confederate soldiers such as the Liberal Republicans.

Because of political infighting between Liberal Republicans and Democrats, the physically ailing Greeley was no match for Grant, the "Hero of Appomattox," and lost dismally in the popular vote. Grant swept the Electoral College, getting 286 votes while other minor candidates received only 63 votes. Grant won 55.8 percent of the popular vote between Greeley and the other minor candidates. Heartbroken after a hard-fought political campaign, Greeley died a few weeks after the election and in the end, only received three electoral votes. Out of respect for Greeley, Grant attended his funeral.

Change in the Democratic Party

Following the Civil War, political-racial tensions built up in the South, leading to a period of radical military rule.

Learning Objectives

Describe the Democratic Party's "New Departure"

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The " New Departure " was a strategy of the Democratic Party to fight the Republican Party on economic grounds rather than on issues of race.
  • Adherents to the "New Departure," called " Redeemers," fought for economic modernization, lower taxes, and more state power.
  • Redeemers also championed a message of white supremacy.

Key Terms

  • carpetbagger: A pejorative term for Northerners who moved to the South after the American Civil War, especially ones who went South to gain political influence or personal wealth. This term also can refer to someone perceived as intervening in the politics of an area without actually having a connection with the area.
  • New Departure: The political strategy used by the Democratic Party in the United States after 1865 to distance itself from its proslavery history in an effort to broaden its political base, and to focus on issues—especially economic ones—where it had more of an advantage.
  • redeemer: A term used by white Southerners to describe a political coalition in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction era that followed the American Civil War. The Redeemers were the Southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats—the conservative, pro-business faction of the Democratic Party who sought to oust the Republican coalition of freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags.

In the South, political and racial tensions developed within the Republican Party as a response to attacks by the Democrats. In several states, the more conservative "scalawags" fought for control with the more radical " carpetbaggers," and the Republican Party steadily lost support. Meanwhile, freedmen were demanding a bigger share of the offices and patronage, squeezing out their carpetbagger allies. The racial tension within the Republican Party was exacerbated because poor whites resented the job competition from freedmen. Finally, some of the more prosperous freedmen were joining the Democrats, angered by the failure of the Republicans to help them acquire land. In response, the Democrats tried a strategy called the "New Departure."

New Departure and the Redeemers

The Grant administration had proven by its crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan that it would use as much federal power as necessary to suppress open anti-black violence. So, by 1870, the conservative Democratic leadership across the South decided it had to end its opposition to Reconstruction and black suffrage to survive. They decided it would be more successful to fight the Republican Party on economic grounds rather than on issues of race. This "New Departure" offered the chance for a clean slate without having to symbolically fight the Civil War every election. Furthermore, many wealthy Southern landowners thought they could control part of the newly enfranchised black electorate to their own advantage.

Democrats began asserting that they were just as loyal to the United States as the Republicans and now supported some civil rights. In the South, Democrats who embraced the "New Departure" called themselves "Redeemers." Democrats began pushing for economic modernization and recovery, alleging that the Republican-controlled state governments were inefficient and corrupt.

The Redeemers' program emphasized opposition to the Republican governments, which they considered to be a corrupt violation of true republican principles. They also worked to reestablish white supremacy. The crippling national economic problems and reliance on cotton meant that the South was struggling financially. Redeemers denounced taxes higher than what they had known before the war. At that time, however, the states had few functions, and planters maintained private institutions only. Redeemers wanted to reduce state debts. Once in power, they typically cut government spending, shortened legislative sessions, lowered politicians' salaries, scaled back public aid to railroads and corporations, and reduced support for the new systems of public education and some welfare institutions.

As Democrats took over state legislatures, they worked to change voter-registration rules to strip most blacks and many poor whites of their ability to vote. Blacks continued to vote in significant numbers well into the 1880s, with many winning local offices. Black congressmen continued to be elected, albeit in smaller numbers, until the 1890s. George Henry White, the last Southern black of the post-Reconstruction period to serve in Congress, retired in 1901, leaving Congress completely white.

In the lower South, violence continued and new insurgent groups arose. The disputed 1872 election of a Republican governor in Louisiana led to an outbreak of violence—later known as the "Colfax Massacre"—in which 3 white men died, 120–150 African Americans were killed, and some 50 African Americans were held as prisoners. This marked the beginning of heightened insurgency and attacks on Republican officeholders and freedmen in Deep South states.

The "New Departure" was strongly opposed by large factions of Democrats in the Deep South, who professed loyalty to the Confederate legacy. Republicans attacked the Democrats as being insincere about reform, and committed to states' rights at the expense of national unity and to white supremacy at the expense of civil rights.


The Color Line is Broken: This political cartoon from 1877 depicts the Democrats' control over the South. It shows a black man holding a Democrat voting ticket and wearing a badge that reads "Peace." Posters around the man read, "The Republican Party is dead in the South," "Old line Whigs are dead," and "The South solid for the democracy."

Panic and Redemption

The global Panic of 1873 reached the United States after overspeculation in the railroad industry and other losses weakened the economy.

Learning Objectives

Identify the economic factors that contributed to the Panic of 1873

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Panic of 1873 started when the stock market in Vienna crashed in June 1873. Unsettled markets soon spread to Berlin and throughout Europe. Three months later, the panic spread to the United States when three major banks stopped making payments.
  • The causes of the panic in the United States included overexpansion in the railroad industry after the Civil War, losses in the Chicago and Boston fires of 1871 and 1872, respectively, and insatiable speculation by Wall Street financiers.
  • President Ulysses S. Grant had little economic experience and relied on advisors who implemented a series of policies that caused a five-year depression.

Key Terms

  • inflationary policy: In economics, this is a policy that leads to a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time. When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, it also reflects an erosion in the purchasing power of money, or a loss of real value in the internal medium of exchange and unit of account in the economy.
  • Panic of 1873: A severe international economic depression in 1873 in both Europe and the United States that lasted until 1879, and even longer in some countries.

The Panic of 1873 was a worldwide depression that started when the stock market in Vienna crashed in June 1873. Unsettled markets soon spread to Berlin and throughout Europe. Three months later, the panic spread to the United States, when three major banks stopped making payments: the New York Warehouse & Security Company on September 8; Kenyon, Cox, & Co. on September 13; and the largest bank, Jay Cooke & Company, on September 18. On September 20, the New York Stock Exchange shut down for 10 days. All of these events created a depression that lasted five years in the United States, ruined thousands of businesses, depressed daily wages by 25 percent from 1873 to 1876, and brought the unemployment rate up to 14 percent. Some 89 out of 364 American railroads went bankrupt.

One of the main causes of the Panic of 1873 in the United States was overexpansion in the railroad industry after the Civil War. Between 1868 and 1873, 33,000 miles of new track were laid across the country. Much of the craze in railroad investment was driven by government land grants and subsidies to the railroads. At that time, the railroad industry was the nation's largest employer outside of agriculture, and it involved large amounts of money and risk. A large infusion of cash from speculators caused abnormal growth in the industry as well as an overbuilding of docks, factories, and ancillary facilities. At the same time, too much capital was involved in projects offering no immediate or early returns.

This unstable economic growth came at the end of a series of economic setbacks: the Black Friday panic of 1869, the Chicago fire of 1871, the outbreak of equine influenza in 1872, and demonetization of silver in 1873.

President Ulysses S. Grant, who knew little about finance, relied on bankers for advice on how to curb the panic. Secretary of Treasury William A. Richardson responded by liquidating a series of outstanding bonds. The banks, in turn, issued short-term clearing-house certificates to be used as cash. People became desperate for paper currency. Although the issuance of clearing-house certificates curbed the Panic on Wall Street, it did nothing to stop the ensuing five-year depression. Grant did nothing to prevent the panic and responded slowly after the banks crashed in September. The limited action of Secretary Richardson did little to increase confidence in the general economy.

After the Panic of 1873, Congress debated an inflationary policy to stimulate the economy and passed the Legal Tender Act, known as the "Inflation Bill," on April 14, 1874, to increase the nation's tight money supply. Many farmers and working men favored the bill, but Eastern bankers favored a veto because of their reliance on bonds and foreign investors. On April 22, 1874, after evaluating his own reasons for wanting to sign the bill, Grant unexpectedly vetoed the bill against the popular election strategy of the Republican Party because he believed it would destroy the nation's credit. Although he understood the rationale of the bill, he believed it could damage the economy in the long-run because it risked overinflation. Additionally, Eastern bankers vigorously lobbied Grant to veto the bill because of their reliance on bonds and foreign investors who did business in gold. Grant's cabinet was bitterly divided over this issue, while conservative Secretary of State Hamilton Fish threatened to resign if Grant signed the bill.


Grant vetoes the "Inflation Bill": President Ulysses S. Grant, standing on a platform, is congratulated boisterously by an audience for vetoing the "Inflation Bill."

Sectionalism and the New South

Many white Southerners were devastated economically, emotionally, and psychologically by the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865.

Learning Objectives

Interpret the significance of the "Lost Cause"

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Prior to the war, many Southerners proudly felt that their rich military tradition would allow them to prevail in the conflict.
  • To cope with their loss during the Civil War, many Southerners adhered to " Lost Cause " beliefs, which argued that the South's campaign was a heroic one and that the South lost due to factors beyond its control.
  • Memorial associations, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, were founded to help propagate the "Lost Cause" beliefs.

Key Terms

  • Southern Historical Society: A public organization founded by Confederate Major General Dabney H. Maury in 1868–1869 that documented Southern military and civilian viewpoints from the American Civil War until now. These were compiled into the Southern Historical Society Papers, published in the late nineteenth century, comprising 52 volumes of articles written by Southern soldiers, officers, politicians, and civilians.
  • United Daughters of the Confederacy: A women's lineage society and heritage association dedicated to honoring the memory of those who served in the military and died in service to the Confederate States of America (CSA). The organization began as the National Association of the Daughters of the Confederacy, organized in 1894 by Caroline Meriwether Goodlett and Anna Davenport Raines.
  • Lost Cause: A set of beliefs common in the white American South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that described the Confederate campaign as one launched against great odds and heroic despite its defeat.

Lost Cause

The "Lost Cause" was a set of beliefs common in the white American South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that described the Confederate campaign as one launched against great odds and heroic despite its defeat. The beliefs endorsed the virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life, while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery. While it was not taught in the North, the "Lost Cause" narrative did win acceptance there and helped the process of reunifying American whites.

Yale Professor Roland Osterweis summarizes the content that pervaded "Lost Cause" writings:

The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus. All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New.
The "Lost Cause" beliefs were founded upon several historically inaccurate elements. These included the claim that the Confederacy started the Civil War to defend states' rights rather than to preserve slavery, and the related claim that slavery was benevolent, rather than cruel.

Historians, including Gaines Foster, generally agree that the "Lost Cause" narrative also "helped preserve white supremacy." Most scholars who have studied the white South's memories of the Civil War or the Old South conclude that both portrayals present a past society in which whites were in charge and blacks were faithful and subservient. Supporters typically portrayed the Confederacy's cause as noble and its leadership as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry and honor, defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South's superior military skill and courage. Proponents of the "Lost Cause" movement also condemned the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, claiming that it had been a deliberate attempt by Northern politicians and speculators to destroy the traditional Southern way of life.

Response to Devastation


The inscription on the memorial reads:

A memorial to Confederate soldiers: The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped promulgate the "Lost Cause" ideology through the construction of numerous memorials, such as this one in Tennessee.

Many white Southerners were devastated economically, emotionally, and psychologically by the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865. Before the war, many Southerners proudly felt that their rich military tradition and superior dedication to the concept of honor would enable them to prevail in the conflict. When this did not happen, white Southerners sought consolation in attributing their loss to factors beyond their control, such as the Union Army's physical size and overwhelming brute force.

The term "Lost Cause" first appeared in the title of an 1866 book by the historian Edward A. Pollard: The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. However, it was the articles written by General Jubal A. Early in the 1870s for the Southern Historical Society that firmly established the "Lost Cause" as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon. The 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis, a two-volume defense of the Southern cause, provided another important text in the history of the "Lost Cause." Davis blamed the enemy for, "whatever of bloodshed, of devastation, or shock to republican government has resulted from the war." He charged that the Yankees fought, "with a ferocity that disregarded all the laws of civilized warfare." The book remained in print and was often used to justify the Southern position and to distance it from slavery.

Memorial associations such as the United Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Ladies Memorial Associations integrated "Lost Cause" themes to help Southerners cope with the many changes during this era, most significantly Reconstruction. These institutions have lasted to the present, and descendants of Southern soldiers continue to attend these meetings. Today, education is a high priority of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which collects documents and gives aid to historical researchers and top college scholars. The organization also provides financial help to elderly members and aids, "homeless shelters, homes for battered women and children, hospital associations, and food banks."

New South

Historians have emphasized how the "Lost Cause" theme helped white Southerners adjust to their new status and move forward into what was called the "New South." Hillyer argues that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS), founded by elite white women in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1890s, exemplifies this solution. The CMLS founded the Confederate Museum to document and defend the Confederate cause and to recall the antebellum mores that the New South's business ethos was displacing. According to Hillyer, by focusing on military sacrifice, rather than on grievances regarding the North, the Confederate Museum aided the process of sectional reconciliation. By depicting slavery as benevolent, the museum's exhibits reinforced the notion that Jim Crow was a proper solution to racial tensions that had escalated during Reconstruction. Lastly, by glorifying the common soldier and portraying the South as "solid," the museum promoted acceptance of industrial capitalism. Thus, the Confederate Museum both critiqued and eased the economic transformations of the New South, and enabled Richmond to reconcile its memory of the past with its hopes for the future. This allowed it to leave the past behind as it developed new industrial and financial roles.

Disenfranchising African Americans

During Reconstruction, many Southern states passed laws that disenfranchised African Americans.

Learning Objectives

Assess the impact of the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South during the last part of the nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Some laws required that voters pay poll taxes, take literacy tests, or prove residency; these laws were applied subjectively and often were used to prevent African Americans from voting.
  • Jim Crow laws imposed segregation in public places, which shut African Americans out of many political conversations.
  • Many Northern legislators were furious about Southern actions, but the Supreme Court upheld state actions in several cases.

Key Terms

  • poll tax: A tax required in order to vote.
  • Residency Requirement: The condition placed upon members of the electorate to provide proof of residency within the defined boundaries of a constituency prior to being permitted voting privileges; often utilized as a barrier to suffrage.
  • De jure: By law, ordained legally.
  • de facto: In practice but not necessarily ordained by law.
  • Jim Crow: A system, derived from state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965, that mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with a "separate but equal" status for African Americans starting in 1890.

The disenfranchisement of African Americans after the Reconstruction era was based on a series of laws, new constitutions, and practices that deliberately were used to prevent black citizens from registering to vote and voting. Former Confederate states enacted these measures at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States. The states' actions defied the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, which was intended to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War.

Considerable violence and fraud had accompanied elections during Reconstruction, as white Democrats used paramilitary groups from the 1870s to suppress black Republican voting and to turn Republicans out of office. After regaining control of the state legislatures, Democrats were alarmed by a late nineteenth-century alliance between Republicans and Populists that cost them some elections. In North Carolina's Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, white Democrats conducted a coup d'état of city government, the only one in U.S. history. They overturned a duly elected biracial government and widely attacked the black community, destroying lives and property.

Ultimately, white Democrats added to previous efforts and achieved widespread disenfranchisement by law: from 1890 to 1908, Southern state legislatures passed new constitutions, constitutional amendments, and laws that made voter registration and voting more difficult, especially when administered by white staff in a discriminatory way. They succeeded in disenfranchising most of the black citizens, as well as many poor whites in the South, and voter rolls dropped dramatically in each state.

Voting Restrictions

Following continuing violence around elections as insurgents worked to suppress black voting, the Democratic-dominated Southern states passed legislation to create barriers to voter registrations by blacks and poor whites, starting with the Georgia poll tax in 1877. In 1890, Mississippi adopted a new constitution, which contained provisions for voter registration that required voters to pay poll taxes and pass a literacy test. The literacy test was subjectively applied by white administrators, and the two provisions effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. The constitutional provisions survived a Supreme Court challenge in Williams v. Mississippi (1898). Other Southern states quickly adopted new constitutions and what they called the "Mississippi Plan."

By 1908, all Southern states of the former Confederacy had passed new constitutions or suffrage amendments, sometimes bypassing general elections to achieve this. Legislators created a variety of barriers, including longer residency requirements, rule variations, and literacy and understanding tests, which were subjectively applied against minorities, or were particularly hard for the poor to fulfill. Such constitutional provisions were unsuccessfully challenged at the Supreme Court in Giles v. Harris (1903). In practice, these provisions, including white primaries, created a maze that blocked most blacks and many poor whites from voting in Southern states until after passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. Voter registration and turnout dropped sharply across the South, as most blacks and many poor whites were excluded from the political system.

The disenfranchisement of a large proportion of voters attracted the attention of Congress, and in 1900, some members proposed stripping the South of seats, related to the number of people who were barred from voting. Apportionment of seats was still based on total population (with the assumption of the usual number of voting males in relation to the residents); as a result, white Southerners commanded a number of seats far out of proportion to the voters they represented. In the end, Congress did not act on this issue, as the Southern bloc of Democrats had sufficient power to reject or stall such action. For decades, white Southern Democrats exercised Congressional representation derived from a full count of the population, but they disfranchised several million black and white citizens.

The text of the poster reads:

Racist campaign poster: A campaign poster from 1866 that depicts a white man and a black man and explains which parties and politicians support "negro suffrage" and which "platform is for the White Man."

Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans. The separation led to treatment, financial support, and accommodations that were usually inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational, and social disadvantages. De jure segregation mainly applied to the Southern United States. Northern segregation was generally de facto, with patterns of segregation in housing enforced by covenants, bank lending practices, and job discrimination.

Examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, as well as the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains. The U.S. military was also segregated. These Jim Crow laws were separate from the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was a Supreme Court decision that ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional. The ruling contributed to 58 more years of legalized discrimination in the United States.

State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The origin of the phrase "Jim Crow" often has been attributed to "Jump Jim Crow," a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed in blackface by white actor Thomas D. Rice. As a result of Rice's fame, "Jim Crow" had become a pejorative expression meaning "Negro" by 1838. When the laws of racial segregation were enacted at the end of the nineteenth century, they became known as "Jim Crow" laws.

The Compromise of 1877

The Compromise of 1877 was a purported bargain in which the White House was awarded to the Republican Party after the election of 1876.

Learning Objectives

Examine the effects of the Compromise of 1877

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The " Compromise of 1877 " refers to a purported informal, unwritten deal that settled the disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election, regarded as the second "corrupt bargain."
  • Through it, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden on the understanding that Hayes would remove federal troops, whose support was essential to the survival of Republican state governments, from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana.
  • With the removal of Northern troops, the President had no method to enforce Reconstruction, thus the Compromise of 1877 signaled the end of American Reconstruction.

Key Terms

  • Rutherford B. Hayes: The 19th president of the United States (1877–1881), elected by Congress in a disputed election in exchange for withdrawing troops from the South.
  • Samuel J. Tilden: The Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency in the disputed election of 1876— one of the most controversial American elections of the nineteenth century—who lost to Rutherford B. Hayes.
  • Compromise of 1877: A purported informal, unwritten deal that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election and ended Reconstruction in the South.

The "Compromise of 1877" refers to a purported informal, unwritten deal that settled the disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election, regarded as the second "corrupt bargain," and ended congressional ("Radical") Reconstruction. Through it, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden on the understanding that Hayes would remove federal troops, whose support was essential to the survival of Republican state governments, from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. The compromise took effect even before Hayes was sworn in, as the incumbent president, Republican Ulysses S. Grant, removed the soldiers from Florida. As president, Hayes removed the remaining troops in South Carolina and Louisiana. As soon as the troops left, many white Republicans also left or became Democrats, and the "Redeemer" Democrats took control. Black Republicans felt betrayed as they lost power and were disenfranchised in the coming decades.

The Disputed Election

The need for a compromise was suggested by the congressional disagreement about the electoral proceedings. Tilden had won the popular vote by almost a quarter of a million votes, but he did not have a clear Electoral College majority. He received 184 uncontested electoral votes, while Hayes received 165, with both sides claiming the remaining 20 (4 from Florida, 8 from Louisiana, 7 from South Carolina, and 1 from Oregon). A total of 185 votes constituted an Electoral College majority; hence, Tilden needed only one of the disputed votes, while Hayes needed all twenty. The election dispute gave rise to a constitutional crisis. Many Democrats who believed that they had been cheated threatened, "Tilden or Blood!" Congressman Henry Watterson of Kentucky declared that an army of 100,000 men was prepared to march on Washington if Tilden was denied the presidency. Because the Constitution did not explicitly indicate how Electoral College disputes were to be resolved, Congress was forced to consider other methods to settle the crisis. Many Democrats argued that Congress as a whole should determine which certificates to count. However, the chances that this method would result in a harmonious settlement were slim, as the Democrats controlled the House, while the Republicans controlled the Senate. In late December, each House created a special committee charged with developing a mechanism to resolve the issue. The committees ultimately settled upon creating an Electoral Commission.

Subsequently, in a series of party-line votes, the Commission awarded all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes. Under the Electoral Commission Act, the Commission's findings were final unless overruled by both houses of Congress. Although the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives repeatedly voted to reject the Commission's decisions, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to uphold them. Thus, Hayes' victory was assured. Unable to overturn the Commission's decisions, many Democrats instead tried to obstruct them, mostly through filibuster. Some historians have argued that Democrats and Republicans reached an unwritten, "back room" agreement (the Compromise of 1877) under which the filibuster would be dropped in return for a promise to end Reconstruction. This thesis was most notably advanced by C. Vann Woodward in his 1951 book, Reunion and Reaction. Other historians, however, have argued that no such compromise existed.


The "corrupt bargain": A political cartoon by Joseph Keppler depicts Roscoe Conkling as Mephistopheles, as Rutherford B. Hayes strolls off with a woman labeled as "Solid South."

Whatever "deals" may or may not have taken place, 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 Congress itself 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 group threatened a filibuster (opposed by Republicans and Congressional Democratic leadership as well) that would prevent the agreed-upon vote from even taking place. Discussions of the points in the alleged "compromise" only concerned convincing key Democrats not to acquiesce in 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.

In any case, whether by a semiformal deal or simply reassurances already in line with Hayes's announced plans, talks with Southern Democrats satisfied the worries of many and, therefore, prevented a Congressional filibuster that had threatened to extend resolution of the election dispute beyond Inauguration Day 1877.

Terms of the Compromise

The purported 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 federal troops from the former Confederate States. Troops remained in only Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, but the compromise finalized the process.
  • The appointment of at least one Southern Democrat to Hayes's cabinet. (David M. Key of Tennessee became 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, which initiated the process that led to the final compromise).
  • The creation of legislation to help industrialize the South and get it back on its feet after the loss during the Civil War.

In exchange, Democrats would peacefully accept Hayes's presidency and respect the civil rights of black Americans.

In fact, in regard to the first point, Hayes had already announced his support for the restoration of "home rule," which would involve troop removal, before the election. It was also not unusual, nor unexpected, for a president, especially one so narrowly elected, to select a cabinet member favored by the other party. As for the final two points, if indeed there were any such firm agreements, they were never acted on.

The End of Reconstruction

With the removal of Northern troops, the President had no method to enforce Reconstruction, thus the Compromise of 1877 signaled the end of American Reconstruction. White Democrats controlled most of the Southern legislatures and armed militias controlled small towns and rural areas. The Democrats gained control of the Senate, and had complete control of Congress, having taken over the House in 1875. Hayes vetoed bills from the Democrats that outlawed the Republican Enforcement Acts; however, with the military underfunded, Hayes could not adequately enforce these laws. Blacks remained involved in Southern politics, particularly in Virginia, which was run by the biracial Readjuster Party. Overall, Blacks considered Reconstruction a failure because the federal government withdrew from enforcing their ability to exercise their rights as citizens.

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