“Redeemers” and the Election of 1876

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the political changes related to the election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877 that rolled back the gains of Reconstruction

“Redeemers” and the End of Reconstruction

While the president and Congress may have seen the Klan and other clandestine White supremacist terrorist organizations as a threat to stability and progress in the South, many southern Whites saw them as an instrument of order in a world turned upside down. Many White Southerners felt humiliated by the process of Radical Reconstruction and the way Republicans had upended southern society, placing Black people in positions of authority while taxing large landowners to pay for the education of former slaves. Those committed to rolling back the tide of Radical Reconstruction in the South called themselves redeemers, a label that expressed their desire to redeem their states from northern control and to restore the antebellum social order whereby Black people were kept safely under the boot heel of White people. They represented the Democratic Party in the South and worked tirelessly to end what they saw as an era of “negro misrule.” By 1877, they had succeeded in bringing about the “redemption” of the South, effectively destroying the dream of Radical Reconstruction.

Republican Power Wanes

The Depression of 1873

A group of people running away from a policeman with a sword on a horse.

Figure 1. During the Panic of 1873, workers began demanding that the federal government help alleviate the strain on Americans. In January 1874, over 7,000 protesters congregated in New York City’s Tompkins Square to insist the government make job creation a priority. They were met with brutality as police dispersed the crowd, and consequently, the unemployment movement lost much of its steam. Matt Morgen, Print of a crowd driven from Tompkins Square by the mounted police, in the Tompkins Square Riot of 1874, January 1874.

Although Ulysses S. Grant won a second term in the presidential election of 1872, the Republican grip on national political power began to slip in the early 1870s. Three major events undermined Republican control. First, in 1873, the United States experienced the start of a long economic downturn, the result of economic instability in Europe that spread to the United States. In the fall of 1873, the bank of Jay Cooke & Company failed to meet its financial obligations and went bankrupt, setting off a panic in American financial markets. An economic depression ensued, which Democrats blamed on Republicans and which lasted much of the decade.

The Depression of 1873 crushed the nation’s already suffering laboring class and destroyed whatever remaining idealism northerners had about Reconstruction. In the South, where many farms were capitalized entirely through loans, sources of credit vanished, many landowners defaulted, and farmers entered an already oversaturated labor market. Wages plummeted and a growing system of debt peonage trapped workers in endless cycles of poverty. The economic turmoil enabled the Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives after the 1874 elections, blunting the legislature’s capacity to any longer direct Reconstruction. This was a mid-term election, where the party that holds the White House usually loses seats.

Second, the Republican Party experienced internal squabbles and divided into two factions. Some Republicans began to question the expansive role of the federal government, arguing for limiting the size and scope of federal initiatives. These advocates, known as Liberal Republicans because they followed classical liberalism in championing small government, formed their own breakaway party. Their ideas changed the nature of the debate over Reconstruction by challenging reliance on federal government help to bring about change in the South. Now some Republicans argued for downsizing Reconstruction efforts.

Third, the Grant administration became mired in scandals, further tarnishing the Republicans while giving Democrats the upper hand. One scandal arose over the siphoning off of money from excise taxes on whiskey. The “Whiskey Ring,” as it was called, involved people at the highest levels of the Grant administration, including the president’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock. Another scandal entangled Crédit Mobilier of America, a construction company and part of the important French Crédit Mobilier banking company. The Union Pacific Railroad company, created by the federal government during the Civil War to construct a transcontinental railroad, paid Crédit Mobilier to build the railroad. However, Crédit Mobilier used the funds it received to buy Union Pacific Railroad bonds and resell them at a huge profit. Some members of Congress, as well as Vice President Schuyler Colfax, had accepted funds from Crédit Mobilier in return for forestalling an inquiry. When the scam became known in 1872, Democratic opponents of Reconstruction pointed to Crédit Mobilier as an example of corruption in the Republican-dominated federal government and evidence that a smaller government was better.

Democratic Power Grows

An illustration of the Colfax Massacre shows survivors tending to those involved in the conflict. The dead and wounded all appear to be black, and two white men on horses watch over them. Another man stands with a gun pointed at the survivors.

Figure 2. In this illustration by Charles Harvey Weigall, captioned “The Louisiana Murders—Gathering the Dead and Wounded” and published in Harper’s Weekly in 1873, survivors of the Colfax Massacre tend to those involved in the conflict. The dead and wounded all appear to be Black, and two White men on horses watch over them. Another man stands with a gun pointed at the survivors.

The Democratic Party in the South made significant advances in the 1870s in its efforts to wrest political control from the Republican-dominated state governments. The Ku Klux Klan, as well as other paramilitary groups in the South, often operated as military wings of the Democratic Party in former Confederate states. In one notorious episode following a contested 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana, as many as 150 freedmen loyal to the Republican Party were killed at the Colfax courthouse by armed members of the Democratic Party, even as many of them tried to surrender.

In other areas of the South, the Democratic Party gained control over state politics. Texas came under Democratic control by 1873, and in the following year Alabama and Arkansas followed suit. In national politics, too, the Democrats gained ground—especially during the 1874 elections, when they recaptured control of the House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War. Every other southern state, with the exception of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana—the states where federal troops remained a force—also fell to the Democratic Party and the restoration of White supremacy. Southerners everywhere celebrated their “redemption” from Radical Republican rule.

The Contested Election of 1876

By the time of the 1876 presidential election, Reconstruction had come to an end in most southern states. In Congress, the political power of the Radical Republicans had waned, although some continued their efforts to realize the dream of equality between Black and White people. One of the last attempts to do so was the passage of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which required equality in public places and on juries. This law was challenged in court, and in 1883 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, arguing that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not prohibit discrimination by private individuals. By the 1870s, the Supreme Court had also undercut the letter and the spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment by interpreting it as affording freed people only limited federal protection from the Klan and other terror groups.

The Compromise of 1877

The country remained bitterly divided, and this was reflected in the contested election of 1876. While Grant wanted to run for a third term, scandals and Democratic successes in the South dashed those hopes. Republicans instead selected Rutherford B. Hayes, the three-time governor of Ohio. Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden, the reform governor of New York, who was instrumental in ending the “Boss” Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall corruption in New York City. The November election produced an apparent Democratic victory, as Tilden carried the South and large northern states with a 300,000-vote advantage in the popular vote. However, disputed returns from Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Oregon, whose electoral votes totaled twenty, threw the election into doubt.

Hayes could still win if he gained those twenty electoral votes. As the Constitution did not provide a method to determine the validity of disputed votes, the decision fell to Congress, where Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. In late January 1877, Congress tried to break the deadlock by creating a special electoral commission composed of five senators, five representatives, and five justices of the Supreme Court. The congressional delegation represented both parties equally, with five Democrats and five Republicans. The court delegation had two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent—David Davis, who resigned from the Supreme Court (and from the commission) when the Illinois legislature elected him to the Senate. After Davis’s resignation, President Grant selected a Republican to take his place, tipping the scales in favor of Hayes. The commission then awarded the disputed electoral votes and the presidency to Hayes, voting on party lines, 8 to 7. The Democrats called foul, threatening to hold up the commission’s decision in the courts.

A map shows the electoral votes cast for Republican candidate Hayes and Democratic candidate Tilden in the 1876 presidential election. Hayes won Oregon (3), Nevada (3), California (6), Colorado (3), Nebraska (3), Minnesota (5), Iowa (11), Wisconsin (10), Illinois (21), Michigan (11), Ohio (22), Louisiana (8), Florida (4), Maine (7), New Hampshire (5), Vermont (5), Massachusetts (13), Rhode Island (4), Pennsylvania (29), and South Carolina (7). Tilden won Texas (8), Missouri (15), Arkansas (6), Indiana (15), Kentucky (12), Tennessee (12), Mississippi (8), Alabama (10), Georgia (11), West Virginia (5), Virginia (11), North Carolina (10), New York (35), Connecticut (6), New Jersey (9), Delaware (3), and Maryland (8). The territories, which did not vote, are also shown on the map. A pie chart alongside the map indicates that each candidate received 50% of the electoral vote: of a total of 369 votes, Hayes received 185 and Tilden, 184. A second pie chart indicates that Hayes received 48% of the popular vote (4,036,298) to Tilden’s 51% (4,300,590), for a total of 8,430,783.

Figure 3. This map illustrates the results of the presidential election of 1876. Tilden, the Democratic candidate, swept the South, with the exception of the contested states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Democrats threatened to boycott Hayes’s inauguration. Rival governments arose claiming to recognize Tilden as the rightfully elected president. Republicans, fearing another sectional crisis, reached out to Democrats. In what became known as the Compromise of 1877, Republican Senate leaders worked with the Democratic leadership so they would support Hayes and the commission’s decision. The two sides agreed that one Southern Democrat would be appointed to Hayes’s cabinet, Democrats would control federal patronage (the awarding of government jobs) in their areas in the South, and there would be a commitment to generous internal improvements, including federal aid for the Texas and Pacific Railway.

Perhaps most important, all remaining federal troops would be withdrawn from the South, a move that effectively ended Reconstruction. Hayes believed that southern leaders would obey and enforce the Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments that protected the rights of freed people. His trust was soon proved to be misguided, much to his dismay, and he devoted a large part of his life to securing rights for freedmen. For their part, the Democrats took over the remaining southern states, creating what became known as the “Solid South”—a region that consistently voted in a bloc for the Democratic Party.

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The End of Reconstruction

Reconstruction ended when northerners abandoned the cause of the formerly enslaved and Democrats recaptured southern politics. Between 1868 and 1877, and especially after the Depression of 1873, economic issues supplanted Reconstruction as the foremost issue on the national agenda. The biggest threat to Republican power in the South had been the violence and intimidation of White Democrats. Only the presence of federal troops in key southern cities prevented Reconstruction’s quick collapse. But the United States never committed the personnel required to restore order and guarantee Black southerners the rights promised by the Fourteenth Amendment.

After 1877, Republicans no longer had the political capital—or political will—to intervene in the South in cases of violence and electoral fraud. In certain locations with large populations of African Americans, such as South Carolina, freedpeople continued to hold some local offices for several years. Yet, with its most revolutionary aims thwarted by 1868, and economic depression and political turmoil taking even its most modest promises off the table by the early 1870s, most of the promises of Reconstruction were unmet. This end of Reconstruction led to the rise of what we call the Jim Crow era, when Southern governments passed laws restricting the rights of Black people. These laws remained in place until the 1960s.

Table 1. This table shows the military districts of the seceded states of the South, the date the state was readmitted into the Union, and the date when conservatives recaptured the statehouse.
Military District State Readmission Conservative Takeover
District 1 Virginia 1870 1870
District 2 North Carolina 1868 1870
South Carolina 1868 1877
District 3 Alabama 1868 1874
Florida 1868 1877
Georgia 1870 1871
District 4 Arkansas 1868 1874
Mississippi 1870 1876
District 5 Texas 1870 1873
Louisiana 1868 1877
None Tennessee 1866 1869

Watch It

This video summarizes the major events of Reconstruction, including the gains made by African Americans following the war and how most of those were quickly reversed when Reconstruction ended.

You can view the transcript for “Reconstruction and 1876: Crash Course US History #22” here (opens in new window).

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Compromise of 1877: the agreement between Republicans and Democrats, after the contested election of 1876, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the presidency in exchange for withdrawing the last of the federal troops from the South

redeemers: a term used for southern White people committed to rolling back the gains of Reconstruction