In 1876, when the nation went to the polls to elect Grant’s successor, Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden, governor of New York, emerged with a lead of more than 260,000 popular votes. But Tilden had amassed only 184 electoral votes—one shy of the number needed to defeat his Republican opponent, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. Returns from three states (Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina) were in dispute, with both sides claiming victory. Together, the states represented a total of 19 electoral votes, which along with one disputed elector from Oregon would be enough to swing the election Hayes’s way.
The U.S. Constitution provided no way of resolving the dispute, and now Congress would have to decide. As Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, and Republicans dominated in the Senate, the two sides compromised by creating a bipartisan electoral commission with five representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices.
Though the commission was supposed to be comprised of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent, the independent—Supreme Court Justice David Davis—ended up dropping out when he was offered a Senate seat, and a Republican was named to replace him. In the end, after a series of votes along strict party lines, the commission awarded Hayes all three of the contested states in early March 1877, making him the winner by a single electoral vote.
As Eric Foner recounts in his book Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, Hayes had pledged in his acceptance of the nomination to bring “the blessings of honest and capable local self government” to the South if elected—a statement that could be taken as code for ending Reconstruction.
In fact, even as the electoral commission deliberated, national party leaders had been meeting in secret to hash out what would become known as the Compromise of 1877. Hayes agreed to cede control of the South to Democratic governments and back away from attempts at federal intervention in the region, as well as place a Southerner in his cabinet. In return, Democrats would not dispute Hayes’s election, and agreed to respect the civil rights of Black citizens.
Soon after his inauguration, Hayes made good on his promise, ordering federal troops to withdraw from Louisiana and South Carolina, where they had been protecting Republican claimants to the governorships in those states. This action marked the effective end of the Reconstruction era, and began a period of solid Democratic control in the South.
For their part, white Southern Democrats did not honor their pledge to uphold the rights of Black citizens, but moved quickly to reverse as many of Reconstruction’s policies as possible. In the decades to come, disenfranchisement of Black voters throughout the South, often through intimidation and violence, helped ensure the racial segregation imposed by the Jim Crow laws—a system that endured for more than a half-century, until the advances of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
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