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How the 1876 Election Effectively Ended Reconstruction

January 21, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Disputed returns and secret back-room negotiations put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House—and Democrats back in control of the South.

The results of the U.S. presidential election of 1876 were a mess. A Democratic candidate had emerged with the lead in the popular vote, but 19 electoral votes from four states were in dispute. In 1877, Congress convened to settle the election—and their solution proved to be the beginning of the end for , 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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