On this dayMar 05, 1877

President Hayes Elected in Political Deal That Ends Reconstruction

Image | Harper's Weekly

On March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated as the nineteenth president of the United States. Hayes–an abolitionist and Union army veteran injured in the Civil War–lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden, a former New York governor supported by the majority of Southern states. The Electoral College results initially remained in dispute, however, sparking a contentious Congressional debate and threatening regional political conflict less than 15 years into the national effort to recover from the Civil War.

In January 1877, an electoral commission was created to resolve the election controversy. The bipartisan commission voted to award the popular vote and the contested Electoral College votes to Hayes, giving him a narrow victory over Tilden. But to avoid unrest, Hayes agreed to what became known as the Compromise of 1877: in exchange for Tilden and his supporters conceding the presidency, Hayes would use his presidential authority to withdraw remaining federal troops from the South.

After the war’s end, 3,000 federal troops had remained in the South to oversee federal aid programs primarily aimed at assisting the economic, political, and social transition of formerly enslaved black people. The troops also enforced the new civil rights and legal freedoms of black men, women, and children, who were otherwise vulnerable to exploitation and violent intimidation at the hands of white Southerners.

In the years leading up to 1877, public support for federal intervention in the South waned, and by the presidential election of 1876, federal troops had withdrawn from all Southern states except Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The compromise agreement to withdraw those remaining troops, and end federal military presence in the South, ended Reconstruction as part of a political deal rather than based on a finding that it had accomplished its needed goals. Just twelve years after emancipation, the vast majority of black people in America still lived in the South, and the premature end to federal protection left them at the mercy of white officials who had very recently waged a war to keep them enslaved.

President Hayes served just a single term before retiring to his home state of Ohio in 1881, but the impact of this compromise lasted much longer. The end of Reconstruction ushered in a campaign of political and legal discrimination, enforced by a brutal era of racial terror lynching that would devastate the black community for generations. The formal withdrawal of troops from the South emboldened political officials seeking to re-establish white supremacy as well as vigilantes eager to employ violence to achieve those ends. Once Reconstruction was abandoned, the black community was targeted for political disenfranchisement, economic exploitation, and unchecked violent terror for nearly a century–with no meaningful federal intervention until the civil rights era of the 20th century.

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