Compromise of 1877

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A political cartoon by Joseph Keppler depicts Roscoe Conkling as a character Mephistopheles (the devil) while Rutherford B. Hayes strolls off with the prize of the "Solid South" depicted as a woman. The caption quotes Goethe: "Unto that Power he doth belong Which only doeth Right while ever willing Wrong."

The Compromise of 1877 was a purported informal, unwritten deal that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election, pulled federal troops out of state politics in the South, and ended the Reconstruction Era. Through the Compromise, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden on the understanding that Hayes would remove the federal troops whose support was essential for the survival of Republican state governments in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. The compromise involved Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives allowing the decision of the Electoral Commission to take effect. The outgoing 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 and the "Redeemer" Democrats took control. What exactly happened is somewhat contested as the documentation is scanty. Black Republicans felt betrayed as they lost power and were disenfranchised in the coming decades.[1]

Terms of compromise[edit]

The 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:

  1. The removal of all U.S. military forces from the former Confederate states. U.S. troops remained in only Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, but the Compromise finalized the process.
  2. The appointment of at least one Southern Democrat to Hayes's cabinet. (David M. Key of Tennessee became Postmaster General.)[2]
  3. 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).
  4. Legislation to help industrialize the South and get them back on their feet after the loss during the Civil War.

In exchange, Democrats would peacefully accept Hayes's presidency.


After the Compromise, democrats complained loudly that Tilden had been cheated. There was talk of forming armed units that would march on Washington. But in response, President Grant beefed up military security, and no one marched on Washington.[3]

Hayes was peacefully inaugurated. Points 1 and 2 of the compromise took effect. 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. Points 3 and 4 were never enacted; it is possible there was no firm agreement about them.

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

Woodward (1951) argues for an economic interpretation, whereby railroad interest meeting secretly at the Wormley Hotel in Washington forged a compromise with aid to Southern railroads as the sweetener. However, no serious effort was made to fund a railroad or provide other federal aid. An opposing interest group representing the Southern Pacific successfully thwarted Scott's Texas and Pacific scheme and ultimately ran its own line to New Orleans.


Some historians, such as Peskin, argue that the assurances offered to some Southern Democrats to prevent a filibuster were not a "compromise" but a foregone conclusion.[4] Peskin admits that Woodward's interpretation is almost universally accepted but since not all terms were met, it should not be called a compromise. Other historians argue that the Republican Party abandoned Southern blacks to the rule of the racist Democratic Party in order to gain the support of Democrats.[5] In any case, Reconstruction ended, and the supremacy of the Democratic Party in the South was cemented with the ascent of the "Redeemer" governments that displaced the Republican governments. After 1877, support for white supremacy generally caused the South to vote for Democrats in elections for U.S. federal office until 1966, becoming known as the "Solid South".

In The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States' Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization (2012), Downs rejects the idea that it was an era of easy reconciliation and political stability. Instead he shows many Americans feared "Mexicanization" of politics, whereby force would be used to settle a presidential election, as force was used to settle state elections in the South. Downs explores how Mexicanization was roundly rejected and stability was achieved.

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 they themselves 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.


  1. ^ Jones, Stephen A.; Freedman, Eric (2011). Presidents and Black America. CQ Press. p. 218. ISBN 9781608710089. In an eleventh-hour compromise between party leaders - considered the "Great Betrayal" by many blacks and southern Republicans ... 
  2. ^ Woodward, C. Vann (1966). Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. pp. 169–171. 
  3. ^ Downs, 2012
  4. ^ Allan Peskin, "Was There a Compromise of 1877?"
  5. ^ Vincent P. DeSantis, "Rutherford B. Hayes and the Removal of the Troops and the End of Reconstruction" (1982)

Further reading[edit]

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