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On the So-Called Compromise of 1877

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For seemingly forever, the end of Reconstruction has been taught as the “Compromise of 1877, where Democrats agreed to give the presidency to Rutherford Hayes in return for the end of Reconstruction.” Now this is interesting. It turns out that the whole thing was invented by C. Vann Woodward in 1951 and simply become received knowledge. But what if Woodward was just flat out wrong about it?

The argument that a brokered compromise between Republican and Democratic congressmen ended Reconstruction was initially suggested in 1951 by historian C. Vann Woodward. An easy story to tell, Woodward’s thesis was appealing and immediately gained traction, becoming a staple of high school and college history textbooks to this day. It provided a tidy end to the periodization of Reconstruction and a traditional narrative emphasizing the failures and disappointment of the era.

In subsequent decades, however, historians have thoroughly disproved Woodward’s theory. Among other things, they showed that there was probably no congressional negotiation after the Electoral Commission met, and rather than accepting the outcome, Southern Democrats actually continued to push Tilden to challenge the results and protest a Hayes presidency. Finally, while Hayes did remove some troops upon taking office, he did not remove them all, as federal troops in fact remained stationed in the South for several years.

This is not just a harmless myth. The “Compromise of 1877” canard distorts our understanding of Reconstruction by creating an artificial ending point. In actuality, by 1877 Reconstruction was effectively over as Southern Democrats had already regained control of eight of the 11 former Confederate states, and the process of rolling back the rights and protections Black Americans had gained after the Civil War was well underway. The myth also suggests that Northern Republicans cynically sacrificed protections for freed people in return for political power, ignoring the degree to which Republicans continued to advocate for Black rights well into the 1880s.

More importantly, the compromise myth denies the central role Black Americans played in the politics of Reconstruction — before, during and after the election of 1876. It relies on the premise that the outcome was stolen from the candidate who won the most popular votes (Tilden), when in fact the election was marred by massive violence against and disenfranchisement of Black Republicans across the South who would have voted for Hayes. In Florida and South Carolina, for example, groups like the Ku Klux Klan and White League used violence and intimidation to keep Black voters from the polls and in some cases even forced them to switch their votes to the Democrats.

By focusing on White political elites in Washington, the Compromise of 1877 also ignores the essential story of the postwar South, where Black men and women built communities and networks while working to secure political and civil rights wherever possible. That struggle did not end in the 1870s. Black Americans continued to fight against the efforts of White Southerners to terrorize and disenfranchise them.

In short, the standard story of the 1876 election is not just wrong — it fundamentally decenters Black Americans who had the most to lose, both in that election and today.

What’s more is that the Compromise story implies that the Election of 1876 created a unique constitutional crisis in our electoral history. It didn’t. The long sweep of 19th-century politics illustrates how fundamentally unstable the American constitutional system really was; by the 1870s generations of Americans had witnessed repeated examples of electoral dysfunction and had frequently (though often unsuccessfully) tried to reform the electoral system.

In fact, the three presidential elections after Hayes entered office featured increasingly narrow escapes from a repetition of 1876, and yet there was no urgency for reform.

For a very long time, and this was true in my early graduate school days, the Gilded Age was not really the hip time to study (I think the antebellum period largely is in that phase now, though of course there are lots of books still on it). The narratives seemed stable and a lot of the core works on the period were old, reaching back to the 1960s and historians such as Robert Wiebe and Gabriel Kolko, which are books that still have value. But as we have seen our nation enter into what many have called a New Gilded Age, there’s been a great deal of new attention paid to it. Richard White’s magisterial book on the railroads and his overview of the entire period are the new places to begin. What we are finding is that lots of the received wisdom about the period is just incorrect and that it has perhaps more to offer those of us trying to understand this disaster of a nation that most other periods of our history. Debunking the entire idea of a Compromise of 1877 is a really good way to do that. In fact, I will be adjusting my teaching based on this.

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