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1.4 Reconstruction Reversed
- Summarize the federal government’s continuing efforts to provide legal and political equality for former slaves, as well as the shortcomings of these efforts. Explain why laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 failed to end racial discrimination.
- Explain who the “Redeemers” were and describe the methods they used to seize and maintain political power. Describe the ways the Redeemers effectively reversed recent federal laws regarding universal male suffrage.
- Summarize the history of the 1876 presidential election and consequences of the Compromise of 1877. Explain why the nation turned away from Reconstruction during the 1870s.
Federal spending on Reconstruction efforts became increasingly controversial as the nation was mired in a depression that began in 1873. Many voters blamed the Republican Party for the hard times, while others simply grew tired of hearing about the conditions former slaves faced in the South when they themselves were experiencing hardship. The Democrats seized on this frustration in 1874, winning control of the House of Representatives, which had been dominated by Republicans since the Civil War. As the Republican Party splintered and its members increasingly turned away from their commitment to Reconstruction, advocating the cause of freedom for former slaves became a political liability in the North as well as in the South.
The Panic of 1873
Western expansion and economic growth had encouraged railroad construction during and after the Civil War. Investors recognized that transportation would be the key to Western expansion. They also recognized that cities and states were dependent on railroads connecting their communities to the market economy and were offering generous incentives to promote rail construction. At every level of government, officials courted railroad companies and offered large grants of public lands, favorable rates of taxation, publicly financed bonds, and even direct payments of cash. The result was often amazing profits, which fostered the growth of more railroads as well as irrational expectations among investors who subscribed to practically any investment related to railroad construction. These factors conspired to create an environment that encouraged the construction of more railroads than the nation could support. For example, medium-sized towns throughout the rural United States were often serviced by several roads by 1870. Each new road was an unexpected source of competition and made it harder for the other rail companies to earn enough revenue to pay back their loans. Under normal business conditions, unprofitable railroads would have simply ceased operation. But in the booming postwar climate where investors were more likely to buy bonds than ask questions, even the least profitable railroad companies were able to continue daily operations. Some failing companies were even able to build new track with the revenue that poured in from shareholders.
In 1873, this speculation bubble broke as two dozen leading railroads all went bankrupt. Once the news circulated that many of these railroads were losing money, investors stopped buying the bonds that had been used to finance the operation of the unprofitable companies. Without revenue from customers and without continued investment, these railroads could not make payments on their previous loans and were forced into bankruptcy. Even worse, many railroad investors who now owned worthless stocks and bonds had borrowed money to purchase those investments. The result was a general panic that spread through the entire banking system as investors rushed to sell all kinds of railroad bonds—even those issued by profitable companies.
The nation’s leading investment bank at this time was operated by railroad magnate Jay Cooke. When Cooke declared bankruptcy in September 1873, what had begun as a panic turned into chaos. Investors rushed to sell any investment, railroad-based or otherwise, to anyone willing to pay cash until the stock market simply closed its doors for two weeks. Even those who had never bought railroad stocks and bonds lost large sums of money because the country’s banks were heavy investors in the stock market. Banks in the nineteenth century were not regulated as they have been in recent times, and many had loaned the money they took from depositors to railroads in hopes of cashing in on the boom. Unfortunately, when the bubble burst and the banks lost the money that they had been entrusted with, millions of families lost everything they had deposited.
Economic difficulties usually spell trouble for the political party in power, and the Panic of 1873A depression triggered by global currency fluctuations, the Panic of 1873 was especially severe in the United States due to speculative investments that led to the bankruptcies of many leading businesses and banks. was no exception. As was true with political corruption, both parties were to blame for the economic collapse and both parties blamed each other. In the South, whites had already decided that black politicians and the Republican Party were to blame for the region’s troubles. They wasted little time in identifying their scapegoat. Speeches, campaigns, and voting records indicate that many black leaders had been the voice of caution within the Republican Party when it came to railroad promotion. But in the political and economic climate of the South at this time, facts mattered little and most voters had already made up their minds. Had it been otherwise, Southerners might have recognized that black families were the ones most hurt by the Panic of 1873. Among the many banks that lost their depositors’ money was the Freedman’s BankA federally chartered bank created by Congress to promote thrift and savings among former slaves. The directors of the institution followed the same short-sighted investment strategies of many other banks and were among the hundreds of such institutions to fail in the wake of the Panic of 1873, losing all of the money that thousands of black families had saved., a federally chartered bank endowed with the pensions of black soldiers. The Freedman’s Bank had received nearly every penny saved by black families through the nation. Believing that the bank was backed by the federal government, black churches, businesses, schools, orphanages, and families deposited $4 million, nearly all of which was lost.
Civil Rights Act of 1875
African Americans who had been free before the Civil War joined with former slaves in protesting both racial segregation and exclusion from restaurants, hotels, and public transit during Reconstruction. But integration and segregation were complicated issues during these years. Few Southern blacks desired any more contact with Southern whites than was required to complete essential daily tasks. They also recognized that laws and customs mandating racial separation in public spaces were designed to perpetuate white supremacy. They favored integrated schools as a means of breaking down prejudice and ensuring equal educational opportunities. At the same time, they also recognized that their children were not likely to receive fair treatment from white teachers. Black Americans also understood that the issue of raising taxes to support public schools was still controversial, and feared that any requirement of integrated schools might doom the entire system.
Despite all of these obstacles and a desire to build their own institutions, black protest against both formal and informal segregation was common during Reconstruction. The Louisville African Methodist Episcopal church organized a protest against segregation on the streetcars of its city in 1870. When two white men dragged a twenty-year-old teacher from Illinois named Emma Coger from the dining cabin of a steamship in 1873, Coger brought a successful lawsuit against the company. In ruling for Coger, an Iowa court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment and the many references to equality found in the preamble to the Iowa state constitution meant that black passengers were entitled to the same accommodations as white passengers when traveling through their state. Like Coger, dozens of individuals throughout the nation were arrested for such demonstrations during the Reconstruction Era, nearly a century prior to Rosa Parks’ iconic stand against segregation in public transit. And like Parks and Coger, some of these women and men prevailed.
Inspired by such courageous activism, Massachusetts senator Charles SumnerWidely regarded as one of the most ardent white supporters of the abolition of slavery and civil rights for African Americans, Massachusetts politician Charles Sumner would lead the radical wing of the Republican Party in the Senate until his death in 1874. began a campaign in favor of a strong federal civil rights bill that would outlaw discrimination in schools, hotels, restaurants, churches, and public transportation in the late 1860s. A lifelong abolitionist who suffered debilitating injuries for his passionate oratory about the evils of slavery, Sumner introduced his civil rights bill every year between 1867 and 1874. As he lay dying in the spring of 1874, among his last words to a friend was a desperate plea for Congress to pass his bill. In the November elections of 1874, the Democrats won nearly a hundred new seats in Congress, which meant that the next session of Congress would have a Democratic majority. If the Republicans hoped to honor the late Charles Sumner and use the power of the federal government to outlaw racial discrimination, they all understood that the winter session of 1874–1875 was their last chance.
A handful of white Radicals and the seven black representatives in the House of Representatives faced off against Democrats such as Alexander Stephens. The debate centered on whether the federal government was exceeding its lawful authority by mandating nondiscrimination in schools, churches, and private businesses. Each of the seven black Congressmen related the indignities they had faced on streetcars and in hotels. They also demonstrated how guarantees of civil rights were consistent with the Founding Fathers’ vision as expressed in the Constitution, and called on the United States to finally embrace its professed declarations of liberty and equality. Stephens and other Democrats countered that the role of government was to empower local governments to make administrative decisions regarding schools and to protect the rights of individuals to decide how they ran their businesses. For Stephens, proprietors had a right to exclude people of certain races within their own restaurants, hotels, and transportation companies.
Both of these images are from the same magazine that had opposed slavery and called for equal legal and political rights for African Americans throughout the early period of Reconstruction. The first image was published in 1865 and asked readers to consider why a Union veteran would be turned away from the polls. Nine years later, the same magazine depicted black politicians as caricatures rather than men, unfit for political office and the responsibilities of democratic participation.
Of all the bill’s provisions, the requirement of nondiscrimination in schools and churches were the most controversial. Even Republicans who supported the bill feared that requirements of integrated classrooms would lead to the destruction of the South’s nascent public school system. Republican leaders compromised by removing all references to schools and churches from the bill. Once this was accomplished, the bill passed even though no Democrat voted in favor of the measure. Due to public sentiment against the law, the measure proved largely ineffectual. The civil rights law provided the possibility of heavy fines and even jail time for violators, but the law also placed the burden of enforcement on black plaintiffs who would have to hire their own attorneys and sue violators in federal court. Five black litigants financed such cases and won judgments against local hotel, theater, and railroad operators. White defendants appealed these judgments, however, and in 1883, the United States Supreme Court ruled on their behalf and declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875A law passed by Congress that outlawed racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants, public transportation, and many other public spaces. The law was seldom enforced by the government, even after a number of African Americans sued business owners for discrimination. These cases culminated in a Supreme Court decision in 1883, with the high court declaring that the law itself was unconstitutional. unconstitutional. A similar bill outlawing racial discrimination would not pass Congress until 1964.
The Amnesty Act of 1872A law passed by Congress that removed voting restrictions from all former Confederates with the exception of a few hundred high-ranking leaders. removed the final set of restrictions against most Confederate leaders and allowed them to run for political office. Liberal Republicans in Congress supported the Amnesty Act because they believed that power should be returned to the South’s “natural leaders.” They also accepted the argument of Democratic leaders who argued that government corruption had occurred because poor men had risen to power. Men of humble origins would naturally be more tempted to use their power for personal gain than the affluent, they argued, as a man who already owned a vast fortune would have less to gain from accepting a bribe. Liberal Republicans may have resented Southern elites for their Confederate past, yet these men also believed that these men represented the wealth, intellect, and culture of the South. Believing that these men were the region’s natural leaders, some Republicans began to agree with Democrats who claimed that the disenfranchisement of Confederate leaders disrupted the natural process of democracy. When combined with elections that were administered by the army, they argued, the results would be contested by the losing side and violence would be more likely. One Northern visitor concluded that violence and corruption had only occurred because the federal government had placed “the control of affairs in the hands of the more ignorant classes,” while the natural leaders of the region were barred from holding office.
These arguments about the “ignorant classes” were usually tinged with racism. White Southerners believed that permitting black men to vote and hold public office was intolerable. The majority of black public officials held minor posts at the local level, and South Carolina was the only state where black men held the majority of seats in the state legislature. Yet to many whites, the election of a black sheriff was even more intolerable than a high-ranking political official. From their perspective, victories by black candidates, many of whom had been slaves only a few years prior, was evidence that Reconstruction had loosed a dangerous revolution. Believing that their government no longer represented their interests, whites began to form their own shadow governments and paramilitary groups. Violence such as the Colfax Massacre became common throughout Louisiana and several other states following nearly every Republican victory during the early 1870s.
White Democrats, many of whom were Confederate leaders, used these prejudices to gain control of the state legislatures of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia prior to the Panic of 1873. White Democrats in Texas, Alabama, and Arkansas followed suit and seized control in the next two years. Most of these men ran on a platform that openly called for a return of white power. These politicians and their supporters called themselves RedeemersWhite Southern Democrats who campaigned on a platform of white supremacy insisting on the need to liberate their states from the leadership of black men and those whites who supported the Republican Party., a name reflecting their belief that a Democratic victory would “redeem” their communities from their present state of “negro domination.” Black voters and the few whites who continued to support the Republicans faced violence in each of these states. In Mississippi, the Klan and White League waged a campaign of absolute terror. Because of violence and fraud, even Mississippi counties with large black majorities returned landslide victories for white Democrats in 1875. Republican appeals for protection from Washington fell on deaf ears as Northern politicians increasingly viewed any connection with the South as a political liability.
Whites in surrounding states vowed to replicate the Mississippi PlanIs the name given to the use of violence and fraud to prevent African Americans from voting during the 1870s. Although these methods were used throughout the South they were most clearly demonstrated in the state of Mississippi. of open violence and campaigns based on white supremacy to redeem their state. Horace Greeley’s call for Southern blacks to stop demanding protection and “root, hog, or die” sounded like stern but fair advice from the Northern white perspective. But for the 4 million former slaves who literally risked their lives by voting, dying was more than a metaphor. When thousands of black men throughout the South stood up to white mobs who sought to seize power by the bullet rather than the ballot, Northern politicians backtracked even further. Massacres of unarmed former slaves had elicited sympathy in the past. Shootouts involving armed black men, even when they were members of state militias and local police forces, provoked the opposite response. From the perspective of many Northern whites, news of any violent confrontation involving black men with guns was evidence that Reconstruction had been a dangerous mistake.
This cartoon depicts collusion between a Wall Street financier, an Irish member of a Democratic political machine, and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan and former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest. In this image, the Irish are depicted as subhuman yet are also elevated by their partnership with men who are clearly depicted as “white” against African Americans. Together, these “whites” are crushing a black Union veteran and preventing him from casting his vote, presumably for the Republican Party.
The Redeemers understood that violent repression of black voters could not continue forever. Once they seized power in each of the Southern states, they passed laws that disenfranchised black voters. This took a degree of creativity because the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments clearly guaranteed the right to vote irrespective of race. One method the Redeemers concocted was a poll tax in which people had to pay a special tax to cast their ballot. Because most sharecroppers were seldom paid in cash, this provision kept the majority of poor Southerners away from the polls. The Redeemers also required literacy tests—subjective measures evaluated by white registrars who could simply declare that a black registrant failed without further explanation.
If administered evenly, poll taxes and literacy tests would have prevented millions of whites from voting. While many Redeemers represented the elite, they understood that it was important to maintain the support of the majority of Southerners who were poor whites. Redeemer creativity reached its pinnacle with the creation of a special exemption known as the Grandfather ClauseAn exemption from voting restrictions such as taxes and literacy tests for those whose grandfathers were able to vote. These laws were intended to disfranchise African Americans whose ancestors were not permitted to vote.. This law created an immunity from literacy tests for those men whose fathers or grandfathers were permitted to vote. On its face, the law appeared to guarantee the right to vote as a legacy from one generation to another. African Americans immediately understood the real intent of the law. Decades of enslavement and racial discrimination had prevented their ancestors from voting. As a result, while black men might be barred from the polls by the new requirements, whites could be “grandfathered in” by the Redeemer’s laws.
Compromise of 1877
Corruption scandals kept the Republicans on the defensive throughout the 1870s, even as voters became increasingly concerned about the economy and progressively indifferent to the fate of former slaves. In 1875, the country was absorbed in the Whiskey RingA political scandal involving distillers who evaded taxes by bribing government officials. scandal involving government officials who accepted bribes from distillers in lieu of millions in taxes. In this political environment, few Northern politicians supported continued funding to guard the polls and monitor for possible antiblack violence in the South. The Republican retreat from Reconstruction is demonstrated by their refusal to challenge the Redeemers, as well as the nomination of a presidential candidate that opposed federal intervention on behalf of Southern blacks. In the 1860s, the Republican-dominated Congress refused to seat former Confederates, sent soldiers to protect the political rights of former slaves, and even dissolved state governments. Following their crushing defeat in the congressional elections in 1874, Republicans viewed further support for Reconstruction as political suicide and acted as if conditions in the South were not deteriorating.
In 1876, Republicans nominated Ohio Governor and Civil War hero Rutherford B. HayesA leading Union general during the Civil War and governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes was the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1876. He had won a contested election after the electoral votes of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina were awarded to him in a controversial decision known as the Compromise of 1877., largely because he was a Moderate who opposed using the power of the federal government to challenge the Redeemers. As governor, Hayes had confronted political corruption. As a candidate for the presidency, he expressed a desire to end to Reconstruction. Both of these positions appealed to many frustrated white voters. The Democrats responded by nominating a reform governor of their own, Samuel TildenA Democratic governor of New York who received a majority of popular votes during the presidential election of 1876. Samuel Tilden lost to Republican Rutherford Hayes in the Electoral College after three states that were originally awarded to him were awarded to Hayes instead. of New York. Tilden took on the infamous Tweed ring of New York City’s Tammany Hall. Also similar to Hayes, Tilden vowed to end Reconstruction. Because both men spoke in favor of many of the same issues—limiting federal intervention in the South and eliminating corruption in Washington—the election itself offered little in the way of new ideas and quickly descended into empty slogans and personal attacks. Some Democrats advanced economic and ideological reasons to oppose the Republican-dominated governments of the South. However, their most effective tactic with white voters was their repeated appeal to racial prejudice. These same tactics were equally effective in places like Southern Ohio and Southern Indiana, where Democrats openly ran on platforms of white supremacy and even formed various “Anti-Negro” parties.
When the votes were counted, Tilden had won his home state of New York. He also won New Jersey, Connecticut, Indiana, and appeared to have also swept all of the former Confederate states. He won the popular vote by 250,000 votes and maintained a lead in the electoral vote by the count of 203 to 165. Republicans argued that the electoral results in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina—the only three states that were still controlled by the Republican Party—had been tainted by electoral fraud perpetrated by local Democratic leaders. Republicans claimed that Hayes actually won all three of these states, and that the actual result was 185 electoral votes for Hayes and 184 for Tilden.
Republican officials in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina disqualified enough Democratic ballots to allow Hayes to win each of these states. They provided strong evidence that the Democrats had indeed used fraud, violence, and intimidation to keep black voters away from the polls. They also found instances where local officials reported election results that provided more votes for the Democrats than the total number of registered voters within their district. If the election was run fairly and if all qualified voters had been permitted to participate, the Republicans argued, the election results throughout the South would have surely mirrored the heavy Republican victories of the last two presidential elections. The Democrats countered by arguing that these previous elections had been dominated by Republican fraud. They believed the original election returns were valid and declared Tilden the winner.
A general who was wounded multiple times during the Civil War, Rutherford Hayes was known as a reform governor in Ohio before becoming the nineteenth president following the election of 1876.
For weeks, both sides dispensed accusations against the other. An official count of the votes needed to be completed in each locality, but the way these counts were administered could be heavily influenced by politics. The Republicans still held a majority in the Senate, and the Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives. As a result it was unlikely that Congress would ever agree on a winner. Congress appointed a special committee of five Democrats, five Republicans, and five members of the Supreme Court who were expected to be nonpartisan. The committee conducted a formal investigation that uncovered widespread corruption waged by both sides. The Democrats probably had enough ballots claim victory, but it was clear that the Democrats had kept large numbers of African American voters from the polls throughout the South. Three of the Supreme Court justices on the committee were Republicans and two were Democrats, and they ended up voting along partisan lines along with the ten legislators. As a result, the three states in question were awarded to the Republicans.
The Democrats protested the decision, and some feared another civil war might occur. A number of leaders of both political parties held a series of secret meetings to try to resolve the conflict. Historians still do not know exactly what was said at these meetings, but it is clear that a deal was made. It appears that Democrats agreed they would not contest the election of Hayes in return for Republican assurances that the new president would agree to remove all federal troops from the South and declare that Reconstruction was over. It is also likely that Hayes agreed to appoint a Southerner to his cabinet and provide federal support for the construction of a railroad that would connect southern Texas to California.
The 1876 presidential election returns were highly contested. Black voters faced fraud and violence throughout the region, so a completely fair election might have resulted in a Republican victory in the contested states and others. At the same time, Democrats pointed out how unusual it was that the solid Democratic vote in the South prevailed in all but three states—the exact states that still had Republican administrations.
This secret agreement, known as the Compromise of 1877A secret arrangement where Democratic leaders are believed to have agreed not to contest Rutherford Hayes’s election to the presidency in exchange for assurances that he would end Reconstruction and promote certain Southern causes., is commonly referred to as the end of Reconstruction. In fact, this is the reason most US history surveys select the year 1877 as their starting or ending point. Students wishing to fully understand history should question the accuracy of precise dates when they involve complex issues. The Republican Party’s retreat from Reconstruction occurred before 1877. At the same time, many Republican leaders continued to advocate greater federal intervention to protect former slaves in the years that followed. Others might argue that the election and any secret deal that may have followed had little impact on the removal of federal troops, considering both candidates desired an end to Reconstruction. In the end, perhaps only one conclusion is clear: African Americans were not consulted and did not consider Reconstruction to be settled by the Compromise of 1877. These men and women would continue to fight for a restoration of their rights under the Constitution, while the rest of the nation turned their attention to other matters.
Review and Critical Thinking
- What caused the Panic of 1873? How did economic conditions affect the politics of Reconstruction?
- What were the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875? Given the passage of this law, how did overt racial segregation persist for nearly a century after the law was passed?
- Who were the Redeemers, and what did they wish to “redeem” their communities from? What strategies did they use to achieve power? Why did the North increasingly turn its back on the problems of the South and especially the continued injustices that were endured by African Americans?
- Explain the Compromise of 1877. Some historians argue that Reconstruction demonstrates insincerity in Northern efforts to guarantee legal and political equality for African Americans. What arguments could one make to further this argument? What examples from the reading could be used to support the opposite perspective—that Reconstruction represented a genuine effort to make a transition from slavery to freedom?
- What were the obstacles in achieving freedom for African Americans during Reconstruction, and how did they meet and/or fail to meet these challenges? How did whites and the federal government help or hinder this progress?
- Was Reconstruction a success or a failure? How might one’s perspective result in different answers to this question?