As the Depression of 1873 wore on into the mid-1870s, northern voters became decreasingly interested in southern Reconstruction. With unemployment high and hard currency scarce, northerners were more concerned with their own financial well-being than in securing rights for freedmen, punishing the Ku Klux Klan, or readmitting secessionist states. After Democrats capitalized on these depression conditions and took control of the House of Representatives in 1874, Reconstruction efforts stalled.
The Radical Republicans’ last successful piece of legislation in Congress was the Civil Rights Act of 1875 . The bill aimed to eliminate social discrimination and forbade discrimination in all public places, such as theaters, hotels, and restaurants. The bill stated that blacks should be treated as equals under the law and that they could sue violators of the law in federal court.
Unfortunately, the act proved ineffective, as Democrats in the House made sure the bill was unenforceable. The act stated that blacks had to file claims to defend their own rights; the federal government could not do it for them. Many blacks were still poor and worked hard to make a living, and House Democrats knew that lawsuits would require money and considerable effort.
Meanwhile, Democrats were steadily regaining control of the South, as the already-weak Republican presence in region only became weaker as northerners lost interest in Reconstruction. The Depression of 1873, along with continued pressure from the Ku Klux Klan, drove most white Unionists, carpetbaggers, and scalawags out of the South by the mid-1870s, leaving blacks alone to fight for radical legislation. Democrats regained their seats in state legislatures, beginning with majorities in Virginia and Tennessee in 1869 and moving steadily onward to other states. Many Democrats used violence to secure power, and several Republicans were murdered in Mississippi in the 1875 elections. Blacks continued to be terrorized and intimidated into not voting. By 1877, Democrats had majorities in every southern state.
The shift of political power in the South was only one cause of the end of Radical Reconstruction. The other key factor was a series of sweeping Supreme Court rulings in the 1870s and 1880s that weakened radical policy in the years before. The first of these were the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases, so named because they involved a suit against a New Orleans slaughterhouse. In these cases, the conservative Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protected U.S. citizens from rights infringements only on a federal level, not on a state level.
Moreover, in 1876, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that only states, not the federal government, could prosecute individuals under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. As a result, countless Klan crimes went unpunished by southern state governments, who tacitly condoned the violence.
The final nail in the coffin was the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. In these rulings, the Court further declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, saying that the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to discrimination from the government, not from individuals. Collectively, these rulings from the Supreme Court, along with the Democratic Party’s political resurgence in the South, brought an end to Radical Reconstruction.
In 1876, the Democratic Party, having already secured a majority in the South, made a concerted effort to win the White House as well. The party nominated the famous Grant-era prosecutor Samuel J. Tilden as their presidential hopeful. After briefly thinking about re-nominating Ulysses S. Grant for an unprecedented third term, Republicans instead nominated Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. Even though Hayes was a relative unknown, Republicans thought of him as the perfect candidate: he had been a Union general in the Civil War, had no controversial opinions, and came from a politically important state. In the election, Tilden received 184 electoral votes of the 185 needed to become president. Hayes only received 165 votes and lost the popular vote by approximately 250,000 votes.
However, the election results were disputed because of confusing ballots in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. Under normal procedure, disputed votes would be recounted in front of Congress by the president of the Senate. However, the president of the Senate was a Republican and the Speaker of the House was a Democrat, so neither man could be trusted to count the votes fairly.
Congress therefore passed the Electoral Count Act in 1877 to establish a special committee to recount the votes in a fair and balanced way. The committee consisted of fifteen men from the House, Senate, and Supreme Court. The committee concluded by a margin of one vote that the Republican Hayes had won the disputed states and therefore was the new president. Democrats were outraged at first but quickly realized that the situation gave them the perfect opportunity to strike a bargain with the opposition to achieve their political goals.
The result was the Compromise of 1877 , in which Democrats agreed to let Hayes become president in exchange for a complete withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Republicans agreed, and shortly after Hayes was sworn in as president, he ordered the remaining federal troops to vacate South Carolina and Louisiana.
Ultimately, Reconstruction ended because of several factors. Northerners were tired of a decade of Reconstruction efforts and had become less interested in the South with the rise of speculation and profit-making in the Gilded Age and then the hardships of the Depression of 1873. In addition, the conservative Supreme Court repeatedly struck down Radical Republican legislation, issuing rulings that had a devastating effect on blacks’ civil liberties. Meanwhile, the persistent scare tactics of the Ku Klux Klan and other southern white groups drove many Republicans out of office, giving Democrats a majority in every southern state by 1877. Finally, the Compromise of 1877 and removal of the remaining federal troops from the South signaled the end of the Reconstruction era.
Reconstruction was a success in the sense that America, after 1877, could once again be called the United States. All of the southern states had drafted new constitutions; ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; and pledged loyalty to the Union. Together, the Civil War and Reconstruction also settled the states’ fights vs. federalism debate that had been going on since the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of the 1790s and the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. As one historian noted, the United States before the Civil War were a country, but the United States after the war was a nation.
However, although Reconstruction was a success in a broad sense, it was a failure in several specific ways. The swift changes in political power in the South rendered useless most of the legislation that Radical Republicans had passed through Congress. Rutherford B. Hayes’s removal of federal troops from the South in 1877 allowed many former Confederates and slave owners to regain power, and this return of power to whites also meant a return to the policy of the old South. Southern politicians passed the black codes and voter qualifications and allowed the sharecropping system to thrive—all with the support of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, whose key court rulings in the 1870s and 1880s effectively repealed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
As a result, by 1877, northerners were tired of Reconstruction; weary of battling southern elites, scandal, and radicalism; and had largely lost interest in supporting black civil rights. Theoretically, North and South reached a compromise: black civil liberties and racial equality would be set aside in order to put the Union back together. As it turned out, blacks would not regain the support of the federal government until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.