The end of the Civil War officially freed the four million enslaved persons in the South. Still, it left unanswered what and how to help former slaves become useful and independent citizens. Reconstructionists worked to develop a plan that created thousands of segregated schools. Job training, housing, and food supplements were offered, and most importantly federal laws were put into place to protect African American’s civil rights, including Constitutional Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments). Further protection came with the Union army occupying many Southern cities, and that provided force, when necessary, to protect Negroe’s civil rights. It was a good beginning, one with a promising future for blacks to join American society. The promise, however, was sabotaged before it had a chance of success. The end of Reconstruction was the betrayal of a dream of better lives for millions of blacks and for generations to follow.
The 2020 Presidential election should send a reminder to us as to just how fragile our democracy is. Stunning accusations of fraud and voting machine tampering, recounts galore, challenges to multiple courts including the Supreme Court, and quack conspiracy theories abounded, and much more nonsensical theater. In his attempt to overturn a legitimate and fair election, the losing candidate has not provided any evidence to support the claims. The dark side of the American political experience has appeared, pushing the tenets of democracy nearly off its track. However, it is not the first time that our democracy has faced a crisis during a Presidential election.
Unlike 2020, corruption did occur in the 1876 election – there was widespread voter fraud, ballot box tampering, voter suppression, and intimidation. The wrongdoing, however, involved both campaigns. In the end, the will of the people got lost in this chaos, and, instead, Congress made the decision. Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner after he made a “deal with the devil,” which required Southerners to come to the table with Northerners. The deal ultimately sold out millions of recently freed African Americans who had been promised a fair pathway to social justice by Lincoln. The Compromise of 1877 allowed the South to go back to business as usual by removing the occupied military forces, which essentially nullified much of the progress to assimilate former slaves into society. It shut down any significant economic and educational opportunities for blacks, suppressed black voting, and created a racist system of the rule referred to as Jim Crow, all backed up by white supremacy, which included various forms of intimidation, and violence. Under Lincoln, the mantra of the Republican party was to free the slaves and support them in obtaining the resources necessary to help them become independent and self-reliant. By 1877 the Republican party was willing to turn its back on that position; many Lincoln Republicans felt that the party’s integrity, indeed its morality, was dead. Soon, many thought that the party would experience that very same fate.
Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election primarily due to the Democratic party splitting over the issue of slavery. The Northern Democrats’ platform was about maintaining slavery but not allowing it to spread into the new states created in the west. Southern Democrats wanted to maintain and expand slavery if planters desired to do so. With two Democratic candidate opponents, Lincoln, who ran on a platform of preserving the Union and maintaining, not expanding, slavery, pulled enough votes away to win and establish the Republican party as the nation’s party for the next twenty-five years. By 1864 his election platform was to end the war and free the slaves. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, his successor, Andrew Johnson, became a reluctant Reconstructionist who favored white privilege over real citizens’ rights for blacks; impeached, he avoided being removed from office by one vote. He was eventually forced into silence by the two houses of Congress, both controlled by the Republicans.
Following Andrew Johnson’s disastrous one-term administration, Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant was elected and served as President from 1868 to 1872 and won re-election serving until 1876. His elections were primarily due to the votes of many African Americans. Grant repaid that support by sending troops to stop unrest in the southern cities whenever the occasion occurred and which was usually related to black voter suppression. However, Grant’s administration was rotten to the core with scandals that included many appointed officials receiving bribes. So widespread were the scandals that even Grant’s personal secretary General Babcock was involved, and possibly Grant’s brother. Grant, the only President ever to testify in a trial, responded many times that he could not remember or recall events related to Babcock. Babcock with acquitted, but his career was over. President Grant had wanted a third term (the 22nd Amendment became law in 1951), and many had wanted him to run and hopefully finish Reconstruction. However, the scandals had taken their toll on Grant’s image, and the Republican party realized it had little chance of winning again with Grant at the top of the ticket.
With Grant out of the way, many thought that the 1876 election would finally be a victory for the Democrats. Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York, ran as an anti-corruption candidate, meaning anti-Grant type politician. Rutherford B. Hayes was named to replace Ulelles Grant as the Republican candidate. Hayes, like Grant, had served in the Union army during the war. He had additionally distinguished himself as both a Congressman and Governor of Ohio. The candidates were considered honest and capable. Tilden had already proven himself in New York by driving the most corrupt dealmaker Boss Tweed from power.
On election day, armed groups in several southern cities were trying to block blacks from voting. President Grant stated that he ordered troops to the South to protect the election’s integrity. Still, it seemed to many Southerners that he was using his presidency’s power to steal the election for the Republicans. The initial results reflected that Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote by over 250,000 votes, and although he was ahead on the electoral vote, he was one vote short of winning.
Both sides accused each other of cheating, the Republicans complaining the loudest that thousands of blacks were intimidated into not voting, by a group known as the Red Shirts. In Edgefield, South Carolina, more than 300 armed Red Shirts on horseback “packed their horses so closely together that the only approach to the windows, back of which was the ballot box, was under the bellies of the beasts,” the Times said. In Barnwell County, one newspaper reported “riflemen wearing red shirts, riding to and fro, cursing and threatening the negroes.” In Hamburg, South Carolina,” the red shirts killed six black men.” Another group backing a former Confederate general for governor threatened to kill the Republican Governor Daniel Chamberlain. According to the Washington Post “Voter intimidation also was rampant in Louisiana and Florida. Vote fraud was widespread on both sides. According to the Rutherford B. Hayes Library, the Democrats used “repeaters,” the name given to repeat voters. They printed fraudulent ballots to trick illiterate black voters into voting for Democrats. One voting precinct claimed more votes than registered citizens. The national voter turnout was 81.8 percent, still the highest ever for a presidential election. In South Carolina, despite voter suppression, the official turnout was more than the total of registered voters.” Daniel Sickles, a politician and long-time self-promoter who was not shy of scandal himself, was the first to tell the Republicans not to concede the election to Tilden and the Democrats. Sickels sent a telegram to the states in question, advising them to “hold your state.”
Congress decided that the election results were corrupt and that a bi-partisan committee needed to make the decision. Seven Republicans and seven Democrats argued each candidate’s merits and tried to make sense of what the voters wanted. The committee was also aware of the agreement that Hayes had made, which was the deciding factor. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, a committee member, cast the deciding vote, and Rutherford B. Hayes was elected 19th President of the United States.
The death of Lincoln in April 1865 began the slow demise of promises made to the millions of former slaves. Lincoln had supported General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order Number 15, dated January 16, 1865. This order redistributed over 400,000 acres of land owned by Southern plantation owners to blacks, allowing them an opportunity to be self-employed farmers and provided them a means of earning an income, an occupation in which were well versed. By June of 1865, over 40,000 Freedmen had now settled on the 400,000 acres located in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Lincoln’s vision and promise were not to be. By the fall of 1865, President Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, overturned this order and returned all the land to the original owners.
In the end, Lincoln’s party won the election of 1876, but the rules had changed. There was no longer a clear and structured path for former slaves to assimilate peacefully into American society with any real hope of social equality. The compromise agreed to by Hayes removed the troops from the South, which, in turn, unleashed white supremacy, and all its ominous manifestations were allowed to reign once more. Large numbers of African Americans had supported the Republican party; many believed that like Grant, Haye’s election resulted from their support, but it did not matter. The Republican party had moved on to other national concerns such as westward expansion and America’s industrialization. Reconstruction and concerns about blacks’ civil rights were no longer of paramount interest. The betrayal of African Americans was swift and intended. It would be nearly another century before they began to find a path to civil rights again.