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Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877

The deadlocked presidential election of November 1876 set the stage for the historic “Hayes-Tilden Compromise.” The electoral stalemate took place within the context of a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Issues of race and the future of the African American people were highlighted during the presidential campaign. Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden of New York conducted a campaign stressing the need to prohibit black voting in condemning “the rapacity of carpetbag tyrannies” in the South aiming to appeal to all whites, whether recent immigrants, southerners, or northerners.

The stalemate ended after Hayes met with the electoral commission appointed to attempt to reach a compromise, and promised to withdraw the remaining federal troops occupying Louisiana and South Carolina. Hayes would receive, for this de facto abandonment of what remained of federal support for African American political rights in the South, the decisive support from the South that would enable him to become president. White southern leaders assured Hayes that they would not trample upon the rights of blacks and take advantage of the situation to repress their political opponents. While some have asserted that Hayes offered the South internal improvements, patronage, and other material benefits, and only agreed to the troop withdrawal as an afterthought, this is doubtful. Under the agreement the Texas and Pacific railroad would be completed, and levees and harbors would be developed in the South. Private capital would be invested in the South stimulating its regional economy while federal patronage would help heal sectional wounds and restore national unity. African Americans would be held in check by a white southern leaders who would nevertheless guarantee their constitutional rights.

Rutherford B. Hayes was an astute politician who understood the principal interests of the Southern political elite who made plain their fervent desire to rid the region of federal troops in order to impose their race and labor policies. He understood the difference that the presence of federal troops made in maintaining a minimal level of black political, social, and economic rights. Yet, even as early as during the Grant administration, Hayes confessed that he had come to “doubt the ultra measures relating to the South” including the maintenance of federal troops in the region. Hayes’ own campaign for the presidency suffered as a result of the Republican administration of Ulysses Grant’s failure to guarantee black voting rights in the South. Many grassroots Republican workers abandoned the campaign in the South as the Ku Klux Klan and other groups intimidated black and white party activists and supporters in these states.8 Clearly, the election would not have been deadlocked had tens of thousands of African Americans been allowed to freely vote.

Primarily due to his formal capitulation to the South’s wholesale elimination of black political rights, Rutherford B. Hayes' presidency marked a decisive downturn in the political fortunes of African Americans. Turning his back on the earlier position he held as an Ohio politician favoring black political rights, Hayes, by relying on a policy of cooperation with his southern countrymen, simply ignored the impending political repression objective observers predicted threatened African Americans in the event of a federal pullout. Hayes was motivated by an anxiety that the continued federal presence and involvement in southern social and political life would impair the chances of the Republican Party becoming rooted as a political force in the region. This abandonment of any commitment to African American human rights was facilitated by pervasive post-Civil War media campaigns which depicted black males as little more than beasts who possessed strong and uncontrollable sexual urges for white women. In the 1870s depictions of blacks as beasts deserving of lynching was standard fare for many important newspapers.

As early as 1871 Hayes reportedly began to believe that economic development was the real solution and that federal troops should be withdrawn. At the height of the crisis of 1876-1877, Hayes said that the “carpetbag governments” had been a failure and that the southern critics were correct in this respect. Later, however, Hayes began to have serious doubts about the policy he implemented after the historic compromise. Despite his questions about the state of black civil rights, in his first annual message Hayes indicated that his southern policy was making decent progress. Not coincidentally, this stubborn refusal to acknowledge that handing regional and local control back to a white elite that was just as committed to black oppression as their counterparts before the war was related to a new Republican strategy seeking to build a base among southern whites. This basic choice: enforce black civil rights or bend policy to organize white Southerners confronted Republican presidents and party leaders from Grant to Hoover.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes, born in Delaware, Ohio, October 4, 1822, was raised by his mother and Sardis Birchard, his uncle after his father died just prior to his birth. His father, however, had already laid the basis for their prosperity and Hayes was fortunate enough to attend elite private schools in Ohio and Connecticut and later Kenyon College. In college, partly to aid his health, he spent six months on a Texas plantation of a friend. This not only invigorated him but also acquainted him with the culture of the South and “their institutions.” Later he studied law at Harvard Law School, and later attained prominence as an attorney in Cincinnati. By the mid-1840s Hayes was a loyal member of the Whig Party and supported the Whig presidential ticket of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore in the 1848 election. Later, in 1852 he supported the Whig ticket headed by Winfield Scott for president in 1852. After he volunteered for Civil War duty, he became a Brevet Major-General and was wounded three times. By 1865, he was elected to Congress as a Republican. He supported the party's actions and seemed to differ little with its Republican mainstream, then in its most liberal phase. By 1867, Hayes was campaigning for the governorship of Ohio and came down in favor of the franchise for African Americans, the campaign's key issue not only in Ohio but throughout the nation. While Hayes narrowly won, the amendment for black voting rights failed by a large margin of 30,000. What conclusions Hayes drew from his narrow victory after supporting what proved to be an unpopular issue would undoubtedly be important in his approach to key issues related to African Americans in the future.

A key question in evaluating the Hayes' presidency is how much he knew and when he should have known about the egregious violations of black human rights in the South. Reigns of violence and terror including murders, beatings, and other outrages occurred over broad areas of the South. In South Carolina, anti-democratic forces led by Wade Hampton used hundreds of armed men organized into rifle clubs to break up Republican rallies, drive blacks from their homes, and murder prominent black leaders. Believing that they had a free hand since the White House or congress would not intervene, they openly expressed their determination to carry the elections even it meant massive bloodshed. With the increasing polarization the proportion of whites who voted Republican declined markedly since to vote for the same party, ticket or man as blacks did became tantamount to racial betrayal for white southerners.

During the brief post-election period when Hayes seriously believed he had lost the election he spoke frankly of his anxieties:

I don’t care for myself; and the party, yes, and the country, too, can stand it, but I do care for the poor colored men of the South. . . . . the Southern people will practically treat the constitutional amendments as nullities and then the colored man’s fate will be worse than when he was in slavery, with a humane master to look after his interests. That is the only reason I regret the news as it is.

The deadlocked election of 1876 was then viewed as critical since any victory by the Democrat Tilden threatened to revive slavery in the view of many African Americans. Some would argue that the equivalent to slavery, a slavery-like tenancy and peonage, indeed did occur and that this was the not-so-well-disguised aim of many of the opponents of black civil rights. As Hayes began negotiating to secure his electoral victory he floated the prospect of ending reconstruction, something that both southern Democrats, but also, many northern Republicans had already clearly indicated they were eager for. Instead of a southern party dominated by African Americans and whites seeking progressive changes they desired one led by an “Old Whig or Union” forces, a view Hayes heartily embraced.

What has been termed “the Betrayal of 1877 ” was a pivotal point of a process that had been underway for years. Indeed, it might not have never happened if the leadership of the Republican Party had been resolute and principled in supporting black civil rights in the South. With blacks fully enfranchised and not facing violence when they exercised their vote and participated in politics, the election of 1876 would not have been close avoiding any electoral crisis. In any case, outgoing President Grant had let it be known that a change in southern policy was imminent. Failing to recognize the election of Republican governors in South Carolina and Louisiana, he told his Cabinet that he regretted the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment since it had “done the Negro no good.” Finally, in a deal ironically worked out at the African American-owned Wormley House hotel in late February, Hayes’ representatives agreed to several key concessions to the South, effectively ending the federal role as guarantor of a minimum level of black civil rights. Henry Adams of Louisiana expressed the feeling of many African Americans, “The whole South--every state in the South had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.” For many, President Hayes —a man who once told future president and fellow Ohioan William McKinley that the his membership button of the Grand Army of the Republic was “the grandest decoration he ever had”—threatened many of the achievements resulting from the victory of the Union.

In his inaugural address Hayes set the tone of his one term administration by assuring his “countrymen of the Southern States” that he would respect “their truest interests,” saying pointedly “the interests of the white and colored people both, and equally.” Following months of political turmoil, racial violence and repression, Hayes expressed the desire to permanently erase “the color line” in politics as well as the sectional divide, in striving for the goal of “a united country. Powerful forces were critical to the motivation to forge what became the Compromise of 1877. The role of nation’s largest businesses grouped into various organizations and associations gave Hayes’ own desires for sectional reconciliation, on these terms, a strong boost. The Boards of Trade of several large cities, including Chicago, Detroit, New York and Cincinnati also pressured Congress for a rapid settlement to the crisis. Interested in a stability that would be conducive to trade and manufacturing, black rights were relegated to a low priority by these journals, associations, organizations, and prominent individual businessmen, such as John Jacob Astor and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. Former Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish cited the “doubt and fear” of a financial disaster if a quick settlement to the political crisis was not forged. The problems was that “. . . Capital is idle, and unproductive and with its natural timidity and caution, fearful of investment” creating economic stagnation in a nation that still had not recovered from the 1873 depression.

After signaling his independence from the most powerful Republican leaders of the era, namely Roscoe H. Conkling and James G. Blaine, by appointing Missouri Senator Carl Schurz to head the Interior Department and then outraging progressives by attempting to appoint former Confederate general Joseph E. Johnson as head of the War Department. The Republican leadership objected forcing him to abandon that plan. Instead, Hayes appointed former Confederate colonel David M. Key of Tennessee as Postmaster General. Hayes was determined to end the sectionalism that had kept northern and southern whites at loggerheads since the Civil War writing in his diary, “I was ready to resort to unusual measures and to risk my own standing and reputation with my party and my country.” In a move that has been compared to the subsequent “bully pulpit” of President Theodore Roosevelt and the “fireside chats” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hayes took his case to the people.


President Rutherford Hayes

Rutherford Hayes, 19th President

1877 to 1881

Birth: October 4, 1822, Delaware, Ohio

Death: January 17, 1893

Education: Kenyon College, Harvard Law School

Religion: Methodist

Profession: Lawyer, Politician

Political Party: Whig, Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes Jul 19, 1999, CSPAN



White southerners greeted President Hayes’s abrupt change of the federal government’s southern policy with the Richmond Dispatch terming his moves “as agreeable as [they are] surprising.” African Americans, however, were alarmed. Hayes agreed to hold two meetings with black leaders who related their “surprise” and concern over his recent moves. One delegation urged Hayes to appoint the prominent African American John Mercer Langston, as the Commissioner of Agriculture—a highly unlikely move. The president declared that there was no cause for fear since, “if it should be found that through [reconciliation] it should be found that through it the rights of any man, white or black, were curtailed in any way, it would be changed at once.” Later at the African Methodist Episcopal Church he affirmed his intent to serve the interests of blacks. “It shall be my purpose in the discharge of my official duties to care equally for all our people, and I assure you that the race represented by you will never be neglected by my Administration.” President Hayes’ setting of a high standard of equality and, simultaneously, a low threshold for the violation of black civil rights, his declaring that if “any man” had his rights impaired, gave way to perhaps a better understanding of the harsh reality of anti-black institutional and individual power in the South.

Historian Rayford Logan presents a portrait of Hayes as a sincere, yet naive man, who preferred social harmony among classes and races. Logan implies that Hayes, after retirement belatedly realized the consequences of his administration’s abandonment of full civil rights for African Americans. If Hayes truly believed that, as Logan writes, “he had secured valid pledges guaranteeing fair treatment” of African Americans in the South he ignored hard evidence to the contrary and the protests of blacks themselves. Logan for Hayes “the abandonment” of blacks following Reconstruction “utterly contradicted everything else President Hayes had stood and worked for in his career.”

African Americans felt betrayed by a president that they had sacrificed to support. “To think that Hayes could go back on us when we had to wade through blood to help place him where he is now,” exclaimed one black citizen. Despite President Hayes’ vehement rejection of the notion that the United States was a “white man’s” country, he prioritized repairing the relationship with the elements of the white southern elite most hostile to black civil rights. After forging the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in 1877, Hayes couched his actions in terms of overcoming sectional discord—a goal that would become standard for the post-Reconstruction Republican chief executives for the remainder of the century and beyond. Declaring that what “the South most needs is peace, and peace depends upon the supremacy of law,” Hayes, accepting his party’s nomination, stressed that there could “be no enduring peace, if the constitutional rights of any portion of the people are habitually disregarded.” Even early in the campaign, prior to the deadlocked election and the compromise Hayes went out of his way to express his intentions to build a southern policy designed to honor both white and black interests “equally” and to erase sectional distinctions in the United States between North and South. Foner notes that Hayes upon accepting the nomination had pledged himself to bring the South “the blessings of honest and capable local self-government” signifying clearly, the effective end of Reconstruction and the commitment to make black Emancipation a reality.

Voicing full confidence in white southern political leadership, he eagerly believed their professions of good-will toward blacks and ignored the grave predictions of a fierce and bloody repression after the federal troops were withdrawn Hayes’ post-election “Goodwill Tour” was highlighted by an Atlanta speech in which he praised the unity in diversity exemplified by his audience and then, turning toward the African Americans in the audience, stated: “I believe that your rights and interests would be safer if this great mass of intelligent white men were let alone by the general government.”

Yet, by the fall of 1877 it was clear that southern white leaders had no intention of honoring the commitments they made to Hayes. Soon conditions and despair among blacks deepened leading to acts of desperation such as the “Great Exodus” of 1878-1879, a long march out of the South to Kansas by people seeking to escape the oppression there Hayes thought their departure a wise move, but failed to assist them in any way. Given the evidence President Hayes had suggesting consistent violations of the 15th amendment, he could have recommended that the second section of the 15th amendment be applied. This would proportionately reduce the congressional representation and electoral votes until they restore the right to vote of those illegally disfranchised.

Hayes used a strategy designed to supplant the existing southern leadership of the Republican Party which up until that time had largely consisted of newly-emancipated African Americans and “carpetbaggers” favoring black voting rights. After Hayes began wooing white southern support by abandoning any real commitment to black civil rights, African American activists had nowhere to turn, except to look to their own efforts, since the Democratic Party remained, in essence, the pro-slavery party it had been prior to the Civil War. Indeed, the Democratic Party proudly proclaimed itself the “white man’s party,” in fiercely opposing black advancement. Unfortunately, this critical policy propelled its popularity in both the South and the North. Federal assistance was perceived by the Democrats as tantamount to a give-away to blacks who were termed “special interests” implying undeserved privileges.

Several state Republican conventions condemned Hayes’ moves in harsh terms. In Maine, led by Blaine the convention deplored the de facto disfranchisement of African Americans in six southern states. Other state convention likewise passed resolutions breaking with the Hayes’ policy of conciliating the southern white leaders. The support of northern big business for Hayes, however, was underlined by their repudiation of the New York convention’s rejection of Hayes. Fifty-one prominent New York City merchants, industrials, and businessmen rallied to support President Hayes with many withdrawing their financial support for the party.

“Negro Fatigue”

Hayes was not the sole northern Republican who willingly turned his back on the efforts of blacks to obtain basic civil rights in the southern states. One Republican newspaper in New York declared its belief in 1877 that African Americans “had been given ample opportunity to develop their own latent capacities,” but had only shown that “as a race they are idle, ignorant and vicious.” The mass of white Americans while not buying into such extreme views, had never enthusiastically embraced full civil rights for black Americans either. Some even cite the factor of “negro fatigue.” Morgan notes that a fifty year old man in 1877 had spent most of his life “worrying over the South and the Negro” first during the antebellum crises over slavery, then during the four years of Civil War, and later during twelve years of Reconstruction. For younger adults the immersion in these problems, this “worrying over the Negro” meant not so much a concern with the welfare of blacks as it did with the problems they were perceived as creating or potentially causing. Still, Morgan’s insight is that they were tired of this problem and were primed to eagerly seize upon any development or set of opportune circumstances to stabilize it if not resolve it in their minds. Other issues emerged to capture northern whites’ concerns including an economic depression that took hold after 1873 and a major outbreak of conflict between capital and labor with major actions by railroad employers and other laborers. The peak period of post-Civil War northern white support for black civil rights had passed, and the politicians of the day were acutely aware of this. The window of opportunity of a sentiment viewing African Americans more as victims of slavery rather than the perpetrators of evil proved to be ephemeral. To this extent, President Hayes’ “betrayal” of African Americans both reflected and helped shape the prevailing consensus of white thinking on race during the era “speedily settled, and settled rightly.”

By 1880, however, the political climate had shifted reflecting the failure of Hayes’ southern policy. The primary duties of the nation, the new Republican platform of 1880 proclaimed was that of “the equal, steady and complete enforcement of laws, and the protection of all . . . citizens in the enjoyment of all privileges and immunities guaranteed by the Constitution.” Pledging to maintain the “fruits of the costly victories” they signaled a change from the conciliatory policies of the Hayes administration. The Hayes administration, hoping to woo southern whites to their party, allowed enforcement of the civil rights laws to grind to a halt. Yet this nevertheless failed to achieve the political inroads and eventual dominance the conciliation strategy was designed to meet failing to lure southern whites into the Republican Party. As a result, Democrats took control of the Senate after winning the 1878 congressional elections giving them control of both houses. Alarmed by the Democratic resurgence and a wave of violent repression against blacks in the south, the Republican line hardened giving rise to accusations that they were “waving the bloody shirt.”

In control of the new legislature as a result of the recent campaign, Democrats stirred up opposition by trying to repeal the remaining election laws by attaching riders to the Army Appropriations Acts. Faced with an army appropriations bill laced with riders aimed at overturning the election laws that allowed blacks to participate in elections, Hayes vetoed them. Later, in a Youngstown, Ohio speech Hayes declared that, contrary to the signed agreements, Bourbons in the South continued to deprive blacks of their rights.

Writing in late 1881, Hayes seemed to take satisfaction in what his administration had achieved in the South. At the outset of his administration he wrote that he found a country “divided and distracted and every interest depressed” but he left a nation “united, harmonious, and prosperous.” Two years after departing from the presidency Hayes wrote:

In 1877 I believed that a radical change of policy with respect to the South would bring ultimate safety and prosperity to the colored people and restore good feeling between the hostile sections. . . The change did its work. Not instantly, but slowly and surely. The anticipated progress is still going . . . the people of the North have not in the last six years made a greater progress in getting away from barbarism in the treatment of the colored man than the people of the South have made in the same period.