The Compromise of 1877 Set the Stage for the Jim Crow Era

How the election of 1876 led to nearly 100 years of segregation

Rutherford B. Hayes

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The Compromise of 1877 was one of a series of political compromises reached during the 19th century in an effort to hold the United States together peacefully.

What made the Compromise of 1877 unique was that it took place after the Civil War and was thus an attempt to prevent a second outbreak of violence. The other compromises, the Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), all dealt with the issue of whether new states would be pro- or anti-slavery and were intended to avoid Civil War over this volcanic issue.

The Compromise of 1877 was also unusual as it was not reached after open debate in the U.S. Congress. It was primarily worked out behind the scenes and with virtually no written record. It arose out of a disputed presidential election that nevertheless was tinged with the old issues of North against South, this time involving the last three Southern states still controlled by Reconstruction-era Republican governments.

Election of 1876: Tilden vs. Hayes

The timing of the agreement was prompted by the presidential election of 1876 between Democrat Samuel B. Tilden, governor of New York, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, governor of Ohio. When the votes were counted, Tilden led Hayes by one vote in the Electoral College. But the Republicans accused the Democrats of voter fraud, saying they intimidated African American voters in three Southern states, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, and prevented them from voting, thus fraudulently handing the election to Tilden.

Congress set up a bipartisan commission made up of five U.S. representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices, with a balance of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. They struck a deal: The Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to become president and to respect the political and civil rights of African Americans if the Republicans would remove all remaining federal troops from Southern states. This effectively ended the era of Reconstruction in the South and consolidated Democratic control, which lasted until the mid-1960s, nearly a century.

Segregation Takes Over the South

Hayes kept his side of the bargain and removed all federal troops from Southern states within two months of his inauguration. But Southern Democrats reneged on their part of the deal.

With the federal presence gone, disenfranchisement of African American voters in the South became widespread and Southern states passed segregationist laws governing virtually all aspects of society—called Jim Crow—that remained intact until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed during the administration of President Lyndon B.Johnson. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed a year later, finally codifying into law the promises made by Southern Democrats in the Compromise of 1877.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Compromise of 1877 Set the Stage for the Jim Crow Era." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, January 12). The Compromise of 1877 Set the Stage for the Jim Crow Era. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Compromise of 1877 Set the Stage for the Jim Crow Era." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).