The Failure of Reconstruction

GabeAmerican History(ML), Mini Lessons

From Common Sense American History eBook:

Reconstruction continued to lurch forward, but an exhausted nation began to focus on other problems facing the nation. Industry switched from military to civil production, and union veterans returned to their farms, businesses, and crafts. Some joined in building the transcontinental railroad to California, completed in 1869.  Immigration, which had stopped for the most part during the Civil War, resumed. America was now one continent, but in 1869, Secretary of State William Seward acquired from Russia the territory of Alaska. In 1873, shortly after Grants reelection, the collapse of Jay Cooke’s Philadelphia bond firm lead to a national depression.

Slowly, whites regained control in the South. “Redeemers” were white elected officials on the local, county, and state levels who reasserted power. Believing that white supremacy was a natural order for Southern society, they proceeded to restrict black political rights. Most Redeemers were Democrats. They emphasized economic development over civil rights. By 1876, only 5% of blacks in the Deep South owned land. Economic intimidation, vote buying, and terror were used to gain white control in the South. They were aided in these efforts by the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist organizations. Many blacks fled the South to take up homesteading on federal land in the West. A group of blacks called Exodusters founded a black community in Kansas. Other blacks migrated to Texas or western mining towns.

Grant’s second term was dogged by economic depression and more scandals, including the Whiskey Ring in which whiskey distillers bribed high federal officials to avoid liquor taxes.

Problems in the Grant administration revived Democratic hopes that they could win the White House in 1876. They nominated Samuel J. Tilden, a wealthy Wall Street lawyer. Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, an Ohio politician and husband of a leading temperance reformer. Tilden won the popular vote, but the electoral vote was so narrow the election went into the House.

The deadlock in 1876 focused on the votes in three Southern states, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Republicans charged voter fraud in these states. Neither Democrats nor Republicans could reach an agreement. The deadlock continued into 1877, when finally a grand compromise was reached. The deal gave Republicans control over the White House under Hayes, in exchange that Hayes, as president, would withdraw remaining federal troops from the South. After a secret meeting between Republicans and Southern Democrats in a Washington hotel in 1877, the disputed electoral votes were awarded to Hayes. This marked the end of Reconstruction.

  1. If you found yourself black and persecuted in the South, would you have emigrated to Kansas or farther West? What, today, would cause you to move to a new location? Would you move as a group and settle together with others? Or would you move with just your family? These are the kinds of questions facing migrants throughout history – including probably the original Indians, alongside the Pilgrims and many of the people who immigrated to America, and sometimes (such as with the Mormons and Southern blacks) within the country.
  2. The election of 1876 was thrown to the House, as a result of the workings of the electoral college. Today, the legitimacy of the electoral college is widely questioned. Do you think it worked as designed in 1876? Would the country have been better off with Democrat Tilden in office?

This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook.  Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers.  Click here to download the Common Sense American History materials.

Image Citation:
[Photograph, Women of the Ku Klux Klan on parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, 1928. (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives)] (1928).  Retrieved from