The election of 1876, and the subsequent compromise of 1877, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated as president despite having failed to win the popular vote, and which Democrat politicians launched a legal campaign to prevent his election, is often viewed as a key moment in 19th century US history. In particular, this importance may be seen with regard to the end of the so-called “reconstruction” era. In order to understand the precise role that this election played in the end of such a period, it is necessary first to understand the nature of the reconstruction period itself, and then to investigate how Hayes’ policies may be understood to mark its end.
According to Nicholas Lemann, the period of reconstruction should be seen as having been primarily focused on how to reintegrate eleven seceding states with a wider republican form of government, a process that necessarily involved the determining which rights and privileges should be afforded freedmen, something that led to significant unrest in Southern states. As such, historical arguments concerning the nature of the reconstruction period tend to focus on the various competing interests at stake throughout the period, and on the manner in which such may be seen to have been resolved in the compromise.
According to George C. Rable, these interests may be seen as being divided broadly between the North and South of the country, and to reach back directly to the economic and human cost of the civil war. Rable notes, for example, that one of the major reasons that Democrats in the Southern states did not continue to resist the inauguration of Hayes was simply that they were focused, primarily on the pursuit of peace. Rable writes simply that after having learned “bitter” lessons from the preceding decades, “southern leaders counseled moderation, rejected the idea of forcibly resisting the inauguration of Hayes, and made only legal protests against Republican fraud.” In this sense, it is clear that one of the key ways in which the election may be seen as being an end to reconstruction lies in the fact that it represented a moment in which further war was avoided through a conscious choice by those who may earlier have reverted to military conflict.
Along with this, it is possible to argue that the election should also be seen as an event in which modern party organization was itself responsible for averting further conflict within the country. C. Van Woodward insists that the resolution of the election was largely the result of a “secret deal” by which a small group of Democrats assented to Hayes’ inauguration. In contrast to this, however, Ian Polakoff argues that the successful resolution of tensions emerged as a result of the nature of party organization itself. Polakoff writes that, instead of being the result of the political maneuvering of small number of politicians, that “it is clear that the diffusion of power in both major parties, and not the machinations of a handful of journalists, was instrumental in preserving peace in 1877.” In this sense, the election and the compromise that followed it may be seen as an event in which the structural form of American politics itself was able to avert civil conflict.
In conclusion, therefore, the election of 1876 may be seen to have a played a key role in moving the country past a period of strife and civil war, while also integrating the seceding states within a restored union. Importantly, the event may also be seen to have been one in which Democrat party members abandoned legitimate interests in order to secure peace, and in which the nature of political organization itself served to avert further conflict.