As the Civil War retreated into history, issues other than Reconstruction began to dominate the political agenda. The Republican party slowly backed away from programs and reforms that might have improved the quality of life for African Americans and protected their rights, so recently made a part of the Constitution. A combination of Supreme Court decisions and a lack of political will brought an end to Reconstruction.
The election of Grant. Ulysses S. Grant was nominated as the Republican candidate for president in 1868. The man who accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House was expected to earn the veteran vote, while his lack of political experience meant he would likely follow the lead of Congress. The electorate had a clear choice. The Republican platform endorsed Reconstruction, supported paying off the national debt in gold, and defended black suffrage in the South; the Democrats condemned Reconstruction as tantamount to a military dictatorship, favored soft money (wanting to keep the millions of dollars in Civil War greenbacks in circulation), and hoped to win votes from whites who felt that blacks were benefiting too much from Reconstruction. Although Grant easily won the electoral vote over his relatively unknown Democratic challenger, Horatio Seymour, the popular vote was much closer than anticipated. Freedmen in the South, casting their ballots for the first time, provided Grant with the margin of victory.
Foreign policy and domestic issues. To its credit, the Grant administration settled the simmering dispute with Great Britain over the damages caused by British‐built Confederate ships during the Civil War. Both countries agreed in 1871 to allow an international tribunal to resolve the so‐called Alabama claims, named for the infamous Confederate raider. The tribunal ruled in favor of the United States, which was awarded more than $15 million.
After the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, some government officials looked for other opportunities to expand beyond the continental United States. Although Congress had rejected buying the Virgin Islands, Grant looked toward the Caribbean again in 1870. His treaty to annex Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic), however, did not even have the support of his cabinet, and the Senate refused to ratify it.
On the domestic side, Grant's first term was marred by scandals. The president's brother‐in‐law was involved with railroad magnates Jay Gould and Jim Fisk in a scheme to corner the gold market. On the evening of the 1872 election, Vice President Schuyler Colfax was implicated in the activities of the Crédit Mobilier, a construction company that skimmed profits from the Union Pacific Railroad. Corruption at local levels gained national attention at the same time. William Marcy Tweed, the political boss of New York City, and a group of associates known as the Tweed Ring purloined millions from the municipal coffers through kickbacks from city contractors and billing for work never done.
The weaknesses in Grant's leadership and concern over the future of Reconstruction caused a split in the Republican party. Liberal Republicans held a separate convention in 1872 and nominated for president newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who was also the standard‐bearer of the Democratic party. Greeley, who had strongly favored full emancipation during the war, supported an immediate end to Reconstruction during his campaign. The Liberal Republicans also advocated civil service reform and an end to the granting of public land to railroads. Despite all the problems in his administration, Grant was reelected by even wider margins in the electoral and popular votes than in 1868.
The panic of 1873. During his second term, Grant was still unable to curb the graft in his administration. Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached by the House, and he resigned in disgrace for taking bribes from dishonest Indian agents. The president's personal secretary was involved with the Whiskey Ring, a group of distillers who evaded paying internal revenue taxes. A much more pressing concern though was the state of the economy.
In 1873, overspeculation in railroad stocks led to a major economic panic. The failure of Jay Cooke's investment bank was followed by the collapse of the stock market and the bankruptcy of thousands of businesses; crop prices plummeted and unemployment soared. Much of the problem was related to the use of greenbacks for currency. Hard‐money advocates insisted that paper money had to be backed by gold to curb inflation and level price fluctuations, but farmers and manufacturers, who needed easy credit, wanted even more greenbacks put in circulation, a policy that Grant ultimately opposed. He recommended and the Congress enacted legislation in 1875 providing for the redemption of greenbacks in gold. Because the Treasury needed time to build up its gold reserves, redemption did not go into effect for another four years, by which time the longest depression in American history had come to an end.
The end of Reconstruction. In 1872, Congress passed the General Amnesty Act, which removed all restrictions against former Confederate officials. The Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse cases in 1873. In a 5‐4 decision, the Court held that the amendment's rights applied only to a person's citizenship in the United States, not to citizenship in the states; the federal government had little recourse when state law violated the civil rights of individuals.
Congress prohibited discrimination based on race in public places and guaranteed the right of blacks to serve on juries through the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The legislation—really the last hurrah for the Radical Republicans—was not enforced, however. By 1876, both political parties were ready to abandon Reconstruction and its legacy, and in 1883, the eight‐year‐old Civil Rights Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The election of 1876. In 1876, the Republicans looked for a presidential candidate untouched by the scandals of the Grant administration and chose Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a man with a well‐deserved reputation for honesty. Samuel J. Tilden, the crusading governor of New York, who had taken on the Tweed Ring and the political bosses in his state, was the Democratic nominee. There was little difference between the two men. Both supported hard money, both promised reforms in the way government did business, and both were considered moderates on Reconstruction. The election turned out to be the most controversial in American history.
Although earning three hundred thousand more popular votes than Hayes, Tilden won just 184 electoral votes, one short of the majority needed for election. Twenty electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina were in dispute, as both sides traded charges of ballot fraud. The Constitution offered no guidance on how to resolve the matter. In January 1877, Congress appointed a special commission made up of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent to investigate the contested electoral votes. When the independent, Supreme Court Justice David Davis, resigned, he was replaced by a Republican. Not surprisingly, the commission voted a consistent 8‐7 in favor of Hayes.
Congress was ready to declare Hayes the winner of the election, but the Democrat‐controlled House of Representatives threatened a filibuster that would delay final action. In return for an end to Reconstruction, the southern Democrats would abandon Tilden. The Compromise of 1877 made Hayes president in return for a Republican pledge to remove federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina, an action that would bring to a close the last vestige of military occupation of the South. The Democrats also wanted a southerner appointed to Hayes's cabinet and money for internal improvements, specifically a subsidy for a transcontinental railroad along a southern route through Texas. Hayes made David Key of Tennessee postmaster general, then a cabinet post that was a rich source of patronage. For their part, congressional southerners agreed to support the civil‐rights constitutional amendments.
With the end of Reconstruction, the Republicans effectively abandoned southern blacks. The years ahead saw segregation institutionalized and the civil rights of African Americans sharply curtailed by state law, particularly the right to vote. Politically, the Democrats controlled what became known as the “solid South,” until the federal government once again committed itself to protect all citizens, regardless of race.