The Roots of Institutionalized Poverty in the Compromise of 1877

skepticThe Reconstruction Era immediately following the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War extends from 1865 until 1877. Reconstruction began with great promise but ended in tragedy. At the very beginning of the Reconstruction Era, three Constitutional Amendments were passed, still collectively known as the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, which ended slavery; the 14th, which made all people born on American soil immediately and unconditionally Americans with equal rights across the breadth of the entire Nation (and also effectively revoked the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857, in which the Taney Supreme Court had ruled that slaves were not, and never could be, citizens); and the 15th, which prohibits deprivation of voting rights “by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (in other words, all former slaves could vote). For all practical purposes, however, all three of the Reconstruction Amendments, even in a de facto sense the 13th, were rendered null and void by the collapse of Reconstruction, beginning with the Compromise of 1877. The year 1877 and the inception of the Compromise also mark the beginning of the process of the institutionalization of poverty in the United States.


The Compromise of 1877 is difficult to write about, because, unlike the other great Compromises in the first half of the 19th century, e.g., the Compromises of 1820 (Missouri Compromise) and 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc., there is almost no documentation recording who agreed to what and why…and I am very tempted to remove the “almost” qualifier. Furthermore, the Compromise is difficult to write about, not only because of the lack of unambiguous documentation, but also because the events that caused it, and that transpired because of it, are of such complexity that any thorough and accurate account would rapidly expand and displace the subject of institutionalized poverty. Based on what little we do know for certain, it is evident that the leadership of the Confederate States, having decisively lost the Civil War militarily and returned to the Union, elected to attempt to accomplish politically what they could not achieve through the violence of battle: the perpetuation of some form of slavery in the South. In this, Southern leaders were successful to a degree that perhaps even they, in their wildest imaginings, could never have conceived. Their victory began with the election of 1876.

In November of 1876, the presidential election to replace Ulysses S. Grant pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The outcome of the election – of which the following is a Reader’s Digest-condensed account – precipitated an even greater Constitutional crisis than the election of 1800. I say “an even greater constitutional crisis” because the presidential election of 1800 involved a simple tie in electoral votes between candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. (The incumbent President, John Adams, was a respectable but distinct second.) There is a very explicit, and very simple, Constitutional procedure to resolve such an impasse: voting by each State represented in the House, with each State having a single vote. The House of Representatives had to take 36 votes to elect Thomas Jefferson, but in the end the impasse, harrowing though it was, was resolved through “plain-vanilla” Constitutional procedure.


But in the election of 1876, a situation arose that none of the Framers could have foreseen: competing slates of presidential electors were elected from the States of South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon. (Rival slates of electors were commissioned because South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana all had self-appointed rival State governments of the other party. In Oregon, there was a controversy about the eligibility of one elector from Oregon.) In each case, one group of electors was committed to Hayes and the other to Tilden, reflecting the rival parties vying for control of the State governments. With time running out and no president yet elected – just as in 1800, only more so – the Congress was forced to grapple with the extra-Constitutional issue of which electors to count and how to validate their votes.

Congress ended up passing a law creating an ad hoc Election Commission for this purpose. The only thing certain at this point was that Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote. At issue was which candidate – Hayes or Tilden – had prevailed in terms of electoral votes. (There was and is no Constitutional obligation for any elector to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in the elector’s State.) Just as Jeffersonian States threatened military action in 1800 if a Federalist interim president were somehow appointed, pro-Tilden Democratic States in 1876 threatened military action if Republican Hayes ended up in office. The slogan of the day was “Tilden or blood.” Commission deliberations began on February 1, 1877 – about six weeks before the inauguration date. During the run-up to the Commission proceedings, it gradually became clear that, in a straight up-or-down vote, Hayes would win. So the Democrats began a desperate filibuster – actually, a series of such – in hopes of buying time and trying to turn the electoral-vote situation in Tilden’s favor. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking: all parties were driving down on the date for the inauguration. The general consensus – remember: there is almost no documentation of this, and no documentation of any kind that could serve as a “smoking gun” – is that Democrats conferred with Republicans and agreed to refrain from a final filibuster, provided that Rutherford B. Hayes, upon assuming the presidency, would end Reconstruction and withdraw Federal troops from the States of the former Confederacy, thus ending protection of the recently freed slaves and terminating enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments, especially the 14th and 15th. This “corrupt bargain,” as it was called by Republicans at the time, set the stage for the institutionalization of poverty in the South … and eventually across the entire Union. The South lost the Civil War militarily, but won it socially.

 There were three broad categories of consequences that issued from the Compromise of 1877: the de jure triumph of the “black codes” and “Jim Crow”; the extinguishing of the nascent practice of electing African-Americans to public office; and the withdrawal of Federal occupying troops and the consequent unleashing of white-supremacist organizations.

o “Black codes” and “Jim Crow”

The black codes were enacted in the South a year or so following the end of the Civil War in order to regulate the behavior of black slaves that had been freed, first, by the Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863, and then by passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. The codes did contain some “fig leaf” protections for former slaves, e.g., owners were de jure prohibited from murdering their former slaves, but the black codes – basically extensions and modifications of the “slave codes” of colonial times – prohibited former slaves from moving from one plantation to another, or even visiting another plantation without written permission from the owner. (Of course, in a formal sense, the former slaves were now ostensibly paid employees of the plantation.) The black codes continued to make it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write – and also for anyone to teach them these skills. Federal troops occupying former Confederate States were able to mitigate these laws somewhat under the terms of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” and “due process” clauses. But after the Compromise of 1877 and the subsequent withdrawal of occupying Union troops, the black codes were allowed to take full effect. Perhaps of greatest importance vis a vis the institutionalization of poverty is that under both the slave and black codes, slaves were explicitly prohibited from learning any other useful, marketable skill: slaves de facto remained slaves even after their de jure legal status changed.


Similar remarks apply to “Jim Crow,” except that “Jim Crow” laid even greater emphasis on racial segregation than had the “slave” and “black codes.” All public facilities—rest rooms, train stations, schools, etc., etc.—were explicitly segregated by race. Nor was the trend to racial segregation restricted to the South. Fearing an influx of freed slaves to Union territory, most Northern States instituted some cognate of “Jim Crow.” For example, the 39th Congress, which passed the 14th Amendment and sent it to the States for ratification in 1865, is the same Congress that mandated racial segregation in the District of Columbia public-school system. In fact, the passage of the 14th Amendment is one of the vanishingly few cases where it is possible to be virtually certain of “original intent”: the Congress that passed the 14th could not have had the racial integration of public schools in mind when it wrote the “equal protection” clause of Section 1. (One of the ironies of history is that the Warren Court cited the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment to support the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.) Again, this was yet another case in which the occupation of the former Confederacy by Federal troops ameliorated the effects of race laws, and gave some effect to the 14th and 15th Amendments.

o The extinguishing of the nascent practice of electing African-Americans to public office

Perhaps the most bitter disappointment associated with the Compromise of 1877, however, was the subsequent lack of enforcement of the voting rights promised under the 15th Amendment. This included the sudden and calamitous choking-off of the election of African-American office-holders. One of the most consistently overlooked effects of the early Reconstruction period—the late 1860s and early 1870s—was that, in large measure because of the extension of the franchise under the 15th Amendment, African-Americans began to be voted into elective office. In retrospect, this was a golden age for African-Americans in the post-Civil-War South. The most conspicuous example, though by no means the only one, was that the junior senator from the State of Mississippi, Albert G. Brown, was succeeded by a free African-American originally from Ohio, Hiram Rhodes Revels – who was also a distinguished African Methodist Episcopal minister. (Even more remarkable about Sen. Revels is that he was elected, as were all senators at this time and prior to the 17th Amendment, by the Mississippi State legislature by a vote of 81-15.) Sen. Revels was followed by Blanche Bruce, who was the first African-American senator to serve a full term. (Sen. Revels resigned his Senate seat after serving for about 18 months in order to become a college president.) Many scholars count over 1500 African-American officeholders at various levels of government during Reconstruction, among them, in addition to Sens. Revels and Bruce, are: Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL)Robert DeLarge (R-SC)Josiah Walls (R-FL)Jefferson Long (R-GA)Joseph Rainey (R-SC) and Robert B. Elliott (R-SC). Speaking of irony…Mississippi, the home State of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the State he represented as a US Senator, and the location of his huge plantation, ended up being represented by the first African-American senator and the first African-American senator to serve a full term; Alabama, the location of the first Confederate capital of Birmingham, elected an African-American to the House; and South Carolina, the State with the greatest population of black slaves on the eve of the Civil War (by many counts greater than the white population!) , sent three African-Americans to the House of Representatives.  And the crowning irony: except for  Mr. Elliott, who was born in England, all the above-named Reconstruction Representatives were born slaves. All across the South, at various levels of government, other examples could be cited.  Their name was “Legion,” for they were many.

reconstruction_congresso The withdrawal of Federal occupying troops and the consequent unleashing of white-supremacist organizations

But the Compromise of 1877, the withdrawal of Federal troops, and the consequent rise of white-supremacist organizations like the Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the Red Shirts, and the White League, all founded either following the Civil War or in the early days of the Reconstruction, all conspired to render the act of voting, let alone running for public office, lethal for African-Americans. The bright and shining moment was abruptly closed, during whose brief years men like the ones alluded to above—many former slaves, all born to modest, often poor, circumstances—could be elected to office and serve as living fulfillments of the initial promise of Reconstruction. Small wonder, then, that in the wake of the Compromise of 1877, African-American Republicans, many of whom had served in the Union army, felt betrayed by the very Nation whose integrity they had fought to preserve.

Finally, from the standpoint of economic justice and poverty, the Compromise of 1877, the withdrawal of the Federal occupation, and the consequent monopoly on politics subsequently enjoyed in the Southern State legislatures by die-hard segregationists, racists, and “Redeemer” Democrats, the results could hardly have been more severe or disastrous. With the “slave” / “black” codes and “Jim Crow” now in full effect, with no means of coercively enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments, with former black slaves prohibited from learning a new trade or even how to read and write, and with overtly and militantly white-supremacist organizations now openly enforcing what only amounted to a new version of the old, antebellum social order, the inability to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments resulted in the “hollowing out” of the 13th. The poverty that slaves had known in the past became a present reality, rendered explicitly legal once more and – once more – subject to coercive enforcement.

Blacks remained poor, and were forced to remain poor, literally, on pain of death. Southern planters and capitalists now had access to a vast, vast pool of free, or almost-free, labor—again, in a manner and to an extent virtually indistinguishable from the slavery of the 1850s. Slavery had not been abolished, merely changed in form. Instead of a given slave belonging to or on a particular plantation as the chattel property of a particular, specific, individual slave-owner, the slaves of the 1870s and 1880s were now, as it were, “slaves at large,” in no way whatsoever essentially different from the vast pool of free labor into which the targeted populations of 1940s Europe were transformed at gun—and bayonet-point by the armies of National Socialist Germany. The form of slavery had changed. The substance had not. Nor would this state of affairs begin to change, even in tectonic-plate increments, until the Second Reconstruction, better known as the American Civil-Rights Movement, which began a century later.

– James R. Cowles

© 2015, essay, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved; illustration, public domain


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4 thoughts on “The Roots of Institutionalized Poverty in the Compromise of 1877

  1. Thank you, James. I learned something new tonight and this piece put a few things in perspective for me that I had not thought of before. With so much turmoil in this country regarding race (the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the issue of the Confederate Flag, etc.) this is timely and relevant. Unfortunately, I believe that religion in the South is irrevocably intertwined in this whole, sorry affair and has only complicated what is quite literally a black and white issue. :-/


  2. This shows one of the roots of institutional racism in the U.S. Those roots go back to the founding era (and before, of course), but there are a few points in time, such as the Compromise of 1877 discussed here, where we can see a new tap root placed in the soil. Among others are the Slave Rebellions, the 3/5ths Compromise and the Dred Scott Decision. It is so important to learn and understand these historical “foundations” (to switch metaphors) of institutional racism.


  3. Just now saw all your most-welcome comments and so am somewhat late in responding. Reflecting on the Compromise of 1877 and the consequent suppression of black political power also gives a whole new perspective to the election of Barack Obama as President: the ultimate culmination of events like the election of Messrs. Revels and Bruce to the Senate.

    Overall, I suppose I am a pessimist, however. I like to use the analogy of diabetes. If you are diabetic, you need not die of the disease. You can manage it. Watch your diet. Exercise. Take your meds (insulin, et al.), etc., etc. You can live a full and creative life as a diabetic. (I am not diabetic, but I have friends who are.) BUT THE ONE THING YOU CAN *** NEVER *** DO IS *** CURE *** YOUR DIABETES. Similarly with racism: racism is, and always will be, a part of our life as a Nation. I dunno … maybe it’s “baked into” the DNA of human society, or at least Western culture. So we will always have to deal with racism. We can no more “cure” racism as a society than we can “cure” diabetes as individuals. But — again, like diabetes — we CAN manage it, keep it confined within limits, minimize its influence.

    I hope I’m wrong. If anyone can convince me I’m wrong, I will be the first to thank you. I’m just saying I would have to BE convinced.



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