The Odious Compromise of 1877

On January 25, 1877, the US Senate moves as part of the Compromise of 1877 to cast 20 “undetermined” electoral votes for Republican Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, giving him the presidency. In return for the Democrats’ acquiescence to Hayes’ election, the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.

This monstrously cynical move was the fifth in a series of such abominations denying freedom, safety, dignity and decency to people of color in the United States. To wit, in 1820 the Missouri Compromise was reached, admitting Missouri as a slave state but excluding slavery from the other Louisiana Purchase lands north of Missouri’s southern border. Missouri’s 1821 entrance into the Union as a slave state was met with disapproval by many of its religiously observant citizens, causing decades of tension and conflict.

Subsequently, the Compromise of 1850 was a package of five separate bills passed by Congress in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, that defused a political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired in said war. It also set Texas’ western and northern borders and included provisions addressing fugitive slaves and the slave trade. The compromise was brokered by Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas with the support of President Millard Fillmore.

Four short years later, the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the geographic restrictions of the 1850 Compromise, and mandated “popular sovereignty” to allow settlers of a territory to decide whether slavery would be permitted within a new state’s borders. Proposed by Sen. Douglas (him again), Lincoln’s opponent in the influential Lincoln–Douglas debates, the bill’s fatal illegality and immorality, and the affects of the two previous venal compromises in turn led to the disaster of Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War itself.

In 1857, the US Supreme Court further exacerbated the nation’s moral challenge, and made a fateful ruling on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act in Dred Scott v. Sanford. It held “(Black Africans imported as slaves) had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

On November 3, 1860, Lincoln won the presidency with only 40 percent of the popular vote, but with 180 electoral votes he handily defeated the three other candidates: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge (72), Constitutional Union candidate John Bell (39), and Sen. Douglas of Illinois (12). Although Linclon had assiduously avoided any provocative statements of clear abolitionist intent, between this time and his inauguration on March 4, seven Deep South cotton states–South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas–would secede from the Union.

Nearly five bloody years later, with honor juxtaposed against dishonor, providence against perfidy, and decency against against division, the epic conflict claimed 620,000 souls on both sides; active combat finally ceased with a hollow victory at Appomattox Courthouse. Hollow in that the battle for emancipation and justice against sedition, avarice, prejudice and ignorance would not end, while tragically Lincoln’s very life would, some six days later.

After the Johnson and Grant administrations’ relatively weak efforts at Reconstruction, the “informal” Compromise of 1877 effectively ceded power in the Southern states to the Democratic Redeemers. These sons of the South proceeded to disenfranchise, subjugate, and yes, lynch black populations in a reign of terror that lasted well into the 1960’s and still persists in certain quarters of some very fine people today.

All considered, this was not the highest and best moment of the American Experiment. And the seditious, murderous acts of this past January 6, a clear vestigial tail of all the forgoing, do not show well in this regard, either.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.