The End of the Reconstruction Era

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13709

For over a decade after the end of the Civil War, the North was committed to ensuring that the highest ideals of the 14th Amendment were upheld. However, this period came to an abrupt end.


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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After the Civil War, America entered the period known as Reconstruction. During this time, African Americans were elected to seats in the House and the Senate.

African Americans elected to Congress, 1872

Image by Currier and Ives, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Many of these people had been enslaved only years before until the passage of the 13th Amendment.

  • If the South was voting African Americans into Congress, Reconstruction had succeeded, right?

(Check out our lessons under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar if you need a bit more background information before beginning this lesson.)

Military Occupation

After the Union won the Civil War, the South was separated into five districts. The United States military was sent to occupy each, which was then run by a military government.

Reconstruction military districts

Image by JayCoop, via Wikimedia Commons, is availabe under the CC0 1.0 public domian dedication.

  • Why was so much force needed?

As the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were being passed, soldiers needed to be in these former Confederate states in order to ensure African Americans would be permitted the right to vote.

Within the space of only a few years, African Americans went from exclusively being enslaved in the South to being completely free members of society.

This type of change was difficult for some to accept. White supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan were even formed in order to try and subvert the enfranchisement of African Americans.

freed men voting, 1867

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

With troops guarding every voting station and patrolling Southern cities, the promises given to African Americans were largely upheld for a decade. However, by 1876, something was happening that would bring this era of transition to an end.

The Election of 1876

The two presidential candidates in the election of 1876 were Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Tilden, circa 1870

Image, via Wikimdia Commons, is in the public domain.

As a Democrat during this time period, one would expect Tilden to have been from the South. However, he was a lawyer from New York.

He was not very committed to the Southern cause but rather sought to exist somewhere in the middle between his party and the Republicans.

Hayes, circa 1870

Image by Mathew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

As the Republican during this time period, one would expect Hayes to have been a staunch supporter of African Americans. However, Hayes had always been ambivalent about the idea of troops in the South.

During this election, the Republicans leveraged three states in order to cause confusion.

Watch Voter fraud, suppression and partianship: A look at the 1876 election from CBS Sunday Morning:

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While the country had four months to find a solution, one was not found until just two days before the inauguration.

  • What did they decide?

The Compromise of 1877

When a state's election is finished and the winner is decided, the state will send electors, who are members of the same party as the victor, to Washington to submit the official vote.

The leaders of these three states -- Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina -- decided to send a second set of Republican electors as well.

Congress then had to take the time to figure out just which set of electors they were going to accept. In order to decide this, a secret compromise was struck.

Harper's Weekly image, 1874

Image by Thomas Nast, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Republican Goal:

This election was all about restoring the party image for Republicans.

After the corruption and scandal that compromised President Grant's administration, the party wanted to prove a Republican administration could be free of corruption. The Republican candidate had to win for that to happen.

Democrat Goal:

The Democratic Party was not concerned with its image because, after the Civil War, the party had largely been disgraced. Their only desire was to restore freedom to the Southern states.

Because of this, the Democratic Party was willing to give up their candidate if Hayes would agree to pull the troops out of the South. While Tilden may have been a Democrat, the party was more concerned with allowing the Southern states to operate without the American military occupying their cities.

On March 2, 1877, two days before Rutherford B. Hayes took office, Congress decided on this electoral map:

1876 electoral map

Image by United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Hayes would win the Electoral College by one vote while losing the popular vote by over 200,000 votes.

With his inauguration came the removal of American troops in the South, leading to the beginning of the Jim Crow Era in the South, in which countless laws and restrictions were created in order to minimize the freedoms that the federal government had promised in the Reconstructions Amendments.

Visit a Historical Timeline of the Electoral maps from past elections, courtesy of 270 to win. Scroll the timeline all the way back to 1876 and then move forward one election at a time looking for the next election after 1876, when any Southern state is NOT won by the Democratic candidate.

  • So, after the troops were pulled out, did African Americans suddenly start voting for Democratic candidates unanimously?

Once the troops left, the era of Reconstruction ended because the idea that African Americans would be treated equally was all but destroyed.

African Americans became the subject of discriminatory laws and intimidation, which largely stopped most non-whites from voting in the South for decades...until the second Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Move on to the Got It? section to fully understand how an election could bring about the end of an era.

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