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1876 Redestruction: Supreme Court puts the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction

 From the winner of 2019 Pulitzer Prize: Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

As the election neared in 1876, all knew the last vestiges of Reconstruction policies and regimes were at stake in the remaining "unredeemed" Southern states.

In 1876 the project of Reconstruction, and perhaps the United States itself, were like a huge battleship slowly turning around as it lost power; once turning, it could hardly be stopped, even if the same group of officers remained at the helm. 

That year the Supreme Court weakened the Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments by emasculating the enforcement clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and revealing deficiencies in the Fifteenth Amendment. 

In US v. Cruikshank, based on prosecutions for the horrible Colfax massacre of  1873, the Court overruled the conviction of Louisiana whites who had attacked a political meeting of blacks and conspired to deprive them of their rights. 

The justices ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government power to uphold a conviction against the whites who had committed a mass murder of more than one hundred black Louisianans exercising political liberty. 

The duty of protecting citizens' equal rights, the Court said, "rests alone with the States." 

Such judicial conservatism and embrace of states' rights doctrine, practiced by the justices, all of whom had been appointed by Republican presidents Lincoln and Grant, left a resounding imprint on what remained of Reconstruction.

Douglass directly challenged the white delegates on the vagueness of their platform and the weakness of their commitments. 

"You have emancipated us, and I thank you for it," Douglass announced.
"You have enfranchised us, and I thank you for it. 
But what is your emancipation ... if the black man, after having been made free by the letter of the law, is unable to exercise that freedom; and after having been freed from the slaveholder's lash he is to be subject to the slaveholder's shotgun?"

"Do you mean to make good the promises in your Constitution? 
Talk not to me of finance. 
Talk not of mere reform in your administration ... but tell me, if your hearts be as my heart, that the liberty which you have asserted for the black man  in this country shall be maintained!

Many Americans worried that the nation would once again slip into civil war, as some Southerners vowed.
This cliff-hanging constitutional crisis (after the disputed election of 1876) found an end in what became known as the Compromise of 1877, a deal struck in part in a smoke-filled room of a Washington hotel at the eleventh hour:
promises to the South of federal patronage, and the removal of any remaining troops in the ex-Confederacy.

Thus Hayes became president, inaugurated privately inside the White House to avoid any threat of violence.

White Southern Democrats rejoiced in what they clearly saw as the end of Reconstruction, while African Americans had little choice but to grieve over what appeared as a betrayal of their hopes for equality.


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