During Reconstruction, defined as the period from 1865 when the Confederate troops surrendered to 1877 when the last federal troops withdrew from the South, the United States sought to restore the southern states to the Union and to define the rights of the freedmen in that Union. Conflicting ideas about these issues made the process a difficult one, to say the least. Throughout the period, national leaders struggled to find a policy that would result in political and social harmony. After 1865, Andrew Johnson and Congressional Republicans debated over which branch of government would determine Reconstruction policy. Johnson favored a quick reunion that benefitted the non-slaveholders at the expense of the former slaveholders and the former slaves. Republicans hoped to devise a policy that would punish the former slaveholders and encourage the yeomen and the freedmen to work together to support Republican rule. Congressional Republicans appeared to win the debate, but it certainly was not a lasting victory.
Many white southerners were not ready to accept the equality of the races; conservatives played on the fear of “Negro rule” to weaken the Republican governments in the late 1860s and early 1870s. As conservative southerners began to reassert their authority, the American people elected Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1868 because he promised peace. Northerners tired of the focus on the South, especially after the nation entered a depression in 1873. Meanwhile, southerners wanted to reduce the amount of federal control over political and social issues in their states. Grant never found a policy that could meet the needs of northerners and southerners, further souring people on Reconstruction. Thus in 1876, both presidential candidates, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, tailored their campaign message to suggest their victory would lead to the end of Reconstruction. While Tilden won the popular vote, a special election commission awarded the Electoral College to Hayes. Southern Democrats in Congress, who had redeemed their states from Republican rule in the 1870s, chose not to block the result because Hayes informally pledged to remove federal troops and to increase federal aid for internal improvements for the South. The Compromise of 1877 effectively ended Reconstruction; however, it failed to protect the rights gained by the former slaves after the war.