The leading Radical Republican in the Senate was Charles Sumner of
Massachusetts (now fully recovered from his earlier caning by Brooks).
House, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania hoped to revolutionize southern
society through an extended period of military rule in which blacks would be
free to exercise their civil rights, would be educated in schools operated by
the federal government, and would receive lands confiscated from the planter
A number of Radical Republicans, including Benjamin Wade of Ohio,
endorsed other liberal causes: women's suffrage, rights for labor unions, and civil rights for northern blacks. Although their program was never fully implemented,
the Radical Republicans struggled for about four years, 1866 to 1870,
to extend equal rights to all Americans.
The South's agricultural economy was in turmoil after
the war, in part because a compulsory labor force was gone. At first, white
landowners attempted to force freed blacks into signing contracts to work the
fields. These contracts set terms that nearly bound the signer to permanent and
unrestricted labor—in effect, slavery by a different name. Black insistence on
autonomy, however, combined with changes in the postwar economy, led white
landowners to adopt a system based on tenancy and sharecropping. Under
sharecropping, the landlord provided the seed and other needed farm supplies
in return for a share (usually half) of the harvest. While this system gave poor
people of the rural South (whites as well as blacks) the opportunity to work a
piece of land for themselves, sharecroppers usually remained either dependent
on the landowners or in debt to local merchants. By 1880, no more than
5 percent of southern blacks had managed to realize their dreams of becoming
independent landowners. In a sense, sharecropping had evolved into a new
form of servitude.
The postwar years were notorious
for the number of corrupt schemes devised by business bosses and political
bosses to enrich themselves at the public's expense. In 1869, for example,
two Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and James Fisk, obtained the help of
President Grant's brother-in-law in a scheme to corner the gold market. The
Treasury Department broke the scheme but not before Gould had made a
In the Cre´dit Mobilier affair, insiders gave stock to influential members
of Congress to avoid investigation of the profits they were making—as high
as 348 percent—from government subsidies for building the transcontinental
railroad. In the case of the Whiskey Ring, federal revenue agents conspired
with the liquor industry to defraud the government of millions in taxes. While
Grant himself did not personally profit from the corruption, his loyalty to
dishonest men around him badly tarnished his presidency.
Local politics in the Grant years was equally scandalous. In New York
City, William Tweed, the boss of the local Democratic party, masterminded
dozens of schemes for helping himself and cronies to large chunks of graft.
The Tweed Ring virtually stole about $200 million from New York's taxpayers
before The New York Times and the cartoonist Thomas Nast exposed "Boss"
Tweed and brought about his arrest and imprisonment in 1871.
By 1876, federal troops had been withdrawn from all but three southern
states—South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. The Democrats had returned
to power in all ex-Confederate states except these. This fact was to play a
critical role in the presidential election. At their convention, the Republicans looked for someone untouched by
the corruption of the Grant administration and nominated the governor of Ohio,
Rutherford B. Hayes. The Democrats chose New York's reform governor,
Samuel J. Tilden, who had made a name for himself fighting the corrupt Tweed
Ring. When the popular votes were counted, the Democrats had won a clear
majority and expected to put Tilden in the White House. In three southern
states, however, the returns were contested. To win the election, Tilden needed
only one electoral vote from the contested returns of South Carolina, Florida,
A special electoral commission was created to determine who was entitled
to the disputed votes of the three states. In a straight party vote of 8-7, the
commission gave all the electoral votes to Hayes, the Republican. Outraged
Democrats threatened to filibuster the results and send the election to the House
of Representatives, which they controlled.