As the Republican Party tries to recover from crushing defeat in the mid-term elections, a little historical perspective is in order. Halfway through his second term, an unpopular Republican president saw his party lose its majority in the House of Representatives, ending more than a decade of congressional control, and Republicans wondered why they had lost the “fire in the belly” of just a few years before.
I’m referring to President Ulysses Grant and the mid-term elections of 1874.
That year, the Republican share of seats in the House plunged from 68% to 35%, and a Democrat became the Speaker. Just fourteen years earlier, the GOP had swept into control of Congress and the White House with a vision for fundamental reform. With ideologues such as Thaddeus Stevens leading the way, the Radical Republicans (that is, Republicans who radically opposed slavery) enacted Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” for the American people:
the 13th Amendment, banning slavery
the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing due process and equal protection of the laws
the Civil Rights Act of 1866, according citizenship to African-Americans
the 15th amendment, forbidding states from abridging any African-American’s right to vote
On March 1, 1875, just before adjourning, the Republican-controlled 43rd Congress passed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever. Among its provisions, the 1875 Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Sound familiar? Though struck down by the Supreme Court eight years later, the 1875 Civil Rights Act would be reborn as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The reactionary Democrats who then assumed control of Congress were quick to undo many Republican achievements. Bringing an end to Reconstruction’s federal government protection of African-Americans was their top priority. Contrary to the impression left by generations of liberal history professors, the Compromise of 1877 was not the end of Reconstruction. Rather, it had ended the year before, when the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives refused to fund the U.S. Army unless occupation forces were withdrawn from the South.