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Compromise of 1890


COMPROMISE OF 1890. In 1890 three bills vied for attention in the U.S. Senate. In order to break the legislative gridlock, the Republican majority reached a compromise that allowed for the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the McKinley Tariff Act. Perhaps most importantly, the Republicans withdrew their support for the Federal Elections Bill, there by signaling the end of the Republican commitment to African American suffrage.

The Tariff Act, sponsored by William McKinley of Ohio and supported by northern industrial interests, established the highest protective tariff in U.S. history by raising rates an average of 49.5 percent. It also gave the president much greater authority to conduct foreign trade by allowing him to hold trade conventions, negotiate reciprocity agreements, and build a federal bureaucracy to deal with the intricacies of global trade.

The Sherman Silver Act was sponsored by Senator John Sherman of Ohio, and supported by silver interests and western Republicans. It was a means of appealing to western farmers in return for their support of the McKinley Tariff. The act, by including silver in federal coinage, was intended to bring a higher price for that product, which would trigger inflation and bring higher farm prices and better terms for debtors. Republicans in the West hoped that these results would stem the flow of farmers into the nascent Populist Party.

The Federal Elections Bill, sponsored by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and derisively called a Force Bill by its southern opponents, was an attempt to establish federal supervision of congressional elections. The bill would have applied to the entire country, but it was aimed primarily at congressional districts in the South that had begun to deny African Americans the right to vote. The bill would have backed up the Fifteenth Amendment by protecting African Americans against disfranchisement. The primary feature of the bill would have made the federal circuit courts the monitor of election procedures and returns, rather than state governors and state election boards.

The compromise that saw passage of the Tariff Act and Silver Act in return for the withdrawal of support for the Elections Bill highlighted the perceived threat of the populism. More importantly, it demonstrated the ascendancy of economic issues and business interests within the Republican Party and the end of its traditional commitment to African American suffrage. Further, it showed the apathy of those in the West and the North to the issue of civil rights for African Americans.

The defeat of the Elections Bill had severe consequences for African Americans in the South as disfranchisement become more systematic in the period after 1890. The denial of a political voice for African Americans accelerated the construction of the social, cultural, political, and economic system of segregation known as Jim Crow. Not until passage of the voting rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1965 and the Constitutional Amendment of 1964 outlawing the poll tax would Congress and the states adopt measures to fulfill finally the promises of the Fifteenth Amendment.


Perman, Michael. Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. "The Federal Elections Bill of 1890: Post-scripts and Prelude." Journal of American History 52 (1965): 511–526.


See alsoFarmers' Alliance ; Reconstruction ; Sherman Silver Purchase Act ; Tariff .

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