The Compromise of 1868 was a seminal series of laws that in fact occurred between 1867 and 1870 that established and guaranteed an eventual and gradual dissolution of slavery in the United States. The compromise, hashed out between Northern, anti-slavery Nationalists and Southern, pro-slavery Democrats, was built on several core principles:
- The federal government could not interfere with the existing property of individual citizens, but has the right to create legislation concerning property that does not yet exist as no state or citizen can yet claim that property as theirs (called the "preemptive clause"). This was established in the 1867 Property Act, which in turn was directly responsible for the legal basis of the 1870 Free Child Act. Both laws were upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1873 ruling Bannerfield v. United States
- The federal government is sovereign over the state, but cannot legislate laws that affect a specific, individual state while exempting other states. This was a demand by the Southern legislatures who feared subjugation by the more populous north, and was based upon the 1868 Sovereignty of Law Act and the 1869 Supreme Court ruling Lincoln v. Gervais. This law helped Southerners agree to allow a relaxation of slavery laws, as it alleviated their fears of an oppressive Northern government
- The federal government may tax the sale of property across state lines - this allowed the federal government to exercise its short-lived but heavily enforced slave tax.
- The federal government must register all slaves in a National Slave Registry to better assist the efforts of states in capturing runaways or keeping track of property when it crosses state lines. While initially championed in 1867 as a way for the South to get the federal government to help it monitor slaves, both states and the federal government used it as a means to collect revenue through a series of local and federal "slave taxes" in the late 1860's and most of the 1870's
- The state is the sovereign over its citizens before the federal government. This principle, also hashed out in Lincoln v. Gervais, meant that only the state could seize the property of citizens unless in violation of federal law, and that illegal commerce (here applied to the case of slavery) could only be seized by states if the commerce remained within the state. This was done to prevent the federal government from abusing its commerce clause.
- The federal government has the right to lawfully occupy a state that defies a federal law, is in need of assistance or threatens secession. Due to secessionist crises in both the North and the South, this was agreed upon almost unanimously by both parts of the country. The integrity of the Union, to the lawmakers, superseded the integrity of the state. This would be challenged during the narrowly-avoided secessionist crisis at the Yorktown Convention.
- Territories, as the domain of voting citizens, are themselves responsible for the laws therein, unless they violate federal law. This was done in response to a bloody disagreement in Kansas over slavery in the early 1850's.
The centerpiece of the compromise was the Property Act, which guaranteed Southerners that for the foreseeable future, the federal government would guarantee their right to property. In turn, the 1870 Fair Child established that any child born after January 1, 1871 was guaranteed freedom, regardless of parental affiliation. This was called the "kick the rock approach" by many lawmakers, as it neatly avoided a potentially disruptive issue and saved it for later generations. Many Southerners were understandably concerned by the feared generation of free blacks fighting to earn freedoms for their slave parents.
However, as the Congress could not infringe upon state laws, state governments in the South found it easy to circumvent laws intended to guarantee voting rights. The Supreme Court upheld in 1876 that the federal government can only establish election laws that affect the federal government - this in turn meant that freedmen, who were granted voting rights as part of the Compromise of 1868, were only eligible to vote for Senators, Congressmen or Presidents, but could be banned from voting in state or local elections thanks to loopholes in the voting law. Thanks to coercion, poll taxes and frivolous literacy requirements, as well as "passive noncompliance" in enforcing federal law at the state level, many blacks were denied federal voting rights through similar loopholes. As South Carolina Governor Samuel Lawrence famously said in 1880, "You can pass the laws, but you can't make me enforce them." Southern state governments were aided in their efforts of passive noncompliance in the 1870's by President Josiah Marks, who encouraged Southern states to abolish slavery to increase competition in the workforce, grow their economies and avoid exorbitant slave taxes, which Marks was unable to retroactively veto or abolish.