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UWBTS — Chapter 33:


Chapter 33 – Political Reconstruction in the Defeated Southern States

By Egon Richard Tausch of Texas, S.I.S.H.



It takes little imagination to recognize that the people of the conquered Confederate States would never vote for a Republican in their life time, nor would their children, not likely even their grandchildren.  So how was the Republican Party to win elections in the conquered states?  By Political Reconstruction!  The idea was to deny the vote of people who had supported the Confederacy, which were the vast majority of the whites, and enable and organize the vote of people who had been slaves, which were the vast majority of the blacks.  Then, to make the process run smoothly, send in Republican adventurers, called “Carpetbaggers,” from the North to organize the blacks into a regimented political bloc and, at the same time, gather to themselves as much wealth as possible.  Republican military governors and Federal troops would ensure Republicans remained in control.  We should make clear that “Reconstruction” was a strictly political term.  It had nothing to do with rebuilding the devastated South.  Not at all.

The Radicals Take Over

Within two years after the war, the U.S. Congress curtailed a relatively peaceful period of Presidential Reconstruction and established military government over the defeated South.  This was accomplished by marginalizing the new President, Andrew Johnson, whose powers were unconstitutionally assumed by the Radical Republicans in Congress.  Unionist governors who were appointed by President Johnson for each of the ex-Confederate States right after the war were removed and the South was divided into military districts under martial law.  The great Commonwealth of Virginia was now Military District No. 1, and the families of its great patriots deprived of American citizenship.  The war had been fought by Lincoln on the theory that it was impossible for a State to secede, but now, the victory won, the rules were changed.  The seceded States were not States but “conquered provinces,” as Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Congress, expressed it.

Although the welfare of African Americans was unimportant in Republican motives for waging war, the freedmen were easily made into a major weapon by the Radicals against the South during Political Reconstruction.  Exclusionists, former Abolitionists, and Northern money men were united in this – though many Northern States still had laws against blacks voting or having any civil rights. The newly freed African-Americans were not only enfranchised but were manipulated by Federal military and civilian agents into voting as a bloc for Republicans.  Voting was not by secret ballot, so it could be supervised.  African-Americans were bribed with false promises of benefits and threatened if they failed to vote as told.

Thaddeus Stevens called for the confiscation of every Southern estate worth $10,000 or of a size of 200 acres, though this was not implemented except by confiscatory taxation.  The South was desolate.  Cities like Columbia, Charleston, and Atlanta, and countless small towns had been shelled or burned into rubble, with their schools, businesses, and churches.  Farms had been devastated and lacked the means to start again.

“Carpetbaggers,” Northern scavengers who were of low repute in their home communities, swarmed over the country to pick the bones of the impoverished South.  They had all their worldly possessions in one carpetbag, a cheap form of luggage.  In the early days of freedom, the loyalty which Southern African-Americans felt toward their white families and neighbors, which allowed the latter to leave their homes to fight, remained.  White and black could have worked together as in other countries in the Western Hemisphere which had had slavery.  But this was not the game intended by Washington.  Soon anarchy reigned, except around Union Army camps.  “Young colored women, gaily making their way to Northern Army camps for freedom were used for immoral purposes by the soldiers.”  There were violent conflicts here and there.  The Radicals circulated tales of outrages by Southern vigilantes against blacks and carpetbaggers which were routinely exaggerated or deceptively misrepresented by Republican newspapers.  Even some Union generals were furious over false reports.  

Looting was widespread by the new Southern State officials, recently arrived from the North.  Federal agents combed the South confiscating all cotton and whatever else they could find.  One in Alabama stole $80,000 worth (almost a million in today’s money) within a month.  In Texas, thieves caught red-handed were freed from jail by Federal soldiers.  A Secretary of the Treasury remarked that a few of the agents he sent south may have been honest, but none remained that way very long.  Most of the proceeds went into carpetbagger pockets rather than to the Treasury.  Even Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), home to the Confederate, Southern-assimilated “Five Civilized Tribes,” was not spared the ravages of Political Reconstruction.

The Radicals Ride High

“The laws of War, not the Constitution,” Stevens shouted in Congress.  “Who pleads the Constitution?  It is the advocates of the rebels.”  Stevens had no “higher law” to restrict him; he followed no creed and, according to those who knew him personally, “had been all his life a scoffer of sacred things.”  He declared himself an enemy of the Constitution until it was amended “to secure perpetual ascendency of the Party of the Union” – Republicans.  The 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves, had been readily ratified by the Southern States, and most Southerners expressed satisfaction at the end of slavery. The 14th Amendment was a different matter.  It was deliberately so written that it has been used ever since to nullify parts of the Constitution itself and State constitutions and laws.  This has brought vast judicially ordered changes to American society that have not been voted by the people. The Republicans engaged in illegal procedures to get the 14th amendment through Congress.  When presented to the States for ratification, Southern States and a number of Northern States rejected it.  The problem became:  how to count the Southern States for the purpose of ratifying the 13th Amendment, but not let them vote on ratification of the 14th?  Simple: count them as States for the former, declare them back out of the Union (“conquered provinces” again) for the latter, then readmit them into the Union on the condition that they first ratified the 14th Amendment.  Congress decreed it so, and the courts have not dared reopen the matter. 

Congressional Republicans usurped the President’s power as commander of the Army.  The “Freedmen’s Bureau” was given absolute judicial powers to be exercised at will, backed by an army of petty officials to scour the country. Radical Republicans purged Congress of non-Radicals on various invented charges so that all of President Johnson’s vetoes of their measures could be easily overridden.  “Every government is a despotism,” said Stevens: “Better ours.”  Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which made it a crime for the President to fire any of his appointed officials.  Secretary of War Stanton and his ally, General Grant, had been sabotaging Johnson in favor of the Radicals, so Johnson fired Stanton.  The House impeached him for this “crime” and Republicans carried on a major press hate campaign against him.  In the Senate trial, Johnson escaped being removed from office by one vote, but he would no longer bring restraint to Political Reconstruction.

The presidential race of 1868 was between Gen. Grant, Republican, and New York Governor Horatio Seymour, for the Democrats.  After the most corrupt campaign in American history, Grant won, though losing four Northern States, because corrupt Republican regimes delivered him all but one Southern State.  The Radicals now had their President, but were losing hearts and minds.  Under Grant, the country’s economy was run on governmental monopolies, embezzlement, and bribes.  Members of Grant’s family and Cabinet and his close friends were exposed for major corruption.  Wall Street was considering moving to Washington, where the power and money was. 

The defeated States have a Political Reconstruction histories that differ in details.  The process and the timing of redeeming each from corrupt governments and military occupation varied.  A combination of popular resistance and growing Northern disgust with blatant stealing and with State governments that had to be upheld by the army brought an end to Political Reconstruction everywhere after ten years.  Unable to tell the whole complicated story, we will now consider how three States were “Redeemed” from Political Reconstruction.

In Georgia, the Radical Republican governor knew that his party would not win the election of 1870, so he demanded that Washington delay the election for two years.  Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the Radical leader of the Senate, fought for this unconstitutional request, but lost by a few votes.  Georgian Benjamin H. Hill addressed the Reconstruction Legislature, attended by Union officers, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Radical politicians.  Hill had readily taken the Oath of Loyalty to the Union after the War, and the Republicans thought he was one of them.  Until his speech.  He lashed out at the “unholy work” of Reconstruction:

Go on confiscating; arrest without warrant or probable cause; destroy habeas corpus; deny trial by jury; abrogate State Governments. . .  On, on with your work of ruin, ye hell-born rioters in sacred things. . .  You are but cowards and knaves.”  To the freedmen he said, “They tell you they are your friends – it is false.  They tell you they set you free – it is false. . .  They came down here to seek to use you to further their own base purposes. . .  Improve yourselves; learn to read and write; be industrious; lay up your means; acquire homes, live in peace with your neighbors.

Hill’s denunciation of Political Reconstruction was published throughout the civilized world: “[T]he Military Bill leads to the ultimate but complete change of all American government from the principle of consent to the rule of force and to a war of races. . .  All the guarantees of liberty wrung through the centuries from the hands of despotism are abrogated and withdrawn from ten million people of all colors, sexes, and classes. . .  A conquered people are [rightfully] subject to the terms of the conquest, made known and demanded before, or at the time of the conquest. . .  [But] every demand in the Military Bill originated after the war; not one of them was demanded during the war or made a condition of surrender. . .  They are rushing all sections and all races into wild chaotic anarchy.”  Hill’s protest was “discussed in the streets of London and the boulevards of Paris.”  The London Telegraph described Reconstruction thus:  the United States “may remain a republic in name, but [half] of the people are subjects, not citizens.”  Georgia was lost to Political Reconstruction.

In Louisiana, stealing from the people by State officials reached massive proportions.  In response conservatives elected a governor and a legislative majority. The defeated Radical Republican, William Kellog, wired President Grant that their Party was in danger.  Grant sent troops to overrule the election.  The legitimately elected government and the Republican forces confronted each other in the streets of New Orleans.  The Republican police, backed by artillery, broke within ten minutes.  Grant sent more troops.  Then General Sheridan arrived.  He demanded that Grant declare all Louisianans “banditti” – outlaws – so he could wage total war against them.  Even the Northern Radical Nation magazine called Sheridan’s demand “The most outrageous subversion of parliamentary government by military force ever attempted in this country.”  The troops did not leave until 1877.

In South Carolina, the Radical Governor complained to Congress that Political Reconstruction could not be eased.  “[T]here are five years more of good stealing in South Carolina,” he said.  The Republican Legislature tended to stay in session, partying until 4:00 A.M. daily and ordering in cases of whiskey, barrels of wine, and “Westphalia hams, bacon, cheese, smoked beef, buffalo tongue, nuts, lemons, oranges, cherries, peaches,” and the same for the houses of their mistresses.  As State Senator C. P. Leslie said, “The State has no right to be a State unless she can afford to take care of her statesmen.”  The drafted “Negro Militia” were often drilling, with fixed bayonets, intimidating citizens of both races and forcing them off the streets.  This militia had 7,000 new Winchester repeating rifles.  The Governor imported a gang of gunmen from New York whose orders were “to defend the Governor and kill his enemies.”  When all this did not satisfy him, the Governor called on President Grant for troops, which Grant supplied. 

The redemption of South Carolina was led by planter and former Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton.  As described by the historian Claude G. Bowers, Hampton “was symbolical of the finest flowering of pre-War Southern chivalry and aristocracy.  Patrician by birth, instinct, training, his manner was democratic.”  His prewar speech in the SC Senate against reopening slave importations had been described by the Abolitionist Horace Greeley as “a masterpiece of logic, directed by the noblest of sentiments of the Christian and Patriot.”   During the war, Hampton’s genius for command, his quiet poise and daring, had endeared him to Lee, to his men, and to his people.  “In one engagement he had seen one son fall; and, sending another son to his aid, had seen him fall, too, and had ridden back to kiss the dying youth and whisper in his ear – then back to the fight and to sleep on the ground that night in the rain.”  The close of war found his fortune and home gone, but no word of bitterness escaped him.  Urging conciliation and peace, abstaining from politics, he faced hard times with courage, and with his former slaves, who clung to him, turned again to farming.

In 1876 Hampton was nominated for Governor of South Carolina by the Democrats.  The Republican candidate was assured that “President Grant will bring the strong arm of the United States Government to support and keep the Republican Party in power.”  Black voters were in the majority, but many of them were tiring of the game, and many admired Hampton.  “Negro Democratic Clubs” were quickly formed all over the State.  Groups of Hampton’s Red Shirts formed human shields to protect conservative blacks. (Forbidden to have a militia, South Carolinians formed clubs, wearing traditional red hunting shirts.) Hampton’s Red Shirts faced down Radical gangs but did not open fire.  They let it be known everywhere that they would harm no African-Americans, but if there were any bloodshed, they would “kill every white Radical in the country.”  The Radicals did not mind a slaughter of blacks which would cause Grant to send an army, but they were unwilling to risk their own lives. 

Hampton addressed countless meetings.  He insisted: “The only way to bring prosperity in this State is to bring the two races in friendly relations together.”  The Radicals declared Martial Law and called for Federal troops, but Hampton wired the Army to send troops to protect black Democrats.  News of all this got into the Northern papers, hurting the Radicals.  Hampton was elected despite massive Republican voter and vote-counting fraud. Even Union soldiers, disgusted with the officials they were upholding, voted for Hampton. Washington had no excuse to intervene, and a huge parade of both races marched and rode down the streets, through tumultuous throngs, flags, and bunting, led by former Generals Hampton and John B. Gordon of Georgia.  Republicans began boarding northbound trains with the loot they could get away with.

The Election of 1876

In 1876 the presidential election was between Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican, of Ohio, and Samuel J. Tilden of New York, Democrat.  Republicans knew they had to “wave the Bloody Shirt” – trumpet Northern casualties during the War – to keep the Northern vote, so they went all-out in their speeches, hoping voters would forget their corruption.  But they also needed the electoral votes of the three Southern States that still had carpetbagger governments upheld by the army – South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.   In the presidential election, Tilden, the Democrat, received a majority of the popular vote nationally but was one short of a majority in the Electoral College.  South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana sent in two conflicting sets of election returns, one from the governments still run by Radicals and one from the legitimately elected redeemer governments.  After a great deal of wheeling and dealing, Democrats allowed the Republicans to put the cheating votes through Congress and Hayes was elected, on the promise that he would remove the last Federal troops.  Anyway, by now the South was too poor to loot much more.

Washington was still run by competing gangs of rent-seeking businessmen and greedy politicians enjoying centralized power – the true legacy of Political Reconstruction.  The Republicans were assured repeated victories at the polls until they ran out of Northern war-heroes (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley) to run.  With one exception: President Grover Cleveland, Democrat, who served from 1885-89 and 1893-97, and was an honest man.  Although he could not reverse the centralization of American government, he could refuse to increase it.  It has been said that if the Constitution had been a huge mediaeval castle destroyed to ground level, Cleveland rebuilt it to a five-foot retainer wall, on the original plans.

After Cleveland, the Republicans returned to power.  But the new Progressive Party which also had no interest in Constitutional rule, began taking votes from both major parties.  Naturally, both parties decided to co-opt it and adopt its platforms.  Although originally from the Midwest, the Progressives did institute segregation in the South attempting to enlist poor whites there, and urged contraception and abortion on African-Americans to “improve the National race.”

But the Republican Party regained domination of the North, and the Democrats the South.  It would be about a hundred years after Reconstruction before the former Confederate States voted Republican in a presidential election, and then only after the Democratic Party had turned even more Radical than the Republicans had been.  We show the long-lasting effects, State by State:  Virginia did not vote Republican for 100 years after 1870; Tennessee for 90 of 100 years after 1871; Georgia for 131 years after 1872; Arkansas for 93 years after 1874; Alabama for 113 years after 1874; Texas for 105 years after 1874; Mississippi for 116 years after 1876; North Carolina for 92 of 96 years after 1877; Florida for 102 of 110 years after 1877; Louisiana for 103 years after 1877; and South Carolina for 99 years after 1877.  The longest-lasting effect of Political Reconstruction was the damage to race relations, which are still strained because of the animosities and mistrust raised by it.  Other countries which had more extensive African-American slavery than America do not have these tensions.  And, of course, Political Reconstruction did permanent damage to the U.S. Constitution.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Lincoln had tentatively outlined a less destructive and vindictive Reconstruction policy than was adopted, and Andrew Johnson tried to carry out Lincoln’s policies, although he lacked Lincoln’s political standing and will.  How might American history have been different if Johnson had not been overruled?

Recommended Reading

  • The Story of Reconstruction by Robert Selph Henry, pub. 1938.
  • The South During Reconstruction, by E. Merton Coulter, pub. 1947.
  • North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848—1877 by Ludwell H. Johnson, pub. 1963.