Colonials in the service of Northern capital
I am in the third generation from Georgia planters who, during the years of so-called “Reconstruction,” lost all of their lands by fraud or because of the inability to pay harsh and exorbitant taxes and thus became tenant farmers or sharecroppers. The following excerpt from a reasonably unbiased historian briefly summarizes that period.
–Ken Bachand, Hendersonville, NC
Colonials in the service of Northern capital
When the constitutional conventions ordained by the Reconstruction Acts were chosen late in 1867 or early in 1868, Republicans controlled them all. There were black delegates in all of them, although they were in a majority only in South Carolina. Some of the blacks were illiterate and incompetent, a fact that hostile white conservatives exaggerated and publicized widely. The conventions were sometimes marked by extravagance, if not fraud, and on occasion their proceedings were grotesquely inappropriate. Yet they produced constitutions that from the standpoint of the late twentieth century were distinctly better than the ones they replaced. Manhood suffrage was the rule, discrimination against the backcountry in legislative apportionment was eliminated, penal codes were revised to make them less Draconian, and the legal status of women was improved. Provision was made for insane asylums, homes for the poor, and other services that, so far as the black population was concerned, had previously been the responsibility of the slave owner. Most importantly, public education was established; except for a brief time in parts of Louisiana, the schools were racially segregated. Most of the constitutions were silent on the subject of social equality between the races, and only a few imposed political disqualifications on ex-Confederates beyond those stipulated by the Fourteenth Amendment. There were clauses intended to facilitate the formation of corporations and encourage industrialization. Seven of the new constitutions were approved by the voters in 1868 and the other three in 1870; state and Federal officers were elected at the same time, and congressional Reconstruction was at last under way.
For a long time Southern folklore pictured the period of carpetbag rule as the darkest chapter in the section’s history, even worse, said some, than the war itself. And historians, also for a long time, tended to agree. Southern resentment sprang primarily from the seizure of power by Northerners with the help of their black allies and a minority, sometimes substantial, of native whites. In the estimation of Southern whites, nothing that these Republican organizations could have done would have been sufficient to overcome their tainted origins or the "crime" of Negro suffrage and officeholding, and so they were characterized as the worst of all possible governments. Since about 1950, modern scholars, often writing under the influence of the civil rights movement, have tended toward the opposite extreme, praising the carpetbag regimes as forward-looking, constructive, and democratic. The truth probably lies somewhere between.
Some traditional stereotypes are easily shown to be false. Radical Reconstruction was not the eternity it seemed to Southern memories; the average tenure of the Republican carpetbag regimes was about five years. Nor was any state ever controlled by blacks, who did not even hold office in proportion to their numbers. The Negroes’ prime political function was to provide votes to put their white leaders in office. From 1868 to 1870 two blacks served in the U.S. Senate and a dozen others in the House. Several became lieutenant governors, and substantial numbers served in the state legislatures and in other positions at the state and county level. They were not a picturesque pack of peanut-crunching barbarians making a mockery of civil government, although there were enough misfits to give verisimilitude to that caricature. The majority worked earnestly and soberly despite their inexperience and the handicaps of defective education, and some were men of education and respectable attainments. It is worth noting that during this period and for many years to come, in the North black legislators and officeholders were conspicuous by their absence.
Negro voters overwhelmingly supported the Republicans, of course. Most were unable to read; many had no understanding of the political process and cast their votes for they knew not whom. They were often cynically manipulated by their white leaders, being registered, organized, and encouraged, not to say ordered, to vote by the Loyal Leagues, some military commanders, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, which "as a whole became a Republican agent." Supposedly a relief and educational institution, the Bureau "materially assisted no more than 0.5 per cent of the four million ex-slaves." A more obvious economic function of the Bureau was helping planters keep the blacks at work in the fields. Nor did it preempt the field of black education. Before the advent of public education, blacks themselves built and supported many scools under very difficult circumstances, often with little or no help from the Bureau. Although some native whites sympathized with the blacks’ efforts, others did not, and sometimes the whites burnt schoolhouses and attacked teachers. They especially resented teachers from the North, who were inclined to mingle political indoctrination with the ABCs.
State militias became another important vehicle of political action. Under the Johnson governments the militias had fallen into the hands of conservative whites, many of them ex-Confederate soldiers, and so they were abolished by Congress in 1867. They were, however, reestablished under the carpetbag governments. Then the membership became heavily black, and the militia’s main functions were to overawe hostile whites, who found that the shoe was now on the other foot, to promote the Republican cause at elections, sometimes by heckling the opposition and intimidating voters, and to enforce martial law. Both the white militia of 18651866 and the carpetbag militia were accused of committing acts of lawlessness and violence, including murder; probably both were guilty, although the truth is difficult to ascertain.
The picture of the black masses roaming aimlessly across the South and refusing to work is a considerable exaggeration. A great many did move about, primarily to test the fact of freedom, but usually they did not move far and often returned to their old neighborhoods. They were reluctant to work for their former masters, and Negro husbands were unwilling to have their wives and children work in the fields as they had done under slavery. They were likewise unwilling to work under yearly contracts, which the whites preferred as giving them greater control over their laborers than did the wage system. Dislike for contracts and a shortage of capital led to sharecropping: renting land in exchange for a part of the crop. Many blacks became sharecroppers. They were soon followed by a great many whites. Within 15 years of Lee’s surrender, the best Southern land was owned by Northern investors or by resident merchants, themselves dependent on Northern banks for credit. The agricultural population, whites as well as blacks, rapidly slipped into sharecropping or tenancy. Not only were the freedmen denied the land promised them, but many independent white farmers lost their land, and the whole section sank into an era of grinding and unrelieved poverty without parallel in the nation’s history.
In summary, legend notwithstanding, blacks neither ruled, robbed, ravaged, nor ruined the South during Reconstruction. Except for a small fraction, they received few political plums and little graft from the Carpetbag regimes, and after the latter were gone, they shared — and more than shared — the destitution and hopelessness that was the lot of most Southerners in the late nineteenth century. Blacks like whites had become colonials in the service of Northern capital, and they discovered how little legal freedom could mean when accompanied by economic bondage.
Aside from the unforgiveable sin of being controlled by an unholy alliance of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and blacks, Republican governments were most often criticized for imposing crushing taxes on the mass of whites so as to raise money for graft and extravagances. There is no doubt that taxes went up sharply; the sum of state and local taxes doubled between 1860 and 1870, although property values had declined substantially during the same decade. Already impoverished by war, drought, and debts, many landowners lost their property when they could not pay the taxes. At one time about 20 percent of the land in Mississippi was up for sale because of tax defaults. Arguments about the need for higher taxes to repair war damage, finance public education, and provide other social services were naturally not convincing to people already faced with penury and embittered by undoubted instances of dishonesty and waste. Many examples of the latter could be given. The cost of public printing in Florida in 1869 exceeded the entire cost of state government in 1860 and the total cost of printing from 1789 to 1868. The cost of a legislative session in Louisiana before the war was about $100,000; under the Republicans it rose to about $1 million, much of which went for members’ salaries and "travel expenses." Lousiana’s printing bill, a favorite cover for theft, rose from $50,000 to $500,000. And so the story goes.
Far more important than simple graft was the granting of special privileges to corporate interests in exchange for bribes. The principal beneficiaries were railroads, and some of the major political battles of Reconstruction were rooted in railroad rivalries. Conservatives might play "Dixie" and appeal to white supremacy, and Republicans might talk of rebel atrocities and warn blacks of the danger of reenslavement, when the real question was quite different. In Alabama, for instance, the struggle was between railroads financed by August Belmont and other Democratic capitalists from New York, and those backed by Republican investors from Philadelphia led by Jay Cooke and Company. The latter’s bankruptcy in 1873 was followed by Republican defeat in Alabama. Similar contests occurred in other states.
Modern scholars acknowledge the existence of corruption in the carpetbag governments, but point out that the culprits were conservative whites as well as Republicans, and that when the former replaced the latter in control of state governments, dishonesty continued. They also object to singling out the carpetbag regimes for opprobrium when corruption had become a nationwide phenomenon, exemplified at the national level by the scandals of Grant’s presidency. While all this is undoubtedly true, it would appear to be more to the purpose to discover why the corruption of American politics became so much worse after the victory of the Republican party at the polls and of the North in the Civil War. The seeming paradox of crooked idealists and a corrupt crusade encountered during the war is also present during Reconstruction. It may be, as Kenneth Stampp wrote in his history of Reconstruction, that "we are here confronted with a group which pursued objectives that were morally good
(NORTH AGAINST SOUTH: THE AMERICAN ILLIAD, Ludwell H. Johnson, Published in the United States by The Foundation for American Education, Columbia, SC, pp. 245–250)