1.3 Challenges of Reconstruction
- Identify how sharecropping was a compromise between the desire of former slaves to own farms and the desire of plantation owners to replicate the working conditions of slavery.
- Summarize the rise of the Republican Party in the South and the role of race in Southern politics. Identify the priorities of Republican leaders and the challenges they faced.
- Describe how national political scandals hurt the credibility of the Republicans and led to the division of the party. Explain how the rise of the Liberal Republicans demonstrated the way many Americans viewed Reconstruction in the early 1870s.
Confronting the Klan
Grant owed his election to the recently enfranchised black voters of the South, yet tens of thousands of African Americans were threatened with violence for voting or simply had their ballots discarded by white election officials. These acts of domestic terrorism led to Democratic victories in Georgia and Louisiana during the election of 1868. Despite the presence of Union troops, white-hooded riders of the Ku Klux KlanOriginally a social fraternity in Tennessee, the Klan soon became an organization whose leading purpose was to terrorize African Americans in an effort to keep them from exercising their civil and political rights such as voting. committed acts of violence against the families of black men who attempted to vote. What began as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee, quickly expanded into a terrorist network dedicated to the preservation of white supremacy through fraud, intimidation, and violence. Klansmen wore white masks, white cardboard hats, and white sheets as they pretended to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers. Klansmen rode throughout the South, torturing and killing African Americans and the few whites who were sympathetic to the challenges they faced.
The Klan’s top priority was to stop African Americans from voting. The presence of Union troops at the polls gave rise to a campaign of terror against black civilians rather than direct confrontation with soldiers. Placing a burning cross in front of a black home was a message that the Klan was watching. Those African Americans who were perceived as being too outspoken might be murdered in their beds or dragged from their homes and lynched, their limp bodies serving as an object lesson of what could happen to anyone who did not follow the Klan’s “advice.” Klan violence was also directed against African Americans who taught schools or established businesses, as both were signs of racial uplift that Klansmen found intolerable. In Georgia alone, dozens of African American men were killed by the Klan in 1868. Similar statistics are evident in states such as Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi.
Costumes such as these were worn by Klansmen to hide their identities as they committed crimes against African Americans throughout the South during Reconstruction. Congress passed laws against wearing masks such as these, but by the end of the decade, the army had left the South and whites had rewritten state constitutions in ways that practically eliminated black voting. As a result, Klansmen could commit acts of violence without disguises and with little fear of punishment from white sheriffs, judges, and all-white juries.
Despite the potential consequences, black communities held meetings to organize protests and call on the federal government to restore law and order. In 1870, President Grant and the Republicans in Congress responded by ordering an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. They also passed the Enforcement ActsA Series of laws passed by Congress in 1870 and 1871 aimed at stopping Klan violence by outlawing many of the methods the Klan used to hide their identity. The laws granted federal officials sweeping powers to arrest Klansmen and those suspected of violent acts., a series of laws passed in 1870 and 1871 that were aimed at enforcing the provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. These laws provided for criminal penalties against those who interfered with a citizen’s right to vote, banned the wearing of masks and other disguises, placed some elections under direct federal supervision, and authorized the president to suspend habeas corpus and place Klansmen in jail in response to violent crimes. A number of Klansmen were arrested, but few were placed on trial and even fewer were convicted. While some believe the Enforcement Acts were still successful because the Klan slowly disappeared from the scene until the organization’s resurgence in the 1920s, others argue that the goals of the Klan—preventing black suffrage and impeding black education and economic progress—were simply achieved by other methods.
Black leaders such as Martin Delany and Radical Republicans such as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens repeatedly called on Congress to confiscate land from rebel planters and divide it among former slaves and landless white families. Delany reminded Congress that their original bill creating the Freedman’s Bureau was authorized to divide abandoned lands in forty-acre plots among former slaves and poor whites. In the fall of 1865, Thaddeus Stevens responded to these ideas by proposing a bill that would have confiscated land belonging to the wealthiest 10 percent of Southerners. Stevens believed it was these aristocratic men who had led their section into rebellion and his plan called on the federal government to divide their lands into small plots that would be sold on credit to poor Southerners of all races. His proposal would have led 400 million acres changing hands—a radical departure from the concept of limited governmental powers. However, Stevens thought such a departure was necessary if the South and the millions of poor families throughout the region were to become economically stable. Opponents countered that such a massive attempt at land redistribution would lead to greater instability and perhaps even more violence and privation than had occurred during the last four years of war. The role of government was to preserve private property, they reminded Stevens’s few supporters, and countered that the region’s economy would be best served by a return to plantation agriculture. Small family farms would produce only subsistence crops, they continued, while a return to cotton production would restore the nation’s most valuable export and bring money back to the region.
Even Northern Republicans criticized Stevens’s plan. They pointed to the vast gulf between the rich and poor in his own state of Pennsylvania and asked whether the senator favored confiscating factories and distributing the property of his wealthy supporters to poor workers. While such scenarios conjured fears of Socialism, the basis of Stevens’s idea was less motivated by a desire to redistribute wealth than a belated application of justice. Stevens’s proposal was the culmination of ideas posed by dozens of conventions held by black leaders, many of whom were former slaves. The delegates to these meetings believed that they were entitled to the land because of their years in bondage. To a lesser degree, some poor whites also believed they were entitled to some form of reparation for years of limited opportunity in an antebellum political and economic system dominated by planters. Some Confederate veterans pointed out that they had defended chimerical vision of these planters, only to lose their meager property while the wealthy had their lands restored to them after the war.
Not even Thaddeus Stevens fully appreciated the meaning of land to former slaves. He agreed that a small plot of land was an economic asset that could lead to independence. For the emancipated slave, however, land was more than a commodity. Former slaves asked that they be granted title to the land they had lived and worked, land where their ancestors were buried, and land they could pass on to their children. Gaining title to these lands would provide more than just sustenance and stability. Reparation validated years of toil, completed the cycle of justice, sustained their links with the past, and endowed their children’s futures. Hundreds of petitions signed by thousands of former slaves were disregarded, however, as the federal government refused to halt the process of returning land held by the federal government back to its original owners. Few in Congress beyond a handful of Radicals protested this course of action.
The Freedman’s Bureau was directed to evict tens of thousands of former slaves who were collectively operating farms and plantations on land that had been seized by the government during the war. Merrimon Howard was among many who wrote letters of protest to military and civilian leaders, pointing out the hypocrisy of army officials who now turned its back on veterans in need. “We were friends on the march…brothers on the battlefield,” Howard wrote, “but in the peaceful pursuits of life, it seems that we are strangers.”
Despite tremendous hardships, thousands of former slaves were still able to acquire some amount of land and begin the transition from the collectivism of plantation labor to running individual family farms. Even for these fortunate few, landownership was tenuous and any combination of economic downturn, bad luck, or racial injustice could strip them of their property. While thousands lost their land over the next few decades, the vast majority of the 4 million former slaves never achieved their dream of landownership. Few Americans in 1865 possessed the cash reserves needed to start a farm, and this was especially true of former slaves. While many whites were able to get loans to purchase farmland and equipment, this opportunity was rarely extended to African Americans in any section of the country. Many whites who had lost everything during the Civil War were so poor that they were also denied credit. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of free land in the western plains, but even free land required money to build a home and farm. Between the return of land to wealthy planters and the denial of credit, the dream of landownership was deferred for both white and black Southerners.
This photo showing a family of sharecroppers in Alabama in 1939 reveals the poverty that many black and white Southern sharecroppers faced both during and well beyond Reconstruction.
Although their plight pales in comparison with the former slaves and poor whites of the South, many of the region’s plantation owners were also in a difficult position. The war had left many of them with little or no cash to pay laborers. Planters hoped to pay laborers with food and shelter rather than currency. They also hoped to restore the system of gang labor that had prevailed under slavery, with black field hands working under the supervision of white overseers. However, neither former slaves nor white laborers would agree to work under conditions that resembled slavery. Over time, a new system emerged that appeared to be a compromise between the desires of laborers and landowners. Under the sharecroppingAn agricultural system where tenant laborers live and work on land owned by a landlord. The laborers are paid by receiving a share of the crop they raise while the landowner receives the rest of the proceeds. system, laborers worked individual plots owned by planters in exchange for a share of the crop at harvest. Planters provided land, tools, seed, and shelter to the sharecropper on credit.
This system appeared to resolve the most critical issues for landowners—the resumption of agriculture, the control of land and labor, and the ability to postpone cash payments to laborers until after the harvest. Sharecropping promised to pair labor and capital to produce a crop that might stimulate the Southern economy. The system also promised a measure of independence to laborers. Although sharecropping did not provide the same level of independence as landownership, sharecroppers still possessed a degree of autonomy as tenants. At the very least, individual plots of land might feel like one’s own land just as a rented house might give a tenant the feeling of home. Unlike slaves, sharecroppers would not be forced to work under the direct supervision of an overseer, and their families would be secure. In addition, sharecroppers could usually maintain gardens and livestock even if the bulk of their crop would be planted according to the dictates of the landowner.
In practice, the system rarely afforded sharecroppers the independence they longed for. Because of widespread poverty, Southern banks only extended credit to those individuals who already owned land. Even these mortgage-backed loans to plantation owners carried high interest rates. Planters used the proceeds to finance planting costs and living expenses of the sharecroppers who lived and worked on their land. Sharecroppers established credit accounts (often in coordination with a local merchant) and promised to repay the costs of tools and seed, along with their rents and the money they owed for food and clothing purchases each year. In theory, the proceeds the sharecroppers earned for their portion of the crop would pay all of these expenses, with money left over that could be saved until they could purchase their own farms. The reality was that most sharecroppers, and some planters and merchants, found themselves in more and more debt each year.
In this picture, a black sharecropper is being auctioned off to planters, not as a slave, but as a debtor who was unable to pay his fine. Black sharecroppers were frequently arrested for minor crimes and then forced to work without pay for whoever paid their fines. Trials were usually conducted in such a way that any employer who accused a worker of theft would likely succeed in getting a conviction. As a result, there were many cases where sharecroppers were accused of crimes to avoid paying them or as a way to demonstrate the futility of opposing the planter’s will.
Sharecropping contracts usually granted between one-third and one-half of the proceeds from the annual crop to the laborer. From this amount all of the sharecroppers expenses for the season were deducted, with any remaining money being due the sharecropper. Historians have found that many planters and merchants openly robbed the sharecroppers by not paying them their fair share, falsifying the books, or practicing other forms of creative accounting. At the same time, they have also found that many planters and merchants were also in a precarious situation themselves. Due to the scarcity of capital, high interest rates, and declining price of cotton, even honest planters resorted to charging their tenants inflated prices and very high interest rates. When the harvest passed and it came time to settle the account, sharecroppers, especially if they were black, were not permitted to argue with the landowners and merchants. If the family was unable to settle their account, the planter could either extend additional credit or have the sharecropper placed in jail. As the years went by, even the most frugal and industrious sharecroppers fell deeper and deeper in debt. For thousands of former slaves, sharecropping led to the separation of families as black sharecroppers were frequently arrested and forced to work under overseers without pay until their “debt” had been paid in full.
This system of debt peonageA system where laborers are bound to make payments in the form of labor until their obligations are met. The word peon refers to a person who has little control over the conditions of their employment. granted the planters power over their laborers in ways reminiscent of slavery. Planter-dominated assemblies passed laws that made abandonment of one’s contract a felony, while eviction of laborers remained the prerogative of landowners. Counties and states also contracted with prison farms where inmates encountered forced labor and corporal punishment for petty crimes they often did not commit. African Americans were especially targeted by Southern courts and were disproportionately sentenced to long prison terms to pay off their “indebtedness.”
Whites were usually immune from the most obvious miscarriages of justice. However, the desperation of the sharecropping system led many to commit actual crimes, which also led to a large incarcerated population. One of the leading reasons for the increase in convictions for crimes such as “vagrancy” that were usually unenforced in the past was the creation of the convict lease system. For-profit mines, farms, and factories paid cash-strapped Southern governments for each prisoner that was leased to them as unpaid laborers. The convict lease system quickly became a leading source of funds for state governments and saved the government the expense of operating prisons. These for-profit operations were supposed to be regulated by the state, but in practice, inmates were routinely abused and forced to work under dangerous and inhumane conditions. In addition, because the state profited each time an individual was convicted and leased to a privately owned factory or farm, many historians have argued that applying the term criminal justice system to the Southern law enforcement at this time is a misnomer. The phrase presumes the guilt of the individuals implies that justice was systematically distributed despite clear indications of racial bias and a predisposition to convict the impoverished.
Schools and Business Promotion
Republicans hoped to create a strong political party in the South that would help them to maintain control of Congress. This hope would prove a challenge, however, as the Republican Party simply did not exist in most parts of the South. Blacks might be counted on to vote for Republican candidates, but if the Republicans were going to become a sustainable political organization they would need support from whites as well. One likely group that might support the party was the small number of Southerners who had maintained loyalty to the Union. These individuals, labeled by their detractors as turncoats and scalawagsA derisive term used by white Southerners to describe other white Southerners who supported congressional Reconstruction or the Republican Party. The term implies one who is a traitor to their own people., were usually small farmers who had long been hostile to the planter elites who dominated the region during the antebellum period.
A small number of Northerners had migrated to the South following the war in hopes of starting businesses that could take advantage of the region’s natural resources and low wages. Native white Southerners labeled these individuals as carpetbaggersA derisive term used by white Southerners to label Northerners whom they believed came to the South during Reconstruction with the intent to profit from their region’s misfortune., alluding to the belief that these unscrupulous profiteers arrived only with traveling luggage made from scraps of carpet. While such bags were durable, the derisive term connoted a person who intended to use the South to make a quick profit before returning to his Yankee homeland. Ironically, this stereotype started to backfire as the South became increasingly desperate for any kind of investment. As a result, the insult evolved over time to connote a failed businessman whose poverty was represented by the single carpetbag that carried everything he owned. This brand of Yankee offered nothing to invest, native white Southerners warned, and might even become a public burden or resort to crime.
In actuality, most scalawags maintained a deep commitment to the South that inspired them to stay in the region throughout the war when most Union men migrated north. Likewise, most carpetbaggers were educated women who came to the South as teachers or men with both talent and modest capital to invest. However, some Northerners who came to the region had also been Union soldiers or government agents of the Freedman’s Bureau. Although these men were usually motivated by a desire to settle in a region they had come to admire while in the service of the federal government, the notion of former Yankee troops and bureau agents swarming into the region did little to repair the image of the carpetbagger among Southern whites. Suspicion frequently turned to outright hostility when some Northerners became leaders of local Republican Party factions whose electoral strength was based largely on the votes of former slaves. The carpetbaggers and scalawags often advocated reform measures that might have benefitted many Southerners such as publicly funded schools, debt relief, and measures to encourage industrial development. In the end, these policies mattered less than the image the Democrats cultivated of their opponents. The Republicans were the “Party of Lincoln,” Southern Democrats reminded all who would listen. Even worse, they continued, the Republicans of the South were an amalgamation of Yankee carpetbaggers, former slaves, local black leaders, Radicals, and scalawags.
African Americans organized local, state, and national conventions throughout Reconstruction to discuss issues and elect leaders. This picture depicts the 1869 National Colored Convention in Washington, DC.
Between 1867 and the early 1870s in the South, and even as late as the early 1880s in a few Border States, the Republican Party was able to appeal to enough white voters with a platform promising economic opportunity and education. Republicans dominated every one of the Southern constitutional conventions in the late 1860s. Their revisions led to constitutions that outlawed imprisonment for debt, removed property qualifications for voters and jury members, established publicly funded schools, universities, orphanages, and hospitals, and offered legal guarantees of civil rights regardless of race. State and local governments also revised their tax laws to ease the burden on small landowners while raising taxes on those who owned large plantations. Each of these measures was unpopular with landowners and a break with the Southern tradition of limited government and low taxes for landowners. Nevertheless, the greatest controversy erupted when Republicans used tax revenue and government lands in an attempt to rebuild and expand their infrastructure and provide incentives for businesses development.
Opponents bristled at the imposition of new taxes on large landowners, especially when some former planters were unable to pay and the government seized their land and sold it in small plots at public auction. While these kinds of sales were rarely imposed on the wealthy, rising taxes and unprecedented government spending on public schools were viewed with hostility among the elite. Other Southern whites believed that Reconstruction governments were not content to provide mere legal equality for former slaves. These racial conservatives feared that the real purpose of black conventions was to conspire to take control of the government and grant special privileges for African Americans. After all, they argued, equal rights had already been guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. By this perspective, any new federal or state law specifically aimed at guaranteeing civil rights demonstrated was really intended to grant special privileges for African Americans at the expense of whites. The fear of “social equality”—a phrase that referred to any form of racial integration and often alluded to the possibility of interracial sex—drove white Southerners to oppose any civil rights legislation and fear any challenge to the antebellum racial order.
Economic growth was the best hope for Southern Republican governments as they faced a crisis of legitimacy fueled by racism. Republicans believed that investing in infrastructure and business development plans were key to this kind of growth. They devoted considerable time promoting railroad development, offering rail companies large grants of public land while also partially subsidizing various commercial development schemes. Many of these measures proved effective, but they also placed some Southern governments further into debt. Between 1867 and 1872, the entire Southern rail network was repaired and doubled in size, levees were repaired, and ports and shipyards were modernized. Each of these projects invited opportunities for graft, and critics argued that the new Southern legislatures resembled their Northern cousins when it came to widespread corruption in government. Despite the improvements, Republican dreams of recreating Northern economic success were only partially realized. The Republicans of the South had promised economic development in return for higher taxes, but a global depression that began in 1873 limited their likelihood of success.
The timing could not be worse for Southern Republicans. The depression coincided with a series of national scandals involving Republican leaders in Washington and a division among national leaders that nearly split the Republican Party in two. The depression also accompanied the rise of violence against Southern blacks, most clearly evidenced by the 1873 Colfax MassacreAn attack on the local and county government located in Colfax, Louisiana, in April of 1873 by white paramilitary organizations who sought to eliminate the Republican Party in their community. Three whites and an estimated 150 blacks were killed. in Louisiana. Following a contentious election, vigilantes who were part of the White League—an organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan—decided that they could not accept the Republican victory. These men of the White League armed themselves and attacked black state officials on Easter Sunday. Black men who were members of the state militia attempted to preserve order but were soon overwhelmed and surrendered. The mob later massacred many of their prisoners and murdered a number of black civilians to intimidate the survivors. Federal marshals arrived in time to bury some of the dead but did little to challenge the violent counterrevolution that had just occurred in the town of Colfax.
Historians know that three white men had been killed in the gunfight, and estimate that 150 black soldiers and civilians were killed by the mob. Three years later, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the indictments of three of the leaders of the mob in United States v. Cruikshank. In an infamous decision, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment only gave the federal government jurisdiction over cases where state governments violated the rights of citizens. Because the mob and paramilitary organizations such as the White League were private citizens, the Court declared, the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply. Ironically, the Fourteenth Amendment had been passed in reaction to similar acts of violence and the refusal of state authorities to prosecute men such as the three mob leaders whose indictments had just been overturned by the Supreme Court.
History and Memory
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colfax_Riot_sign_IMG_2401.JPG. Photo: Billy Hathorn (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
The total number of victims in the Colfax Massacre was impossible to determine because a number of bodies had been dumped in a nearby river while others were buried in unmarked graves. Bones of victims have routinely surfaced during various construction projects throughout the city over the past century. The site where sixty of the men had been buried was later disturbed by oil prospectors. In addition to disturbing the grave, the drilling released a stream of natural gas that took the same path as a bubbling spring. A fountain was erected on the site and the gas was lighted, creating a flame that burned above the fountain and attracted curious spectators until 1951 when the eternal flame suddenly stopped burning. According to local residents, the flame was extinguished at the same moment a historical marker was placed near the site of the mass grave. Sanitizing the violence that had taken place, the monument referred to the massacre as the “Colfax Riot” and celebrated that fateful Easter day as “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
Corruption and Division among the Republicans
The federal government engaged in unprecedented spending during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and this created unprecedented opportunities for political leaders to accept bribes, profit from insider information, or simply embezzle funds from the public treasury. The most infamous episode of fraud occurred when the directors of the Union Pacific Railroad set up a fake construction company called Credit MobilierA fake construction company created by Union Pacific executives to funnel money from government contracts to their own accounts. The company allegedly contracted with Union Pacific to build railroad track. However, the company was actually a fraud and was using the money to purchase Union Pacific stock. in 1867. The government contracted with Union Pacific to build the Transcontinental Railroad, which turned around and subcontracted some of the track building work to Credit Mobilier. Instead of building track, the directors of Credit Mobilier embezzled the money. The scheme might have been less transparent had the directors of Credit Mobilier hid the money instead of bribing congressmen or buying Union Pacific stock.
Similar arrangements led to the disappearance of large sums on the California side of the Transcontinental Railroad that was being built by the Central Pacific Railroad. The Central Pacific was controlled by Collis P. Huntington and a number of other wealthy and influential men. Although they were suspected of fraud, any documentation of that might have proven their culpability was destroyed in a fire. The Credit Mobilier scandal was exposed in 1872, but even with a wealth of incriminating evidence the offenders still escaped prosecution when a second series of bribes derailed the investigation. The public was indignant as reports indicating that $20 million in public money had disappeared. They were also shocked to find that the scandal reached all the way to the vice president. They were positively enraged to find that he and the many congressmen who had received thousands of dollars in cash and Union Pacific stock in exchange for their complicity in the scheme also escaped prosecution.
This photo depicts the ceremony marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Work crews that were building the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met in Utah Territory and commemorated the occasion by driving a golden rail spike. Nearby Ogden, Utah, became the effective terminus for these two rail lines and continues to be an important transportation hub.
While most of the congressmen accused of fraud were Republicans, members of the Democratic Party were no less corrupt. The Democratic Party lacked the national influence of its rivals. As a result, the malfeasance of its members was limited to the states and cities they controlled. Most corruption scandals at this level failed to generate the national headlines of Credit Mobilier, yet the majority of government spending in the 1870s occurred at the state and local level. State and especially city officials awarded contracts for railroads, schools, public buildings, sanitation systems, roads, bridges, and other projects. These same officials often owned stock or were board members of the companies that bid on these projects, creating daily opportunities to use their public authority for personal gain. Other politicians accepted gifts from business leaders with the understanding that they would support a measure that would benefit the donor. Adding to the outright fraud waged by individuals in government was the rise of local political organizations that used their power to reward their supporters. These local political parties were known as political machinesA political organization whose leaders dictate the actions of its members, many of whom are elected officials. The machine helps a candidate win election in exchange for that candidate agreeing to use their office to enrich the machine. For example, a machine politician might give a construction company a contract to build a bridge for the city. That company would be expected to “kick back” some of their profits back to the political organization, which could later be used to fund the candidate’s campaign.. The name refers to the machinelike efficiency of the organizations that granted lucrative government contracts to companies that contributed to their party while distributing gifts and government jobs to voters who supported their slate of candidates at the polls.
The most infamous example of a political machine was the political club known as Tammany HallA Democratic political organization in New York City that became a political machine known for corruption under the leadership of “Boss” William Tweed during the 1860s and early 1870s. of New York City. Politicians who were members of the Tammany organization awarded millions of dollars in government contracts to companies that agreed to “kick back” some of that revenue to the Democratic Party. This money was then distributed by local party leaders to their constituents, who were made to understand that they were being rewarded for voting the Democratic ticket. Some of the supporters of Tammany Hall and similar political machines in cities across the United States were non-Protestant immigrants from Ireland or Southern and Central Europe. Each of these ethnic groups experienced heavy persecution in nineteenth-century America. Just as Southern whites associated government corruption in their region with black supporters of the Republican Party, the anger of Northern voters was amplified by those who painted a picture of tax dollars being distributed to “the lowest orders of Popish trash.” Opponents claimed that these immigrant voters were dangerously “un-American.” Catholic immigrants were accused of being loyal only to the Pope.
An example of the malicious anti-Irish caricatures of the era. The caption on this cartoon read “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things” and depicts an animalistic, intoxicated, and violent creature threatening harm unless his every whim is carried out. Such imagery was used to arouse existing anti-Irish prejudice against political machines, as well as local politicians who responded to immigrant concerns and represented immigrant communities.
Calls for reform were not simply the product of racial and ethnic prejudices, even if some of the loudest voices were heavily influenced by bigotry. For many, reform was a moral creed and the reasonable demand of taxpayers who expected efficient and honest government. Businesses that refused to give bribes or simply ended up on the wrong side of a patronage battle, wealthy and middle-class families who wanted lower taxes and greater accountability, and the poor who believed that the real beneficiaries of graft were still the affluent and corrupt all united in a chorus of voices that demanded political reform. A group of Republicans who viewed themselves as the “new abolitionists” sought to respond to these demands. Referring to their faction as Liberal RepublicansA short-lived political party formed by Republicans who opposed Ulysses S. Grant and supported a platform calling for an end to Reconstruction and an end to political corruption., these men campaigned on a platform pledging emancipation from corruption. They advocated political reform, limited government, and a return to traditional economic policies such as the gold standard and the elimination of barriers to free trade. While they rarely spoke openly about the South, calls for a reduction in government power and spending implied that they also supported a retreat from Reconstruction.
The Liberal Republicans met in Cincinnati, a leading city along the Ohio-Kentucky border that was also symbolic of the new party’s desire to unite Northerners with Moderate Democrats who represented the Border States. This new political party was led by a number of former Republicans like Carl SchurzAn immigrant who settled in Wisconsin and served as an officer in the Civil War, Carl Schurz would become an influential senator from Missouri during Reconstruction. Disillusioned with what he believed was an abandonment of the principles of limited government, he broke with the Republican Party in 1872 and became a leader of a short-lived faction known as the Liberal Republicans.—a longtime supporter of abolition and the Republican Party. However, Schurz now believed that the government had done all it could for former slaves and should recall its soldiers, readmit all remaining Southern states, and end Reconstruction. Schurz represented several groups the new party hoped to unite—immigrants, Moderates, political reformers, and residents of the Border States. Schurz was the first German-born person elected to the Senate, a leading Moderate Republican who had supported Reconstruction but was growing weary of the challenges it entailed, a staunch opponent of political corruption, and a resident of Missouri—the crossroads of the North, South, and West. Schurz and his Liberal Republicans promoted a platform that spoke to the frustrations of many Americans. They called for a complete end to federal intervention in the South, the abolition of land grants to railroads, lower taxes, and civil service reform.
The Election of 1872
The Liberal Republicans had a clear message of what they opposed, but soon divided among themselves over the issues they supported. While the party spoke of civil-service reform and lower taxes, the delegates divided on how best to reduce corruption and govern more efficiently with less revenue. They also disagreed sharply on who should be their presidential candidate. In a compromise that pleased few of their members, the Liberal Republicans elected New York Tribune editor Horace GreeleyA founder and editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley would become the presidential nominee of the Liberal Republicans in 1872.. Greeley had been one of the most vocal critics of slavery. As the editor of one of the nation’s leading newspapers, he had publicly criticized Lincoln for his unwillingness to push beyond the boundaries of public opinion regarding the issue of slavery. However, as the leader of the Liberal Republicans in 1872, Greeley evidenced a similar caution on matters of race and public opinion. Candidate Greeley claimed that there was simply nothing more the government could do to ensure the freedom of former slaves who must now “root, hog, or die.” While this nineteenth-century phrase still connotes the need to defend one’s own self, death was a real possibility for Southern blacks who followed this advice by confronting the Klan and other vigilante groups. If the small number of federal troops still stationed in the unreconstructed South left the region, death was almost certain for any black man or woman who stood in defense of their rights.
An even greater irony occurred when the Democratic Party endorsed Greeley as its candidate and adopted the Liberal Republican platform as its own. Greeley had made a name for himself by attacking the Democrats in the most discourteous fashion permissible in the “polite” nineteenth-century print media. Democratic leaders met and chose to endorse their old nemesis because they recognized that fusion with the Liberal Republicans provided their best opportunity to defeat the regular Republican Party and end Reconstruction. These two strange political bedfellows struggled to resolve their differences. The Democrats and Liberal Republicans also failed to divide the regular Republican Party, who rallied behind Grant and won the election of 1872 in a landslide.
Horace Greeley was the leader of the Liberal Republicans and the founder of the New York Tribune, perhaps the most influential newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century.
Many Southern voters feared that the lower taxes the Liberal Republicans supported would reduce funding for public schools. Black voters recognized that any party that was aligned with the Democrats was unlikely to represent their interests. Some of the delegates to the Liberal Republican convention agreed with this assessment of fusion and spoke of their partnership with the Democrats as if it were a deal with the Confederacy itself. Greeley won only six states and died prior to the meeting of the Electoral College. Although his death had little impact on the outcome of the election, it left presidential electors who had pledged to support the late editor in a quandary. Greeley’s delegates voted for several different men, including the late Greeley. More important than this interesting historical side note, the election of 1872 demonstrated that Northerners were growing resentful of the time and money the federal government was devoting to Reconstruction.
Review and Critical Thinking
- What was the intent of white Southerners who participated in groups such as the Ku Klux Klan? How did the federal government respond to the threat the Klan posed to former slaves and to their plan for Reconstruction?
- How did slavery compare with sharecropping? How did sharecropping emerge? What system of labor did most landowners desire, and what were the wishes of white and black agricultural workers?
- Who were the scalawags and the carpetbaggers? Why would many white Southerners use these derisive names to label these individuals, and what role did these individuals play in Reconstruction-era politics?
- What were the legislative priorities for Southern Republicans once they took control of their states? What were the challenges they faced?
- How did a political machine like Tammany Hall operate? Why might residents of a city support a political machine? Who would be the most likely to oppose a political machine?
- Why did many Republicans join the Liberal Republicans? What were the key issues of this party, and did it succeed in pushing this agenda forward? Why or why not?