By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
For many decades, the image of Republican rule in the South was that an illiterate, African American majority and their carpetbagger and scalawag allies absolutely held under their heel the vast majority of white southerners (ex-Confederates). Ignorance, corruption, and waste—according to this view—were rampant, making a travesty of the idea of representative government.
Views on Reconstruction
In the early 1870s, a northern journalist visited South Carolina’s legislature and wrote a classic condemnation of what Republican rule in the South meant, on the ground:
This observer said, “The Speaker is black. The clerk is black. The doorkeepers are black. The little pages are black. The Chairman of Ways and Means is black. The chaplain is black. It is barbarism overwhelming civilization by the rude form of the most ignorant democracy the world ever saw.”
That was an image that remained for decades, of what went on in these state governments. It’s tied to the images of the ‘lost cause’ school of interpretation about what the war was about. It placed the white South, the former Confederates, in the best possible light. Two very powerful vehicles for the transmission of this view of Reconstruction were two of the most influential movies of all time: Birth of a Nation, which came out in 1915, and Gone with the Wind, which came out in 1939. Both of them had images directly tied to this view of Reconstruction.
These two films, really more than anything in the 20th century that any historian has written, have helped to perpetuate this very negative view of radical Reconstruction.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
African Americans in State Offices
However, the truth was not even close to this array of stereotypes that have been put forth. African Americans across the South held no more than 10–15 percent of the state offices, even at the height of Reconstruction.
They elected just 16 members of Congress; 14 to the House and two to the Senate. Four of those men sent to Congress had attended college, which of course was not true for many of the white members. No black man was ever nominated, much less elected governor of any former Confederate state, and only in South Carolina did black men hold anything like the number of offices that their voting strength would indicate that they should hold.
In South Carolina, they held about half the state and federal offices during the years between 1868 and 1877. Nowhere else did they approach that percentage. African Americans made up about 80 percent of the Republican Party in the South, but the white 20 percent dominated it at almost every level.
Carpetbaggers and Scalawags
‘Carpetbagger’ and ‘scalawag’ are two very loaded words in the American political vocabulary, and for many years, were considered very negative words. That has changed over the last few decades, but not completely.
Carpetbaggers were northerners who went South after the war and functioned as Republicans. Many were former army officers. Others had served with the Freedmen’s Bureau and decided to stay in the South and become Republicans. They were, to quote a Democrat who loathed them in the South, “The carpetbaggers were gangs of itinerant adventurers, vagrant interlopers, too depraved, dissolute, dishonest, and degraded to get the lowest places in the northern states they had just left.”
Scalawags were native white southerners who supported the Republican Party, many of them old Unionists, and provoked even more vitriolic responses from the mass of white southerners. Here were residents of the South who never should have allied themselves with black people, argued ex-Confederates, and the majority of white southerners.
Alliance with Black People
The core of this extreme reaction to the white Republicans in the South was, of course, their alliance with black people. This brought forth excessively racist responses to them. As groups, the carpetbaggers and scalawags were neither more nor less honest than politicians as a whole during the era of Reconstruction. Carpetbaggers were, on average, a bit better educated than their Democratic counterparts in southern politics.
These carpetbaggers and scalawags saw a future for the South of industry, education, and progress, just like the vision that the Republican Party, as a whole, had for many years been putting forth for the United States as a whole, from the inception of the party in the mid-1850s. The Republican Party in the South, however, was inherently weak because it had no traditional strength among the mass of white southerners, and because it threw together disparate groups; black and white voters who had no history of operating together politically, and yoking people in the North and South together, who had worked together well for many, many years.
Failures in South
It was trying to pull together elements that were difficult to pull together, and the Republican Party didn’t quite take root in the South. Over time, it became almost impossible for white southerners to remain Republican. They were seen as turncoats. They were shunned by their neighbors. They were ostracized, and that’s very hard to sustain in the long term.
Tensions within the Republican Party between northerners and southerners, and between blacks and whites, together with the extreme hostility toward the Republicans among white southerners, and pressure, caused the party to fracture in various elections. Between 1869 and 1874, seven states were ‘redeemed’, that is, they were returned to white Democratic rule by 1874: Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas.
Common Questions about Republican Reconstruction in the South
The two movies were Birth of a Nation, which came out in 1915, and Gone with the Wind, which came out in 1939.
Carpetbaggers were northerners who went South after the war and functioned as Republicans. Many were former army officers. Others had served with the Freedmen’s Bureau and decided to stay in the South and become Republicans.
The Republican Party in the South was inherently weak because it had no traditional strength among the mass of white southerners, and because it threw together disparate groups; for example, black and white voters who had no history of operating together politically. It was trying to pull together elements that were difficult to pull together.