The old bromide that politics makes strange bedfellows was never truer than during Reconstruction, from 1865-1877, a period of profound political chaos. Coalitions unexpectedly broke apart and unexpected coalitions formed. And never did America experience a presidential election that was more strange than the presidential election of 1872. The deep cause of this chaos was that the entire American political regime was undergoing change.
The Civil War, 1861-1865, was an inter-regime war, and the final act of a long dramatic political conflict between the principled republicanism of the American Founders and the principled, revolutionary oligarchy of antebellum southern statesmen. In its aftermath, the American government attempted the most difficult task in human affairs, regime change. They aimed at politically destroying southern oligarchy and to re-establish republicanism on the restored principles of the Declaration of Independence.
The American Founders inherited slavery and aristocracy, but sought to re-shape their new nation into a republic in which slavery would be eliminated and all would be equal citizens, according to their natural rights principles. They knew that the political effect of the master-slave dyad was to degenerate republicanism and raise up a ruling oligarchy, or the rule of the few who ruled for their own advantage. Thus, the American Founders say that not only was slavery wrong but it threatened the survival of their grand project, the firm establishment of republicanism.
Despite the hostility of most American Founders for slavery, it escaped their ban and grew. The sons and grandsons of the southern founders abandoned the republicanism of their fathers and grandfathers, aggressively advanced slavery and minority rule, and distorted the Constitution to create doctrines that supported both. These doctrines were part of the project of John C. Calhoun, whose formidable intellect served the oligarchic cause.
Under the control of this inter-state ruling class, government in the South became increasingly tyrannical from 1820 forward. Whites did not rule over blacks in the South; some whites (slaveholders) ruled over both the majority of whites and all blacks. Civil liberties were restricted. Common school education was suppressed. Freedom of conscience was legally proscribed. Legislation taxed all, but funded projects that served the further enrichment of the oligarchic class.
Opponents of slavery in the late antebellum period were not all northerners inspired by the Bible and the Declaration. Many were also poor whites from the South and their descendants who found refuge in the West. They understood that slavery was the cause of their oppression, and for many who had found refuge in westward lands, they did not want slavery, from which they fled, to follow them. To demonstrate the depth of poor white antipathy for the slavery-supported southern oligarchy, we might only need to point to the fact that during the Civil War, Union regiments composed of whites were drawn from ten of the eleven states that had seceded and formed the Confederacy. A Union recruiting office was set up in northern Alabama. Confederate home guards visited bloody reprisals on unionist, poor white districts of their own states.
Republicans in Congress had hoped that these poor whites would politically unite with the emancipated slaves, crush southern oligarchy and, supported by the national government, re-establish republican government in the South. President Andrew Johnson, from Tennessee, was drawn from this class of poor whites. His selection to join Lincoln on the presidential ticket in the re-election campaign of 1864 reflected these hopes. Before the war, none was more vituperative at attacking the ruling class of the South and its basis, slavery, than Senator Andrew Johnson. But as president, he was a sore disappointment, and his conduct mirrored the conduct of the poor whites.
Johnson fought every congressional measure to raise up the emancipated to equal citizenship and to succor the slaves. Rather than join with the emancipated in a political coalition, poor whites mercilessly attacked them in a campaign of violence that has no parallel in American history. Here is why:
Many poor whites hated both masters and slaves. Both masters and slaves were essential parts of the system that caused the oppression of poor whites. Since time immemorial poor whites could see that the master class, who expected submission, selected a specific class of people, marked by distinguishing heritable attributes, to be their slaves. They did not enslave whites, but blacks. The leap of logic, however false, that blacks were inferior seemed superficially obvious to infer by poor whites who lacked formal education. They could see the demeaning consequences of slavery on a human being in front of their eyes, and misattribute that demeaned condition to a lower nature. Therefore, opposition to black equality was a superficially obvious moral conclusion to draw, enforced by popular and intelligent agreement.
For their part, poor whites painfully felt the denial of their American birthright for a long time. After their masters lost the Civil War, they asserted their claim to reclaim that birthright and attacked any proposal to give the same rights to the allegedly inferior former slaves. When the Congress of the United States enacted its measures to promote the equal citizenship of black Americans, the South exploded, led by poor whites, whom President Johnson encouraged.
Poor whites and the class of formerly ruling whites united to oppose equal citizenship for black Americans. The old, mutual hatreds between ruling and ruled whites were patched over. They created the so-called “Solid South,” and together they reinterpreted the Civil War as a noble, “Lost Cause.”
During the first presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant that began in 1869, he declared martial law in several counties in South Carolina to make an example of them, destroyed the Ku Klux Klan and worked with Congress to enforce order. But due to the long lapse of time between the end of the war and the start of Grant’s presidency, his administration had to act quickly and forcefully if Reconstruction was going to achieve success. Time was running out.
The continued presence of the military and federal agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the South seemed uncomfortably antagonistic to constitutional government. Opponents of reconstruction policy hurled the charge of “military oligarchy” back upon the Republicans, who had first used that charge against the southern rulers. These charges chipped away at northern support. The northern public was losing patience, and was growing tired of the perennial stories of trouble in the South. But each report of a new atrocity delayed their opposition to Reconstruction, even though their desire to suture the wounded Union between North and South inclined them to withdraw the federal presence.
The strategy employed by the Democratic Party was to promote its acceptance of Reconstruction before the nation, and complain of the continued federal occupation of the South, while at the same time, undermine reconstruction policy aims within the southern states. This would drive a wedge between national Republicans and Republicans in the southern states. The strategy worked.
In the 1872 presidential campaign a new party formed, the Liberal Republican Party, whose leading members included prominent, former abolitionists and leading founders of the Republican Party. Their candidate was newspaperman Horace Greeley, a chief political operative of his day. They urged for an end to Reconstruction and restoration of the South to full fellowship with the Union. The national Democratic Party, home to southern proslavery men, surprisingly accepted Greeley’s candidacy as well, creating one of the oddest coalitions in our nation’s history. Before the electoral votes in the election were counted, Greeley died, leaving Grant once again, in command of the field.
However, the strategic duplicity of Democrats in the election of 1872 was revealed one month after Grant took the oath of office a second time. When at home in the South, Democrats sang a different tune. In Colfax, Louisiana, white Democrats attacked local Republicans defending the courthouse from voter fraud. A pitched battle ensued with cannon and rifles, and ended in a cold-blooded massacre of dozens of black Americans. Once again, the North was reminded that Reconstruction was far from over. As Grant said in his second inaugural address, the freed slave “is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed, so far as Executive influence can avail.” Grant remained committed, but with all of the southern states now restored to their place in the national government, the federal arm was enervated.
The result of the battle of reconstruction was that the class ranks that distinguished the old oligarchy were partially flattened. Before the war, a few whites ruled over many whites and blacks. After Reconstruction, white ruled over black. This was not republicanism, but white republicanism, which is not republicanism at all.
Forrest A. Nabors is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, a founding partner of Alyeska Venture Management, and a political news commentator. He has recently completed The Great Task of Reconstruction which is now under review for publication.