Southern Reconstruction, Part Two: Republican Hegemony

(November 7, 2016) Provided below is Part Two of my Southern Reconstruction speech to a November 5th seminar in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Labeled “Republican Party Hegemony” today’s installment follows the “Protracted Poverty” of Part One. 

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Post-war politics and federal economic policies contributed to the South’s long delayed economic recovery. Among such factors were property confiscations, Republican Party self-interest, discriminatory federal budgets, protective tariffs, Union veteran pensions, banking regulations, discriminatory freight rates, lax monopoly regulation, absentee ownership and the requirement that America’s most impoverished region pay for the public education of the children of ex-slaves even though emancipation was a national—not regional—policy.

When Lee surrendered to Grant, more than two million fungible cotton bales were scattered across the South. Given an average price of 43 cents per pound, each bale was worth about $172, putting the value of the entire inventory at nearly $350 million as compared to $15 million of US currency then circulating in the region. The cotton inventory might have primed the pump of Southern recovery, but instead it was plundered.

Union soldiers, US treasury officials, and Northern businessmen stole most of it under the pretext of legitimate confiscation, or no pretext at all. A dismayed US Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch remarked, “I am sure that I sent some honest cotton agents South, but it sometimes seems very doubtful that any of them remained honest very long.”

Southern lands were also confiscated for non-payment of state taxes imposed by Carpetbag regimes, which were some of the highest in relation to wealth in US history. At one point 15% of Mississippi’s taxable land was up for sale due to tax defaults and an Arkansas newspaper required sixteen pages to list delinquencies.

When the Civil War ended the Republican Party was barely ten years old. Its leaders worried that it might be strangled in the cradle if re-admittance of Southern states into the Union failed to be managed in a way that would prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government. If all former Confederate states were admitted to Congress in December 1865 and each added member was a Democrat, the Republican Senate majority would have dropped from 40-to-8 and become 40-to-30. Similarly, the Party’s majority in the House would have dropped from 111-to-40 and become 111-to-79. In short, the Republicans would have no longer held a veto-proof two-thirds majority in Congress.

Thus, the infant GOP needed to insure that most of the new Southern senators and congressmen were admitted as Republicans. That required that vassal governments be established in the Southern states. Since there were few white Republicans in the region the Party needed to create a new constituency. Consequently, Republicans settled on two objectives.

First was mandatory African-American suffrage in all former Confederate states. Republicans expected that the mostly illiterate and inexperienced black electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Party interests out of gratitude for emancipation and voter suffrage. Second was denial of the vote to the Southern white classes most likely to oppose Republican policies.

Although it is often assumed that Republican Party sponsorship of Southern black suffrage was motivated by a moral impulse to promote racial equality, the bulk of the evidence suggests the Party was more interested in retaining political power.

First, the 1866 Civil Rights Act passed over President Johnson’s veto declared nearly all blacks to be citizens but expressly denied citizenship to Indians unless they were paying taxes. Indians would not gain full citizenship until the 1920s.

Second, Republicans recognized that many Northerners did not favor black suffrage in their own states. When the Civil War began, blacks were not permitted to vote in sixteen of the twenty-two Union-loyal states. In most of the remaining six they could only vote by meeting property and education tests that were more stringent than those applied to whites. Upon the war’s conclusion, only five New England states with tiny black populations permitted them to vote. Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin each rejected black suffrage in 1865. Kansas did so in 1867 as did Michigan and Missouri in 1868 and even New York in 1869. As shall be explained, the Republicans would adopt a strategy that would permit Northern states to reject black suffrage with only negligible consequences but that would significantly penalize Southern states for doing so.

Third, a month after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Union Major General William T. Sherman wrote a colleague, “I have never heard a negro ask for…[voting rights]…and I think it would be his ruin…I believe the whole idea of giving votes to the negroes is to create just that many votes to be used by others for political uses…”

Major General William T. Sherman

Major General William T. Sherman

Fourth, the two Republican leaders most commonly believed to be sincerely interested in black racial equality also admitted that they also wanted Southern black suffrage in order to help keep their Party in power.

Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens who would ultimately be buried in a black cemetery said, “If [black] suffrage is excluded in the rebel States then every one of them is sure to send a solid rebel representative delegation to Congress…They, with their kindred [Northern] Copperheads, would always elect the President and control Congress.” He also stated that the Southern states, “ought never…be…counted as valid states until the Constitution shall have been amended…to secure perpetual ascendancy to the party of the Union [meaning the Republican Party].”

Similarly, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner wrote a Rhode Island Republican, “Without [black suffrage in the South], Southerners will certainly unite…with Democrats of the North, and the long train of evils sure to follow their rule is fearful to contemplate…[including]…a great reduction of the tariff.”

Fifth, after the collapse of the Carpetbag regimes in 1877, Washington Republicans virtually ignored the black electorate until the eve of the tightly contested reelection campaign of President Benjamin Harrison against Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1892. In 1890 Massachusetts Representative Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a “Force Bill” to empower the federal government to supervise elections in the South under the glitter of bayonets thereby optimizing Republican election prospects in the region. The bill, however, was dropped when the Republicans traded it away for Southern support of the McKinley Tariff, which raised import duties about 50%. Although Republicans originally claimed the Lodge Bill underscored the Party’s commitment to protect black voters, the motive was evidently less powerful than their hunger for higher tariffs.

As a result of their post-war lust for lasting political power the Republicans proceeded with a plan for universal black suffrage in the South, if not the North. The first step was to adopt three 1867 congressional acts passed over President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes. The acts imposed four requirements on the South.

Military Districts

Military Districts

First, except for Tennessee the remaining ten states of the former Confederacy were divided into five military districts and governed by martial law. Soldiers supervised voter registration in a manner that optimized Republican-favorable results. Tennessee was exempted because it already had a Carpetbag government. Second, each of the ten states was ordered to organized conventions to adopt new state constitutions satisfactory to Congress. Third, the states were required to let black males vote for convention delegates but were simultaneously obliged to deny the vote to many white military and civil officers of the former Confederacy. Fourth, each state constitution was to require universal black male suffrage while also blocking white suffrage at least as rigidly as it was restricted in the earlier vote for constitutional convention delegates.

Although Congress over-rode his objections, President Johnson’s veto messages cast doubt on the constitutionality of the Reconstruction Acts as well as the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Ever since the 1791 Tenth Amendment voter qualifications had been universally regarded as a states’ right. In 1868, therefore, the Republicans resolved to amend the US Constitution. The result was the Fourteenth Amendment, which had two key provisions.

First, persons born in the United States would be American citizens and citizens of their resident states. No race could be excluded, except non-taxpaying Indians. Second, states refusing suffrage to male citizens of any qualified race would have their congressional representation cut by subtracting the number of members of the excluded race from the state’s population for purposes of calculating its House representation and electoral votes. Due to their tiny black populations, the provision was inconsequential in Northern states. As an incentive to approve the amendment, Congress separately specified that no elected representative from the former Confederate states could be seated in Congress until his state adopted the Fourteenth Amendment and Congress approved the applicable state’s new constitution. Until then, Southern state governments had no legal authority.

President Grant Election Map

President Grant Election Map

The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified under controversial circumstances in July 1868 when Secretary of State William Seward declared that 28 of 36 states had approved it, even though two (Ohio and New Jersey) had rescinded their ratification. Additionally, Seward counted Tennessee as a ratifying state even though its legislature obtained a quorum only by arresting two opposing legislators and forcing them to sit quietly while the motion passed.

By disfranchising many white Southerners and forcing black suffrage in the South the Republicans were able to get six Southern states included among the 28 ratifying the amendment. As a result, the 1868 Republican presidential candidate, Ulysses Grant, won 450,000 black Southern votes without which he would have lost the popular vote although he would have retained an electoral vote majority.

Since six of the readmitted Southern states voted for Grant in 1868 and only two voted against him, it soon became apparent that a second amendment granting black men the vote in every state could be quickly approved. As a result, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states in 1870. Since Southern state constitutions already included black suffrage, the amendment’s practical effect was in the Northern and former border-states where blacks composed less than 5% of the population. It did, however, insure that no Southern state could avoid black suffrage in the future by repealing such terms in its own constitution.

The rest of the 45-minute speech will be posted at this website in serial fashion in the days ahead. 

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