Should Corrupted Carpetbaggers be Excused?

(January 6, 2017). In this lecture Dr. Eric Foner discusses the corrupted culture of the Gilded Age and provides two extra reasons why it infected Southern Carpetbag regimes in the remarks excerpted below:

There are two basic reasons [for Carpetbag corruption.] One was that a lot of money was flowing through the [Southern state] governments. Far more than before the war…There’s a tendency for that to stick to the fingers of the political people in power. But more important, most of the Reconstruction officials…were very poor…They needed to make a living out of being in office.

Foner cites two examples. One was a black tailor who lost his white clientele after joining Georgia’s Carpetbag government. The professor may, however, be failing to consider that few white Southerners could afford custom-tailored clothes after the Civil War and thereby may be dismissing an important reason why the tailor lost his clients. The second was a Northern Carpetbagger, John Bryant, who became Georgia’s Superintendent of Education. Bryant wrote New York publisher Harper & Row that, “[His department] shall labor especially to establish a system of common schools in the state…and the advantage to your house will be very great.” Harper & Row paid Bryant $3,000 after receiving the letter, which Foner concludes was a bribe.


If bribery by state government officials is justified due to economic need partly caused by their act joining of Carpetbag governments, then might other groups justify crimes because their economic need partly resulted from the formation of the Carpetbag regimes which they were powerless to prevent?

Consider the Yeoman white Southern farmer. Prior to the Civil War he paid almost no state taxes because states derived the bulk of their revenue from taxes on slave property. After slavery was abolished, the Southern state regimes formed under Andrew Johnson’s plan relied chiefly upon the poll tax for revenue. At that time it was not a voting tax, but instead a per capita assesment that everyone paid equally.

Although the per capita tax increased the burden on those who never owned slaves, it was almost nothing compared to the real estate property taxes imposed by the Carpetbaggers. As Foner explains, Carpetbag governments spent—and plundered—a lot more money than did Southern antebellum state governments. Consequently, the war-devastated South endured some the highest property taxes in relation to wealth in our country’s history. Even though 1870 property values in the eleven former Rebel states were less than half the value in 1860, the amount of property taxes paid was four times greater. At one point, for example, 20% of Mississippi’s land was up for sale to pay back taxes.

Even though Emancipation was a national policy, the education of former slave children fell entirely upon the Southern states two years after the Carpetbag regimes were installed. Federal banking laws generally did not permit national banks to loan on mortgages, which were essential in the South. Moreover, they enabled the capital-starved South to open only a small number national banks and simultaneously taxed state-chartered banks nearly out of existence. The result was enormously expensive financing through small country merchants that relied upon the crop-lien system to insure that they got paid at harvest time. It forced the farmer to grow a cash crop like cotton and relegated him into an endless cycle of perpetual peonage.

Enormous federal tariffs created Northern monopolies and made it difficult—by closing the USA to competitive imports—for overseas cotton buyers to generate the exchange credits needed to purchase American cotton. Consequently, overseas textile companies increasingly bought raw cotton from other countries. Finally, federal public works spending was concentrated in the North and West. From 1865 to 1873 only 10% was invested in the South. New York and Massachusetts got twice as much as all of the former Rebel states combined. The list goes on and on.

In short, the Yeoman farmer badly needed more income and credit, or lower taxes. Would Foner suggest that the farmer’s unfair economic need justified crimes, and if so, which ones? Unlike the politician, a genteel crime like bribery was not available to him.


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Sources: E. Merton Coulter The South During Reconstruction, 155-56, John Ezell, The South Since 1865, 87; David L. Cohn The Life and Times of King Cotton, 148-49


3 thoughts on “Should Corrupted Carpetbaggers be Excused?

  1. Pingback: Were Carpetbaggers Progressives or Thieves? | Civil War Chat

  2. Walker

    Dr. Foner has an excuse for all of his sectional hate and abuse of power. At any point in time does he castigate any one in the North for any thing?

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      I am now in the 54th segment of his 71-segment lecture series on Reconstruction and he is beginning to criticize Northern capitalists for dominating the Northern economy and abusing labor. He also even admitted that the South was “left behind” in a colonial status. But generally his criticism of Northern business leaders focuses on their domination of common laborers. He fails to consider how federal policies promoted business interests in the North at the expense of the South. The example I give about Emancipation being a *national* policy that put almost the entire burden of paying for the education of black children on the taxpayers of the impoverished South is only one illustration of his gigantic blind spot.


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