(January 12, 2017) Twenty-four years after leaving office in 1877 the last Carpetbag governor, Daniel H. Chamberlain, wrote “Reconstruction in South Carolina” for Atlantic Monthly in 1901, which suggests that modern academic interpretations of the era have whitewashed the role of the national Republican Party. Republicans, he explains, were more driven by a craving for political power than by a desire to promote racial equality.
Chamberlain was born in Massachusetts in 1835 and graduated with honors from Yale University where he became a member of the prestigious Skull & Bones society. Late in the Civil War he led a regiment of black cavalrymen and moved to South Carolina when the war ended where he was a delegate to its 1868 Carpetbag constitutional convention and became the state’s Attorney General from 1868 to 1872.
He was elected governor on the Republican ticket in 1872 with 54% of the vote composed mostly of former slaves. Since his Republican predecessor had been notoriously corrupt, Chamberlain tried to clean up the government and reduce its operating expenses. That cost him the loyalty of many black political appointees who had become economically reliant upon the spoils system. As a result, former Confederate General Wade Hampton, who was a political reformer like Chamberlain but a Democrat, won the 1876 election. Although Chamberlain contested the results, the all-Republican state Supreme Court ruled against him. Hampton’s early post-war support for black suffrage and his direct appeal to such voters in 1876 enabled him to pick up enough African-American votes to win.
Chamberlain’s Atlantic Monthly article begins by partly blaming the “Black Codes” adopted in some Southern states soon after the war ended for pushing Congress toward Radical Reconstruction. Although Southerners considered the codes to be a way of preventing the freedmen from declining into vagrancy and crime, most Northerners considered their singular application to blacks as establishing a condition nearly equivalent to slavery. As Congress debated how to respond, the voices calling for black suffrage in the South gained strength:
[Republicans considered] the black South…equal to all the needs of the hour; ignorant, to be sure, but loyal…Hardly anywhere else in recorded debates can be found so surprising a revelation of the blindness of partisan zeal as these [Congressional debates] disclose.
Underneath all the avowed motives…lay a deeper cause…the determination to secure party ascendency and control at the South and in the nation through the negro vote. If this is hard saying, let anyone now ask himself…if it is possibly credible that the  reconstruction acts would have passed if the negro vote had been believed to be Democratic.
Sentiment carried the day, sentiment of a lower kind—hate, revenge, greed, [and] lust of power.
Although some statesmen could foresee problems with Radical Reconstruction, leaders such as Thaddeus Stevens pushed them along. Such leaders drove the reluctant, crushed and ostracized the doubtful, and brutally rode down anyone who dared to oppose them. “Not one of these leaders had seen the South, or studied it at first-hand. Not one of them professed or cared to know more. They had made up their minds…The one overshadowing item of their policy was…negro suffrage.”
Chamberlain explains that South Carolina’s most influential men were her war heroes like Wade Hampton who had urged cooperation with negro suffrage as early as 1868. Chamberlain admits, however, “nothing would have been more unwelcome in Washington than the knowledge that the whites in South Carolina were gaining influence over the blacks.” Having been a Carpetbag governor of the state, he reminds the reader, “The writer knows his ground here.”
He affirms that Radical Reconstruction was a “frightful experience” that no well-informed political leader should have expected to succeed.
In the mass of colored voters in South Carolina in 1867, what forces could have existed that made for good government? Ought it not to have been clear…that good government…could not be had from such an aggregation of ignorance, inexperience and incapacity?
If an inexperienced electorate was not a big enough challenge, the Carpetbaggers that arrived from the North only aggravated the situation. Such freebooters “had almost as little experience…as the negroes” to whom “they were not morally the equals.” Yet the blacks deferred to the Carpetbaggers with “natural docility.” The results were toxic state governments.
Prior to the Civil War the cost of a South Carolina legislative session was never more that $20,000 whereas in 1871 it was over $600,000. The state had less that $1 million in debt at the start of Reconstruction but had $17.5 million five years later. Despite all the borrowing and spending “the state had not a single public improvement of any sort to show.” All was wasted on plunder. “Public offices were objects of…bargain and sale. Justice…in the courts was bought and sold.”
Incompetence and corruption was routine, particularly in the lower offices. One county educational commissioner could neither read nor write his own name. Others signed documents for him with his x-mark. Since whites felt powerless to remove him at the polls, he was murdered. While Chamberlain was appalled by the violence, he was not surprised.
Such incidents…will lead…to deeds of violence. The…infamous KKK of 1870 was an organized attempt…to drive from office Republican state officers, and especially negroes. It was brutal and murderous to the last degree, being…in the hands almost exclusively the lower stratum of the white population. Yet it was symptomatic of…the gangrene, dishonesty and corruption in public office. No excuse can be framed for its outrages, but its causes were plain….It flourished where corruption…had climbed into power and withered where the reverse was the case.
What is certain is that a people of force, pride, and intelligence [when] driven to choose between [temporary] violence and lawlessness and [permanent] misrule will infallibly choose the former.
Chamberlain ultimately concludes that Radical Reconstruction was born of sinister motives, cruelly exploited Southern blacks and destined to die of its own inadequacies. In retrospect he was certain “there was no possibility of securing good government in South Carolina through Republican influences…The vast preponderance of ignorance…in that party, aside from downright dishonesty, made it impossible.” The blacks, he felt, were egregiously abused. “Race was used as the tool of heartless partisan leaders.” Blacks were “mercilessly exploited for the benefit of a political party, and heartlessly abandoned when the scheme had failed.”
While modern historians generally presume that racial equality was the chief reason that Reconstruction era Republicans promoted black suffrage, Chamberlain’s account flatly states that the true motivation was political power. The differing interpretations merit debate because the correct one should be the primary foundation upon which our perspectives of Reconstruction will be determined.