Eric Foner: Corruption Apologist

(April 21, 2017) When discussing Carpetbag Era corruption in his YouTube lectures, Columbia History Professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author Eric Foner said:

Most of the Reconstruction officials…were very poor…and they needed to make a living out of being in office.

A lot of money flowed through the [Southern state] governments for the first time, far more than before the [Civil] War. There [was] a lot of money flowing in and a lot of money flowing out and there was a tendency for that to stick to the fingers of people in power. [After Jefferson Long became Georgia’s first black U.S. congressman he]…had…to make a living in politics…from the salary as a congressman and also [by] gathering up as much money as he could.

Essentially, Dr. Foner implies that it was okay for Republican Southerners to profit from political corruption because they were poor. He fails, however, to consider that nearly all Southern Democrats were also poor. Perhaps that’s because such a consideration suggests that he should also excuse even the corrupt among the Democrats that later replaced the Carpetbaggers at the end of the era. Anyone familiar with Dr. Foner’s work knows that it about as likely as a Cherokee Indian getting elected Pope.

Foner also excuses the high taxes of the Carpetbag regimes because, he claims, such taxes were fairer. From the end of the war in 1865 to the end of 1868 most Southern state governments were financed by a poll tax, which was initially unconnected to voting. Instead it was flat per capita amount that all adult males paid annually. Carpetbaggers augmented, or replaced, it with a property tax, which was common up North. Foner applauds the change because property taxes put a bigger burden on landowners whereas a poll tax is the same for everyone, regardless of economic status.

Unfortunately, Carpetbag Era property taxes were far more onerous than Foner indicates. In 1870, for example, assessed Southern property values were less than half of the amounts in 1860, yet property taxes more than four times higher. The eight-fold increase in tax burden provides good reason to suspect that the Carpetbagger’s true aim was to force Southern landowners to sell their holdings at fire-sale prices, much as depicted in Gone With the Wind.

After pushing property taxes to the limit, Carpetbaggers sustained their excessive spending by heedless borrowings via bond issues that wrecked the previously good credits of the Southern states. By 1874 Southern indebtedness was bigger than the assessed value of all property in the former Confederate states at the end of the war. Put another way, Southern states could not have paid-off their 1874 public debts even if they had sold every acre of land at the 1865 tax-assessed valuations.

A complete rebuttal of Foner’s recorded comments above is best presented in a state-by-state analysis. Unfortunately, all but the most dedicated student of Reconstruction would likely fall asleep from boredom while trying to make sense out of the many episodes and convoluted methods of stealing from the taxpayer. Since, however, Foner partially focuses on Georgia in the link above, readers may want to consider the following points that he fails to mention about that state.

First, Georgia had no debt at the end of the war but had over $50 million by the middle of 1871. The debt was larger than all other former Confederate states except Louisiana where in four years the Carpetbag governor compiled a $500,000 fortune on an $8,000 annual salary and admitted, “Corruption is the fashion and I do not pretend to be honest, but only as honest as anybody in politics.”

Second, prior to the war the expenses of Georgia’s state government were almost entirely paid by earnings from the state-owned railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga. After taking office Carpetbag Governor Rufus Bullock leased the line to friends for a small fraction of its value thereby enabling the leaseholders to collect exorbitant profits. He also illicitly signed over taxpayer guaranteed bonds to a railroad promoter and political ally.

Bullock fled his office before the end of his term because he was charged with malfeasance and corruption on some of those matters. Although the contra-parties to his agreements and actions benefitted, there was no proof that he illegally gained personally. He was, therefore, acquitted when he was arrested and returned to Georgia to stand trial.

Third, in 1868 the poll tax was specifically intended to fund Georgia’s public schools, white and black. Instead all of it was allocated to the expenses of the legislature where it went into the pockets of members, clerks, and other officials.

Fourth, during the inclusive eight years from 1855 to 1862 the expenses of the Georgia legislature averaged about $100,000 annually. Although by 1868 there had been no increase in the number of members, legislative expenses that year were almost $1,000,000, which was about 1000% higher than the earlier average.

Finally, Foner fails to connect the culture of corruption in Republican-controlled Washington with that of the Southern Carpetbag regimes. The first four years after the Civil War under President Andrew Johnson’s Administration were virtually free of corruption. During the next eight years, however, when Ulysses Grant was president and Republicans generally controlled both houses of congress, corruption was rife. The Wikipedia “Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Administration Scandals” article discusses twelve different incidents, which averages one every eight months.

Corruption apologist instruction from Dr. Foner is available to Columbia University students for $72,000 a year.

Sources: John Ezell The South Since 1865, 85; Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction, 155-56; Walter Fleming The Sequel to Appomattox, 225; Eric Foner, Reconstruction, 386; William B. Hesseltine The Tragic Conflict, 493-500

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