Gilded Age Historian Speaks a Truth

(January 29, 2018) In his recent Oxford history of the United States from 1865 to 1896, Richard White admits a truth that modern Reconstruction Era historians generally refuse to concede. Specifically when writing of the Southern carpetbag regimes in The Republic for Which it Stands White says, “The corruption of the Republican governments and the high taxes for small landowners were not just Democratic slanders; they were Republican failures.” To be sure, the author also chants the familiar mantra about white Southern “terrorists.” But at least he affirms that corrupt carpetbaggers were a significant cause of Reconstruction’s failure.

In contrast, the leading Reconstruction Era historian, Eric Foner, generally dismisses carpetbag corruption by noting that all of America was rife with corruption at the time.  Similarly, modern Ulysses  Grant biographies usually fail to admit that the reprehensible ethics in Washington during his presidency radiated across the country as a model for local governments. Perhaps nowhere was the pernicious effect more pronounced than in the carpetbag governments, which were the very offspring of Washington Republicans.

But even White fails to realize how the carpetbagger’s “high taxes for small landowners” contributed to racial animosity. Here’s what happened.

The carpetbag regimes had two ways to raise money. First was to sell bonds, which the taxpayers of the applicable state would ultimately have to repay. Second was to collect taxes, mainly property taxes. Both were abused and the victims were chiefly white property owners because few blacks owned land. Yet, under the guidance of the Union Leagues and the Freedman’s Bureau, ex-slaves overwhelmingly voted for Republicans who would flood the state governments with money. Even though nearly all of the funds raised went to carpetbaggers, scalawags and other politically connected whites, black leaders got a small share. Ex-slaves found it hard to reject even the small slices when it was the white property owner that paid the bill and when it was within the power of non-taxpaying black voters to kick the consequences of the Ponzi scheme down the road.

Such circumstances were bound to create, or amplify, racial animosity. This was especially true among whites who lost their homes through tax deficiency sales.

In short, modern historians generally fail to appreciate that the carpetbag regimes could not have survived after they became perpetually insolvent. Unlike the federal government, no state government is allowed to sustain deficit spending forever. They are generally subject to the same requirements to ultimately live within their financial means as any individual citizen. Moreover, the economies of the underlying states would be wrecked as an ever-growing number of small landowners went bankrupt. Under such circumstances, taxpayers—whether they be black, white, green or even Yankee—are certain to eventually eject the financially irresponsible government, one way or another.

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