UNION — During the Reconstruction Era, the Democratic Party, both in the South and in the North, was the political vehicle for opponents of black empowerment and, as the era progressed, the Democrats made use of a variety of issues to attack that empowerment and the Republican Party that made it possible.
For most of its duration (1865-1877), Reconstruction was an effort by the self-described “Radical Republicans” in Congress to fully integrate the freed slaves of the South into American society. This involved empowering them with the right to vote and the right to run for and hold public office and ensuring that their ability to exercise those rights was respected and protected. To do this, the Radicals removed the civilian governments of the southern states which were still controlled by former Confederates and put the region under the control of the U.S. military which organized elections in those states. Those elections, from which top-ranking former Confederates were banned from participating in, resulted in the Republican Party gaining control of 10 of the 11 states of the former Confederacy.
The Republican parties of the South were supported by biracial coalitions composed of freed blacks and white northerners who’d relocated to the South after the Civil War and southern whites sympathetic to the goals of Reconstruction. In addition to capturing the state governments of 10 southern states, Reconstruction brought blacks — all of whom were Republicans — into public office in the South for the first time in history. At the height of Reconstruction, 15 percent of all local, state and federal offices in the South were held by blacks. This included a black politicians who made up the majority in the S.C. House of Representatives and included an all-black legislative delegation from Union County.
The initial success of the Reconstruction Era was due partly to the fact that in many parts of the South not only were top-ranking former Confederates banned from taking part in the early elections, but also that many other southern whites refused to take part in those first elections. That would soon change as the Democratic Party — both nationally and in the South — began to take advantage of developments that would cripple the Republican Party nationally and bring about its collapse in the South.
Once in control of the legislatures of most of the former Confederacy, the Republican parties in those states instituted programs of internal improvements including the construction of railroads as a means of help the South recover economically as well as instituting public education systems. To pay for this, the Republican governments raised taxes with the burden of paying those taxes falling heaviest on white southerners who owned most of the farms, plantations, businesses and other taxable property. That burden was made even heavier by tough economic times which saw a number of white property owners lose their property because they could not pay the taxes levied by the Republican-controlled state governments.
This gave the Democrats the opportunity to present themselves as the defenders of the taxpayer, particularly the small shopkeeper, small farmer and workingman crushed by the Republican-imposed taxes. This, however, required the Democrats to conveniently ignore the realities of taxation in the pre-Civil War South, realities the the party had helped create. Those realities included the fact that the southern states had allowed their wealthier landowners to assess the value of their property and thus fraudulently pay little or nothing in the way of taxes; that the poll taxes levied by southern legislatures effectively prevented many poor whites from voting; and that the capitation tax levied by the southern states encouraged the use of slave labor while discouraging the use of free labor, white and black, by taxing the latter at a much higher rate than the former, thus further empowering the wealthy plantation owners who dominated the region.
While the combination of new taxes and a depressed economy no doubt created hardships for many white southern property owners, the realities of the prewar South call into question the Democratic Party’s motives for embracing the tax issue during Reconstruction. It could be argued that the party’s embrace of the issue was less about the plight of the small shopkeeper or small farmer or workingman than it was about enabling the plantation oligarchy which had ruled the South before the war and led it into secession and defeat, to regain its power and privileges including the privilege of lying about their taxes and using the power of taxation to protect and promote their interests.
Another criticism of the Reconstruction governments of the South by their Democratic opponents was that their rule was an orgy of corruption. While it is no doubt true that there was a great degree of corruption in the South during Reconstruction it should be remembered that corruption was not limited to the South or the Republican Party. This was the era of the Credit Mobilier Scandal in which both Republican and Democratic members of Congress sought to illegally profit from the construction of the First Continental Railroad. It was also the era of William M. “Boss” Tweed, leader of the “Tweed Ring” that controlled Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic machine that dominated New York City in the 19th century.
Corruption in the Reconstruction Era was bipartisan in nature and nationwide and neither began nor ended with Reconstruction. Furthermore, given that blacks, while at last part of the political system, also enjoyed the opportunities, which some no doubt took advantage of, for corruption, they were a minority among the political crooks that infested local and state governments and the federal government. Also, while corruption is a stain upon the Reconstruction effort, it was no excuse for depriving an entire people of their rights as American citizens, which was the ultimate result of the end of Reconstruction and the goal of its destroyers.
The information for this article was taken from Wikipedia articles on Reconstruction, the Credit Mobilier Scandal, and Boss Tweed.
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com.