Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Democratic Party and its Quest for Legitimacy during Congressional Reconstruction

This post is number forty-one in a historical series discussing Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, following the War Between the States. It constitutes another break in the series in order to bring the reader up to date as to what was happening in the Democratic Party across the South during the timeframe that would see Alcorn and the Radicals come to power and helps explain the context in which Democratic-Conservative policy was being applied in Mississippi.

As stated on numerous occasions throughout this series, the old leaders of the Democratic Party and of the Confederacy comprised the leadership of choice among the Southern taxpayer during Presidential Reconstruction. This was the party whose representatives elected in 1865 were denied their seats in the Republican-held U. S. Congress and for that reason. Matters worsened with the election of 1866, when the Northern populace gave the Radicals, armed with their agenda for altering the Founder’s Republic into a more “democratic” nation, majority control of Congress. In order to carry out the agenda (there were some “loyal” state legislators left who hadn’t completely lost their minds), it was critical that the Radicals had control of the Southern states to ensure passage of their unconstitutional measures. In other words, the right men had to be sent to Washington, as well as compose the Southern legislatures, and they sure as the Dickens couldn’t be Democrats. This accounts for the 1867 Congressional Reconstruction Acts and enactment of martial law across the Southern states, the registration of the Negro voters/disfranchisement of the Southern taxpayer, the progressive constitutions patterned after those in the North and, generally, the wholesale marginalization of both the taxpaying citizens of the South and their party of choice.

For the Democratic Party (self-styled Democratic-Conservatives), achieving electoral success under the restrictions of the Reconstruction Acts resulted first in its combining forces with the Scalawags to thwart the Radical Republicans who were rallying the Negro vote under the protection of federal bayonets. In Mississippi, this policy is seen in the 1868 defeat of the Radical ticket and the progressive constitution.

In Road to Redemption Michael Perman states that initially the Democratic-Conservatives believed that by employing a fusion policy with the Scalawags they could split the Negro vote with the Radicals, a perception prevelant across the South. I had trouble coming to grips with this, because in the 1868 Mississippi campaign to defeat the Radical agenda I saw a coalition of white Southerners (Democrats/Scalawags) united to defeat white Northerners, shored up by a Negro voter base. There was no effort then to garner the black vote, at least not a dedicated one. Yet by the spring of 1869, I see the Democratic Conservatives rallying to the Scalawag ticket, not as it turns out to replicate the 1868 victory, but to support a moderate Republican candidate and a Republican platform, little better than the Radical one. The purpose of this coalition was to defeat the Radical ticket headed by J. L. Alcorn by championing Reconstruction and siphoning off a significant portion of the Radicals’ black voters. Between the summer of 1868 and the spring of 1869, during all those visits and consultations in Washington (which no doubt included pow-wows with other displaced Democrats from all over the South...and probably the North) something had gone haywire within the Southern Democratic Party indicative of a power struggle. The efforts of 1868 and that of 1869 in Mississippi were significantly different, the change being the missing white voter who had championed the conservative call in 1868 to defeat the Radical agenda. Looks like someone figured his support wasn’t enough. But another point Perman makes is that these “enlightened” Southern leaders now perceived the evolution of a two-party system in the South based on race and class, which would have been disruptive to the social order and they would have wished to nip it in the bud.

Fusing with white Scalawags and hoping for black support from that source was not the same as taking the “competitive” approach to electioneering and wooing the Negro voter to the Democratic Party. That required autonomous acceptance of Reconstruction. 

This change in direction for the black vote is known as the “New Departure,” and by 1870 it had become Democratic policy across the South. It sprang as the brainchild of the fusion politics of 1868-1869. The new policy included supporting passage of the Fifteenth Amendment ensuring black suffrage. This capitulation, the leadership spouted, had to occur if the party were to survive and if the South were to salvage any part of its fortunes. The New Departure enabled the Democrats to vie for the black vote by assuring the Freedmen their civil rights were safe in the hands of the Democratic Party, and it also served to assure the “national authority” that Reconstruction had worked.  

Just my opinion, but I figure it more likely the Democrats would have been trying to influence the Northern populace, which was itself getting fed up with the Radicals. Nothing would have persuaded the so-called national authority that the Democrats were now okay, because they didn’t care one way or the other. The Radicals wanted to remain the “national authority”, and they needed control in the South to do that. 

The conservative (Bourbon) faction of  the Democratic Party never committed to the New Departure and was, in fact, opposed to it, seeing it as a fruitless betrayal of principle since the party would not get the black vote. Why would the Negro, entrenched with the party in power—indeed he was the power base that kept it in power—give up his leverage to join the Democrats? This tactic, the Bourbons claimed, operated from a position of weakness and was both degrading and ineffective. The Bourbons correctly maintained that the interests of the black Republicans and white Democrats were different. Rally the white vote they said, it’s there, and forget catering to the blacks. Worse yet, the New Departure, in the minds of the Bourbons [and me] made the Democrats willing participants in the Republicans’ new order and cast aside the principles of the Democratic Party, heir to the antebellum Democrats who believed in home rule, decentralization of the Federal government, non-interference by government in folks’ personal behavior, free trade, and restoring local and individual autonomy. Georgia’s Alexander Stephens said, and I paraphrase, if the country were to be redeemed, it would be done under old-line Democrats with Jeffersonian ideas and principles. Ha! Remember, back in the day of old-line Democrats, Alexander Stephens was a Whig. I think his epiphany occurred back with the secession.

Nevertheless, by 1870 New Departurists were on the ascent across the entire South [and in the North, too, though who they targeted for membership I’m not sure, because there wasn’t much in the way of a Negro population up there, and they’d been bestowing early citizenship on new immigrants for decades before the war, which might explain why so many Yankees didn’t understand the concept of federalism and followed Lincoln to war].

Back on point: In the newly formulated credo of the Southern New Departurist, state rights were as dead as the right to secede and life must go on. They needed to get the damn Yankees out of the South, and they needed the Negro vote to do it. Campaign policy was to influence the Negro and convert him to the Democratic Party, but not to make promises. Canvassers/campaigners were to be honest as to motives (i.e. “We couldn’t stop your suffrage, so now we’re trying to win your vote.”) At the same time they were to point out that the Yankees had not fulfilled their false promises and, therefore, Democrats weren’t going to make them any. Um, for a competitive approach, it doesn’t sound too promising does it? Nevertheless, the Democratic-Conservatives did well in 1870, winning elections at the state level in Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina (and in Texas in 1873). Victories were even more numerous everywhere at the local and county levels where whites were in the majority or where, for whatever reason, Republicans were weak. Oh, duh? Were they delusional on top of everything else? Of course those factors increased the odds for victory. Wishful thinking or not, the New Departurists in Alabama attributed this success to the black vote. Reality struck home in Alabama two years later when participating voters returned the state to Radical rule, but that’s a tale for another post. 

Here’s another tale for a future post, or several future posts, but I wanted to touch on it here primarily because Perman did in Road to Redemption. The Ku Klux Klan predated the New Departure, but its activity during this time period, Professor Perman claims, is testimony to the discord within the Democratic Party. I think my take on what was happening might deviate a little from his, so here’s my opinion: I never bought into the Federal and state governments bringing the Klan to “heel.” Subsidence of Klan activity in the early ’70s coincides with the Democratic-Conservative embarkation on the New Departure competitive policy to expand its voter base. Reading between the lines, one could make a case for the leadership within the Democratic-Conservatives, some perhaps active in the Klan, attempting to “call off the dogs” in order to woo the Negro vote. This, of course, leaves the Bourbons as the bad guys—theoretically, they’d have been the ones promoting continued threats and violence. Perman also points out that it was New Departurist Democrats who were giving testimony at the Congressional hearings on the Klan during these years—they’d had a hand in, but now couldn’t quite get a handle on it—if anything, they couldn’t get a handle on the Bourbons. My point is that the schism within the party could account for the lessening of Klan activity during this time vice its ceasing altogether. Perman further suggests the calling off came too late. Maybe. Maybe not. I’d as quickly put my money on those glittering Radical promises made to the Negro as I would his residual resentment to threats and violence instigated by the Klan; another thing I don’t buy into is black folk being as scared and helpless as they were reported to be.  

So, the Democrats were not idle, and the party was not united in its methodology for ousting the Republicans, but for a brief period in the early 1870s, the New Departurists comprised the party leadership and that resulted in the capitulation to Reconstruction and the loss of its faithful voter base. The most obvious conclusion one could draw from this mess is that the Southern politicians of both parties wanted power (independent of each other), and they wanted the Yankees gone. It made for strange bedfellows, discord, and sacrifice of principle. In the end it was the most principled of the groups (as archaic and dead as some might perceive those principles to be, then as well as now) that ended up in power and held it for over eighty years. Ah, but in the end, its own abuse of power and lack of vision left the Southern Democrats vulnerable to the dark forces of the long-unprincipled Northern Democracy, by then embracing the concept of pure democracy, which purposefully destroyed it. It was the modern national Democrats, again under the shadow of federal bayonets, who played the major role in putting the Republicans back in power across the South. Well, at least they aren’t Carpetbaggers this time around, but I bet we can find plenty of Scalawags among ’em.

There’s more to the New Departurists’ story, primarily the Democratic economic policies vis-à-vis the Republican. Those I will address during the course of my Alcorn series.

I’ll return to Alcorn and Louis Dent next time—one of the best examples of  New  Departurists’ tactics in all of Reconstruction, I imagine.

Thanks for reading,



1 comment:

  1. Great article. I'm not sure some of the Republicans today aren't carpetbaggers, just look at Ryan not supporting Ted Cruz, although Ryan doesn't live in the South. Plenty of Scalawags, yes. They want the Southern vote, but aren't willing to stand up and support Southerners.


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