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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The Restoration of White Supremacy

Intimidation.—In both politics and economics, the process of reconstruction in the South was slow and arduous. The first battle in the political contest for white supremacy was won outside the halls of legislatures and the courts of law. It was waged, in the main, by secret organizations, among which the Ku Klux Klan and the White Camelia were the most prominent. The first of these societies appeared in Tennessee in 1866 and held its first national convention the following year. It was in origin a social club. According to its announcement, its objects were “to protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenceless from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; and to succor the suffering, especially the widows and orphans of the Confederate soldiers.” The whole South was called “the Empire” and was ruled by a “Grand Wizard.” Each state was a realm and each county a province. In the secret orders there were enrolled over half a million men.

The methods of the Ku Klux and the White Camelia were similar. Solemn parades of masked men on horses decked in long robes were held, sometimes in the daytime and sometimes at the dead of night. Notices were sent to obnoxious persons warning them to stop certain practices. If warning failed, something more convincing was tried. Fright was the emotion most commonly stirred. A horseman, at the witching hour of midnight, would ride up to the house of some offender, lift his head gear, take off a skull, and hand it to the trembling victim with the request that he hold it for a few minutes. Frequently violence was employed either officially or unofficially by members of the Klan. Tar and feathers were freely applied; the whip was sometimes laid on unmercifully, and occasionally a brutal murder was committed. Often the members were fired upon from bushes or behind trees, and swift retaliation followed. So alarming did the clashes become that in 1870 Congress forbade interference with electors or going in disguise for the purpose of obstructing the exercise of the rights enjoyed under federal law.

In anticipation of such a step on the part of the federal government, the Ku Klux was officially dissolved by the “Grand Wizard” in 1869. Nevertheless, the local societies continued their organization and methods. The spirit survived the national association. “On the whole,” says a Southern writer, “it is not easy to see what other course was open to the South.... Armed resistance was out of the question. And yet there must be some control had of the situation.... If force was denied, craft was inevitable.”

The Struggle for the Ballot Box.—The effects of intimidation were soon seen at elections. The freedman, into whose inexperienced hand the ballot had been thrust, was ordinarily loath to risk his head by the exercise of his new rights. He had not attained them by a long and laborious contest of his own and he saw no urgent reason why he should battle for the privilege of using them. The mere show of force, the mere existence of a threat, deterred thousands of ex-slaves from appearing at the polls. Thus the whites steadily recovered their dominance. Nothing could prevent it. Congress enacted force bills establishing federal supervision of elections and the Northern politicians protested against the return of former Confederates to practical, if not official, power; but all such opposition was like resistance to the course of nature.

Amnesty for Southerners.—The recovery of white supremacy in this way was quickly felt in national councils. The Democratic party in the North welcomed it as a sign of its return to power. The more moderate Republicans, anxious to heal the breach in American unity, sought to encourage rather than to repress it. So it came about that amnesty for Confederates was widely advocated. Yet it must be said that the struggle for the removal of disabilities was stubborn and bitter. Lincoln, with characteristic generosity, in the midst of the war had issued a general proclamation of amnesty to nearly all who had been in arms against the Union, on condition that they take an oath of loyalty; but Johnson, vindictive toward Southern leaders and determined to make “treason infamous,” had extended the list of exceptions. Congress, even more relentless in its pursuit of Confederates, pushed through the fourteenth amendment which worked the sweeping disabilities we have just described.

To appeals for comprehensive clemency, Congress was at first adamant. In vain did men like Carl Schurz exhort their colleagues to crown their victory in battle with a noble act of universal pardon and oblivion. Congress would not yield. It would grant amnesty in individual cases; for the principle of proscription it stood fast. When finally in 1872, seven years after the surrender at Appomattox, it did pass the general amnesty bill, it insisted on certain exceptions. Confederates who had been members of Congress just before the war, or had served in other high posts, civil or military, under the federal government, were still excluded from important offices. Not until the summer of 1898, when the war with Spain produced once more a union of hearts, did Congress relent and abolish the last of the disabilities imposed on the Confederates.

The Force Bills Attacked and Nullified.—The granting of amnesty encouraged the Democrats to redouble their efforts all along the line. In 1874 they captured the House of Representatives and declared war on the “force bills.” As a Republican Senate blocked immediate repeal, they resorted to an ingenious parliamentary trick. To the appropriation bill for the support of the army they attached a “rider,” or condition, to the effect that no troops should be used to sustain the Republican government in Louisiana. The Senate rejected the proposal. A deadlock ensued and Congress adjourned without making provision for the army. Satisfied with the technical victory, the Democrats let the army bill pass the next session, but kept up their fight on the force laws until they wrung from President Hayes a measure forbidding the use of United States troops in supervising elections. The following year they again had recourse to a rider on the army bill and carried it through, putting an end to the use of money for military control of elections. The reconstruction program was clearly going to pieces, and the Supreme Court helped along the process of dissolution by declaring parts of the laws invalid. In 1878 the Democrats even won a majority in the Senate and returned to power a large number of men once prominent in the Confederate cause.

The passions of the war by this time were evidently cooling. A new generation of men was coming on the scene. The supremacy of the whites in the South, if not yet complete, was at least assured. Federal marshals, their deputies, and supervisors of elections still possessed authority over the polls, but their strength had been shorn by the withdrawal of United States troops. The war on the remaining remnants of the “force bills” lapsed into desultory skirmishing. When in 1894 the last fragment was swept away, the country took little note of the fact. The only task that lay before the Southern leaders was to write in the constitutions of their respective states the provisions of law which would clinch the gains so far secured and establish white supremacy beyond the reach of outside intervention.

White Supremacy Sealed by New State Constitutions.—The impetus to this final step was given by the rise of the Populist movement in the South, which sharply divided the whites and in many communities threw the balance of power into the hands of the few colored voters who survived the process of intimidation. Southern leaders now devised new constitutions so constructed as to deprive negroes of the ballot by law. Mississippi took the lead in 1890; South Carolina followed five years later; Louisiana, in 1898; North Carolina, in 1900; Alabama and Maryland, in 1901; and Virginia, in 1902.

The authors of these measures made no attempt to conceal their purposes. “The intelligent white men of the South,” said Governor Tillman, “intend to govern here.” The fifteenth amendment to the federal Constitution, however, forbade them to deprive any citizen of the right to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This made necessary the devices of indirection. They were few, simple, and effective. The first and most easily administered was the ingenious provision requiring each prospective voter to read a section of the state constitution or “understand and explain it” when read to him by the election officers. As an alternative, the payment of taxes or the ownership of a small amount of property was accepted as a qualification for voting. Southern leaders, unwilling to disfranchise any of the poor white men who had stood side by side with them “in the dark days of reconstruction,” also resorted to a famous provision known as “the grandfather clause.” This plan admitted to the suffrage any man who did not have either property or educational qualifications, provided he had voted on or before 1867 or was the son or grandson of any such person.

The devices worked effectively. Of the 147,000 negroes in Mississippi above the age of twenty-one, only about 8600 registered under the constitution of 1890. Louisiana had 127,000 colored voters enrolled in 1896; under the constitution drafted two years later the registration fell to 5300. An analysis of the figures for South Carolina in 1900 indicates that only about one negro out of every hundred adult males of that race took part in elections. Thus was closed this chapter of reconstruction.

The Supreme Court Refuses to Intervene.—Numerous efforts were made to prevail upon the Supreme Court of the United States to declare such laws unconstitutional; but the Court, usually on technical grounds, avoided coming to a direct decision on the merits of the matter. In one case the Court remarked that it could not take charge of and operate the election machinery of Alabama; it concluded that “relief from a great political wrong, if done as alleged, by the people of a state and by the state itself, must be given by them, or by the legislative and executive departments of the government of the United States.” Only one of the several schemes employed, namely, the “grandfather clause,” was held to be a violation of the federal Constitution. This blow, effected in 1915 by the decision in the Oklahoma and Maryland cases, left, however, the main structure of disfranchisement unimpaired.

Proposals to Reduce Southern Representation in Congress.—These provisions excluding thousands of male citizens from the ballot did not, in express terms, deprive any one of the vote on account of race or color. They did not, therefore, run counter to the letter of the fifteenth amendment; but they did unquestionably make the states which adopted them liable to the operations of the fourteenth amendment. The latter very explicitly provides that whenever any state deprives adult male citizens of the right to vote (except in certain minor cases) the representation of the state in Congress shall be reduced in the proportion which such number of disfranchised citizens bears to the whole number of male citizens over twenty-one years of age.

Mindful of this provision, those who protested against disfranchisement in the South turned to the Republican party for relief, asking for action by the political branches of the federal government as the Supreme Court had suggested. The Republicans responded in their platform of 1908 by condemning all devices designed to deprive any one of the ballot for reasons of color alone; they demanded the enforcement in letter and spirit of the fourteenth as well as all other amendments. Though victorious in the election, the Republicans refrained from reopening the ancient contest; they made no attempt to reduce Southern representation in the House. Southern leaders, while protesting against the declarations of their opponents, were able to view them as idle threats in no way endangering the security of the measures by which political reconstruction had been undone.

The Solid South.—Out of the thirty-year conflict against “carpet-bag rule” there emerged what was long known as the “solid South”—a South that, except occasionally in the border states, never gave an electoral vote to a Republican candidate for President. Before the Civil War, the Southern people had been divided on political questions. Take, for example, the election of 1860. In all the fifteen slave states the variety of opinion was marked. In nine of them—Delaware, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Arkansas—the combined vote against the representative of the extreme Southern point of view, Breckinridge, constituted a safe majority. In each of the six states which were carried by Breckinridge, there was a large and powerful minority. In North Carolina Breckinridge’s majority over Bell and Douglas was only 849 votes. Equally astounding to those who imagine the South united in defense of extreme views in 1860 was the vote for Bell, the Unionist candidate, who stood firmly for the Constitution and silence on slavery. In every Southern state Bell’s vote was large. In Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee it was greater than that received by Breckinridge; in Georgia, it was 42,000 against 51,000; in Louisiana, 20,000 against 22,000; in Mississippi, 25,000 against 40,000.

The effect of the Civil War upon these divisions was immediate and decisive, save in the border states where thousands of men continued to adhere to the cause of Union. In the Confederacy itself nearly all dissent was silenced by war. Men who had been bitter opponents joined hands in defense of their homes; when the armed conflict was over they remained side by side working against “Republican misrule and negro domination.” By 1890, after Northern supremacy was definitely broken, they boasted that there were at least twelve Southern states in which no Republican candidate for President could win a single electoral vote.

Dissent in the Solid South.—Though every one grew accustomed to speak of the South as “solid,” it did not escape close observers that in a number of Southern states there appeared from time to time a fairly large body of dissenters. In 1892 the Populists made heavy inroads upon the Democratic ranks. On other occasions, the contests between factions within the Democratic party over the nomination of candidates revealed sharp differences of opinion. In some places, moreover, there grew up a Republican minority of respectable size. For example, in Georgia, Mr. Taft in 1908 polled 41,000 votes against 72,000 for Mr. Bryan; in North Carolina, 114,000 against 136,000; in Tennessee, 118,000 against 135,000; in Kentucky, 235,000 against 244,000. In 1920, Senator Harding, the Republican candidate, broke the record by carrying Tennessee as well as Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Maryland.

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