Of all the factors shaping American history before and after the Civil War, perhaps the most overlooked is impudence. Even the word “impudent” was in greater use then than it is now, a derivative of the Latin root for ashamed. That is, those who are impudent have forgotten that they should be ashamed of themselves.
We’ve already looked at how the Civil War was preceded by a long period in which both the North and the South defined their own moral good in contrast to the other’s moral bad. It is fundamental to social identity theory that we constantly strive to see our ingroup as superior to out groups. When we feel that they refuse to see what is good about us and bad about them, we say they are “impudent.” This is the key to understanding the period during which the North tried to reintegrate the South into American life.
Immediately after the war, the South attempted to reestablish it’s old social norms (see post). Though slavery was abolished, Confederates sought to rewrite state laws to keep first, African Americans and second, poor and middle class whites, subordinate to the old aristocracy of the planters.
This period, known as presidential reconstruction, came to an abrupt halt when northern Republicans launched the largest wave of progressive social and political reforms in American history, known as radical reconstruction. The engine behind this wave of progress, however, was not just outrage at the continued subjugation of blacks, but the seeming impudence of white southerners.
The South, frankly, did not seem to have learned its lesson. The Confederates were being impudent.
“As for Negro suffrage, the mass of the union men in the northwest do not care a great deal. What scares them is the idea that the rebels are all to be let back… And are to be made power in the government again, just as though there had been no rebellion,” wrote Chicago editor Charles A. Dana.
Remember that only a small minority of whites supported Republicans in the Reconstruction South, earning them a derisive nickname, “Scallywags.” And imported white Republicans earned an equally negative name, “carpetbaggers.” Named for their luggage, carpetbaggers were successfully cast by southern historians as avaricious itinerants come down to make a quick buck. But historian Eric Foner writes they were the same breed of man who went west at this time: often educated professionals, they were looking for a new opportunity in a new land.
At the same time, many southern counties had a majority black population, and more than 90 percent of blacks supported the Republican Party. Former slaves were eager to make use of their new-found Civil rights, forming political organizations, attended conventions and running for office.
It’s remarkable that scallywags, carpetbaggers and freed slaves found unity as Republicans in the face of a society that saw race as the most important, unchanging identity.
With the support of the activated Republican Congress, however, southern states denied voting to former Confederate rebels (the 14th Amendment) leaving politically active blacks, scalawags and carpetbaggers with enough clout to win office. This coalition was the same in 1867-1870 as it was in 2017 when it elected Democrat Doug Jones to the US Senate. The combination produced an array of impressive social and government reforms, including:
- Election of the first black elected officials in many positions, from the county levels to Congress
- Establishment of public schools
- Progressive tax reform
- Protections for workers
- Infrastructure investment
Many of these progressive leaps were made together. Henry E. Haynes was the son of a white South Carolina politician and his mulatto slave. During Radical Reconstruction he was first elected to the state Senate, then the Secretary of State.
While other states opened black colleges during this time, South Carolina attempted to integrate its university. Haynes enrolled as its first black student, “whereupon a majority of white students withdrew, along with much of the faculty,” notes Foner. “In response, the legislature brought in professors from the North, abolished tuition charges, and established preparatory classes for those unable to meet admission requirements.”
Nonetheless, these were the accomplishments of a fragile ingroup. Reading Republican newspapers in the South was dangerous before the war, and afterward being elected as a Republican was worse. Skallywags were often ostracized, friends with neither their white nor black neighbors. Carpetbaggers found themselves cut out of business, unable to find work or contracts with offended Democrats, who controlled most of the southern economy.
Meanwhile blacks, who had been completely excluded from participating in the government just a few years before, were now trying to represent themselves in legislative bodies without formal educations, contending with the question of how to create an economically independent class from the poorest of people. And, what had once been a diverse group of free blacks, slaves, some business people as well as a large contingent of highly educated mixed-race blacks from Louisiana were lumped together politically in one group of “negros.”
Increasingly, politics offered the only path to employment or respectability in Southern Society for Republicans black and white. Corruption was the order of the day, as jobs and sweetheart deals were handed out. Southern society at large continued to view blacks only as farm labor. And as they built political power, electing black leaders to such important positions as the local sheriff and US Senate, they were seen by most white southerners as unbelievably impudent.
Just as northern Republicans reacted strongly to southern Democrats attempts to resume business as usual after the war, political activism by blacks and political accomplishment by skallywags, carpetbaggers created a backlash. But this backlash had a name and the will to kill: the Ku Klux Klan.
“More commonly violence was directed not at Alleged criminals but against ‘impudent Negros’ — those who no longer adhered to patterns of behavior demanded under slavery. In North Carolina freedman related how, after he was whipped, Klan assailants ‘told me the law— their law, that whenever I met a white person no matter who he was, whether he was poor or rich, I was to take off my hat,’” Foner wrote.
There’s no way in this post we could possibly describe the horrors of the clan. But we will give it a go in our next.
Sufficient to say here that,when combined with frustration at high taxes in the South and a crippling recession nationwide, the Democrats’ willingness to murder their opponents would eventually give them back control of the Confederate states. Much of the progress made was washed away, including South Carolina’s decision to close its university in 1877, four years after its integration.