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  • Legitimacy and InterventionismNorthern Republicans, the “Terrible Carpetbagger,” and the Retreat from Reconstruction
  • K. Stephen Prince (bio)

After the Civil War, an Ohio native and Union army veteran named Albion Tourgée headed South, intending to do his part in the region’s political and social rebirth. Settling with his family in Greensboro, North Carolina, he bought a home, started a law practice, and involved himself in Republican Party politics. His fondest hope, he told his wife, was to “do good” in his adopted region. Events soon robbed Tourgée of much of his optimism. He watched a tide of white supremacist conservatism overtake North Carolina. The Ku Klux Klan killed two of his political associates and repeatedly threatened his family. The North Carolina Democratic press unmercifully pilloried him as a dangerous outsider, a corrupt interloper, and an incorrigible nuisance. Sitting in his Greensboro home at the close of Reconstruction, Albion Tourgée was left to survey the wreckage, capturing the failed promise and tragic betrayal of the period in a novel whose very title—A Fool’s Errand—spoke volumes as to its tone and its contents.1

Though copious in its criticism of murderous and anti-democratic white southerners, A Fool’s Errand reserved some of its most stinging rebukes for the North. Tourgée had little trouble understanding white southern distrust of the northern strangers that came into their midst after the war—known then, and ever since, as “carpetbaggers.”2 What he failed to comprehend was the maddening ease with which the northern public had sold out its own. “Perhaps there is no other instance in history,” Tourgée fumed, “in which the conquering power has discredited its own agents, denounced those of its own blood and faith, espoused the prejudices of its conquered foes, and poured the vials of its wrath and contempt upon the only class in the conquered territory who defended its acts, supported its policy, promoted its aim, or desired its preservation and continuance.”3 The North, Tourgée insisted, had betrayed the carpetbaggers. [End Page 538]

The carpetbagger remains one of the most enduring symbols of the Reconstruction era. Technically, a carpetbagger was simply a northerner who went South in the wake of the Civil War and took part in Republican Party politics.4 For most of its lifespan, however, the term has been an epithet, denoting a lowly, immoral northern opportunist, a demagogue who preyed on the defeated South, perverted sectional peace, and rose to power by deceiving African American voters. As late as 1988, historian Richard N. Current’s classic Those Terrible Carpetbaggers could be labeled “a reinterpretation” precisely because it insisted upon the humanity of these historical villains. Current concluded that the carpetbaggers were, in reality, no better and no worse than most other Americans. The average carpetbagger was an educated, moneyed Union veteran who hoped to make his home in the South and entered politics largely as an afterthought. Some were undoubtedly corrupt, but many others were honest and deeply committed to the ideals of Reconstruction, to African American civil rights, and to the rebuilding of the South.5 If Current successfully debunked the terrible carpetbagger stereotype, the more recent work of historian Ted Tunnell has shed important light on its provenance. “Carpetbagger” was never a value-neutral term, Tunnell argues. From the first, it was an ingenious piece of political propaganda, a highly self-conscious “rhetorical weapon” that white southerners coined to discredit Radical Reconstruction and African American suffrage.6 The carpetbagger’s less-than-sterling historical reputation, Tunnell concludes, had less to do with graft and corruption than it did with the politics of white supremacy.

If we accept, with Current and Tunnell, that the carpetbaggers were not actually that terrible, we are still left to account for the phenomenon that Tourgée described—the widespread, nearly universal, northern acceptance of the “terrible carpetbagger” stereotype during the latter years of Reconstruction. A study of the northern Republican repudiation of the carpetbagger promises to shed new light on the manner in which Americans conceptualized and experienced the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction. As it traces the fate of the carpetbagger in the northern Republican print media...


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pp. 538-563
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