2. Fiscal Policy and the Failure of Radical Reconstruction in the Lower South
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2 Fiscal Policy and the Failure of Radical Reconstruction in the Lower South One of the most pernicious difficulties afflicting the historiography of Reconstruction is that few historians of Reconstruction have done much research on the antebellum period that preceded it. White South­ ern voters who judged Reconstruction policies at the polls viewed those policies from the perspective of a lifetime’s experience with their state government; history did not begin for them in 1867. But too many historians approach Reconstruction as the carpetbaggers at the time did: devoid of any thorough knowledge of what the earlier policies of South­ ern governments had been, relying instead on a few facts and hostile legends. This absence of an accurate conception of the antebellum context is arguably a principal reason that the carpetbaggers were so markedly unsuccessful in their efforts to hold the allegiance of native white voters. And it is the principal reason, I believe,that recent historians have so misunderstood the factors underlying white small farmers’ desertion of the Republican cause. In his first book, published three-­ quarters of a century ago, Professor C. Vann Woodward laid much stress upon the necessity of appreciating the connections between antebellum po­ liti­ cal assumptions and postbellum discontent among white small farmers.He sought to show that the lines of descent in South­ ern history join antebellum policies and the attitudes of the Populists.1 But that lesson has still not been learned. Recent historians of Reconstruction,displaying little sensitivity to the worldview of nineteenth-­ century white South­ ern small farmers, have therefore been unable to offer any compelling explanation for small farmers’ behavior during the decade. Small farmers’increasing distrust of the Republicans,and their eventual cooperation with the Redeemer Democrats in overthrowing Reconstruction, have been attributed simply to racism.2 I would certainly not wish to question the power of racial antipathies in shaping the course of South­ ern history.Racism cannot serve,however,as an all-­ purpose explanation for white small farmers’electoral behavior.Another essential concern of the work of Professor Woodward has been his effort to demonstrate that lower-­ middle-­and lower-­ class whites have of­ ten been Fiscal Policy / 29 willing to rise above their racial attitudes when presented, as in Populism, with a po­ liti­ cal or economic movement that offered real hope of ameliorating their hard lot.3 As depicted in much of the recent historiography, Republicanism ought to have been just such a movement. Republicans, we are told, established or greatly increased support of pub­ lic schools. They aided the building of railroads into the hill counties.They looked with favor on a wide variety of eleemosynary institutions. If white small farmers were not wholly averse to cooperating with blacks in the Populist effort to make the government the defender of the masses, one must wonder why their racism had so inhibited such cooperation only twenty or so years earlier. The answer is that Republicanism was not at all like Populism. One important difference between them, I should admit, reinforces the notion that racism was at the root of small-­ farmer behavior.The Populists did not take nearly so strong a stand in favor of legal guarantees of equal rights for blacks. But the Populist experience seems to me to indicate that the small farmers might even have tolerated on practical po­ liti­ cal grounds the passage of state and federal civil-­ rights acts,if the Republican Party had otherwise been vigorously espousing policies that promised small farmers important benefits. Far from promising them benefits, however, Republican policies may actually have seemed to be inimical to their interests. Many poorer whites did indeed support the Republicans early in Reconstruction , even though doing so meant working with blacks and Yankees. But the fiscal policies that the Republicans implemented, once in power, drove, I think, white small farmers into the arms of the Redeemers. And the final irony of this process is that many Republicans, particularly those who were carpetbaggers, never really comprehended why the small farmers were so hostile to these policies. The explanation I would offer for the white small farmers’ perception of Republican fiscal policies turns upon an understanding of the fiscal policies they replaced.The principal source of tax revenue in all of the lower South states during most of the antebellum period was the tax on slaves.4 The slave tax constituted some 60 percent of the total receipts in South Carolina and 30 to 40 percent in the others. The...


Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1951-.
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