3. Alabama’s Presidential Reconstruction Legislature
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3 Ala­bama’s Presidential Reconstruction Legislature The South’s Presidential Reconstruction state legislatures have not had a good press.Suspicious Radical Republicans at the time thought them dominated by the former slavocracy and secessionists. The Black Codes a num­ ber of them enacted seemed to Radicals—and not without good reason— to represent an effort to recreate slavery in another form. Modern scholars, beginning with W. E. B. Du Bois, have echoed these charges, and have joined the Radicals in regarding the legislatures’membership and actions as proof of the fecklessness and racism of President Andrew John­ son’s postwar policies. Yet few of these scholars have subjected the legislatures to close scrutiny. An examination of the personnel and proceedings of Ala­ bama’s legislature, for instance, must cause one at least to question many of the Radicals’suspicions, and may even lead the student to doubt the wisdom of the Radicals’ response to President Johnson’s endeavors.1 I Studies of Presidential Reconstruction have universally failed to note the marked decline in the wealth and social standing of the men elected to the initial postbellum legislatures. In Ala­ bama, at any rate, nothing is more significant than this fact, however. Until the final dozen years of the antebellum period, Ala­ bama’s legislators had generally been men of relatively modest means. I have elsewhere explored the changing socioeconomic composition of the legislature before the Civil War.2 In 1830 the median legislative slaveholding was 9, and in 1840 it was 9.5. In 1830 half of the legislators were in the middle class of small slaveholders (owners of five to nineteen slaves), while planters (owners of twenty or more slaves) and members of the lower-­ middle and lower grouping (nonslaveholders and owners of one to four slaves) were each a fourth of the members. Large planters (owners of fifty or more slaves) were only 7 percent of the total. By 1840 the increased social polarization that came with the advent of two-­ party competition had eroded the middle 72 / Chapter 3 class’s numbers from both above and below, so that planters, the middle class of small slaveholders, and the lower-­ middle and lower-­ class members were each a third of the legislators. The economic and geographical divisions within the state upon which the party sys­ tem was built—focused as it was primarily on questions of banking and internal improvements—are apparent in the legislators’ slaveholdings; through­ out this period, the median slaveholding of Whig legislators was double that of Democrats. But large planters were still only 10 percent of the membership. The rise of the Young America movement within the Democracy in the years after the Mexican-­ Ameri­ can War had a marked effect on the wealth of Ala­ bama legislators in the 1850s. The exacerbation of sectional tensions in national politics that flowed from Young America’s enthusiasm for territorial aggrandizement, and Young America’s openness to internal improvements and economic modernization, showed themselves in an increasing representation of planters among Ala­ bama’s lawmakers in the final antebellum decade. By 1850 the median legislative slaveholding had risen to 12.5, and by 1860 it had reached 17. In 1850 the lower-­ middle and lower class and the middle class were again about a third of the legislators, as they had been in 1840. But the proportion of large planters advanced from 10 percent of the members to almost 18 percent. And by 1860, the lower-­ middle and lower grouping and the middle class had fallen in each case to about a fourth of the legislators, while planters were now half of the membership, and large planters a fourth of it.3 The devastation wrought by civil war effectively burst the bubble of increasing legislative wealth that had characterized the 1850s and returned the lawmakers to the humbler status they had occupied for most of the antebellum era, even if measured in antebellum terms.This development seems to have begun in the general election of 1863, when secessionists suffered a widespread electoral repudiation.4 The median legislative slaveholding for the legislators chosen in No­ vem­ ber 1865 (derived from the Census of 1860) Table 3.3. Median legislative slaveholding Total House Senate % Large Slaveholders 1829–31 9  8 12  7% 1839–41 9.5  8 19 10% 1849–50 12.5 11 16 18% 1859–60 17 14 19.5 23% 1865–67 8  7 13 13% Alabama’s Presidential Reconstruction Legislature / 73 fell from...


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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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