The Reconstructed South
The Presidential election of 1876 proved to be an historical one, with both the Republicans and the Democrats claiming victory. Both parties committed fraud in the election; Republicans had discarded legitimate Democratic ballots cast in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, while Democrats had illegally prevented freed black men in the south from voting. To settle the dispute, Democrats and Republicans retired to a backroom in a Washington hotel. In this room the Compromise of 1877 was created. The Democrats agreed to let the Republican candidate claim the Presidency in exchange for the removal of the federal troops stationed in South Carolina and Louisiana. The Democrats went on to ask for federal monetary aid in order to improve the economy in the south. In return, the Democrats promisedto treat the freedmen fairly. So, with the shake of a hand, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidential election and Reconstruction of the South was over.
Rutherford B. Hayes was a “graduate of Harvard Law School, successful criminal lawyer, brevet major-general in the Civil War, congressman, and three-time governor of Ohio” (Podell 229). Hayes’ election in a way was a reaction to the corrupt nature of his predecessor, Ulysses S. Grant. While Grant was surrounded by scandals for much of his presidency, Hayes was viewed as an honest moderate Republican. In addition, Hayes felt compelled to try and bridge the gap between the people of the north and the south that was created by the Civil War. His most important tool for accomplishing this was the speech. In 1877, Hayes embarked on a tour of the south targeting southerners and northerners. He made many speeches on the tour “in which he encouraged both sides to forget the past and even joked about his own war wounds” (Podell 231). In one such speech, “The Reconstructed South,” given in Atlanta, Georgia on September 24, 1877, Hayes talks about the success of Reconstruction, the newly achieved equality of black men in the south, and the bright future that lay ahead for all American citizens. In reality, the black people in the south were about to face one of the worst periods of their lives. The peace and equality that Hayes claimed existed in the south turned out to be nothing more than a myth. Blacks in the south would suffer politically, economically, and socially after the end of Reconstruction.
In his speech, “The Reconstructed South,” Hayes called for all Americans to “wipe out in our politics the color line forever” (Hayes qtd. in Podell 232). No longer would the north and south be politically divided on the subject of race, and no longer would blacks be prevented from taking part in the political system of the country. In reality, the end of Reconstruction signaled the end of the brief period of black suffrage. First, former slaves were prevented from voting by the ultimate enforcer of southern white supremacy: The Ku Klux Klan (KKK). KKK members committed a variety of crimes against blacks in order to accomplish their goal. Beatings, rapes, shootings, arson, and destruction of black property were common occurrences in the south. The KKK even went as far as murder. “Through the 1880s and 1890s, an average of about a hundred blacks were lynched annually in the United States, mainly in the south” (Boyer et al. 599). In addition, white southerners used loopholes in the 15th Amendment to prevent blacks from voting. Tools southerners used to accomplish this included poll taxes, property requirements, and literacy tests. In addition, any political office positions that blacks had achieved after the end of the Civil War were taken away. In 1890, Mississippi, spurred by a desire to “purify” politics, amended its State Constitution and banned blacks from voting or holding office. After the Supreme Court upheld the Mississippi Plan, political conditions for blacks across the south worsened as other states followed in the footsteps of Mississippi. Without black suffrage, Hayes’ claim of a nonexistent color line within the political system proved to be only a myth.
In his speech, Hayes went on to claim that “every description of industry and legitimate business needs peace. That is what capital wants. Discord, discontent, and dissatisfaction are the enemies of these enterprises” (Hayes qtd. in Podell 232). The reality of the economic situation for the freedmen in the south was the exact opposite of what Hayes proclaimed it to be. For blacks living in the south, peace was a rarity in an economic system filled with discord, discontent, and dissatisfaction. Although blacks were no longer slaves, they also were by no means economically independent as a whole. Through labor contracts, whites southerners limited black mobility in order to preserve a captive black labor force. Under these contracts, freedmen received housing, food, clothing, and few wages in exchange for fieldwork. Freedmen who broke these labor contracts, in addition to freedmen who broke other laws, went to prison where they were forced into a convict-lease system. This system “brought income to hard-pressed state governments and provided factories, railroads, mines, and large-scale farms with a predictable, controllable, and cheap labor supply” (Boyer et al. 599). Freedmen who opted to buy their own land to farm, instead of working on plantations, didn’t fare any better. “By the end of Reconstruction, only a small minority of former slaves in each state owned working farms” (Boyer et al. 459). Lacking the economic resources (i.e. capital) to buy land, many blacks found themselves forced into sharecropping. “Under the sharecropping system, [white] landowners subdivided large plantations into farms of thirty to fifty acres, which they rented to freedmen under annual leases for a share of the crop, usually half” (Boyer et al. 460). This system proved to be more beneficial to white landowners than to black sharecroppers, who often sank into debt to whites in times of depression. Left poor and without “forty acres and a mule,” freedmen exhibited discord, discontent, and dissatisfaction within the economic system of the south. Hayes’ proclamation of peace within the economy never came into being.
Finally, in his speech, Hayes declared that “it is the duty of the general government to regard equally and alike the interests and rights of all sections of this country…I believe, further, that it is the duty of the government to regard alike and equally the rights and interests of all classes of citizens” (Hayes qtd. in Podell 232). Once again, in reality, social equality for blacks in the south was a complete myth. The south began passing laws that segregated blacks and whites. Soon after, these laws were challenged in a court of law. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1886), the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law requiring segregated railroad cars. As long as the accommodations were equal, the court said, separate accommodations were constitutional. This gave the south the green light to pass further legislation segregating blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws spread like wild fire throughout the south. These laws ensured social segregation in transportation, schools, courts, public facilities, etc. They defined, in a far more strict and legalistic manner, race relations than even those that had existed before the Civil War. While in theory, as stated in the law, separate accommodations for blacks and whites were to be equal, in practice separate accommodations were far from it. For example, in the segregated school system of the south, white children studied in nicer buildings, used newer equipment, and were taught by higher-paid teachers. Segregation clearly illustrates that, in contrast to Hayes’ proclamation, the social status of blacks in the south was no where near equal to that of the whites.
The philosophy displayed by Rutherford B. Hayes in his speech, “The Reconstructed South,” can be summed up in the final line of the speech. Addressing both northerners and southerners, Hayes declared “[y]ou may quarrel about the tariff, get up a shar
p contest about the currency, about the removal of the state capitals and where they shall go to, but upon the great question of the Union of the states and the rights of all the citizens, we shall agree forevermore” (Hayes qtd. in Podell 232). Of course, in reality, the north and the south could not disagree more on the issues regarding the freedmen. Southerners desired a politically powerless, economically dependent, socially segregated black population. In contrast, Hayes’ claims of a colorless political system, a peaceful economic system, and an equal social system would never come into fruition. Over the years, blacks in the south would continue to face political, economic, and social inequality as a result of the government’s failed attempt to reconstruct the south.
Boyer, Paul S., et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Podell, Janet. Speeches of the American Presidents. Ed. Steven Anzovin. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1988.