Unit Ten: Freedpeople and the Republican Party

"Negro recruits at Charleston," Charleston, South Carolina, April 1865, <em>Harper's Monthly Magazine<em>, </em></em>courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

"Negro recruits at Charleston," Charleston, South Carolina, April 1865, Harper's Magazine, courtest of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

In the last two years of the American Civil War, the Republican Party and the Lincoln administration moved hesitantly toward linking emancipation with the preservation of the Union. On plantations across the South, however, slaves seem to have grasped from the outset that their freedom was bound up with the fortunes of the Union military. In pockets of Confederate territory recaptured in 1861 by federal troops in eastern North Carolina and on the sea islands below Charleston, military and government officials began to patch together the new systems of labor and civil authority that would replace slavery once the war ended. Still, it was not until Confederate surrender in April 1865 that discussions began in earnest about the extent to which freedpeople would be regarded as full citizens. Questions remained over whether they would have the right to vote or hold office, testify in court, or have a meaningful say in constructing the new society. Freedpeople played a central role in forcing this discussion, and in pushing it in more democratic directions.

On a national level, the Republican Party was deeply divided over its commitment to black freedom. A minority, known as the Radicals, fought consistently for a more expansive vision compatible with the ex-slaves demands, but most Republicans brought to the task a limited free labor outlook that drew a sharp line between civil and economic equality. On the right of the Party, some Republican leaders had been reluctantly drawn into the frontal assault on slavery, and insisted that the abolition of slavery ended their obligations to freedpeople. Former slaves would rise or fall depending on their own efforts, they argued, and without government assistance. In the middle, the majority of northern Republicans were pulled in both directions. They were anxious (especially in the early years after the war) to deny former Confederates the space to rebuild a system that pushed blacks back into slavery, but they did not have a concrete plan for ensuring this, and often lacked a genuine commitment to thoroughly transforming the southern social order. Black freedom therefore depended on an alliance between freedpeople and the Radicals of the Republican Party—a partnership that was fraught with internal tensions and buffeted by fluctuations in support among the northern public.

"The Radical Convention in Philadelphia," woodcut with letterpress, September 3, 1866,&nbsp;courtesy of Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Engraving illustrates degrading stereoptyes of interracial political alliances.

The Radical Convention in Philadelphia, September 3, 1866, woodcut with letterpress, courtesy of Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Engraving illustrates degrading stereoptyes of interracial political alliances.

Benjamin Tillman, ca. 1905, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Tillman participated in one of the most prominent paramilitary skirmishes that took place in South Carolina during reconstruction, the Hamburg Massacre (1876), which resulted in the death of seven African Americans. No whites were prosecuted for the killings, and Tillman later boasted about his role in these events during his successful 1890 campaign for governor of South Carolina.

Benjamin Tillman, ca. 1905, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Tillman participated in one of the most prominent paramilitary skirmishes that took place in South Carolina during reconstruction, the Hamburg Massacre (1876), which resulted in the death of seven African Americans. No whites were prosecuted for the killings, and Tillman later boasted about his role in these events during his successful 1890 campaign for governor of South Carolina.  

 

In some ways, freedpeople in South Carolina were in a more favorable position to influence Republican politics than their neighbors in North Carolina. South Carolina was one of two ex-slave states with a black majority, and after freedpeople won the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, it became virtually impossible for white conservatives to return to power there through legal means. Still, in North Carolina, where whites were in the majority, the presence of a substantial number of white Unionists who had opposed the war partially offset freedpeople's numerical weakness, adding strength to the Republican Party.

There were real possibilities for winning at least a minority of whites to the Republican ranks, and in North and South Carolina the Party's ranks included a number of whites willing to risk ostracism and violence to forge alliances with freedpeople. Still, deep-rooted racial divisions, combined with bitterness over the results of the war, made the widespread development of interracial political alliances an uphill battle. Freedpeople soon discovered that even wartime Unionists could not be counted on to defend black rights. In both states, the project of sustaining a Republican government required serious organization, persistence in the face of continual challenges, and for activists on the ground, great personal sacrifice—including risking their lives. Armed confrontations shaped what historian Steven Hahn describes as "paramilitary politics" during Reconstruction. Over time a pattern of chronic skirmishing, in which whites usually overpowered and outgunned their black adversaries, played an important role in undermining the possibilities for black political assertion in the Carolinas. Both the Unit Nine Documents and Unit Ten Documents feature documents that provide insight into these paramilitary conflicts in the Carolinas.

As Reconstruction came under greater strain in the early 1870s, underlying tensions in the Republican ranks became more apparent and debilitating. In both North and South Carolina, the strategies of white moderates never neatly corresponded with the aspirations and expectations of their mostly destitute, ex-slave constituents. Within postwar black communities, tensions between former slaves and a rising minority of relatively prosperous black leaders also became more pronounced. These divisions between white and black Republican leaders and their base began to be felt acutely at a time when white conservatives were recovering their momentum and aggressively raising the banner of white unity. The federal commitment to black rights began to wane, and following the Panic of 1873, the clamor to withdraw government officials from entanglement in the South and from the side of supporting freed slaves grew louder. Under these pressures, Republican strength began to wither, opening the door to the restoration of "white home rule" after the mid-1870s.