After Slavery: Educator Resources

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5. Matthew C. Butler - Planters React to Being Ignored by Government

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Eight: Planters, Poor Whites and White Supremacy in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

It can sometimes be difficult to document the subtle changes in attitude that underlay more concrete and observable political actions. Since planters controlled much of the material resources of the South and wielded great political and social influence, their responses to Reconstruction were of great importance.

Had enough of them been convinced to support the changes brought about by Reconstruction, the entire episode might have ended quite differently. In the excerpt from the Congressional testimony on the Ku Klux Klan below, Matthew Calbraith Butler, a prominent attorney and Confederate general, reflects on the response of men of his class to the Reconstruction government in South Carolina. Butler also comments on his experience as the candidate for lieutenant governor in 1870 on the Union Reform ticket. The Union Reform movement was an attempt by South Carolina Democrats to join forces with more moderate Republicans in the state to prevent, or at least delay, the changes being brought about by the Radical Republicans, who advocated greater rights for African Americans and poor whites. Frustrated in his aspirations in 1870, Butler turned away decisively from cooperating with Republicans and was a key leader in the 1876 "straight-out" campaign in South Carolina that brought Reconstruction to an end.

Matthew C. Butler - Planters React to Being Ignored by Government

By Mr. STEVENSON: Question. I would like to understand the meaning of the word "people." Do you mean the white people?

Answer. Yes, sir, I mean white people.

By Mr. VAN TRUMP: Question. Have you made as full an answer as you desire to the general question why the people of South Carolina did not readily and cheerfully accept the reconstruction measures?

Answer. I think there are other causes. I think the existence of disabilities upon that class of people upon whom we had been accustomed to look with confidence has been a cause: The want of confidence manifested in keeping these disabilities upon the people of the State has produced indifference in the minds of many that would not otherwise have existed. On the contrary, I think the relations of the people of the State would have been more cordially restored, not only to the State government, but to the General Government, if a more liberal policy had been pursued toward those men who had been recognized by the people theretofore. I think there was a general feeling among the people of the State that the old politicians should not necessarily be restored to power. I do not think they felt it at all. I think their feeling was that the most prominent men in the confederate army should not be brought forward. They preferred men of conservative views, and men who had not been prominent in politics, not prominently identified with the secession movement. That was very much the feeling of the people. I think that was one of the main causes of dissatisfaction, if there is any; it has not developed itself into open hostility, bit there is an amount of indifference which I think would not have existed if a different policy had been pursued. And in that canvass, last year, the acts of corruption, the partisanship, the most flagrant mismanagement and misgovernment that has probably ever disgraced any government, and which is notorious in South Carolina.

Question. Is not that admitted by a great many republicans?

Answer. A great many. These facts were brought to the attention of the General Government. I presume it must know it. We were making an honest effort, regardless of party alliances, each desirous of suspending for the time all party affiliations, for the purpose of securing an honest government without regard to political opinions. I had got to that point when I did not care for political opinions if I was governed honestly, and allowed the opportunity of restoring my fortune, and not oppressed by a persistent system of taxation which amounted to practical confiscation and robbery.

Question. Is it not a fact, general, in relation to the leading men of South Carolina, that they would prefer now and have preferred a restoration to quiet, order, and the undisturbed prosecution of their business to political life altogether?

Answer. Yes, sir; I have no doubt of it. We had got very tired of excitement in the four years of war. I was simply desirous of being let alone, but a man could not quietly sit down and permit it. He must do one of two things, leave the country, or make an honest effort to improve matters. I think if any people in the world ever did do that, the white people of South Carolina did last year.

Question. Is it that state of things which has produced this apparent indifference of the people of South Carolina to public affairs?

Answer. I think so. I think if the people ever made an honest effort to bring about a better state of things, regardless of politics, the white people of South Carolina did last year.

Question. It is complained that influential citizens of the State have not exerted themselves to put down violence in South Carolina. Is that true?

Answer. I do not think it is true. It is true in one particular and not true in another. Wherever that class of men have had an opportunity of expressing a sentiment anything like a uniform sentiment, they have denounced it.

Question. On what occasions have they denounced it?

Answer. I remember here the manifesto of the democratic party in 1868, issued by the committee of which General Hampton was president. There were several such acts. When that man Randolph was killed the democratic committee issued a sort of manifesto.

Question. An address?

Answer. Yes, sir, calling upon the young men and all others to obey the laws and refrain from violence. And in the tax-payer's convention the same condemnation was put upon violence. But my position is simply this: until I am allowed to have a voice, either directly or indirectly, in the State government; until influential men, men who have the right to express an opinion, are allowed to utter a voice, I, for one, do not intend to raise my hand against it; and for this reason, gentlemen of the State have approached Governor Scott and offered him every assurance in the world of a desire to maintain the law, however odious the law may be, recognizing it as better than no law at all. They have given him every assurance that they would sustain him in every effort. Instead of those assurances being received in the spirit in which I think they ought to have been received, he has, until recently, discarded them.

Question. He has repented lately?

Answer. Yes, sir. He says, practically, "I am governor of this State; I am charged with the execution of the laws, and I will run this machine my own way." What is the result? A riot takes place in Edgefield. He might, by simply going out and standing on a box and calling to the people "stop," have stopped it. But I have no idea of jeopardizing my life when my suggestions are treated as they have been. I say as long as you don't touch my house, shoot and kill as many as you please; and that is the feeling all over the State. In a conversation with the governor a short time ago, I said to him. "Governor, you ought to be satisfied that you cannot carry on this State government, certainly by men of this character." He said, "I am satisfied of that."

Question. Did he not become so satisfied of it that he called a conference of men of all parties?

Answer. Yes, sir; and I will do him the justice to say that, whenever he has had the opportunity, he has made amends for many inefficient appointees by appointing good men to office.

Source: Report of the Joint Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States [South Carolina, Volume II], (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1872), p.1190.


Questions to Consider

  1. What group of people does Butler believe should be running the political show in South Carolina?

  2. Why does Butler say he would not work to end Ku Klux Klan violence?

  3. When Butler describes men like himself as "men who have the right to express an opinion," what does he assume should be the basis for political participation and leadership?

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