Regaining Southern Power: Comparing Whites in the South after the Civil War with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
It is common to hear people talk about the Civil War as a war that was fought to abolish slavery. It is cited as an example of American determination to bring freedom to all regardless of past wrongs. This narrative continues with the northern states-- the Union-- as the victor, and the eventual abolition of slavery. However, the American Civil War, its causes, and its eventual effects are much more complex than this narrative belies. After the American Civil War, there was a power struggle in the South; white Southerners used many tactics to regain power after the war officially ended.
/> Today, the Democratic Party is often associated with liberalism and a more progressive approach to politics. However, in the past, the Democratic Party-- particularly in the South-- was a much more conservative party than its counterpart, the Republican Party (McPherson, 1988). After the South lost the Civil War and slavery was abolished under federal law, the southern Democratic Party saw itself quickly hemorrhaging power in its traditionally strong constituencies and locales (McPherson, 1988).
The “new departure” policy was not particularly popular among white Southerners, many of whom still considered themselves loyal to the Confederacy. There was a split among southern Democrats during this time, with the New Departure Democrats remaining conciliatory and the more hard-line southern Democrats continuing to support slavery, secession, and the Confederacy (McPherson, 1988).
However, political maneuvering was the mildest form of maneuvering that white Southerners used to regain their lost power in the South. In 1876, an election year, white Southerners used intimidation tactics and often outright violence to prevent African-American individuals from voting at the polls (Hammer, 2011). This disenfranchisement went on for many years. Officially, disenfranchisement of African American males was legally ended in 1908 with civil rights legislation; however, de facto disenfranchisement went on for much longer (McPherson, 1988). This issue became one of the key issues in the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.
Reactionary social movements usually share some similarities, even if they are fundamentally different in their goals and purposes, and the reaction of the Southerners after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are no exception to this rule. The Civil Rights Movement and the reactionary movements of the white Southerners after the Civil War were fundamentally different, however, and their approaches to civil change were more different than they were similar.
In the South immediately following the Civil War, some Southerners began to maneuver themselves politically so that they could align more closely with the Union. They realized that the war was won, and that to survive, they had to adapt. However, under the surface, there was still a culture of oppression and anger seething against African-Americans in the South.
Few Southerners wanted the slaves freed; this was not necessarily a reflection of philosophical ideals, but was a purely economic desire for many. The slave trade meant free labor for Southern farmers, and the abolition of the slave trade meant that Southern farmers would struggle financially with the burden of continuing to make their living (McPherson, 1988). Their struggle was a struggle to regain power, which meant that they utilized political tactics as well as intimidation tactics to maintain as much power as possible during the time they could feel it slipping away.
On the other hand, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement were a group that was trying to obtain power. This automatically makes the two movements diametrically opposed: one side was fighting to retain oppressive power, while the other was fighting to free itself of it. For this reason, the white Southerners resorted to intimidation tactics, often violent ones; things like lynchings and cross-burning by the Ku Klux Klan became commonplace in the South after the Civil War (McPherson, 1988).
Intimidation tactics and violence only work if they appear credible; a group like African Americans who are disenfranchised and have little power in society are not as likely to be taken seriously if they use these types of tactics against the group in power. White Southerners, on the other hand, had a history of violence against African-Americans, and their continued violence just perpetuated the cycle.
The two movements were also different in their political tactics. The Civil Rights Movement sought out federal protections and asked the government to limit State power. This is important because the state governments were usually responsible for the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the United States (Weisbrot, 1990). The New Departure Democrats, on the other hand, were much more concerned with maintaining states’ rights as a method of maintaining the status quo in the South immediately following the Civil War (McPherson, 1988).
One tactic that was not used by white Southerners that was used extensively during the Civil Rights Movement was the tactic of non-violent non-cooperation. Nonviolent resistance was one of the most important tactics in the fight for African American civil rights and civil liberties, as it exposed the terrible behavior of the oppressive majority for what it truly was (Weisbrot, 1990).
Nonviolent protest was the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement, and it worked for good reason-- it turned the oppressors into the villains of the movement. When the country witnessed nonviolent protesters being assaulted by whites all over the country, the attitude towards the Civil Rights Movement slowly changed. However, this was not necessary in the South, where the support for the disenfranchisement and continued abuse of African-Americans was still there in the population.
Whites in the South after the Civil War had a vested interest in two things: maintaining the status quo of oppression and abuse of African Americans for their own economic gain, and manipulating the political system to allow them to do so with minimal interference from the North. They achieved both these ends quite effectively for a number of years, and the New Departure Democrats were fundamentally important in achieving these ends.
The Gilded Age and the Nouveau Riche
The idea of a “gilded” age sounds noble and prosperous; it sounds as though the country came through a time of stress and trial and into a world full of riches and shared wealth. However, the American Gilded Age, which took place after the American Civil War in the late 1800s, was not the land of milk and honey that the name implies (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). During the time after the Civil War, the country experienced extreme social and systematic upheaval. Due to the Industrial Revolution, more and more people were moving to the cities, away from agricultural work; in addition, the new technologies allowed for entrepreneurship and expansion without limitations, as there are today.
It is no coincidence that most of the wealthiest men of all time were men made during the Gilded Age of the United States. It was a time of booming expansion with little restriction; ethics were flexible, and laws could be broken by those with enough money. It was the age of the rise of the American Dream: the dream that anyone, regardless of birth, could rise to the top of society and live a wealthy life (Edwards, 2006). However, what many people do not realize is that the man who coined the phrase “The Gilded Age,” Mark Twain, was not offering the country a compliment when he began to use it. Twain used the phrase to describe an age that was defined by the thin veneer of gold over the social problems that still lay, seething and boiling, close to the surface (Edwards, 2009).
The Gilded Age showed heavy industrial growth, and the growth of the railroads in the United States was one of the most important technological and economic influences on the era. Not only did the growth of the railroad influence economic growth and concentrate extreme wealth in the hands of a few entrepreneurs, it allowed people of many different social classes to move around with much greater ease than ever before (Edwards, 2009). Similarly, during this time, the United States solidified its lead in the field of applied technology. This was an era in which the inventor and the entrepreneur were highly prized, and heavily rewarded for their risk-taking (Edwards, 2009).
The economic super-powered families of the Gilded Age are often referred to as “robber barons” because of the way in which they gained and wielded their political and economic power (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). Many people of the time considered these families-- families such as the Morgan family, the Rockefeller family, and the Carnegie family-- to have used unethical, underhanded, or downright illegal means to gain the power that they had (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). It is common to hear tales of corruption and deceit when historians discuss the ways in which these families consolidated power. During this time, workers' rights were still ignored, so these individuals could often exploit their workers and subject them to horrible, harsh conditions to ensure that their companies made massive profits (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007).
During this time, immigration to the United States was booming. While there was some backlash from Americans against the new immigrants, by and large, they were accepted into society as workers, although it was not until many years later that many of these groups gained full political and social franchisement (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). The large amount of immigration was particularly important for the robber-barons of the age because immigrants were, essentially nearly free labor, and completely interchangeable (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). Training for the tasks that immigrants were required to do was minimal, and the work was risky; however, if an individual was injured working on the railroad, for instance, he could be easily replaced by another cog in the machine (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007).
However, the economic and legal conditions of the Gilded Age were not to last. The idea of the American Dream clashed horribly with the conditions that workers were exposed to in the new industrialized sector, and workers unions began to form in most sectors after 1870 (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). This is why the families that amassed their fortunes during the Gilded Age are still held up as bastions of the American Dream today: there has not been a set of economic, political, and social circumstances in the time before or since the Gilded Age that allowed for the type of expansion that these families took advantage of (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). As immigrants began to acclimatize to their new country, they began to learn the language and amass more power-- both political and economic power. As this happened, they began to thirst for the type of wealth and success that they could see in the superpowered families of the age: the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and so on.
During the Gilded Age, the “nouveau riche,” made up of the families that had newly attained upper-class status, ushered in a new set of social circumstances for the United States (Edwards, 2009). Many believed, during this time, that the social problems of the past-- particularly those that led to the Civil War-- were forever in the past. However, this was not the case; the new separation between the classes invited new and different types of strife and conflict, especially as people in lower socioeconomic classes had a difficult time reaching the same heights as the superpowered families of the era (Edwards, 2009).
Horatio Alger, a famous writer and thinker of the Gilded Age, is responsible for much of the fervor for the “bootstraps” mentality of the era. He wrote a series of books that elucidated the value of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, and securing one’s own destiny (“Gilded Age (1878-1889),” 2007). His novel Ragged Dickˆwas particularly famous for this philosophy. These stories, although highly exaggerated versions of what was possible for the average individual, were supported by the rich and powerful of the time, because it allowed them to say that the reason why the poor were poor was because they were not working hard enough (Edwards, 2009). He created, essentially, the “rags to riches” trope that is still popular in America today.
However, as can be seen by Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller, very few Americans actually lived the “rags to riches” story. These three men were the pillars of American society, controlling the steel industry, the financial industry, and the oil and coal industries, respectively. There were other notable names of the time, of course, but these three men are remembered today as the quintessential “rags to riches” American stories. However, while each man started out relatively modestly, each was gifted with a combination of two things: unique foresight into the coming Industrial Revolution, and a unique set of uncontrollable social, economic, and political circumstances that allowed them to succeed. The growth of the Transcontinental Railroad, for instance, allowed all three men to make massive amounts of money as they invested in it.
These men often extolled the virtues of laissez-faire economics; thus, social Darwinism was another idea that came into vogue during this era, and it is unsurprising that it did so, as it is tied in closely with the idea of the American dream and a laissez-faire economy. Social Darwinism is an idea that socially and economically, only the fittest in a society will survive and thrive; everyone else is doomed to fail because they are not equipped to survive (Edwards, 2009). The economic impact of this philosophy suited the robber barons very well: they could consider themselves superior beings, as social Darwinism taught that a group that is less successful is less successful due to inherent inferiority (Edwards, 2009). This philosophy led to a number of regressive economic and social policies, such as a number of eugenics programs (Edwards, 2009). It also allowed the wealthy to keep the poor downtrodden and disenfranchised.
Social Darwinism has, today, been thoroughly debunked as a theory; however, during the Gilded Age, it allowed the rich to feel superior to the poor-- morally and economically superior-- and justify their continued excess with a pseudo-scientific theory (Edwards, 2009). Alger’s work was tied closely to the idea of social Darwinism: he valued the individual who persevered and succeeded despite all the adversity that he or she had faced in his lifetime (Edwards, 2009).
The Gilded Age was a unique time in American history and, although it was a relatively short era in American history, has had a lasting impact on the collective American psyche. Today, the American Dream continues to be an ideal held by many people. This is a holdover from the Gilded Age and the massive economic growth that the country experienced during this time. Although there have been good times and bad since then, the Gilded Age gave Americans a sense of optimism and confidence in their country and their abilities as Americans that still carries over in some ways to this day.
Americaslibrary.gov (2007). Gilded Age (1878-1889). [online] Retrieved from: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/gilded/jb_gilded_subj.html [Accessed: 13 Apr 2013].
Edwards, R. (2006). New spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hammer, C. (2011). Great Expectations for the Civil War. [online] Retrieved from: http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24413 [Accessed: 13 Apr 2013].
McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle cry of freedom: The Civil War era. New York: Oxford University Press.
Weisbrot, R. (1990). Freedom bound: A history of America's civil rights movement. New York: Norton.