Shifting Republican Focus

Black Members of Congress remained loyal Republicans, but their allies at home and in Congress were quickly disappearing. As Democrats reasserted their power, southern politics in the post-Reconstruction years witnessed the rapid collapse of Radical Republican state governments, which had drawn from the ranks of newly freed African-American men. Over just a short time, a cadre of local, state, and national politicians—composed of many former Confederates and Democrats—undermined the Republican regimes and ended the regional experiment in multiracial democracy. In the “redeemed” South, the Democratic Party eventually became synonymous with the codification and formalization of racial segregation.

Though the Republican Party’s ideological makeup remained complicated in the late 1880s, two primary factions emerged—the “reformers” and the “money men.” Reformers clung to the idealistic plans of postwar Radical Republicans to extend full civil rights to African Americans. Yet they began to lose support in the face of popular demands to lay the unfulfilled egalitarian promises of Reconstruction America to rest. A growing interest in American commercial power—the stance of the “money men”—led Congress to deprioritize civil rights legislation.12

Harper's Cartoon Depicting Election Violence/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_death_polls_free_federal_interference_-1879_LC_USZ62_127750.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Harper’s Weekly published “Death at the polls, and free from federal interference” in 1879. The illustration depicts the deadly violence that characterized elections in the post-Reconstruction South.
In the 1880s and early 1890s, control of the House chamber seesawed between Democrats unsympathetic to the concerns of African Americans and Republicans increasingly ambivalent to those same concerns. Though one reformer implored Republican colleagues to “never surrender the great principles of human liberty of which [the party] was the born champion,” Republican leaders sensed little electoral opportunity in pushing for black voting rights in the South.13 One historian explains that the Republicans “harbored some hope that if race was no longer salient in southern politics, other issues might rise to the surface and become the catalyst for a realignment of the parties. . . . [I]f the Republican Party in the South was no longer identified with and supported by black voters, it might have the opportunity to redefine itself and become accepted as a legitimate political entity” by white Southerners.14 Black Representatives admonished their party for abandoning the freedmen. “A veritable set of fools a few of our party leaders have been,” Thomas Miller said on the House Floor in February 1891. “They will listen to all the cheap sentimentality sounded under the name of negro domination and business prostration, be swerved from a plighted duty to a faithful constituency the country over.”15

Rapid industrialization brought major changes to America’s economy and, consequently, to American society. Race reforms, however, just as quickly disappeared from the political agenda and out of the public eye. Between 1869 and 1899, the population of the United States nearly tripled. Railroads extending to the Pacific Ocean allowed goods to travel around the country cheaply; the invention of the telephone in 1876 improved communication; entrepreneurs such as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie amassed fortunes in manufacturing. In 1890, for the first time in American history, industrial workers outnumbered farmers.16 Emigration from southern Europe had begun to increase, just as the American frontier was declared closed. Taking stock of the previous century of American development, the journalist and historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the nation had entered a new, uncertain era. “Movement has been . . . [America’s] dominant fact,” he told an audience at the American Historical Association, gathered for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. “But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. . . . The frontier is gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”17

Langston Taking the Oath/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_langston_admission_House_1200_book.xml John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1894). In a difficult campaign for the House in 1888, John M. Langston lost to his opponent Edward Venable by 641 votes. Langston, however, was seated in the Republican-controlled House after contesting the election results in his Virginia district. This sketch depicts Langston taking the Oath of Office in the well of the House. Empty seats in the foreground belong to Democrats who left the chamber in protest.
Such tectonic social shifts created cultural uncertainty. Historian Robert Wiebe describes late-19th-century America as a “distended society.” Industrialization and expansion swept away the familiar rhythms and guideposts of local community life, leaving “a society without a core” and widespread “dislocation and bewilderment.”18 Even long familiar political landmarks were in flux. According to historian Robert Marcus, the issues of race and sectionalism during the Civil War and Reconstruction “[stabilized] political loyalties by keeping eyes focused on a past full of familiar friends and enemies,” and “fulfilled some of the need for order.” But by the 1880s and 1890s, “politicians could only guess at the direction in which the electorate was moving and wonder if the party system they knew was capable of containing the new populations, new pressures, and the new demands that all parts of an increasingly interconnected society made on the political system.”19 The Republican Party recast itself the party of commerce and hesitated at “waving the bloody shirt”—the tactic that Radicals used during Reconstruction to stir up resentment against the South by recalling the sacrifices of Union troops. Instead, as the memories of the war and Reconstruction faded by the mid-1890s, GOP politicians found unprecedented success with their new economic message.20

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12Thomas Adams Upchurch, Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004): 9–12, 74– 84; Charles W. Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869–1900 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006): 7–32.

13Congressional Record, House, 56th Congress, 2nd sess. (7 January 1901): 74.

14Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001): 229.

15Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 2nd sess. (14 February 1891): 2694.

16Upchurch, Legislating Racism: 12; Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism, 1885–1914 (1957; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 7–24.

17Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in Frederick Jackson Turner: Wisconsin Historian of the Frontier, ed. Martin Ridge (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986): 26–47.

18Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967): 11–12.

19Robert D. Marcus, Grand Old Party: Political Structure in the Gilded Age: 1880–1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971): 10–11, 19.

20Marcus, Grand Old Party: 20, 90–91, 93.