August 03, 2011

The Second Redeemer Movement: A 150 year southern rebellion continues

We recently noted that the current debt ceiling fight is part of the greatest political rebellion in this country since the Civil War, an attempt by a small minority to undermine 75 years of majority-approved progress in the United States. Sirius Radio's Mark Thompson compares it to the Redeemer Movement of the Reconstruction Era, a backlash against the reforms of that period. It also represents another factor in the great unanswered question of American history: who really won the Civil War? While slavery was abolished, in many other ways the former pro-slavery constituency has been a major force - often the major force - in American politics. With the success of the civil rights movement the nature of southern political power shifted from southern Democrats to a new southern Republicanism, but the underlying principles were typically the same.

Above is a chart posted by Andrew Sullivan that provides further evidence: nearly two thirds of the Tea Party caucus in Congress consists of southern Republicans.

The Redeemer Movement

 Wikipedia - In the 1870s, southern Democrats began to muster more political power as former Confederates began to vote again. It was a movement that gathered energy up until the Compromise of 1877, in the process known as the Redemption. White Democratic Southerners saw themselves as redeeming the South by regaining power.

The Redeemers' program emphasized opposition to the Republican governments, which they considered to be corrupt and a violation of true republican principles. They also worked to reestablish white supremacy. The crippling national economic problems and reliance on cotton meant that the South was struggling financially. Redeemers denounced taxes higher than what they had known before the war. Redeemers wanted to reduce state debts. Once in power, they typically cut government spending; shortened legislative sessions; lowered politicians' salaries; scaled back public aid to railroads and corporations; and reduced support for the new systems of public education and some welfare institutions.

As Democrats took over state legislatures, they worked to change voter registration rules to strip most blacks and many poor whites of their ability to vote. Blacks continued to vote in significant numbers well into the 1880s, with many winning local offices. Black Congressmen continued to be elected, albeit in ever smaller numbers, until the 1890s. George Henry White, the last Southern black of the post-Reconstruction period to serve in Congress, retired in 1901, leaving Congress completely white.

In the 1890s, the Democrats faced challenges with the Agrarian Revolt, when their control of the South was threatened by the Farmers Alliance, the effects of Bimetallism and the newly created People's Party. On the national level, William Jennings Bryan defeated the Bourbons and took control of the Democratic Party nationwide.

Democrats worked hard to prevent such populist coalitions. In the former Confederate South, from 1890 to 1908, starting with Mississippi, legislatures of ten of the eleven states passed disfranchising constitutions, which had new provisions for poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements that effectively disfranchised nearly all blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. Hundreds of thousands of people were removed from voter registration rolls soon after these provisions were implemented.

People in the movement chose the term "Redemption" from Christian theology. Historian Daniel W. Stowell concludes that white Southerners appropriated the term to describe the political transformation they desired, that is, the end of Reconstruction. This term helped unify numerous white voters, and encompassed efforts to purge southern society of its sins and to remove Republican political leaders.