In the last preceding chapter it was stated that the reason for the sanguinary revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of the Republican state government in the State of Mississippi in 1875, would be given in a subsequent chapter. What was true of Mississippi at that time was largely true of the other Reconstructed States where similar results subsequently followed. When the War of the Rebellion came to an end it was believed by some, and apprehended by others, that serious and radical changes in the previous order of things would necessarily follow.
But when what was known as the Johnson Plan of Reconstruction was disclosed it was soon made plain that if that plan should be accepted by the country no material change would follow, for the reason, chiefly, that the abolition of slavery would have been abolition only in name. While physical slavery would have been abolished, yet a sort of feudal or peonage system would have been established in its place, the effect of which would have been practically the same as the system which had been abolished. The former slaves would have been held in a state of servitude through the medium of labor-contracts which they would have been obliged to sign,—or to have signed for them,—from which they, and their children, and, perhaps, their children's children could never have been released. This would have left the old order of things practically unchanged. The large landowners would still be the masters of the situation, the power being still possessed by them to perpetuate their own potential influence and to maintain their own political supremacy.
But it was the rejection of the Johnson Plan of Reconstruction that upset these plans and destroyed these calculations. The Johnson plan was not only rejected, but what was known as the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction,—by which suffrage was conferred upon the colored men in all the States that were to be reconstructed,—was accepted by the people of the North as the permanent policy of the government, and was thus made the basis of Reconstruction and readmission of those States into the Union.
Of course this meant a change in the established order of things that was both serious and radical. It meant the destruction of the power and influence of the Southern aristocracy. It meant not only the physical emancipation of the blacks but the political emancipation of the poor whites, as well. It meant the destruction in a large measure of the social, political, and industrial distinctions that had been maintained among the whites under the old order of things. But was this to be the settled policy of the government? Was it a fact that the incorporation of the blacks into the body politic of the country was to be the settled policy of the government; or was it an experiment,—a temporary expedient?
These were doubtful and debatable questions, pending the settlement of which matters could not be expected to take a definite shape. With the incorporation of the blacks into the body politic of the country,—which would have the effect of destroying the ability of the aristocracy to maintain their political supremacy, and which would also have the effect of bringing about the political emancipation of the whites of the middle and lower classes,—a desperate struggle for political supremacy between the antagonistic elements of the whites was inevitable and unavoidable. But the uncertainty growing out of the possibility of the rejection by the country of the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction was what held matters in temporary abeyance. President Johnson was confident,—or pretended to be,—that as soon as the people of the North had an opportunity to pass judgment upon the issues involved, the result would be the acceptance of his plan and the rejection of the one proposed by Congress.
While the Republicans were successful in 1868 in not only electing the President and Vice-President and a safe majority in both branches of Congress, yet the closeness of the result had the effect of preventing the abandonment of the hope on the part of the supporters of the Johnson administration that the administration Plan of Reconstruction would ultimately be adopted and accepted as the basis of Reconstruction. Hence bitter and continued opposition to the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction was declared by the ruling class of the South to be the policy of that section. While the Republicans were again successful in the Congressional elections of 1870 yet the advocates of the Johnson plan did not abandon hope of the ultimate success and acceptance by the country of that plan until after the Presidential and Congressional elections of 1872. In the meantime a serious split had taken place in the Republican party which resulted in the nomination of two sets of candidates for President and Vice-President. The Independent or Liberal Republicans nominated Horace Greeley of New York, for President, and B. Gratz Brown, of Missouri, for Vice-President. The regular Republicans renominated President Grant to succeed himself, and for Vice-President, Senator Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts, was selected.
The Democratic National Convention endorsed the ticket that had been nominated by the Liberal Republicans. The Republicans carried the election by an immense majority. With two or three exceptions the electoral vote of every state in the Union was carried for Grant and Wilson. The Republicans also had a very large majority in both branches of Congress.
Since the result of the election was so decisive, and since every branch of the government was then in the hands of the Republicans, further opposition to the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction was for the first time completely abandoned. The fact was then recognized that this was the settled and accepted policy of the Government and that further opposition to it was useless. A few of the southern whites, General Alcorn being one of the number, had accepted the result of the Presidential and Congressional elections of 1868 as conclusive as to the policy of the country with reference to Reconstruction; but those who thought and acted along those lines at that time were exceptions to the general rule. But after the Presidential and Congressional elections of 1872 all doubt upon that subject was entirely removed.
The Southern whites were now confronted with a problem that was both grave and momentous. But the gravity of the situation was chiefly based upon the possibility,—if not upon a probability,—of a reversal of what had been the established order of things, especially those of a political nature.
The inevitable conflict between the antagonistic elements of which Southern society was composed could no longer be postponed. But the colored vote was the important factor which now had to be considered and taken into account. It was conceded that whatever element or faction could secure the favor and win the support of the colored vote would be the dominant and controlling one in the State. It is true that between 1868 and 1872, when the great majority of Southern whites maintained a policy of "masterly inactivity," the colored voters were obliged to utilize such material among the whites as was available; but it is a well-known fact that much of the material thus utilized was from necessity and not from choice, and that whenever and wherever an acceptable and reputable white man would place himself in a position where his services could be utilized he was gladly taken up and loyally supported by the colored voters.
After 1872 the necessity for supporting undesirable material no longer existed; and colored voters had the opportunity not only of supporting Southern whites for all the important positions in the State, but also of selecting the best and most desirable among them. Whether the poor whites or the aristocrats of former days were to be placed in control of the affairs of the State was a question which the colored voters alone could settle and determine. That the colored man's preference should be the aristocrat of the past was perfectly natural, since the relations between them had been friendly, cordial and amicable even during the days of slavery. Between the blacks and the poor whites the feeling had been just the other way; which was due not so much to race antipathy as to jealousy and envy on the part of the poor whites, growing out of the cordial and friendly relations between the aristocrats and their slaves; and because the slaves were, in a large measure, their competitors in the industrial market. When the partiality of the colored man for the former aristocrats became generally known, they—the former aristocrats,—began to come into the Republican party in large numbers. In Mississippi they were led by such men as Alcorn, in Georgia by Longstreet, in Virginia by Moseby, and also had as leaders such ex-governors as Orr, of South Carolina; Brown, of Georgia, and Parsons, of Alabama.
Between 1872 and 1875 the accessions to the Republican ranks were so large that it is safe to assert that from twenty-five to thirty per cent of the white men of the Southern States were identified with the Republican party; and those who thus acted were among the best and most substantial men of that section. Among that number in the State of Mississippi was J.L. Alcorn, J.A. Orr, J.B. Deason, R.W. Flournoy, and Orlando Davis. In addition to these there were thousands of others, many of them among the most prominent men of the State. Among the number was Judge Hiram Cassidy, who was the candidate of the Democratic party for Congress from the Sixth District in 1872, running against the writer of these lines. He was one of the most brilliant and successful members of the bar in southern Mississippi. Captain Thomas W. Hunt, of Jefferson County, was a member of one of the oldest, best, and most influential families of the South. The family connections were not, however, confined to the South; George Hunt Pendelton of Ohio, for instance, who was the Democratic candidate for Vice-President of the United States on the ticket with McClellan, in 1864, and who was later one of the United States Senators from Ohio, was a member of the same family.
While the colored men held the key to the situation, the white men knew that the colored men had no desire to rule or dominate even the Republican party. All the colored men wanted and demanded was a voice in the government under which they lived, and to the support of which they contributed, and to have a small, but fair, and reasonable proportion of the positions that were at the disposal of the voters of the State and of the administration.
While the colored men did not look with favor upon a political alliance with the poor whites, it must be admitted that, with very few exceptions, that class of whites did not seek, and did not seem to desire such an alliance. For this there were several well-defined reasons.
In the first place, while the primary object of importing slaves into that section was to secure labor for the cultivation of cotton, the slave was soon found to be an apt pupil in other lines of industry. In addition to having his immense cotton plantations cultivated by slave labor, the slave-owner soon learned that he could utilize these slaves as carpenters, painters, plasterers, bricklayers, blacksmiths and in all other fields of industrial occupations and usefulness. Thus the whites who depended upon their labor for a living along those lines had their field of opportunity very much curtailed. Although the slaves were not responsible for this condition, the fact that they were there and were thus utilized, created a feeling of bitterness and antipathy on the part of the laboring whites which could not be easily wiped out.
In the second place, the whites of that class were not at that time as ambitious, politically, as were the aristocrats. They had been held in political subjection so long that it required some time for them to realize that there had been a change. At that time they, with a few exceptions, were less efficient, less capable, and knew less about matters of state and governmental administration than many of the ex-slaves. It was a rare thing, therefore, to find one of that class at that time that had any political ambition or manifested any desire for political distinction or official recognition. As a rule, therefore, the whites that came into the leadership of the Republican party between 1872 and 1875 were representatives of the most substantial families of the land.