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The "Redeemers" were a political coalition in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction era, who sought to oust the Republican coalition of freedmen, carpetbaggers and scalawags. They were the southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats, who were the conservative, pro-business wing of the Democratic Party.


File:The Color Line Is Broken.png

Political cartoon from 1877 by Thomas Nast portraying the Democratic Party's control of the South.

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 Redemption. White Democratic Southerners saw themselves as redeeming the South by regaining power. They appealed to scalawags (white Southerners who supported the Republican Party after the civil war and during the time of reconstruction).

More importantly, in a second wave of violence following the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan, violence began to increase in the Deep South. In 1868 white terrorists tried to prevent Republicans from winning the fall election in Louisiana. Over a few days, they killed some two hundred freedmen in St. Landry Parish. Other violence erupted, From April to October, there were 1,081 political murders in Louisiana, in which most of the victims were freedmen.[1] Violence was part of campaigns prior to the election of 1872 in several states. In 1874 and 1875, more formal paramilitary groups affiliated with the Democratic Party conducted intimidation, terrorism and violence against black voters and their allies to reduce Republican voting and turn officeholders out. These included the White League and Red Shirts. They worked openly for specific political ends, and often solicited coverage of their activities by the press. Every election from 1868 on was surrounded by intimidation and violence; they were usually marked by fraud as well.

In the aftermath of the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872 in Louisiana, for instance, the competing governors each certified slates of local officers. This situation contributed to the Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which white Democratic militia killed more than 100 Republican blacks in a confrontation over control of parish offices. Three whites died in the violence.

Later that year, thousands of armed white militia, supporters of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate John McEnery fought against New Orleans police and state militia in what was called the "Battle of Liberty Place". They took over the state government offices in New Orleans and occupied the capitol and armory. They turned Republican governor William Pitt Kellogg out of office, and retreated only in the face of the arrival of Federal troops sent by President Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1874 the White League turned out six Republican officeholders in Coushatta, Louisiana and told them to leave the state. Before they could make their way, they and five to twenty black witnesses were assassinated by white paramilitary. In 1874 such remnants of white militia formed the White League, a Democratic paramilitary group started first in Grant Parish of the Red River area of Louisiana, with chapters rising across the state, especially in rural areas.

Similarly, in Mississippi, the Red Shirts formed as a prominent paramilitary group that enforced Democratic voting by intimidation and murder. Chapters of paramilitary Red Shirts arose and were active in North Carolina and South Carolina as well. They disrupted Republican meetings, killed leaders and officeholders, intimidated voters at the polls, or kept them away altogether.

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. At that time, however, the states had few functions, and planters maintained private institutions only. 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.

In Alabama, for instance, in 1900 fourteen Black Belt counties had 79,311 voters on the rolls; by June 1, 1903, after the new constitution was passed, registration had dropped to just 1,081. Statewide Alabama in 1900 had 181,315 blacks eligible to vote. By 1903 only 2,980 were registered, although at least 74,000 were literate. From 1900 to 1903, white registered voters fell by more than 40,000, although their population grew in overall number. By 1941, more poor whites than blacks had been disfranchised in Alabama, mostly due to effects of the cumulative poll tax. Estimates were that 600,000 whites and 500,000 blacks had been disfranchised.[2]

African Americans and poor whites were totally shut out of the political process and left unable to vote for representation. Southern legislatures passed Jim Crow laws imposing segregation in public facilities and places. As blacks were segregated, millions of people were quickly affected, to devastating effect. The disfranchisement lasted well into the later decades of the 20th century. They were shut out of all offices at the local and state level, as well as Federal level. Those who could not vote could not run for office or serve on juries, so they were never judged by peers.

While Congress had actively intervened for more than 20 years in elections in the South which the House Elections Committee judged to be flawed, after 1896 it backed off from intervening. Many Northern legislators were outraged about the disfranchisement of blacks and some proposed stripping the South of seats in Congress. They never managed to accomplish that, as southern representatives formed a strong, one-party voting block for decades.[3] Although educated African Americans mounted legal challenges (with many secretly funded by educator Booker T. Washington and his northern allies), the Supreme Court upheld Mississippi's and Alabama's provisions in its rulings in Williams v. Mississippi (1898) and Giles v. Harris (1903).[4]

Religious dimension[]

People in the movement chose the term "Redemption" from Christian theology. Historian Daniel W. Stowell[5] 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.

It also represented the birth of a new southern society, rather than a return to its antebellum predecessor. Historian Gaines M. Foster explains how the South became known as the "Bible Belt" by connecting this characterization with changing attitudes caused by slavery's demise. Freed from preoccupation with federal intervention over slavery, and even citing it as precedent, white southerners joined northerners in the national crusade to legislate morality. Viewed by some as a "bulwark of morality", the largely Protestant South took on a Bible Belt identity long before H. L. Mencken coined the term.[5]


In the years immediately following Reconstruction, most blacks and former abolitionists held that Reconstruction lost the struggle for civil rights for black people because of violence against blacks and against white Republicans. Frederick Douglass and Reconstruction Congressman John R. Lynch cited the withdrawal of federal troops from the South as a primary reason for the loss of voting rights and other civil rights by African Americans after 1877.

By the turn of the century, white historians, led by the Dunning School, saw Reconstruction as a failure because of its political and financial corruption, its failure to heal the hatreds of the war, and its control by self-serving northern politicians, such as the people around President Grant. Historian Claude Bowers said that the worst part of what he called "the Tragic Era" was the extension of voting rights to freedmen, a policy he claimed led to misgovernment and corruption. The freedmen, the Dunning School historians argued, were not at fault because they were manipulated by corrupt white carpetbaggers interested only in raiding the state treasury and staying in power. They agreed the South had to be "redeemed" by foes of corruption. Reconstruction, in short, violated the values of "republicanism" and they classified all Republicans as "extremists". This interpretation of events was the hallmark of the Dunning School which dominated most history textbooks from 1900 to the 1960s.

Beginning in the 1930s, historians such as C. Vann Woodward and Howard K. Beale attacked the "redemptionist" interpretation of Reconstruction, calling themselves "revisionists" and claimed that the real issues were economic. The Northern Radicals were tools of the railroads, and the Republicans in the South were manipulated to do their bidding. The Redeemers, furthermore, were also tools of the railroads and were themselves corrupt.

In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois published a Marxist analysis in his Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. His book emphasized the role of African Americans during Reconstruction, noted their collaboration with whites, their lack of majority in most legislatures, and also the achievements of Reconstruction: establishing universal public education, improving prisons, establishing orphanages and other charitable institutions, and trying to improve state funding for the welfare of all citizens. He also noted that despite complaints, most Southern states kept the constitutions of Reconstruction for many years, some for a quarter of a century.

By the 1960s, neo-abolitionist historians led by Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner focused on the struggle of freedmen. While acknowledging corruption in the Reconstruction era, they hold that the Dunning School over-emphasized it while ignoring the worst violations of republican principles — namely denying African Americans their civil rights, including their right to vote.[6]

See also[]


  1. Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died, Henry Holt & Co., 2009, pp. 18-19
  2. Glenn Feldman, The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004, p.136
  3. COMMITTEE AT ODDS ON REAPPORTIONMENT, The New York Times, 20 Dec 1900, accessed 10 Mar 2008
  4. Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, pp. 12 and 21], accessed 10 Mar 2008
  5. 5.0 5.1 Blum and Poole (2005)


Secondary sources[]

  • Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (1993).
  • Baggett, James Alex. The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (2003), a statistical study of 732 Scalawags and 666 Redeemers.
  • Blum Edward J. and W. Scott Poole, eds. Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction. Mercer University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8655-4987-7.
  • Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935), explores the role of African Americans during Reconstruction
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2002)
  • Garner, James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901), a classic Dunning School text.
  • Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879 (1979)
  • Going, Allen J. "Alabama Bourbonism and Populism Revisited." Alabama Review 1983 36 (2): 83-109. Issn: 0002-4341
  • Roger L. Hart, Redeemers, Bourbons, and Populists: Tennessee, 1870-1896. LSU Press, 1975.
  • Jones, Robert R. "James L. Kemper and the Virginia Redeemers Face the Race Question: A Reconsideration." Journal of Southern History, 1972 38 (3): 393-414. Issn: 0022-4642
  • King, Ronald F. "A Most Corrupt Election: Louisiana in 1876." Studies in American Political Development, 2001 15(2): 123-137. ISSN: 0898-588x
  • King, Ronald F. "Counting the Votes: South Carolina's Stolen Election of 1876." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2001 32 (2): 169-191. ISSN: 0022-1953
  • Moore, James Tice. "Redeemers Reconsidered: Change and Continuity in the Democratic South, 1870-1900" in the Journal of Southern History, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Aug., 1978) , pp. 357–378.
  • Moore, James Tice. "Origins of the Solid South: Redeemer Democrats and the Popular Will, 1870-1900." Southern Studies, 1983 22 (3): 285-301. Issn: 0735-8342
  • Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879 (1984).
  • Perman, Michael "Counter Reconstruction: The Role of Violence in Southern Redemption", in Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr, eds. The Facts of Reconstruction (1991) pp. 121–140.
  • Polakoff, Keith I. The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (1973)
  • Rabonowitz, Howard K. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (1977)
  • Richardon, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction (2001)
  • Wallenstein, Peter. From Slave South to New South: Public Policy in Nineteenth-Century Georgia (1987).
  • Wiggins; Sarah Woolfolk. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865—1881 (1991)
  • Williamson, Edward C. Florida Politics in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893 (1976).
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951). emphasizes economic conflict between rich and poor.

Primary Sources[]

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