How “White Supremacy” Was Born and Repainted

Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner

The South was as devastated during the Civil war of 1861 to 1865 as much as any nation in the annals of warfare.  By the end of the war, more than 250,000 Confederate soldiers, one out of every four white men, had been killed or died of wounds or disease. In addition, at least 50,000 Southern civilians died.  Over 40 percent of private property including homes, businesses, livestock, and crops had been destroyed. In South Carolina, where Sherman’s men had burned the capitol city of Columbia, over 50 percent of private property was destroyed. Most of this property damage was deliberately inflicted on the civilian population to deny the Confederate Army the logistical means of resistance, but also to demoralize their families and supporters at home.  It was ordered in cold calculation by Northern political and military leadership and often executed with self-righteous religious zeal or criminal abandon.  Neither Christian teachings nor modern Geneva Conventions condone such total war.  Reconstruction was an extension of that total war by political means.

Southern historian, Clyde Wilson, retired Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, described the purpose of Reconstruction as being “plunder, plunder, plunder,” rather than equality.  But Ludwell Johnson, Professor Emeritus of History at William and Mary, emphasized that the cardinal underlying objective of Reconstruction was to maintain and enhance the political dominance of the Republican Party, particularly that faction then referred to as the Radical Republicans. The incredible evils of Reconstruction exacerbated and prolonged racial tensions that are now being magnified and exploited by Radical Democrats, and this exploitive narrative has spread to almost the entire Democratic Party and most of the media and academia.  The ugly history of Reconstruction has now largely been covered up by the modern politically correct chains that dominate academia and the media.

To avoid a historical misunderstanding, it is necessary to point out that the Republican Party of the Civil War and Reconstruction bears little resemblance to the republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump. The Republican Party at that time was a party of big government serving big business. They believed in high protectionist tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing and supported generous government subsidies to powerful railroads, public works, and industrial interests. They were of the Hamiltonian philosophy of highly centralized government power and national banking. The Constitution and especially States Rights were frequently viewed as a hindrance to national prosperity and greatness.  There were, however, more moderate and conservative factions in the party. The Radical Republicans were a minority faction within the party, but had strong support in the press and were not adverse to devious and despotic methods of maintaining and exercising power.

     Neither did Democrats then much resemble Democrats today. They were more agrarian, socially conservative, and strongly committed to the decentralized, limited government outlined in the U. S. Constitution, including States Rights. During the Reconstruction years “Conservative” and “Democrat” were close political synonyms. Both parties at that time were generally conservative on social issues, although Southern Democrats generally placed more emphasis on biblical authority.  Few modern Democrats today adhere to the classical economic and political liberalism once honored by the party.  They have ironically in many ways become a close antecedent of the Radical Republicans in that they favor big government and strong centralized power. Also like the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction era, they have shaped and exploited racial tensions as a path to dominant political power.

The Republicans held power in congress during the Lincoln years, but Lincoln had only won the presidency in 1860 with 40 percent of the popular vote. This was because of a major division over slavery and other issues in the Democratic Party conventions of 1860. The Radical Republicans feared that re-admission to the Union of Democratic-voting Southern States would mean an end to Republican majorities and power in Congress and diminish further chances to elect Republican presidents.  Their solution was to change the demographic balance of power by automatically enfranchising black males and disenfranching most Confederate veterans and former office holders. Disfranchising of Confederate soldiers was already going on in predominantly Union held areas in 1864. When the War ended, most Confederate veterans in Tennessee were disfranchised by Radical Republican Governor William G. Brownlow. Here is a quote from Governor Brownlow in a speech in New York after the war.

 “I would like to see Negro troops under Ben Butler crowd every rebel into the Gulf of Mexico, and drown them as the devil did the hogs in the Sea of Galilee.”

An estimated 106,000 Confederate veterans were disfranchised in Tennessee. In 1857, 131,000 voted in the Tennessee Governor’s Election. Only 24,000 voters participated in the 1865 Tennessee gubernatorial election, which was before blacks could vote. Very few blacks voted in any state before 1865. Women could not vote in 1865, and the minimum age for males was generally 21.

The 13th Amendment made slavery illegal in 1865, but not until the 15th Amendment in 1870 was race prohibited as a voting qualification. The 19th Amendment gave women the vote in August 1919.

The Reconstruction Act of March 1867 placed 10 Southern states under military rule. This was because they refused to ratify the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment contained language which discriminated against Southerners who had served the Confederacy, and more importantly, turned the Constitution upside down.  Rather than limiting the powers of the federal government, it made federal government the interpreter and enforcer of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, and opened the opportunity for the federal government to expand the limits of its power and diminish the rights of states, local governments, and the people.  The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law…” Now it seemed that Congress was the arbitrator and unlimited authority for law, crushing States Rights and other liberties. The Radical Republicans also believed that Congress should be supreme over the presidency and executive branch, and the courts, as well as states.  

The March 1867 Reconstruction Act essentially enfranchised all black males reaching the age of 21 in the ten states under military rule and ambiguously called for disfranchising potential Confederate opposition to Radical rule. In practice, the degree, reasons, and number of Confederate veteran disfranchisements were left to the appointed governors of these states.  Ironically, although Southern blacks were given the right to vote by the Reconstruction Act, in the same year, voters in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Kansas refused to extend the franchise to blacks.  The Tennessee Legislature ratified the 14th Amendment without a proper quorum, but the aggressive radicalism of Governor Brownlow rescued Tennessee from the Reconstruction Act. Brownlow’s radicalism was, however, worse than the Reconstruction Act. Perhaps this is why KKK regulators originated in Tennessee and were strongest in Tennessee. When Brownlow left the Governor’s Office in 1869 to serve in the U.S. Senate, and a conservative Republican was elected Governor, the KKK began to recede.  

About 150,000 Confederate veterans were disfranchised in the 10 official Reconstruction states. Assuming that 1.0 million men served in the Confederate forces during the war, this would have been about 23 percent of the non-Tennessee survivors, enough to make Republicans certain of a comfortable Republican victory margin. But the estimated number of Confederates serving ranges from 600,000 to just over a million. Thus the number of surviving Confederates could be much lower and the percentage of disenfranchised Confederates much higher.  In Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina the white voter registration was reduced to between 35 and 37 percent. Voting dropped sharply between 1860 and 1868 in most Southern states. If we include Tennessee in an 11 Confederate state total, Confederate veteran disfranchisements were about 26 percent. The impact on white voting may have been much higher, however.  In many Southern states whites were either intimidated from voting or felt it was useless. Under Reconstruction, no Confederate Veteran was allowed to be a Registrar. Voting discrimination against Confederate veterans was also common in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia.

Neo-Marxist Columbia University Professor Eric Foner teaches that only 8,000 to 10,000 Confederates were disenfranchised, but election statistics and many oral histories do not reconcile with his politicized, agenda-driven assessment. 

The Reconstruction state governments were a corrupt and colossal disaster. You can read about it in my book, The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths. The irresponsible and wasteful legislative spending reached enormous levels. Moreover, corruption was widespread, and punitive and exploitive taxes soared.  There were many infringements on personal liberties and safety, and former Confederate families felt they had little recourse to justice. Reconstruction ended in 1877, and the end of carpetbagger state misgovernment, corruption, and oppression was a long-sought relief.

Donn Piatt, Washington newspaper editor, Union Brigadier General during the war, and personal friend of Lincoln editorialized that:

 “All race antagonism in the South came from carpetbaggers using the Negro votes to get their fingers in the treasury.”

Former Confederate Lt. General and future Georgia U.S. Senator and Governor, John Brown Gordon, told a Congressional Committee in 1871:

“We never had any apprehension from the conduct of the negroes until unscrupulous men came among them and tried to stir up strife.” 

Reconstruction was often referred to in the South as the years of Negro rule or Negro supremacy, although at its most influential levels, it was really white Radical Republican rule and supremacy.  White Southerners had decided that they wanted no more irresponsible government and tyranny and often spoke of the political alternative as white rule or white supremacy.  

Such was the birth of the political term “white supremacy,” which was a child of Radical Republican injustice and tyranny. It has now been adopted by the Democrat Party as a powerful cultural Marxist accusation of racist infamy. Like other Marxist social justice character assassinations, it is usually applied with no understanding, proof, or thoughtful consideration. Are we entering another era of radical Reconstruction and tyranny? 

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