About 30 years ago I wrote about the disfranchisement campaigns after the Civil War and during the Populist movement of the 1880s-1890s. Leafing through some old papers, I realized that the topic was more relevant than ever, given the rabid Republican revival of the disfranchisement movement. It’s the same story, over and over again. Except, the last time around the Democrats were at the helm. Then again, back in the Old South, Democrats were just Democrats because they couldn’t be Republicans. Follow me below the fold for a history lesson, heavy on the irony….
Republicans are waging an all-out war on black and Latino voters. At least, that’s what their base thinks, because the Republican campaign for voting restriction is based on evoking the specter of dark hands at the ballot box, voting with nefarious, un-American purpose. There’s nothing but an Amen chorus to be heard from the Tea Party, or even from more authentically grassroots Republicans in the lower socio-economic brackets. The Republican middle-class (what there is left of it) is nodding genteel approve to more and more draconian policies. But the text of the sermon floats down from rarified air, from the pulpits of the privileged class.
Not that it falls on deaf ears — no, of course not. The white working class is hungry—those that still have jobs are performing the kind of service work they always assumed was the domain of those who were… darker. The white middle- class is hysterically trying to hold on to the status that credit bought them (dreading the knock of the debt collector at their door, dreading their pink slip even more). The fact that they both got there by pulling the wrong levers at the ballot box seems to be lost of the majority. Blaming immigrants and non-whites is much easier than facing the America they’ve (un)built. The Republican elite can see this as clearly now as they always have, and have returned to the same old divide-and-conquer strategies that have always worked so well for them. The disfranchisement push is one of those, though most white voters have no idea what it’s really about. As a student of history, however, I will stake a claim: Disfranchising minorities is a sweet by-product of the Republican elite’s real end game: disfranchising everyone who isn’t rich. And in the U.S., “everyone” still means mostly white folks.
The following is based on research I did about 30 years ago, but the past doesn’t change much. I never guessed it would happen again in the United States in my lifetime, but that’s the thing about history. Despite neoliberal claims about its “end,” history is alive and well, and still kicking us in the ass. So follow along as I set the Wayback Machine to 1876, and take you on a trip through agrarian radicalism, the Southern populist movement, and the southern disfranchisement movement. Be patient, because at first it will seem like I’m leading you far afield. But I promise, in the end you will understand the disfranchisement campaigns of today all too well.
After the Civil War, the two great parties of the United States faced each other across a geographical divide. The political party to which you belonged was almost entirely determined by which side you backed in the War Between the States. This left the U.S. in the curious position of being a two-party system composed of two geographically determined one-party regions.
The North was Republican and the south was Democratic. Southerners identified Republicans with abolitionists and industrial interests. The former had destroyed their slave-based way of life and sent troops to occupy her ground, and the latter had exploited the South as a colony, extracting her natural resources and taking advantage of the desperate poverty and devastation that the war had brought. Northerners, on the other hand, identified Democrats with Dixie Secessionists who had threatened the sanctity of the Union, whose traitorous actions had brought devastation on a generation of Northern youth and emptied the nation’s coffers. Thus, the Northerners “waved the bloody shirt,” and the Southerners voted “the party of the fathers.”
These were the sentiments of the majority of American voters, except for a segment of the Northern urban working class that declared itself anti-Republican (and was therefore Democratic), and a segment of the Southern population (black freedmen) who did not dare to declare themselves anti-Democratic, but who nonetheless voted Republican whenever they had the opportunity.
Neither party consistently held the balance of power. This was graphically illustrated by the disputed Presidential election of 1876. In South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, both Republicans and Democrats claimed the victory. The Democrats had raise ballot box manipulation to artistic heights, and the Republicans cried foul. In South Carolina and Louisiana, rival governments and administrations—one from each party—sprang up and effectively began a small-scale civil war. As it happened, the presidential race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden hinged on the disputed returns from those states. The House of Representatives had a Democratic majority and they launched a filibuster to prevent the electoral votes from being counted. If they held out, they could have indefinitely delayed the inauguration of the new President (whoever he was). It was looking mighty like Civil War could break out again.
So the center of decision shifted to certain small rooms. Hayes’ representatives met with the representatives from the South. A compromise was reached. The South would concede the election if the North would agree to pull out its troops and allow “home rule,” and grant the South certain economic concessions. This was done, leaving the South to quash the nascent black Republican vote in its midst, cementing the South as Democratic territory.
Still following? Good, because it hasn’t even begun to get complicated.
One party each, in two territories, does not a two-party system make—even if those two territories together call themselves a nation. And we all know the problems inherent in one-party systems: they can’t, by definition, be representative, and they tend to be controlled by the politically powerful and monied class. In the North, the situation is a bit easier to explain, so that’s where I’ll start.
By the 1880s, in the north and north-western states, there were three distinct groups, with three different sets of political interests: the farmers; the urban workers; and, the commercial classes. The Republican party was controlled and run for the benefit of the commercial interests—banks, industrialists, and the monied Eastern aristocracy who were most often involved in these pursuits. The farmers, who might in ordinary times have been Democrats, were compelled by the lack of political alternatives to remain members of a party that opposed their interests. The urban workers, many of whom were immigrants and had arrived since the Civil War (and who were thus not as susceptible to the coercive power of American political labeling) actually did become Democrats, and formed the bedrock of the Democratic city machines that we can still see in play in cities like Chicago today. But they were not the same kind of Democrats who inhabited the South (the implications of this will become clearer a bit later). They had little influence outside their urban environment and remained apart from the growing conflict of interest between the farmers and commercial interests.
Western farmers suffered from high interest rates on their farm equipment, steadily falling commodity prices, and the exorbitant rates charged by grain elevators and railroads (owned by Northern industrialists) that had a choke-hold on transport. They also suffered from increasing money shortages. Bankers and creditor-bondholders, who formed a powerful block in the Republican party, urged the government to keep the money supply at existing levels, while the population and the economy of the nation expanded. This forced general price levels down to a point at which it was no longer profitable to redeem paper “greenbacks” in gold to finance imports. The banker-creditors hoped that if the currency continued to contract, the U.S. would have to go back onto the “hard money” system of the gold standard.
Contraction was a blessing to banker-creditors, but a burden on the the nation’s producer-debtors, and it eventually drove the nation’s farmers into the Populist revolt. To use historian Laurence Goodwyn’s example:
Letting 10 farmers symbolize the entire population, and ten dollars the entire money supply, and ten bushels of wheat the entire production of the economy, it is as once evident that a bushel of wheat would sell for one dollar. Should the population, production, and money supply increase to twenty over period of, say, two generations, the farmer’s return would still be one dollar per bushel. But should population and production double to twenty while the money supply was held at ten—currency contraction—the price of wheat would drop to 50 cents. The farmers of the nation would get no more for twenty bushels of wheat than they had previously received for ten. Moreover, money being more scarce, interest rates would have risen considerably. A person who borrowed $1000 to buy a farm in 1868 would not only have to grow twice as much wheat in 1888 to earn the same mortgage payment he made earlier, he would be repaying his loan in dollars that had twice as much purchasing power as the depreciated currency he had originally borrowed.
It’s easy to see that the farmers and the commercial interests did not want the same thing, though both were nominally members of the same party.
But the Populist movement didn’t begin in the West. It began on the Southern frontier. And here’s where things move from complex to positively intricate.
In 1876, with the Hayes compromise, the Southern Democrats managed to rid themselves of the last vestiges of Republican rule, though some states, like Mississippi, had shed that rule earlier. At this point, most Reconstruction historians assert, the South was essentially a one-party region controlled by a white supremacist Democratic party that directed, by fair means or foul, the entirely subdued, though latently Republican, black political community. Many (white) Southern historians see this as the triumph of justice and the return of home rule, while Northern historians tend to see it as the final defeat of civil rights and democracy in the South for a very long time to come. But whatever they see it as, they see it. This is a watershed moment.
The victorious Southern Democratic party found itself, on the morning after Reconstruction was terminated, with no enemy to unite its various constituents. After an orgy of violent retaliation against Republican carpetbaggers and Black political leaders, the Democrats were left with nothing to do except contemplate themselves. It is easy enough to rally a white man’s party when there is (allegedly) a black man’s party, but when there is only one party, all made up of white men, it becomes glaring obvious that although all white men may be equally white, some are more equal than others.
The white farmers who lived in the primarily white hill counties of Southern states like Georgia were not happy to find themselves becoming subject to the merchant in much the same way that freedmen of the plantation low country were subject to the planter elite, under the crop lien system. In the crop-lien system, the merchant or planter agreed to furnish seed and supplies to the farmer and his family, on credit. The farmer then pledged, in advance, to repay the loan through income generated by selling his or crop. The system favored the creditor because merchants or planters were usually the only suppliers of goods, and they could set their prices according to their whim. Since they usually also collected the crop from the farmer (using their own machines to do the weighing) and sold the crops themselves, they got the farmer coming and going. The temptation to cheat the farmer appears to have been quite hard to resist; unscrupulous creditors were the rule rather than the exception. Farmers were economically bound to their creditors, politically dominated by them, and often unable to read, so they could not check the validity of the accounts kept by the merchant of planter. Most were reduced to a state of debt peonage and kept there indefinitely. Historian Stephen Hahn describes the situation:
As the class structure of the hills came increasingly to resemble that of the black belt, as the white farmers in the hills were forced into tenancy by the merchant elite’s monopoly on credit and increasing ownership of land, the position of the black belt planter-merchants and the hill country merchant landlords appeared to converge; a single ruling class with two branches seemed to have arisen.
Though, in the political power battle among the Democrat elites, the merchants were defeated by the planter-elite, their interests were still more closely allied to those of the planters than those of the tenants they exploited.
And it was out of that class of exploited Southern white yeoman farmers that the Populist movement emerged. It began in Texas, on the Southern frontier, in September of 1877, when a group of farmers formed the Farmer’s Alliance, a rural self-help organization. Many of these farmers had moved west to Texas to escape the tenant farmer system in their home states, and had found that the system followed them wherever they went. One of the founders of the Alliance was a man named S.O. Daws, who traveled around lecturing to people and persuading them to form “sub-alliances” based on the idea of “trade stores”—stores that were owned and operated by the farmers themselves, as collectives. Daws also spoke against the crop-lien system and the gold standard, but the Alliance maintained a strictly non-partisan political stance, and its members stayed firmly entrenched in the Democratic party.
The Texas Alliance sponsored mass cotton sales from Alliance warehouses, “bulking” all of the farmer-members’ cotton, and selling it at a decent profit directly to eastern dealers. In 1886, the Knights of Labor began their Great South Western Strike against Jay Gould’s Missouri-Pacific railroad, and a large segment of the Alliance membership urged support of the strike. Though the Knights were defeated, the Alliance’s membership increased and the organization solidified its radical stance.
Charles Macune, an Alliance organizer, called a conference in January, 1887, in Waco, Texas. Out of this conference was born the National Farmer’s Alliance and Cooperative Union, and Populism spread beyond the borders of Texas with spectacular results, blooming in ten Southern states in an eight-month period. The Western states also began to form sub-alliances in 1888, and the Alliance’s popularity there grew steadily. By 1888 the Alliance had over million members.
The cooperative movement was at the heart of the Populist struggle—through cooperation, the farmers could take control of their own economic destiny and free themselves from the yoke of their creditors. But despite the general popularity of the Alliance, it was impossible for the groups to find bankers who would honor the collateral of the Alliance Exchange, and without financing the famers could not make the Cooperative Exchange run. The banker’s reluctance to participate in cutting his own financial throat may be easy for us to understand, but it was a rude awakening for the Southern white yeoman farmer of the 1880s. When the Texas Exchange failed due to lack of funds, the focus of the Alliance shifted from cooperative movement to political movement—Alliance members realized that only by gaining political power could they ensure their survival. They could no longer afford to be non-partisan, but this required that their members in the South break ties with “the party of the fathers.”
Macune came up with a daring and innovative “sub-treasury proposal,” which asked the federal government to underwrite the Farmer’s Cooperatives by issuing greenbacks to provide credit for farmers’ crops. This would make the national currency more flexible. Goodwyn explains, “The People’s Party was to wage a frantic campaign to wrest effective operating control of the American monetary system from the nation’s commercial bankers and restore it, ‘in the name of the whole people,’ to the United States Treasury. It was a campaign never to be waged again.”
In the Midwest and the Northwest it was easier to make this switch from cooperative venture to political party because in those regions the farmer-commercial interest-urban worker triangle was relatively simple. But in the South, the situation was complicated by the presence of freedmen and the idea of “the party of the fathers” was even more emotionally charged than Northern “bloody shirt” ideology. “If Texas had led the Farmers to the Alliance,” Goodwyn wrote, “then Kansas led the Alliance to the People’s Party.” He should have gone on to say, “Where Kansas led, Texas could not follow.”
Most of the historians of the Southern Populist movement claim the Democratic party was under the control of an economic elite. A few emphasize the merchant, and say that he wielded the most economic and political power. More emphasize the planter, but even they would agree that in the white hill counties where Populism emerged in the South, the merchant ruled the roost. Those who emphasize the planter argue that the hill merchants were ultimately dominated by the power-base of the Democratic elite, which had its home in the lowland plantation counties, despite the fact that planter-elites were never more than a small minority of the South’s white population. Ironically, the planter’s power lay in the so-called black vote, for they controlled territory inhabited by a substantial number of freedmen who consistently voted (or, shall we say, were voted) Democratic, and who, by their sheer number, gave the Democratic Party the “majority” it needed to remain in power.
Yes, we’ve finally made it to the voting part….
On the one side, we have the Populist team, composed of poor white farmers from the hill counties, who had little in the way of economic power to wield against the Democrats who controlled state government. But what the Populists did have was numbers, and their numbers translated into votes that, unlike those of black freedmen, were not usually subject to coercion. Methods of coercion traditionally used to subdue black voters were hard to use against white voters, because the same whites that the Democratic elites wished to subdue were those they had recruited into the rank-and-file of organizations like the Klan. In fact, it was just this segment of white voters who had traditionally been used to keep blacks “in their place,” and they were not likely to police themselves in a similar fashion. Certainly they would not club themselves on the head to uphold the Democratic elite that oppressed them.
Thus, the Populists had real numbers and real votes, but not much else with which to threaten the Democrats. They did have one more power, which also was a product of their numbers and their traditional status as “subduers of the black vote”—the more Populists there were in an area, the more black votes those Populists could claim. The Populists either persuaded or coerced the votes of all freedmen within their reach, and there is no reason this should be surprising. Despite their avowed radicalism, Populists were southern whites and had cut their teeth on Democratic methods and had grown up with Democratic attitudes. Antiracist populists were rarer than hen’s teeth.
Freedmen were pawns caught between the two parties. Some progressive historians have the nerve to lament that black voters “failed” to support the Populists, and thus failed to work for their own liberation, but this is a harsher judgement than freedmen deserve. Immediately upon the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, and for the brief period that freedmen were granted the right to vote, they consistently voted the Republican ticket. Voting Republican became impossible, or, at the very least, hazardous to life and limb, when the southern states were captured or handed back to the Redeemers; historians of Reconstruction generally agree on that point.
Unfortunately, historians of Populism rarely look back at those histories of Reconstruction when they criticize black voting practices during the Populist revolt. Instead, they merely remark that blacks in the low-country consistently voted with the Democrats during the Populist period. If one were not inclined to follow the usual rigid period divisions of the Southern historian (“Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877,” “Populist Movement, 1880-1896”), the connection is easier to make between the fact that the black vote was suppressed at Redemption, and the fact that freedmen “voted” Democratic during the Populist era.
It is reasonable to assume that if the Democrats controlled the black vote in 1877, they would still control it in the 1880s. And the Democrats not only controlled the votes of living freedmen—as a later Congressional investigation showed, during the post-Reconstruction period, “Negroes who had been dead for years and other who had long since left the country” somehow voted Democrat as well. Thus it is a mistake to assume, as many Populist historians do, that freedmen held the balance of power in the Populist-Democratic political power battle. What is clear is that the Democrats held the balance of power through manipulating the number of black votes.
Historians might be confused by Populist party rhetoric in 1880s. Tom Watson, for instance, urged freedmen to respond to the Populist party’s call. Too many historians have interpreted this as a sign that Populists bridge the racial gap and saw a wider class connection between the white and black tenant farmer, but this is just a mirror trick. There was just as much rhetoric from the Democratic party calling for black support. Neither party based their calls on the unfounded assumption that blacks in the South possessed independent political power, or could respond to any call. Any disappointment Populists voiced with the lack of black voter “respond” was probably due to their frustration that they could not wrest away power over black votes from white Democrats.
It may well be that the failure to literally “capture” those black votes was the downfall of the Southern Populist movement. But other factors doubtless contributed, including Democratic control of the polls and the state militias. In many Southern counties, Populists were defeated through rampant voter fraud, harkening back to the tactics that Democrats had used against Republican voters during Reconstruction. But Populists were also defeated by their own inability to convince enough white yeoman farmers that their oppression was a direct result of the actions of the Democratic elite, and that reform could not be accomplished within the Democratic fold.
I’m going to digress slightly, just to make the situation even more complex…
Remember that the South was Democratic only because the North was Republican: to be anti-Republican in the Reconstruction period was to be a Democrat. And remember that in the North there was a group of urban workers who called themselves Democrats, but who I said were quite different from Southern Democrats. Remember that the Democratic elite in the South was composed of planters and merchants. And remember that the Republican elite in the North was composed of bankers and commercial interests. Got that all in your head? Great. Just hold it there, and I’ll tell you a couple of things that will start tie everything together.
Before the Civil War, most of the rich planters in the South were Whigs. They were also Secessionists, which gave Whiggery, after the Civil War, a bad name, even in the South, since the Secessionists had lost. Before the Civil War, most of the white yeoman farmers had been… Democrats! Right after the Civil War, the Secessionists were stripped of most of their rights (including the vote), and a lot of their property. It took little while, but most of them got their land back, a lot of them got their fortunes back, and almost all of them got their slaves back under the new name of the tenant system. It took them just a little longer to get their votes back, and by the time they did, the Southern Democratic party had already defined itself as the party of the South. Even though the word Democratic left a bad taste in their mouths, when they regained their political as well as their economic clout, they joined the Democrat party and then took it over. In fact, most of the Southern Democratic leadership after Redemption had previously been members of the Whig party.
This explains the dilemma of the southern white yeoman farmer. His party since the days of Jackson was overrun by the old Whigs, who became the new Democrats, leaving him voiceless, confused and oppressed.
Finally, I have reached the moment where I can turn the discussion to disfranchisement. We know from the histories that most Southern states passed disfranchisement amendments after the Populist wave crested and broke in 1896. (Mississippi Goddamn was the only state to pass disfranchisement laws before 1895, but then it’s always been… special.) These disfranchisement acts were ostensibly passed to put an end to the black vote, and Populists had a special investment in getting rid of it because they believed that the black voter (or the way blacks were voted by their Democratic masters) had caused the defeat of the Populist party. Populists saw disfranchisement as a way to end corrupt election practices, such as Democrats stuffing ballot boxes with black votes, and using black numbers to swing elections.
On the surface, it’s more of a challenge to explain why Democrats pushed for disfranchisement. Logically speaking, it would do the Democrats no good at all to rid themselves of the black vote, since they controlled it, and, in fact, used it as a lever to pry power out of Populist hands. Indeed, without the black vote, Democrats might lose control of the polls, since there just weren’t that many white Democrats, even if you included the dead ones or the ones who had long since left town. Thus, Democrats had to have another reason for supporting disfranchisement, and they had a good (evil) one: the elimination of universal white manhood suffrage.
Seen in these terms, the situation is clearer. The Democrats were eager and willing to disfranchise black voters if, along with them, they could manage to disfranchise the majority of poor white hill country voters as well. Democrats could then retain political power while substantially reducing the threat of future uprisings and protests caused by poor white dissatisfaction with Democratic rule. Democrats had been scared silly by the Populist movement, and set out to abridge the Constitution with enthusiasm.
The yeomen of the Populist party were not entirely unaware of the intentions of the Democrats, and did protest against the general property and literacy qualifications the Democrats wanted to impose. The Populists knew those rules would apply to them as well as to Southern blacks. But the proponents of disfranchisement created loopholes that would be applied to poor whites, ostensibly to protect them from the effects of the new laws. Even many of those who know some of the history of disfranchisement will say that the “understanding clause,” which allows illiterates to register if they can understand part of the state constitution as read to them out loud, was designed to disfranchise blacks, and it certainly was applied to that end. But it was introduced to reassure poor whites, as were other clauses that have the power of discrimination to voter registrars, who might be more “understanding” the political aspirations of white voters than of black voters.
Carter Glass, a leading Democrat at the Virginia Convention, said, “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that exactly is what this convention was elected for!” The Louisiana convention further proposed the well-known “grandfather clause” that allowed those entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, and their sons and grandsons, to register without application of literacy or property qualifications. This turned voting into an hereditary right. The state conventions all borrowed freely from each other, swapping around complex franchise and loophole provisions. But most of these loopholes and special clauses had time limits, after which they would expire. The Democrats who ran the conventions were aware of this, and though the provisions lulled poor whites into a false sense of security, the plan of the elites was to disfranchise them all a little later on. The poll tax, which was instrumental in preventing poor Southerners, black and white, from voting had no such time restrictions. The Democrats were also aware of this; indeed, in Mississippi it was the Delta (the Black Belt, Democratically-controlled planter counties) which insisted on including the poll tax.
Mississippi is a special case because it passed disfranchisement laws in 1890, before the Populist movement exploded onto the scene, but it illustrates the effectiveness of disfranchisement laws in damping the power Populists in that state. A proponent of the poll tax in Louisiana took Mississippi for his example:
It reduces the electorate and places the political control of the State in the hands not of a minority of the voters alone, but of the minority of the whites…. Take the case of Mississippi, for instance. The poll tax gets rid of most of the Negro voters there, but it gets rid of a great many whites at the same time—in fact, a majority of them.
Van Woodward notes that, “The total vote in the 1896 Mississippi state election, whene the Populists made a hot fight, was only 64,339, including the Negroes. Less than half of the whites voted—the law ‘discouraged’ probably 6,000 Negroes who would have been qualitifed, who might have voted but of the poll tax; but it discouraged 60,00 or more white men from voting.”
The Democrats were aware of the potential of the poll tax and other requirements to disfranchise poor whites, and, indeed, looked to the example of areas where this had already happened. It may be that the 1896 election would have been a Populist victory rather than just a “hot fight” if those likely to vote Populist had not already been disfranchised. It is astonishing, considering the stranglehold that Southern Democratic elites held over the political operations of the South, that populism made such a strong show through 1896.
The Democrats who ran the disfranchisement conventions, beginning with the first one in Mississippi, were aware of the feelings of those about to be disfranchised. They knew they could not expect voters to pass measures that would deprive themselves of the vote and chose to deal with this fact by not submitting the measures to the voters at all. Only Alabama’s convention allowed the electorate to vote for the ratification of disfranchisement measures. The others simply declared them law. Most justifications for this action were based on the need to take the decision out of the hands of freedmen, but this was disingenuous. In fact, in Alabama, where these were put to the vote, the disfranchisement constitution was consistently rejected by white counties and passed in black counties with majorities that included a substantial segment of the black population. This last makes two points clear: 1) Black voters in black belt counties were kept so well in hand by Democrats that they were coerced into voting themselves out of the vote; and, 2) White counties were filled with voters who knew that passing the new constitution was not to their benefit—they did not want to disfranchise freedmen badly enough to disfranchise themselves.
The ruling political elite in the South had overcome the setback of losing the Civil War, and had colonized the Democratic party. Its interests diverged from those of the majority, black and white. Planters and, in a subsidiary position, merchants held both black and white farmers in an economic stranglehold, reducing them to debt peonage. To prevent any threat to its political supremacy by freedmen, the ruling elite, assisted by poor whites who were convinced that racial solidarity was of primary importance, effectively disfranchised freedmen at the end of Radical Reconstruction, through a process of Redemption that concluded in 1877. Then, when the threat of black domination was ended, and poor whites became disenchanted with ruling class policies that kept them in penury, the elites kept them in line by wielding “the black vote” against them — winning elections through coercion and fraud, and ensuring that a fictitious majority was gained by the Democratic party. When popular disgust at this tactic became widespread, and a hue and cry was raised to prevent Democrats from casting black votes in their own favor, the Democratic elites responded by passing laws that disfranchised both black voters and poor white voters. Thus, Democrats ensured that their opponents, black and white, would have a hard time challenging them in the political arena.
Populist power was further reduced by the inability of almost all white Populists to recognize that they and black freedman had common interests. But the tendency of Southerners to view the political battle throughout the lens of racial conflict was not complete. The Governor of Alabama assured the convention of his state, in 1896, that the question of disfranchisement was not based in race, but in class. Sadly, those he intended to deprive of power were not nearly as perceptive.
The Populist movement could not succeed in the states if it failed in the South, and by 1896 its failure in the South was complete. The death of the Western populist movement took longer. Goodwyn explains that it succumbed to the blandishments of the Democratic and Republican parties, compromising its stand on the “sub-treasury” idea, greenbacks, and monetary expansion with the Democratic placebo of the “silver standard.” Many Western Populists were absorbed back into the Democratic party, and continued their political careers. Some remained die-hard Populists and also continued their political careers. But the latter was not an option in the Southern states, for in the South there existed no true Democratic path to reabsorb them. A large number, the overwhelming majority, were disfranchised and their political lives effectively ended. Those who continued in Southern politics, like Tom Watson and “Cyclone” Davis, succeeded as Southern demagogues—outrageous characters of the sort that the South famously produces, railing against Jews and Catholics and proclaiming white supremacy.
It would be terrible to end this article by leaving you stranded in the middle of 1896, which was a mighty inhospitable time for progressives. Instead, I’d like to end with a passage from C. Van Woodward’s Origins of the New South. He speaks of the history of disfranchisement in Virginia, by no means the worst of the Southern states:
Between the presidential elections of 1900 and 1904 the franchise restrictions of the Virginia constitution went into full effect. The total vote in Virginia in 1900 was 264,240, while in 1904 it was 130,544—a decline from 147 voters per 1000 to 67 per 1000. Nor can it be assumed that this decrease is to be explained by the elimination of the Negro voter, for while only about 35% of the males of voting age were colored, the poll was reduced by 51%. Not until 1928 did Virginia cast as large a vote in a Presidential election as she did in 1888. This was a temporary rise. When Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Wendell Wilkie in 1940, Virginia cast 61,000 fewer votes than when Harrison defeated Cleveland, and in 1944, fewer by 37,166 than she cast 56 years earlier…. In the meanwhile, however, the electorate had been doubled by the enfranchisement of women and the population had increased by approximately 1 million. In 1940 fewer than 10 in every 1000 of the population were voting, as against 147 in 1900.
Most view the civil rights movement as a huge victory for black voters, and indeed it was. But ironically it resulted in enfranchising even more white southerners than blacks. And it is these white voters who are once again being played, this time by Republican elites, with promises of benefitting from disfranchising non-whites. In the end, however, they will lose their votes along with, or soon after, those they despise.
Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1947.
Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa,1977.
Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.
Goodwyn, Laurence. The Populist Moment. Oxford University Press: New York, 1978.
Hahn, Steven, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890. Oxford University Press: New York, 1983.
Harris, William C. The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.
McMath, Robert C. Jr. Populist Vanguard, A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1975.
Trelease, Alan. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Harper & Row: New York, 1971.
Van Woodward, C. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1951.
Wiener, Jonathan, Social Origins of the New South, Alabama, 1860-1885. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1978.