Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and Its Results

Author: Hilary Abner Herbert  | Date: 1890

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The Tidal Wave (1874)


THE year 1874, which was to mark another era in the history of Alabama, had now come. The government "born of the bayonet" had been in existence six years. A general election was to be held in November, and both parties began early to prepare for the conflict. The Republicans who represented the state in Congress had made their contributions at an early date. They had secured, in the Act of March 28th, 1874, authority for the President to issue army rations and clothing to the destitute along the Alabama, Tombigbee and Warrior Rivers, all in Alabama; and, to carry out this and a similar Act relating to the Mississippi, four hundred thousand dollars were appropriated by the Sundry Civil Act, approved June 23d, 1874.

It may be as well here to give the history of this adventure, which was based on the pretense of a disastrous overflow. There had really been no unusual overflows anywhere in the state. The money sent to Alabama was distributed as an electioneering fund; some of it at points like Opelika, which had not been under water since the days of Noah’s flood. This open prostitution of public funds, became a most effective weapon in the hands of the Democrats. To crown the misadventure, the Republican Governor, Lewis, probably to stamp with the seal of his condemnation the folly of the superserviceable politicians, who had secured this hapless appropriation, in his message to the Legislature, just after the election, took occasion to say, pointedly, that the state had during the year been "free from floods."

The Republicans renominated Governor Lewis and the Democrats selected as their candidate George S. Houston. And now began the great struggle which was to redeem Alabama from Republican rule.

The state was bankrupt—its credit gone.

Governor Lewis had reported to the Legislature, November 17th, 1873, that he was "unable to sell for money any of the state bonds."

The debt, which had been at the beginning of Republican administration in the state $8,356,083.51, was now, as appears by the official report, September 30th, 1874, including straight and endorsed railroad bonds, $25,503,593.30.

City and county indebtedness had in many cases increased in like proportion, with no betterments to show for expenditures.

The administration of public affairs in the state for many years preceding the Civil War had been notably simple and economical. Taxes had been low, honestly collected and faithfully applied.

To a people trained in such a school of government the extravagance and corruption now everywhere apparent, coupled with the higher rates of taxation and bankrupt condition of the treasury, were appalling.

More intolerable still were the turmoil and strife between whites and blacks, created and kept alive by those who, as the Republican Governor Smith had said, "would like to have a few colored men killed every week to furnish a semblance of truth to Spencer’s libels upon the people of the state generally," as well as to make them more "certain of the vote of the negroes." Not only was immigration repelled by these causes, but good citizens were driven out of the state. It is absolutely safe to say that Alabama during the six years of Republican rule gained practically nothing by immigration, and at the same time lost more inhabitants by emigration than by that terrible war, which destroyed fully one-fifth of her people able to bear arms. Thousands more were now resolved to leave the state if, after another and supreme effort, they should fail to rid themselves of a domination that was blighting all hope of the future. Few things are more difficult than to overcome political prejudices as bitter as those which had formerly divided the white people of Alabama, but six years of Republican misrule had been, in most cases, sufficient for the purpose. In 1874 the people seemed to forget that they had ever been Whigs and Democrats, Secessionists and Union men; and when this came about the days of the black man’s party in Alabama were numbered. Although the whites had lost over twenty thousand men in the war who would now have been voting, they had in the state, by the census of 1870, a majority of 7,651 of those within the voting age. In 1880 this majority, as the census showed, was 23,038, and by the coming of age of boys too young to have been in the war, the white voters certainly outnumbered the blacks in 1874 by over ten thousand.

The Republicans had forced the color line upon an unwilling people. The first resolution of the Democratic platform of July, 1874, was that "the radical and dominant faction of the Republican party in this state persistently and by false and fraudulent representations have inflamed the passions and prejudices of the negroes, as a race, against the white people, and have thereby made it necessary for white people to unite and act together in self-defense and for the preservation of white civilization."

That the people of the state accepted this issue in this manner is the rock of offense against which partisan clamor in distant states has so often since that day lashed itself into fury.

The campaign of 1874 was not unattended by the usual efforts to inflame the public mind of the North and to intimidate Democratic voters at home by the display of Federal power, both civil and military. Troops were, of course, loudly called for. . . .

There were, during the year 1874, conflicts between whites and blacks, in which both parties received injuries and losses. These were incited, Democrats claimed, by Republican leaders to invoke the aid of Federal authorities, civil and military, in the pending election. . . . The Republican press, however, claimed that the acts which were to bring United States troops into the state to superintend the elections always resulted from the folly of the Democrats, who did not desire the presence of troops, and that the troubles were never instigated by the Republicans, who were anxious to have the troops. The political training of the colored man had been such that it was perfectly natural for him to look upon United States soldiers, when he saw them come into the state, as sent to see that he voted the Republican ticket. . . .

. . . The presence of troops . . . while it encouraged the negroes, served greatly to intensify the zeal of Democrats. Thousands of whites were inspired during that campaign with the feeling that their future homes depended upon the result of the election. The aliens among the Republican leaders also felt that their future habitations depended on the election, for they had no business in Alabama, except office-holding.

The Democrats were successful. They carried by over ten thousand majority all the state offices and they elected large majorities in both branches of the Legislature.

The clutch of the carpet-bagger was broken; most of them left the State; and there was at once peace between whites and blacks. A new Constitution was adopted. Superfluous offices were abolished. Salaries were cut down and fixed by the Constitution, some of them, perhaps, at too low a figure; and it is believed that, in many respects, the limitations upon the power of the Legislature were made too stringent. It was the necessary reaction, the swing of the pendulum from corruption and extravagance to the severest simplicity and economy in government. The consequences have been most happy. . . .

The facts of history are that the people of Alabama, prostrated by an unsuccessful war, and divided by the bitter memories of the past, were very loth to oppose what seemed to be the behests of the strongest government man had ever seen. They were utterly unable to unite and agree on any policy whatever. For six long years they suffered degradation, poverty and detraction, before they made up their minds to come together to assert, as they finally did, their supremacy in numbers, wealth, education and moral power. They have now in successful operation a government that, for the protection it affords to the lives, liberties and property of all its people, white and black, may safely challenge comparison with that of any state in the Union. Education and the liberalizing influences of the age . . . will gradually . . . solve every problem that can arise within her borders if she herself is left to deal with them. . . .

Hilary A. Herbert and others, (Baltimore, R. H. Woodward Co., 1890), 61–69 passim.

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Chicago: Hilary Abner Herbert, Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and Its Results in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed July 24, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PRJ2BFBEBL3UZVW.

MLA: Herbert, Hilary Abner. Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and Its Results, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 24 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PRJ2BFBEBL3UZVW.

Harvard: Herbert, HA, Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and Its Results. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PRJ2BFBEBL3UZVW.