Congressional Reconstruction was the period after the Civil War in which the federal government enacted and attempted to enforce equal suffrage on the ex-Confederate states. In Alabama, this period lasted from 1867 to the end of 1874 and was characterized by racial conflict and widespread terrorist activity. Alabama's experience was broadly typical of other southern states, but it was notable for the relative moderation of African American demands and the importance of economic issues, and specifically railroad development, in the outcome.
Immediately after the Civil War ended, in the spring of 1865, the reunited states faced an unprecedented situation. As President Andrew Johnson fought with the Republican majority in Congress for control of Reconstruction, relations among freedpeople, Unionists, and states' rights advocates in Alabama grew more tense. In the plantation belt, crop failures in 1865 and 1866 were exacerbated by declining cotton prices. Black Codes and pressure from the Freedmen's Bureau forced freed people to sign labor contracts, but they were no longer willing to work like slaves. And without recourse to physical punishment, planters had no means to force them to do so. In the cities, expanding African American communities produced a new political elite that sought intervention to protect civil rights from Congress. In northern Alabama, conflict between returning Confederates and Unionists approached the level of a guerilla war. Both sides used control of local courts to punish opponents for wartime misdeeds or to expel unwelcome neighbors. Unionist leaders in Alabama joined with those from other southern states to press Congress for what was termed "Radical" Reconstruction, meaning wholesale disfranchisement of former Confederates and full voting rights for blacks.
As those events transpired, the Alabama legislature and Governor Robert Patton also confronted difficult financial issues. The state government struggled to provide food to starving citizens and renegotiate Alabama's debt with financial markets, thus warding off state bankruptcy. Just before Congress enacted its version of Reconstruction, giving blacks the right to vote, the outgoing legislature approved a law providing state aid for railroad development. Such measures had been passed piecemeal before the war, especially in the 1850s, when Gov. John Winston had vetoed dozens of subsidies. Now, during the last days of Presidential Reconstruction, subsidies for all railroads built finally became state policy. Nothing concrete came of it immediately, but these precedents became important once Congressional Reconstruction placed state government in different hands.
In March 1867, Congress enacted the first of what would be four Military Reconstruction acts (so named because it divided the former Confederacy into militarily controlled districts), essentially overturning the previous postwar settlement that President Johnson had established. These laws called for southern states to create new constitutions that included equal suffrage for freedmen and at least temporary disfranchisement and exclusion from office of a vaguely defined portion of former Confederate office holders. Congress gave the army the responsibility to oversee the Reconstruction process and protect people from violence. Alabama was placed in the Third Military district, under Gen. John Pope in Atlanta. Both Pope and Brig. Gen. Wager Swayne, his subordinate in Montgomery, favored equal suffrage and encouraged reconstruction on this basis.
In Alabama, Governor Patton and some elements of the existing leadership supported cooperation with the terms prescribed by Congress. Patton hoped that by doing so, he could keep Reconstruction out of the hands of the most extreme Unionists and secure terms that the Congressional Republican majority would accept. Congressional recognition would encourage outside investment and promote political stability. Patton and his supporters were effective in their efforts, and the new electorate endorsed a constitutional convention, with an official report of some 18,500 whites, nearly a third of those registered, having voted in favor of creating a new constitution. These political changes had social implications as well throughout the countryside. Many freedmen joined the Union, or Loyal, League, a secret organization that spread through the plantation belt under the leadership of Unionists, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and other political outsiders. Newly politicized freedpeople sought ways to escape gang labor, tight supervision, and other holdovers of the slave system, and even began to talk about land redistribution. These developments, combined with another failed cotton crop in 1867, further encouraged efforts to reorganize the plantation system on different terms. One aspect of this was the shift from gang labor to decentralized tenant farming, and especially sharecropping, which at least distanced the freedpeople from the hated practices of slavery. The shift to family-based sharechopping proved a long-term feature of Alabama's economy.
Republicans, supported by freedmen, dominated the constitutional convention that gathered in Montgomery in November 1867, and Alabama thus became the first state to undergo the Congressional Reconstruction process. The bulk of the 100 delegates were native white Alabamians, predominantly Unionists, but approximately 18 of the members were African Americans. Often outnumbered in their home locales, extreme Unionists pressed for widespread disfranchisement of former Confederates and pushed to ban them from public office. Such measures were largely rejected, and fear of disapproval from Washington led the delegates to take a generally moderate stance. This moderation was particularly evident in the actions concerning civil rights. Unlike in some other states, freedpeople and their allies avoided efforts to legislate integrated facilities. Their major priorities were equality before the law and creation of a free public school system with widespread access.
Had Alabama's white majority simply approved the constitution, it would have been the least disruptive route to regaining control and probably the more effective. But despite the seeming moderation of the new constitution, the bulk of the pro-Confederate population rejected it outright. A large majority of white voters boycotted the ratification vote in February 1868, thus defeating it under the terms of the Reconstruction acts. However, the U.S. Congress then eliminated the provision requiring majority participation. In June, Congress readmitted Alabama to the Union, under the now-ratified Republican constitution, along with several other states. William Hugh Smith, a former Unionist refugee, assumed the office of governor, and because of the boycott, Republicans now assumed nearly all the offices.
Widespread acts of terror by ex-Confederates were well underway by the time the new government was initiated. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and local offshoots were organized to combat with violence the political and social changes that followed emancipation. The Union Leagues were often targeted because they were considered threatening. Terror organizations were widespread among younger rural whites, and they likely had substantial participation by ex-slaveholders, especially early on. Terrorism increased as the national election of 1868 approached because southerners believed that the Democrats were poised to regain control of the federal government. Ulysses S. Grant's victory in November, however, made it clear that Republican Reconstruction was permanent, and the wave of violence temporarily receded.
Over the next several years, organized violence became widespread in parts of Alabama, in the whole Tennessee Valley, and across much of the western portion of the state. Several Republican legislators were killed. Governor Smith, facing near-insurrection, rejected close identification with freedpeople and lifted all limitations on former Confederates holding office. His basic priority was to reconcile ex-Confederate whites to his administration through non-partisan behavior. He denied reports of Klan activity, refused to arm a state militia, and opposed federal antiterrorist legislation, even after it became clear that local officials were thoroughly intimidated. He denounced northerners in his own party as "carpetbaggers" and thereby encouraged a split between moderate white Republicans—Smith's "scalawag" faction, as it was called—and radical Republican "carpetbaggers" like U. S. Senator George E. Spencer, the leader of the state's pro-civil rights faction.
Smith focused largely on economic development, especially railroad subsidies, because this was the one aspect of the Republican program that former Confederates, particularly former Whigs, supported. He was particularly eager to extend the Alabama & Chattanooga line through the iron and coal district surrounding modern Birmingham, but the general subsidy policy encouraged a proliferation of a number of other lines. The potential state liability from promised subsidies increased from about $6 million to about $30 million, and Smith encouraged a substantial increase in property tax rates to pay interest on state bonds. Railroad lobbying and Smith's own leadership encouraged the legislative corruption that became increasingly pervasive in Alabama and indeed throughout the United States during the Grant administration.
African Americans grew rapidly dissatisfied with Smith's administration, but there were few alternative candidates for them to support in the election of 1870. Radicals managed to force the inclusion of James T. Rapier, a college-educated African American from Lauderdale County, as a nominee for Alabama secretary of state, but this only diminished Smith's hard-won appeal to racist voters. His Democratic opponent, Robert Burns Lindsay, had been a moderate on secession and thereby gained the favor of Smith's north Alabama Unionist constituency. Klan mobilization in Sumter and Tuscaloosa counties and the Tennessee Valley combined with a riot at a Republican rally in Eutaw to give the Democrats a narrow victory. Smith claimed fraud and called for federal intervention, but unfavorable court decisions forced him to cede office. The Democrats also won the majority in the Alabama House of Representatives, but Republican holdovers in the senate prevented an immediate Democratic takeover of the state government.
The aftermath of Republican defeat in Alabama in 1870 was unusual among the southern states because Reconstruction did not end at that point; financial complications undermined white support for the Democrats and gave Republicans a unique opportunity for a comeback. Upon assuming office in January 1871, Democratic governor Lindsey confronted an immediate fiscal crisis. The Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad defaulted on its bond payment and called on the state to pay the interest on its guaranteed bonds. Lindsay soon learned that Smith had issued some half a million dollars in unauthorized bonds to the company and refused to honor them. Angry Democratic legislators threatened to disavow all bonds issued under the Republican government. Lindsey's actions effectively doomed most of the uncompleted rail lines in the state and left the state with no way to honor the debt from the promised subsidies. The state quickly faced a financial crisis and had to shut down the school system. The Democrats soon lost favor, and Lindsay's efforts to discourage terrorism as the 1872 election approached only allowed Republican opponents to vote. In November, aided by President Grant's suppression of the Klan and his easy reelection, the Republicans regained the governorship by a substantial margin. In a contentious election that involved dual legislatures, federal troops, and a settlement negotiated by the Grant administration, former Unionist David P. Lewis defeated former secession advocate Democrat Thomas Herndon, and the Republicans also reelected George Spencer to the U.S. Senate.
Congressional Reconstruction in Alabama has a mixed record on racial matters. Governor Lewis's scalawag-dominated government avoided the laws banning discrimination in public places that were passed in other Republican states, and Lewis did not identify himself as a civil rights advocate. Alabama also had many fewer black local officeholders than states such as Mississippi or South Carolina. African Americans did have substantial representation in the state legislature, and they elected three men to the U.S. Congress: James T. Rapier from Montgomery and Benjamin Turner and Jeremiah Haralson of Dallas County. In places with large African American populations, such as Selma and Montgomery, black citizens were relatively safe from violence and were able to make real gains. Black literacy increased, as did the number of black renters and even landowners. In many plantation districts, African Americans routinely served on juries and in law enforcement. Federal employment in particular opened up to African Americans in the 1870s, and several dozen were employed in the Mobile customs house alone.
Although Lewis's administration was acknowledged as honest and was tolerated by most Democrats, the Republicans had regained power in Alabama just in time for a catastrophic financial collapse in the United States. The stock market crashed in September 1873 and ushered in five years of hard times that undermined the state's finances. The depression swept away the increasingly peaceful coexistence that had taken root in many plantation areas. Desperate whites across the state turned their fury on the Republican government, and terrorism again took hold. The depression sapped the Grant administration's ability to offer protection, and a series of Supreme Court decisions undermined the threat of prosecution under anti-terrorist statutes. The diminishing federal presence made it easier for former Confederate soldiers to take full advantage of their lopsided advantage in firepower, horses, and military experience.
Abandoning the sheets and secretive trappings of the Klan, in 1874 Democrats remobilized in open paramilitary organizations termed "White Leagues," a name that made no pretense about the goals of members. While these events were happening, Alabama's black population finally began to mobilize to secure the sort of open-accommodations laws enacted elsewhere and to assure direct representation in public office. A proposed federal civil rights law, assuring non-discriminatory access to restaurants, streetcars, and other public places, won widespread support. But it also gave Democrats greater leverage in promoting the "white line" and increasing the rolls of terrorist organizations, which made it impossible for Republicans to organize in numerous places. For example, on election day in Eufaula, armed whites shot up a polling place, killing and injuring scores of freemen.
The violence notwithstanding, by 1874, the economic collapse and bankrupt state made Republican defeat virtually inevitable.
The longstanding divisions over secession were no longer relevant, and the Democrats cleverly nominated an anti-secessionist
from the Tennessee Valley, George S. Houston of Athens. Houston beat Lewis by more than 13,000 votes, and the Democrats also regained full control of the legislature. The following
year, in 1875, they rewrote the state constitution to eliminate most of what the previous governments had done and to place
tight controls on public debt and expenditures. And so "Radical Reconstruction" finally came to an end in Alabama. It was
part of a nationwide Democratic sweep that would soon doom Reconstruction governments in the remaining southern states by
1877. Nearly a century later, however, much of this constitutional and legal ground would be revisited when the civil rights
issue again returned to Alabama politics.
Fitzgerald, Michael W. Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the Ameri can South. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.
Fleming, Walter D. Civil War and Reconstructio n in Alabama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1905.
McMillan, Malcolm Cook. Constitutiona l Development in Ala bama, 1791-1901: A S tudy in Politics, the Negro, and Sectionalis m. Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1978.
Michael W. Fitzgerald
St. Olaf College
Published August 11, 2008
Last updated June 26, 2012