Volume LXXII, No. 4, November 2006

Author: TED TUNNELL, Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University

Whatever the terminology, carpetbagger and scalawag were crucial to the political language of Reconstruction. They expressed white southerners’ ideas and emotions about their predicament under radical rule and, indeed, became integral to their identity as white southerners. Because the rhetoric emotively expressed the attitudes and values of the white South, it shaped southerners’ worldview and formed the “building blocks” of an ideology of resistance, an ideology essential to the overthrow of Reconstruction. So successful was the result that for over a hundred years after Reconstruction, few white southerners—few white Americans, in fact—could hear the word carpetbagger without conjuring up melodramatic images of villainy and oppression. [p.792]

… in the writings of southern editors, postwar northern migrants invariably carried black carpetbags (or black valises), and those bags eventually became freighted with a heavy load of ideological symbolism [p. 792] …. These references to “black valises” and “black carpet-sacks” mark the genesis of carpetbagger” [p. 798]

Others adhered to northern free labor values and aspired to reform southern society along northern lines. The men in this latter group were disproportionately from New England and the “little New Englands” of the upper North.  Historians have written extensively about New England influences on abolitionists and Radical Republicans, but they have paid scant attention to the upper North-New England origins of carpetbaggers. Postwar southern editors, on the other hand, were very much aware of New England’s stamp on the newcomers and needed no reminders of the region’s anti slavery history or of its cutting-edge role in American commerce. [p.793]

Carpetbagger, like scalawag and “Black and Tan Convention,” was a figurative counter-Reconstruction epithet created out of white southerners’ desire to combat Radical Reconstruction. [p.794]

When the convention met in November, the [Montgomery, AL] Mail punctuated its coverage with adjective phrases such as “carpet bag gentry,” “carpet bag Bureau man,” and “carpet bag fellow,” before finally printing carpetbagger as a noun in a headline on November 30: “Carpet Bagers and Negroes to the Front.” Then in early December during the last days of the assemblage, the dike burst and denunciations of carpetbaggers filled the newspaper’s columns. In the two issues of December 5 and 6, carpetbagger appeared twenty times. A single article on December 4 referred to carpetbags or carpetbaggers eight times.

It was a defining moment in carpetbagger‘s emergence as a Reconstruction epithet. Louisiana’s convention met in late November, and in early December the Georgia and Virginia delegations convened. The early days of the three conventions coincided with a flurry of carpetbagger references in articles about events in Alabama.  The biggest story was a widely reprinted column entitled “The Carpet-baggers” that was first published in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, one of the leading business journals in the South. [p. 798-799]

In the first weeks of 1868, as carpetbagger inched its way into the political lexicon of southern journalism, the New York press discovered the epithet. In mid-February 1868 E. L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, wrote that a “good deal of bitterness of feeling has been shown in all the conventions in regard to the presence and great prominence as members, of what the Louisiana people call ‘carpet-baggers’—men, that is, who are new-comers in the country.” Godkin concluded: “Many of these Northern men are fully deserving of all the contempt bestowed upon them.”  A week later, the Montgomery correspondent of the New York World, the country’s leading Democratic paper, reported on “the Alabama Black Crook” and the new “Political Terms in Vogue in the South.” The writer believed the ”carpet-baggers” were the dominant force in the southern conventions. This migratory “race of Ichabod Cranes,” he wrote, “have overspread the South.” They are everywhere—”On the cars, and in the towns, and prowling about in country places, and you can’t take up a paper, hardly, or hear a man speak but what there is something about the carpet-bagger. Few know where they come from; nobody knows how they live . . . but here they are buzzing about like gad-fiies, and seeking the weak points in the country with the unerring instinct of carrion crows. Hounded out of the North for rascality . . . they seek and obtain employment in the cause of Reconstruction and come South. . . . Such is the carpet-bagger. A man who has no stake in the country beyond his satchel, and yet, by the grace of Reconstruction, the ruler of the State.”

The New York World‘s embrace of the carpetbagger epithet was to be expected; northern Democrats had opposed Radical Reconstruction from the start. The Republican editor of the Nation, in contrast, believed the Reconstruction Act was a good law. That Godkin so readily gave credence to the carpetbagger label was an ominous sign.” [p. 799-800; my emphasis]

In late October and early November 1867 the Weekly Chronicle and Sentinel repeatedly divided the [the state of Georgia’s] radicals into “Yankee emissaries, scalawags and debauched and ignorant negroes.” [p. 802]

Scalawag = native white Southern Republican in 1867-68ish.

Scalawag, however, was never to attain the clarity of meaning or breadth of appeal achieved by carpetbagger, but both terms could be used to condemn anyone who questioned whites’ domination of politics and society in the South. [p. 803]

With unconscious hypocrisy, then, southern editors argued that carpetbaggers and scalawags pandered to narrow class and racial interests opposed to the broader interests of the community. The Reconstruction Act notwithstanding, whites who joined a Negro party were renegades whose only motive was personal gain. Constitutions and state governments dominated by such “mongrels” were usurpations. Historian Winthrop D. Jordan’s comments about white southerners’ fears of black rule in the colonial era are relevant to Reconstruction: The South under the “Sherman Act” was similarly “an appalling world turned upside down, a crazy nonsense world of black over white, an anti-community which was the direct negation of the community as white men knew it.”

Editors’ expositions on the meaning of carpetbagger and scalawag dwelt endlessly on racial connotations of the terms. Scalawags were “pale faced renegades,” “white niggers,” apostates, and Judases who had joined the Black Crook against their own color. Colonel Hodgson commented on the “Black Vomito” imparting African complexion to northern newcomers. Most carpetbags, like most leather valises, came in shades of brown, not black; yet, in Hodgson’s columns and those of his fellow editors, newcomers from the North always carried black valises and black carpetbags. The association of carpetbaggers with blackness was pervasive. [p. 803-804]

Even in Louisiana, the state where carpetbaggers were most clearly in charge, most of the whites in the constitutional convention, the legislature, and the courts were natives. The “pattern is clear,” Carl N. Degler has written, “the Northerners who came South, the so-called carpetbaggers, were always too few in number to play a numerically significant role in the exercise of political power.” [p. 804-05]

To understand this phenomenon, consider why carpetbagger and scalawag were created in the first place. The words certainly reflected deep-seated prejudices against outsiders and dissenters who challenged the prevailing social and political order.  But much more than prejudice was involved. From their inception, carpetbagger and scalawag were rhetorical tools—indeed, rhetorical weapons—created to discredit Radical Reconstruction. The terms thus emerged in conjunction with the first constitutional conventions under the Reconstruction Act. In other words, at the exact moment that the radical conventions began drafting organic law giving ex-slaves the basic civil and political rights of full-fledged citizenship, southern editors began maligning the white Republican delegates as carpetbaggers and scalawags. [p. 813; my emphasis]

Seeing prejudice instead of what Du Bois labeled “The Propaganda of History,” historians have failed to appreciate the central role of carpetbagger-scalawag rhetoric in the counter Reconstruction movement that swept the South in the early years of Radical Reconstruction.  The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan as the military arm of the southern Democratic Party in 1868 coincided with the rhetorical blizzard manufactured by southern editors. This was no more coincidental than the first appearance of the discourse in conjunction with the constitutional conventions. The Klan was counter-Reconstruction’s spear point. [p. 819; my emphasis]

This post is a response to the discussion in the comments hereHere, too.

And for a few days I’ll post the PDF of the above article: [download id=”4″].

About the Author

Derek Bridges

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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