Source: THE JOURNAL OF SOUTHERN HISTORY
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 1867-68–ish.
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 here. Here, too.
And for a few days I’ll post the PDF of the above article: [download id=”4″].
So when exactly did the meaning of “carpetbagger” get transmogrified into “anyone coming into a place and profiting off someone else’s losses and attempts to recover from them”? Curious, curious.
After the civil rights movement, maybe? Americans aren’t big into history, so maybe for some it slipped away at the very beginning, but it certainly sounds like the southern newspapers of the day were a lot like the Fox noise machine of today (Tunnell makes the point these southern newspaper editors worked their magic on a national level). Talk about framing a story (often the exact opposite of verifiable reality).
[…] Update: For further historical context, go here. […]
Yeah, a lot to say below. Hold on; it comes together in the end, I think:
Here are the 2 kickers to me in the above:
1) 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]
and 2) From their inception, carpetbagger and scalawag were rhetorical tools—indeed, rhetorical weapons—created to discredit Radical Reconstruction.
Being told that what it “really means” is “a bad man from somewhere else” just sugar-coats it. Children are told things like that all the time and then we wonder why they don’t take the pain and suffering of others seriously. The partially sighted poking your eyes out so you’re blind.
Use the words if you want but own up to it or explain it or at least don’t dismiss discussion/dissent or use other rhetorical weapons to silence discussion and/or dissent. Part of our local political and social problems lie in the lazy repetition and use of, and dearth of honest analysis of, these rhetorical weapons. Look at how well that has worked in the current health care debate. Look how well it has worked in the pro-life/pro-choice debacle over the past 30 years; so many people have spoken with jackhammers and wrecking balls that there is barely any chance now of dialogue or resolution.
When did the term transmogrify? When the general public got tired of dealing openly with racism and its insidiousness. Words like these are on the complex, look-carefully edge of racism, not in the simple, direct, and often obvious KKK-police brutality-kick them out of the country club middle. If racism either doesn’t matter to you, or is “old news,” or is decidedly uncomfortable, it’s easy to dismiss history and connotations.
The discussion is important because in this town, at this time, all people need to be aware of their words, their history and possible connotations. We cannot afford anymore to be blithe toward the communities we don’t live in. NO will never be better if we do not all THINK with our frontal lobes and not our vices, greeds, blind spots [or fields] and hurts.
Well, now I’m getting interested in how a term can get so turned on its side like this. I’ve seen attempts to take images associated with racism and try to transform their meanings into something else through the arts, but those images are also exhibited in a fairly controlled context. Language, however, is out and about and who knows what will happen to it or how it will be interpreted, reinterpreted, picked up or discarded.
Liprap, I think we’re seeing how it can be turned on its side. In our test case here people are being given the full historical context and apparently resolving that it doesn’t matter. That’s how it happens, or that’s at least one way it happens.
I should add that part of my objection (a small part, admittedly) to the usage of carpetbagger in this way is it’s plain bad strategy. If the aim is to vilify some asshole who comes to New Orleans to take advantage of locals in a time of crisis (such as the Tennessee contractor who ripped off my mother-in-law), why give the target the easy ammo of using such a loaded term?
I’m not objecting to the discussion. And I don’t think that it doesn’t matter what the words actually mean. I tend to associate “carpetbagger” with Reconstruction and Huck Finn more than anything else….I just think words can be much more slippery than images, despite the advent of Photoshop and other easy manipulations of digital imagery. Words are twisted and bent into so many meanings in courts of law, for example, that one almost has to suspend any certainty when one is involved in a case – you will be questioned to the edge of your memory about every little thing that happened. It’s disconcerting. It casts doubt on your sense of right and wrong, your recall, and, in some cases, whether or not you were even a witness.
I don’t question the importance of exploring what carpetbagger actually means. I simply marvel at how some words can sometimes be so loaded, it’s amazing that they are still even used.
As for the defensiveness of others who hold up their understandings of the definition of the term, that’s going to happen. One can’t win ’em all. The best one can do is make ’em think.
I hear you about the slipperiness of language, Liprap. Very true. I think some of the resistance people have exhibited about giving up “carpetbagger” is they perceive me as being some sort of PC warrior, single-minded (bark eaterish, if you will) in my pursuit of linguistic non-offensive purity. Which is unfortunate (people like their shortcuts). I admit to being sort of hardline in this particular case, but I simply haven’t been moved by any, not a word, of the counter-arguments.
As far as it being an interesting phenomenon, you’re right, it’s fascinating.
[…] these carpetbagger posts has felt sort of like being the one who has to break the news about Christopher Columbus [at risk […]
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