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Thu, 07.04.1867

The Scalawags (politics), a definition

*Independence Day 1867, the political term scalawag is briefly defined.  A Scalawag was a white-American Southerner who supported Blacks after the American Civil War.  

Like the term carpetbagger, the word has a history of use as a slur in Southern one-sided debates. The opponents of the scalawags claimed they were disloyal to traditional values.  The term is commonly used in historical studies as a neutral descriptor of Southern white Republicans, although some historians have discarded the term due to its history of pejorative connotations.   Scalawag, originally referring to low-grade farm animals, was adopted by their opponents to refer to Southern whites who formed a Republican coalition to take control of their state and local governments.  

Among the earliest uses in this meaning were references in Alabama and Georgia newspapers in the summer of 1867, first referring to all Southern Republicans, then later restricting it to only white ones. from 1863 to 1869, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson modified policies designed to bring the South back to normal as soon as possible, while the  Radical Republicans used Congress to block the president, impose harsh terms, and upgrade the rights of the Freedmen. In the South, Black Freedmen and white Southerners with Republican sympathies joined forces with Northerners who had moved south (called "Carpetbaggers" by their southern opponents) to implement the policies of the Republican party.  Despite being a minority, scalawags gained power by taking advantage of the Reconstruction laws of 1867, which disenfranchised the majority of Southern white voters as they could not take the Ironclad oath, which required they had never served in Confederate armed forces or held any political office under the state or Confederate governments.

Historian Harold Hyman says that in 1866 Congressmen "described the oath as the last bulwark against the return of ex-rebels to power, the barrier behind which Southern Unionists and Negroes protected themselves."  The coalition controlled every former Confederate state except Virginia, as well as Kentucky and Missouri (which were claimed by the North and the South) for varying lengths of time between 1866 and 1877. Two of the most prominent scalawags were General James Longstreet, one of Robert E. Lee's top generals, and Joseph E. Brown, who had been the wartime governor of Georgia. During the 1870s, many scalawags left the Republican Party and joined the conservative-Democrat coalition. Conservative Democrats had replaced all Republican minority governments in the South by 1877, after the disputed presidential election of 1876, in which the remaining Reconstruction governments had certified the Republican electors despite the Democratic candidate having carried the states.  

Historian John Hope Franklin gives an assessment of the motives of Southern Unionists. He noted that as more Southerners were allowed to vote and participate:  A curious assortment of native Southerners thus became eligible to participate in Radical Reconstruction. And the number increased as the President granted individual pardons or issued new proclamations of amnesty ... Their primary interest was in supporting a party that would build the South on a broader base than the plantation aristocracy of Antebellum days. They found it expedient to do business with Negroes and so-called carpetbaggers, but often they returned to the Democratic party as it gained sufficient strength to be a factor in Southern politics.  

Eventually most scalawags joined the Democratic Redeemer coalition. A minority persisted as Republicans and formed the "tan" half of the "Black and Tan" Republican party. It was a minority element in the GOP in every Southern state after 1877.  Most of the 430 Republican newspapers in the South were edited by scalawags only 20 percent were edited by carpetbaggers. White businessmen generally boycotted Republican papers, which survived through government patronage. White Southern Republicans included formerly closeted Southern abolitionists as well as former slaveowners who supported equal rights for freedmen. (The most famous of this latter group was Samuel F. Phillips, who later argued against segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.)

Included, too, were people who wanted to be part of the ruling Republican Party simply because it provided more opportunities for successful political careers. Many historians have described scalawags in terms of social class, showing that on average they were less wealthy or prestigious than the elite planter class.  As Thomas Alexander (1961) showed, there was persistent Whiggery (support for the principles of the defunct Whig Party) in the South after 1865. Many ex-Whigs became Republicans who advocated modernization through education and infrastructure especially better roads and railroads. Many also joined the Redeemers in their successful attempt to replace the brief period of civil rights promised to Blacks during the Reconstruction era with the Jim Crow era of segregation and second-class citizenship that persisted into the 20th century.  

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