Foner, Eric. (1980). Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. (pp 588-589). New York: Perennial Classics.

No single generalization can fully describe the social origins or political purposes of the South’s Redeemers, whose ranks included secessionist Democrats and Union Whigs, veterans of the Confederacy and rising younger leaders, traditional planters and advocates of a modernized New South. They shared, however, a commitment to dismantling the Reconstruction state, reducing the political power of blacks, and reshaping the South’s legal system in the interests of labor control and racial subordination. In a majority of Southern states, they moved, upon assuming office, to replace Reconstruction constitutions with new documents severely restricting the scope and expense of government. “Instruments of prohibition,” as one newspaper described them, Redeemer constitutions reduced salaries of state officials, limited the length of legislative sessions, slashed state and local property taxes, curtailed the government’s authority to incur financial obligations (in Georgia and Louisiana, it could could borrow money only to repel an invasion or suppress an insurrection), and repudiated, wholly or in part, Reconstruction state debts. Public aid to railroads and other corporations was prohibited, and several states abolished their central boards of education.

Judged in terms of election pledges to reduce the cost of government and the burden of property taxes, the Redeemers were a success. Mississippi Democrats slashed the state budget by over 50 percent in the ten years following 1875 and restored to their owners millions of acres forfeited for nonpayment of taxes. (Eliminating corruption proved more difficult. Louisiana’s first Redeemer treasurer, Edward A. Burke of Wormley House fame, fled to Honduras with $1 million in state funds.) But Southerners did not benefit equally from the reduction in taxes and expenditures. As land levies declined, licenses and poll taxes rose. Tenants received no benefit from the fall in taxation of landed property, and yeomen, although paying less, saw Reconstruction laws excluding a fixed amount of property from taxes replaced by exemptions only for specific items, such as machinery and implements utilized only on a plantation. Laborers, tenants, and small farmers paid taxes on virtually everything they owned–tools, mules, even furniture–while many planters had thousands of dollars in property excluded. “The farmer’s hoe and plow, and the mechanic’s saw and plane,” a Georgia Republican newspaper lamented, “must be taxed to support the Government. . . . Show me the rich man who handles a hoe or pushes a plane.” Thus, the tax system became increasingly regressive, as those with the least property bore the heaviest proportional burden. Moreover, although homestead exemptions remained on the books, new laws allowed their voluntary waiver, and “shark storekeepers” often refused to advance supplies until they had been set aside, threatening tenants and small farmers with the loss of their personal and landed property in the event of a poor crop.

Fiscal retrenchment went hand in hand with a retreat from the idea of an activist state meeting broad social responsibilities. “Spend nothing unless absolutely necessary,” Gov. George F. Drew advised the Florida legislature in 1877, and lawmakers took his advice to heart, abolishing the penitentiary, thus saving $25,000, and abandoning a nearly completed Agricultural College, leaving the state without any institution of higher learning, public or private. Alabama’s Redeemers closed public hospitals at Montgomery and Talladega and Louisiana’s were “so economical that . . . state services to the people almost disappeared.” Similar reductions affected provisions for the insane and blind as well as appropriations for Southern paupers, despite the lingering effects of the economic depression. South Carolina Democrats tightened collections from blacks owing mortgages to the state land commission, producing a “pell-mell rout of Negro settlers.” Public education–described as a “luxury” by one Redeemer governor–was especially hard hit, as some states all but dismantled the education systems established during Reconstruction. Texas began charging fees in its schools, while Mississippi and Alabama abolished statewide school taxes, placing the entire burden of funding on the only state in the Union in which the percentage of native whites unable to read or write actually rose between 1880 and 1900. School enrollment in Arkansas did not regain Reconstruction levels until the 1890s. Blacks suffered the most from educational retrenchment, for the gap between expenditures for black and white pupils steadily widened.

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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