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The Redeemers were a Democrat coalition in the South during the Reconstruction era, who sought to overthrow the Radical Republican coalition of civil rights activists, Freedmen, carpetbaggers and Scalawags. They were the southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats, the conservative, pro-business wing of the Democratic Party. Redeemers held power not by ballot-box fraud and the support of a few Northern capitalists, but by representing the interests of rural areas and the majority of Southerners. Redeemers cut real estate taxes, established state commissions of agriculture, subsidized state fairs, sponsored experimental farms, employed chemists to inspect fertilizers and to conduct soil surveys, established regulations for railroads, and supported lower tariffs. Aligning themselves with farmers on economic issues and combining low taxes with real, if limited, improvements in social services, the Redeemers exerted a powerful hold on the electorate.[1]


Between 1868 and the Compromise of 1877, in the process known as "Redemption," Redeemers won many state and local offices by appealing to Scalawags (white Southerners who previously supported the Republican Party). Their program emphasized opposition to the Radical Republican system that they considered to be corrupt and a violation of true republican principles. They denounced high taxes and high state debts. Once in power, they typically cut government spending; shortened legislative sessions; lowered politicians' salaries; scaled back public aid to railroads and corporations; and reduced support for public education. The process of stripping blacks of their voting rights in the wake of the Compromise was gradual. Blacks continued to vote in significant numbers well into the 1880s and black Congressmen continued to be elected, albeit in ever smaller numbers, until the 1890s. George Henry White, the last Southern black of the post-Reconstruction period to serve in Congress, retired in 1901, leaving Congress completely white until 1929.

In the 1890s, the Redeemers and Bourbon Democrats faced their biggest challenge with the Populists, when their control of the South was threatened by the Farmers Alliance, the effects of Bimetallism and the newly created Populist Party. As a consequence, William Jennings Bryan defeated the Bourbons and took control of the Democratic Party nationwide.


Historians have portrayed the 1876 Texas constitution as a triumph for Redeemer Democrats, a faction composed primarily of members of the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, and led in part by "Rutabaga" John Johnson. Johnson's reaction to the Texas constitution perpetuated the notion that an agrarian bloc had dominated both the Democratic Party and the proceedings and triumphed over a more developmentally oriented cosmopolitan wing. In reality, there is little foundation for the agrarian pedigree of the Texas constitution. The Grangers at the convention were divided on such subjects as public subsidies for railroads, the state debt, and state-funded education. Moreover, many Grangers at the convention opted for the more generous alternatives on these issues than the agrarian myth attributes. In addition, differences existed among Democrats regarding the role of the state in economic development and social welfare. Finally, cultivators of the soil were so diverse that they never constituted a cohesive interest group.[2]

Jim Crow

Before the resort to widespread legal segregation around 1890, de facto segregation, called Jim Crow, had replaced exclusion in southern race relations. The integration stage was largely bypassed. Radical measures helped to institutionalize this shift to segregation. Both white Republicans and Redeemers came to embrace the new segregation policies, though often for different reasons. Even the attitudes of blacks helped to assure the shift. Lack of white support, black self-respect, economic pressures, tactical emphasis on securing better "separate but equal" facilities, and the development of group identity all shaped blacks' attitudes.[3]

Virginia Governor James L. Kemper (governor 1874-77) and like-minded Conservatives for a variety of reasons implemented racial policies which were less anti-Negro and which gave fuller recognition than historians have conceded. The Virginia Redeemers . . . attempted to shape race relations to conform to what C. Vann Woodward has defined as the Conservative philosophy. Kemper and the Virginia Redeemers deserve to rank in history alongside the Wade Hamptons and other proponents of the Conservative philosophy.[4]

The Redeemer system of Jim Crow meant that for the first time black teachers and principals controlled black education. Rabinowitz (1974) studies the transformation from white to black teachers in southern schools in the post-Civil War years, using the experiences of five southern cities to provide a cross-section: Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama; and Richmond, Virginia. Among the problems the Redeemers confronted were such matters as the removal of northern missionary ties and teachers in order to reassert southern control of the school system, the black demand for black teachers which was often accepted since it meant cheaper teachers, and the resultant black demand for equal salary for equal work, a demand usually denied. African Americans tried to obtain better quality instruction for their children, more administrative positions, and positions on the school board, but were usually unsuccessful. Ironically, since some schools became entirely black, insistence upon black instructors made it easier for the whites to discriminate.[5]

Religious dimension

"Redemption" was deliberately chosen as a term from Christian theology. Historian Daniel W. Stowell[6] concludes that white southerners appropriated the term to describe the political transformation they desired, that is, the end of Reconstruction. This term helped unify a large number of white voters, and encompassed efforts to purge southern society of its sins and to remove Republican political leaders. It also represented the birth of a new southern society, rather than a return to its antebellum predecessor. Historians Gaines M. Foster explains how the South became known as the Bible Belt by connecting this characterization with changing attitudes caused by slavery's demise. Freed from preoccupation with federal intervention over slavery, and even citing it as precedent, white southerners joined northerners in the national crusade to legislate morality. Viewed by some as a "bulwark of morality," the largely Protestant South took on a Bible Belt identity long before H. L. Mencken coined the term.[7]


In the years immediately following Reconstruction, most blacks and former abolitionists held that Reconstruction lost the struggle for civil rights for black people because of violence against blacks and threats against white Republicans. Frederick Douglass. Black Reconstruction Congressman John R. Lynch cited the withdrawal of federal troops from the South as a primary reason for the loss of voting rights and other civil rights by African Americans after 1877.

By the turn of the century, white historians, led by the Dunning School, saw Reconstruction as a failure because of its political and financial corruption, its failure to heal the hatreds of the war, and its control by self-serving northern politicians, such as the people around President Grant. Historian Claude Bowers said that the worst part of what he called "the Tragic Era" was the extension of voting rights to African American Freedmen, a policy he claimed led to misgovernment and corruption. The Freedmen, the Dunning School historians argued, were not at fault because they were manipulated by corrupt white Carpetbaggers interested only in raiding the state treasury and staying in power. They agreed the South had to be "redeemed" by foes of corruption. Reconstruction, in short, violated the values of "republicanism" and Radical Republicans were "extremists". This interpretation of events was the hallmark of the Dunning School which dominated most history textbooks from 1900 to the 1960s.

Beginning in the 1930s, historians such as C. Vann Woodward and Howard K. Beale attacked the "redemptionist" interpretation of Reconstruction, calling themselves "revisionists" and claimed that the real issues were economic. The Northern Radicals were tools of the railroads, and the Republicans in the South were manipulated to do their bidding. The Redeemers, furthermore, were also tools of the railroads and were themselves corrupt.

In 1935, W.E.B. DuBois published a Marxist analysis in his Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. His book emphasized the role of African Americans during Reconstruction.

By the 1960s, neo-abolitionist historians led by Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner made the struggle of Freedmen center stage. While acknowledging corruption in the Reconstruction era, they hold that the Dunning School over-emphasized it while ignoring the worst violations of republican principles — namely denying African Americans their civil rights, including their right to vote [1].

See also


See Reconstruction: Bibliography for more titles

Secondary sources

  • Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (1993). online edition
  • Baggett, James Alex. The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (2003), a statistical study of 732 Scalawags and 666 Redeemers.
  • Blum Edward J. and W. Scott Poole, eds. Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction. Mercer University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8655-4987-7.
  • Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935), explores the role of African Americans during Reconstruction
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2002), a major synthesis
  • Garner, James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901), a classic Dunning School text. online edition
  • Garrison, Ellen, “Reactionaries or Reformers? Membership and Leadership of the Georgia Constitutional Convention of 1877,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 90 (Winter 2006), 505–24.
  • Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879 (1979)
  • Going, Allen J. "Alabama Bourbonism and Populism Revisited." Alabama Review 1983 36(2): 83-109. Issn: 0002-4341
  • Roger L. Hart, Redeemers, Bourbons, and Populists: Tennessee, 1870-1896 LSU Press, 1975.
  • Jones, Robert R. "James L. Kemper and the Virginia Redeemers Face the Race Question: A Reconsideration." Journal of Southern History 1972 38(3): 393-414. Issn: 0022-4642 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • King, Ronald F. "A Most Corrupt Election: Louisiana in 1876." Studies in American Political Development 2001 15(2): 123-137. Issn: 0898-588x Fulltext: in Cambridge Journals
  • King, Ronald F. "Counting the Votes: South Carolina's Stolen Election of 1876." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2001 32(2): 169-191. Issn: 0022-1953 Fulltext: in Project Muse, Swetswise, Jstor and Ebsco
  • Moore, James Tice. "Redeemers Reconsidered: Change and Continuity in the Democratic South, 1870-1900" in the Journal of Southern History, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Aug., 1978), pp. 357–378. in JSTOR
  • Moore, James Tice. "Origins of the Solid South: Redeemer Democrats and the Popular Will, 1870-1900." Southern Studies 1983 22(3): 285-301. Issn: 0735-8342
  • Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879 (1984).
  • Perman, Michael "Counter Reconstruction: The Role of Violence in Southern Redemption", in Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr, eds. The Facts of Reconstruction (1991) pp. 121–140.
  • Polakoff, Keith I. The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (1973)
  • Rabinowitz, Howard K. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (1977)
  • Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction (2001)
  • Wallenstein, Peter. From Slave South to New South: Public Policy in Nineteenth-Century Georgia (1987).
  • Wiggins; Sarah Woolfolk. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865—1881 (1991) online edition
  • Williamson, Edward C. Florida Politics in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893 (1976).
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951). emphasizes economic conflict between rich and poor. online edition at ACLS History ebooks

Primary Sources


  1. James Tice Moore, Origins of the Solid South: Redeemer Democrats and the Popular Will, 1870-1900. Southern Studies 1983 22(3): 285-301. 0735-8342
  2. Patrick G. Williams, "Of Rutabagas And Redeemers: Rethinking The Texas Constitution Of 1876." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 2002 106(2): 230-253. 0038-478X
  3. Howard N. Rabinowitz, "From Exclusion To Segregation: Southern Race Relations, 1865-1890." Journal of American History 1976 63(2): 325-350. in JSTOR
  4. Robert R. Jones, "James L. Kemper and the Virginia Redeemers Face the Race Question: A Reconsideration." Journal of Southern History 1972 38(3): 393-414. 0022-4642
  5. Howard N. Rabinowitz, "Half a Loaf: The Shift from White to Black Teachers in the Negro Schools of the Urban South, 1865-1890." Journal of Southern History 1974 40(4):565-594. in JSTOR
  6. Blum and Poole (2005)
  7. Blum and Poole (2005)