Monday, October 24, 2011

On North Carolina Politics: Then and Now!

Alfred Moore Waddell
Re:  “Cracking the Solid South:
Populism and the Fusionist Interlude”
by Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow

For historian Dr. Jeffrey Crow, there exists a myth that a “solid South” developed from the dark years of Reconstruction.  This myth of a unified South does not seem so reliable in view of North Carolina politics leading up to the twentieth century.  Crow sees a different reality.  He introduces this reality with this definition:  the “solid South came to stand for the Democratic party, white supremacy, and a benign upper-class hegemony over millhands, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, black and white alike.”   Republican rule ended after only a decade to be replaced with a planter-dominated upper class, even once at gunpoint.  In Crow’s belief, if historian Donald Higginbotham’s “reconstruction that took” really took hold in North Carolina, then the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 would not have happened.   Reconstruction in North Carolina, as in the rest of the South, fell beside the peace table during negotiations following the Southern Rebellion and the Herrenvolk, or “master race” remained in power.  If anything, Democratic one-party rule grew more entrenched “promoted by industrialization, and the social order firmly fixed by rigid class and caste definitions.”   Thus goes the myth.

Crow agrees partly that a hierarchy existed.  He places the few elite planters at the head of the hierarchy in North Carolina in this period.  Secondly, he introduces merchants, lawyers, and factory managers as necessary elements for an industrialized economy.  Thirdly, the farmers represent the most numerous group that lay steadfastly upon the freedmen at the bottom of the social scale.  The story that unfolded involved the independent farmer class that, after the decades-long agricultural depression of the late 1800s, began to erode.  They fought to maintain their position in the social scale, for security’s sake (both social and economic) and literally for sustenance.  Also important to them, ex-confederates and their sons, they did not stand for being classed with the Negro.  Still, no matter how low the farmers had become, they felt assured that their skin color would always keep them above the lowly freedmen.  Moreover, the closer the comparison, the more uncomfortable they became.

The Democrats’ armor, however, had a dent in it.  In North Carolina, Republicans, including the newly liberated freedmen, sided with western subsistence farmers or Whigs from before the war.  Therefore, the Republican Party still remained as a political force, if culled by Redeemer or Bourbon Democrats.  Crow disagrees with a “solid South” and argues that North Carolina had “the most competitive two-party system in the South before 1900.”   A new political force evolved in response to the great class distinction, the poor farmers’ plight against the rich Bourbon Democrats.  In the early stages, it functioned within the existing power structure.  The Southern Farmer’s Alliance, a democratic reform movement that included the South and West developed in the 1880s and 1890s from independent farmers seeking relief from high tariffs and low prices on their goods.  The Alliance also opposed corrupt tactics of the business-oriented, ex-slaveholding eastern Bourbons of the reigning Democratic Party. 

The political spectrum encountered another variable, a liberal and reforming one led by an aristocratic leader in touch with the people’s plight, Leonidas L. Polk from Anson County and later a president of the national Alliance.  Polk held all the qualities of the intelligentsia: charisma, wealthy, and educated.  Historian William Link regards Polk as widely popular for his leadership, but “was clearly not from the bottom rung of the social order.”   The Alliance created a statewide cooperative, including tobacco warehouses in an attempt to alleviate elite planters’ control of prices.  The Alliance also helped to reduce tariffs that made foreign necessaries so expensive for the independent farmer.  Crow states that “the furnishing merchant and landlord could be bypassed,” but not without repercussions.   The Alliance had outgrown the Democratic Party which had grown corrupt in their eyes, especially after Redeemer Zebulon Vance’s political betrayal.  In all political arenas, there exist such historical and inevitable patterns.

Thus, a third party formed as a response to Democratic corruption in North Carolina politics.  The Populists or People’s Party mobilized Alliancemen and made an clean break with the planter-industrialist faction of the Democratic Party.  They wanted Polk as their leader, but upon his sudden death, found another in Sampson County-born Marion Butler.  Butler shared intelligentsia qualities with Polk, but elevated Populist pragmatic politics to the state level.  He attempted to side with reform-minded Democrats against the entrenched Bourbons, but found Republicans a more willing partner. 

Daniel Lindsay Russell, Jr., a Whig from the Lower Cape Fear, leaned far to the left on the political spectrum, despite his elitist eastern planter beginnings.  As a Radical Republican, Russell had grown weary of the Democrats’ use of race to hold the entire state hostage.  He also did not like black efforts to gain full control of the Republican Party.  In 1892, Russell predicted that, by combining forces, the Republicans and the Populists could defeat Democratic hegemony.  The next year, Democrats attempted to curtail the Populists’ power even further.  This caused them to seek out Republicans to increase their effectiveness against the Democrats.  Russell attempted to dispense with the race issue and the combined Fusion Party easily threatened the old Democratic Party in the vote.

Crow argues that the Populist and Republican Parties made a matching pair in that they both wanted electoral reforms.  This, they did to defeat Democratic partisan election laws designed to disfranchise blacks and illiterate whites, arguably tactics in today’s Southern politics.  Democrats understood the nature of power and ruled from the veritable throne of the state’s legislature to negate local influence across the state.  Still, the combined power of the Fusionists gained control of that legislature in 1894 and began enacting reforms, including sending Marion Butler to the United States Senate and filling the late Zebulon Vance’s empty seat with Jeter C. Pritchard.  Furthermore, Daniel Russell won the governorship thanks to last-minute Fusion cooperation that combined against Democrats. 

Democrats, facing a perceived “black rule,” with an alienated business community, used blistering propaganda to sway popular opinion and win back control.  The uneasy alliance of Populists and Republicans became an easy target for these powerful Democrats.  When Gov. Russell attacked the J. P. Morgan Southern Railway lease of the state-owned North Carolina Railroad, with their higher rates, he lost Republican support.  Fusion quickly died and Russell alienated his own party just in time for the 1898 election. 

The Democrats saw their chance and went for the Populist jugular.  Although economics sat at the core, Democrats waged this election on race.  Furnifold Simmons, Charles B. Aycock, Josephus Daniels of the Raleigh News and Observer, terrorist groups Red Shirts and Rough Riders, waged virtual war against all of their foes, particularly blacks.  “Armed men broke up fusionist political rallies, disrupted black church meetings, whipped outspoken blacks, and drove black voters from the polls,” as Crow outlines.   Former Confederate officer, Alfred Moore Waddell initiated a coup d’etat two days after the 1898 election in Russell’s hometown of Wilmington.  The Herrenvolk mentality in North Carolina violently forced the political spectrum back to the conservative side.  In Wilmington specifically, it resulted in burned buildings and death.  As Crow details “eleven to thirty blacks were killed” in the takeover of Wilmington’s government.   The numbers probably go higher and he gives no figures for how many suffered exile from the city and county.  Democrats dismantled the Fusionist reforms and ensured that “a coalition of blacks and… low born quondam slaves [poor whites]… would never triumph again.”   The violence of this anti-governmental coup never again saw its equal in the United States.  No author can effectively express it in mere words.

Crow implies that Democrats removed poor whites and blacks from the political equation and assumed the role of reformers to alleviate further disruption of their power.  With virtually all of the dissenting voices silenced, they still understood that the largest majority in the state, the farmers, could effectively offer resistance and did, before 1898.  Thus, they pandered to them as little as possible to sway their numbers to their side of the ballot.  For the most part, however, North Carolina returned to the Democratic status quo for the so-called “Progressive” movement which gave Aycock the semi-sweet moniker of the “education governor.” 


Crow’s article reveals many complicated truths about North Carolina and simplifies a complex issue.  His original point of “cracking” a “solid South” myth appears to have focused upon a short-lived episode in North Carolina’s political history.  Still, the “solid South” did, in fact, remain solid, especially after 1898 in the Tar Heel state.  The same Democrats ruled after Reconstruction as after the government takeover that year and, as Crow admits, into the twentieth century.  No problem existed with the historiography, only with its representation. 

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