South Carolina During Reconstruction


I recently saw a post on Facebook about the tragic church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina that happened a few months ago. It reminded me of a book review I wrote some years ago.

Francis B. Simkins and Robert H. Woody: South Carolina During Reconstruction (1932). 

Four years on from South Carolina’s ill-fated secession from the Union, the state’s time-honored social, political, and economic traditions stood on the brink of destruction. Originally published in 1932, South Carolina During Reconstruction details the state’s road to “redemption” from “Yankee” and “Negro” rule in the twelve-year period following the Civil War. Outnumbered and outgunned, “The vanquished were perfectly willing to admit defeat at arms, but they would not or could not accept the doctrines of political and social democracy by what they considered arrogant politicians and mistaken philanthropists” (vii). Because the institution of slavery “was the driving force of the state’s industrial and social life…[and] the principal reason why the white manhood of the state had fought so desperately,” Simkins and Woody reveal that Reconstruction was doomed to failure because the white man could never accept the black man as his equal (12). Advocating the conventional wisdom of their day, the authors maintain that the freedmen were incapable of exercising the highest functions of citizenship, and that they “never got over [the] habit of following white leadership” (87, 74). Therefore, it was no surprise that once the threat of the federal bayonet was lifted and the state’s “outside forces” could be removed without reprisal, the newly emancipated African-Americans’ traditional position of inferiority would be restored, despite his outnumbering the white man by a significant margin. According to the authors, “That South Carolina would consent to being ruled by alien whites and native blacks was unthinkable” (112).

Throughout their substantial study, Simkins and Woody characterize the Reconstruction period as an aberration in the annals of South Carolina’s long and illustrious history. They explain this historical hiccup by providing evidence of northern opportunists—carpetbaggers—local traitors—scalawags—and the might of the federal government interfering with the state’s culture, and taking advantage of the easily led, intellectually-impaired freedmen. As was the norm for the day, innumerable negative racial stereotypes are attributed to African Americans, such as their innate “content[ment] to remain socially and economically inferior to the white man,” the “fact” that lighter-complected black men are superior to darker-complected black men,[1] their instinctive promiscuity, inability to adequately house themselves, and their “disrespect for law and moral conventions” (73, 130, 329-333). Despite their writings being littered with the types of ethnic descriptions and phrases which today would be considered quite racist, the authors faithfully convey their understanding of Reconstruction with a candor that spares neither “native son” nor “outsider invader” from the critical eye of the professional historian. The authors’ observation on the State’s Supreme Court during Reconstruction is particularly instructive and is illustrative of their scholarship regarding the historical record: “In spite of the fact the Supreme Court was composed of a scalawag, a carpetbagger, and a Negro, its administration was fair and its decisions equitable” (144).

Even though they complain about the dearth of reliable information—the untrustworthiness of the newspapers, diaries, letters etc.—Simkins and Woody employ a variety of the available sources to offer an understanding of the time period, commensurate with early 20th century sensibilities (viii-ix). Of course, modern scholarship now incorporates the “centrality of the black experience,” in its analysis of Reconstruction; African Americans constituted a majority of the state’s population. Few people in the 1930s, however, would have accepted the idea that “blacks were active agents in the making of Reconstruction,” and that their “quest for individual and community autonomy did much to establish the era’s political and economic agenda.”[2] Consequently, as a product of its time, space, and place, Simkins and Woody’s work, while certainly not definitive, is instructive for telling about their attitudes and those current among the White South’s advocates in 1932 than they were about the actual Reconstruction.

Forced to accept military defeat owing to the victor’s superior numbers and war matériel, the state’s “redeemers” would never allow New England liberalism, which they saw as a personal attack on their heritage, to destroy South Carolina’s “civilization” (27). From their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the 1868 Constitutional Convention to the reorganization of the Democratic Party seven years later to the brutal implementation of the “Mississippi Plan” in the years following 1877, South Carolina’s “white manhood” proved that they would never accept equality with the black man, and that they would secure that birthright by any means necessary. Notwithstanding its limitations,[3] South Carolina During Reconstruction is an invaluable conduit through which the modern historian gains insight into this tragic episode in American history because, no doubt, the same mindset that “redeemed” the state from “radical” rule in 1877 gave birth to the culture in which Simkins and Woody lived, wrote, and published.

[1] Referring to South Carolina’s first African American lieutenant governor, Alonzo J. Ransier, the authors contend that “In the state Senate he was a good presiding officer; his dignity and cleverness were traced to the fact that he was nearly white” (130).

[2] Quoted in Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction: 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1990) xv.

[3] This author grants that such limitations are of course anachronistic, but, as a product of his own time, space, and place, he views them as valid criticisms of the time period in which Simkins and Woody lived, not necessarily as criticisms of the historians themselves.

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