South Carolina’s Reconstruction Years



As the Confederacy had fallen in 1865 it brought a new and challenging problem for the federal government: how would the defeated southern states to be brought back into the Union? It was agreed that this should be achieved as quickly as possible, but at the same time those in the Union were concerned about the planter elite.

It was this elite group they believed led the South in secession and could possibly restart the rebellion. For this reason most of the South would have to remain under federal control until it was deemed safe to leave matters to the southern state governments. This period of federal control was termed “Reconstruction.” To some, the reconstruction of the Union was accomplished when the South’s representatives were readmitted to Congress in 1868.
The length of the Reconstruction period differed among southern states, depending on when each state was readmitted to the Union by Congress, or when they reinstated Democratic rule. In South Carolina, Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877, with the break between Presidential and Congressional control occurring in 1867 when the freedmen were registered to vote for delegates to a constitutional convention.


reconstruction charleston
Charleston, SC


President Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction would have left the plantation elite in control of the southern states and would not have included black suffrage. It did, however, require that southern whites accept the results of the war and the elimination of slavery. Republicans in Congress considered this plan too lenient, while Northerners blamed the war on southern planters, who used their control of black labor to control their states.
Because of this northern sentiment, southern leaders passed Black Codes which were laws restricting the activities and jobs of Blacks and returning them to the custody of their former owners. These South Carolina’s codes, passed in December 1865, and set severe regulations on work and travel that applied only to Blacks.
The Black Codes were overturned by the state’s military governor, who saw them as restoring slavery in everything but name. South Carolinians then lost their last chance to avoid Congressional Reconstruction by refusing to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which among other provisions would have made former slaves citizens of the state and punished the state if it did not give them the vote.
Congressional Republicans took advantage of this northern outrage in 1867 by passing the Reconstruction Acts, which authorized the registration of all adult males in the South as voters and the holding of elections for delegates to a constitutional convention. In South Carolina, of 124 delegates to the 1868 convention, 73 were black or of mixed race, and all were Republicans.
The constitution they wrote was modeled on what the state of Ohio had, dealing with things such as local government, women’s rights, and public education, but it exceeded them in its commitment to racial equality. It extended voting rights to all men; proposals to limit voting to the literate, the educated, or those who paid a poll tax were all voted down overwhelmingly.
Under the new constitution the state’s Black’s comprised sixty percent of the voting population, had the voting strength to ensure Republican control of the state government. This control allowed the passage of more legislation to improve the condition of the freedmen, more than any other state was able to accomplish.
An example how much South Carolina was able to pass is seen with the establishment of the South Carolina Land Commission in 1869, the intent was to make landownership possible for poor blacks.
Of course with one-party being able to dominate the government it also led to a lack of accountability with many of the Republican officeholders. Corruption increased in the state legislature and in the executive offices of the state. In one instance in 1870–1871, the state’s financial board secured the authority to print and sell $1 million in state bonds; there were to be $1,000 bonds numbered 1 to 1,000. Members of the board printed two sets— both numbered 1 to 1,000—and sold both sets. They kept no records of their transactions and were caught only when a New York investment firm came into possession of two bonds with the same number on both.
A majority of white South Carolinians never acknowledged the legality of the Republican government. Claiming that Republican leaders lacked the wealth, education, and intelligence to govern the state, the former planter-elite ridiculed their opponents in offensive and nasty language.

Reconstruction photo 2

Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan were formed to intimidate Republicans, especially Republican leaders; they whipped or beat hundreds of victims and murdered scores. Some of those killed were Republican legislators, Solomon Dill, Benjamin Franklin Randolph, and James Martin, all assassinated in 1868. From that year until 1871 South Carolina Republicans operated in a climate of terror.
White Democrats attempted to achieve some level of control in state politics by one method. In the 1870, 1872, and 1874 elections, they joined with dissatisfied Republicans to create fusion tickets, this was where the party made an arrangement where they would list the same candidate on the ballot in order to pool the votes for that candidate.

This method failed, but it did increase the number of Democrats in the legislature and in some county governments. In 1871 and 1874 they organized “Taxpayers’ Conventions,” which met to criticize the government’s wastefulness and wanted an investigation into the finances; this too had limited results. The Democrats ran a full statewide ticket for the first time since 1868. Wade Hampton III, South Carolina’s highest-ranking Confederate officer, accepted the nomination for governor, and the other Democrats on the ticket were also former Confederates.

The Democrats used a dual strategy: Hampton portrayed himself as a moderate and made appeals for black support, while his followers practiced bullying tactics along with intimidation and violence. Combined with massive fraud, the tactic boosted the Democrats to victory, at least on the face of the returns; but the returns were clearly fraudulent.

Hampton and the Republican incumbent, Daniel H. Chamberlain, each claimed to be governor. Both parties claimed control of the state legislature. And both parties claimed to have carried the state for their candidates in the 1876 presidential election.
Republican Rutherford Hayes was awarded the presidency by a bipartisan election commission, but after meeting with Hampton and Chamberlain he decided not to use federal power to protect Chamberlain’s government.
Chamberlain knew this signified the end of Republican government in South Carolina. Hampton commanded the loyalty of almost all white South Carolinians, giving him the largest taxpayers of the state and a superior military force of trained Confederate veterans.
Chamberlain resigned in April 1877, thus ending Reconstruction in South Carolina. With the Democrats in control of the state, the election system was altered to prevent most blacks from voting. By the 1890s there were almost no black or Republican officeholders in the state, a condition that continued for more than half a century.


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