essays

Mar 2, 1981

Liberal Republicans During Reconstruction

“Ignoring history, the Liberals depended upon the Southern leaders’ wisdom and desire for votes to protect and educate the black constituency.”

Wilbert A. Ahern

“Laissez Faire vs. Equal Rights: Liberal Republicans and Limits to Reconstruction.” Phylon 40(May/June 1979):52–65.

The stalwart Republicans of 1872 articulated and encouraged the thesis that the Liberal Republicans had abandoned the plight of the black Freedmen in postbellum American society. Though the Liberal Republicans did advocate the withdrawal of government intrusion in the affairs of Reconstruction, their reasoning was not based on promulgating racism. Paradoxically, the Liberals believed the very limitation of the powerful reach of the federal government would in fact encourage a growing willingness in the post Civil War South to accept the principle of equal rights for all men. Amnesty and friendship, rather than coercion, would best protect the new black citizens and restore peace to the nation.

The Liberal Republicans became so disillusioned with the Republican acceptance of federal involvement in the South that they defied tradition and broke with the party, supporting Horace Greeley to represent their ideology in the 1872 presidential election. The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were complete as the foundation for the new society. The Liberals could not recognize any extension of the Constitution beyond “the ballot,” without seriously threatening equal rights.

However, the black citizens lacked economic independence and held an extremely vulnerable and exploitable economic and social position in the South. They needed continued government involvement on a scale the Liberals were not willing to recognize in the nineteenth century. Liberals were content with their position in society and insisted on maintaining the limited role of government to which they attributed their success. They could neither understand nor accept the demands of the oppressed and attributed the severe social disharmony to lack of education or training.

In conclusion, it was elitist, gradualist reform orientation rather than emergent racism that explains the Liberal Republican movement of 1872. Ignoring history, the Liberals depended upon the Southern leaders’ wisdom and desire for votes to protect and educate the black constituency. Therefore, they failed to secure protection for the new citizens despite their commitment to equal rights, but not because of a growing racism.