Carpetbaggers, Jacklegs, and Bolting Republicans: Jews in Reconstruction Politics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana

By Rockoff, Stuart | American Jewish History, January 2013 | Go to article overview
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Carpetbaggers, Jacklegs, and Bolting Republicans: Jews in Reconstruction Politics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana


Rockoff, Stuart, American Jewish History


Since the earliest days of the field of southern Jewish history, there has been intense interest in the subject of Jews and the Civil War. A spate of recent books and conferences on the subject, some in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, testifies to its continued fascination for both scholars and lay people. There has also been increased scholarly focus on the question of Jews and slavery. But for all of this attention given to these two seminal subjects of southern history, relatively little has been written about southern Jews and Reconstruction. Yet for historians interested in racial assimilation and the question of how Jews adapted to the changing political and racial currents of the South, Reconstruction is a crucial era. The close study of the political careers of three Jewish men in one Louisiana Parish during Reconstruction can illuminate the sometimes ambiguous racial position of Jews in the South at a time when the region's racial structure was being redefined. (1)

After the Civil War, reconstituted state governments in the defeated Confederacy initially sought to reestablish firm control of freed slaves through black codes that severely limited their freedoms. In response to this legal assault and the reluctance of the presidency to adopt sterner measures, Republicans in Congress imposed a more radical form of Reconstruction that limited the political power of former Confederates and used federal troops to ensure the voting rights of black men. Reconstruction politics in the South featured a burgeoning Republican Party--supported by freedmen and growing numbers of white northerners who came to the region after the war--and a greatly weakened Democratic Party. The Democrats, who relied on white voters almost exclusively, gradually regained power, often by violence, intimidation, and fraud. By the end of Reconstruction they had started to regain control of state and local governments in a process they called "redemption."

Two competing historical narratives emerged about the Reconstruction period. The "Dunning School" justified the white South's actions to control former slaves by stressing the corruption and incompetence of black Republican rule. More recent interpretations, by contrast, focus on the important social and political reforms of the era along with the tragic ending of interracial democracy that arose after the Democratic Party regained power. Neither of these interpretations has paid much attention to southern Jews. (2)

This omission is not surprising since Jews comprised less than 1% of the South's population after the war, and so never became a large enough political bloc to have significant influence over the politics of the time. Most likely, the story of southern Reconstruction would not have unfolded any differently had Jews never settled south of the Mason-Dixon Line. If Jews played any role at all during the Reconstruction period, it was primarily economic. Jews from the North and from Europe settled across the South after the Civil War, often following the construction of railroads, and set up shop in cities and market towns. These Jews helped to rebuild the South's market economy. Yet there have been few studies of Jews' involvement in the racial politics of the era. Leonard Rogoff has written about the fascinating examples of two Jewish office holders, Joseph Hahn in New Bern, North Carolina and S.H. Fishblate in Wilmington, North Carolina, who took different sides in the political struggles over redemption. Most sources, however, suggest that Jews stayed out of the complicated and often violent politics of Reconstruction. (3)

Yet in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, several Jewish immigrants became leading participants in the political struggles of Reconstruction. Marx Schoenberg and Morris Marks were partisan Republicans who sought their political fortunes in a parish where African Americans comprised the large majority of voters.

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