The Elusive Center: Virginia Politics and the General Assembly, 1869-1871

Article excerpt

THE appeal of Virginia Conservatives for black support in the summer of 1869 revealed the stormy, even erratic, nature of politics in the southern states during Reconstruction. The Conservatives' new tactic, and apparent acceptance of black Virginians' voting in the first place, shocked state Republicans. In 1868 the Conservatives had conducted a savage campaign that rallied white voters against "black Republican" rule. The next year Conservatives discarded the politics of confrontation and embraced a moderate stand--a "New Departure" some called it--that promised equal rights for all.(1) To the Conservative Richmond Dispatch the new strategy promised electoral success. "Come, friends, black and white, let' s have a grand jubilee in this election--the triumph of the rights of man," the paper declared.(2) The approach produced stunning results. With the support of whites and some blacks, the party secured control of the state legislature and an ally in the governor's mansion. White Virginians thus reaped enormous benefits: victory spared the Old Dominion Republican rule, intervention by the national government, and, it appeared, the heartache of further racial conflict.

By 1871, however, those auspicious developments celebrated by the Dispatch lay in shambles. Black support withered, and most Conservatives repudiated further appeals to freedmen. There were many reasons that the party's endeavor to forge a new centrist coalition of voters of both races foundered. The effort may have been doomed from the start. Some things do not blend well, such as emancipated people and their former masters in political parties. But there is more to the story. The foundation for a political center collapsed because Conservatives in the legislature could not combine the moderate campaign promises of 1869 with a moderate legislative program. Thus, the New Departure evolved into a muddled and ineffectual approach that coupled centrist rhetoric with a reactionary policy record that had little appeal to black Virginians. Having failed to detach blacks from Republican ranks by subtle means, Conservatives turned to blunter methods to thwart black political power before the next state election occurred in 1871.

Historians have tended to portray Reconstruction as a time of explosive political combat in the southern states. According to this interpretation, the clash over race relations and black suffrage created an incendiary atmosphere marked by sharp party differences, fierce electoral contests, and, at times, violent confrontation. Both William Gillette and Eric Foner, for example, argue that the vast differences in constituencies, interests, an goals of the Democratic-Conservative and Republican parties preempted moderation and made conflict a salient feature of postwar southern politics as long as blacks retained the right to vote.(3)

In his recent study Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, Richard Lowe also asserts that fierce interparty combat characterized state politics. He argues, however, that this discord was largely the result of the electoral strategy embraced by Republican leaders who were unwilling to dilute their ideology and program. Unlike their more experienced rivals, the party leadership refused to "bend a little in order to gain a lot" and instead concentrated on shoring up their support from blacks and radicals. This policy crippled the organization, because the party alienated from the Republican cause "tens of thousands of native whites." The Republicans thus lost a superb opportunity to expand their base of support and build a solid organization in the Old Dominion, Lowe concludes. At the same time, he implies that the centrist stance of Virginia Conservatives was superficial and did not reflect a fundamental reorientation of the party's position and goals.(4)

Other historians disagree and contend that a political center ground really emerged. In his prize-winning study, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-879, Michael Perman argues that after the setback of the presidential election of 1868, many southern Democrats and former Whigs genuinely embraced a New Departure by creating centrist Conservative parties. …