Religion, Gender, and the Lost Cause in South Carolina's 1876 Governor's Race: "Hampton or Hell!"

By Poole, W. Scott | The Journal of Southern History, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Religion, Gender, and the Lost Cause in South Carolina's 1876 Governor's Race: "Hampton or Hell!"


Poole, W. Scott, The Journal of Southern History


GENERAL WADE HAMPTON, THE CONFEDERATE CAVALRY HERO, RODE again on October 7, 1876. Flanked by the paramilitary arm of the South Carolina Democratic Party--which was made up of local groups known as "rifle clubs"--Hampton entered the midlands town of Sumter, South Carolina, an important stop in his gubernatorial campaign tour. In the center of town, a speakers' stand had been erected, and on it a black-robed figure, bound in chains, stood solemnly before a crowd of farmers and townspeople. As the hopeful candidate assumed his position on the platform, the shadowy figure flung off its chains and cast aside its robe of mourning, revealing a beautiful young woman, with skin and dress of white, wearing a tiara emblazoned with the words South Carolina. The journalist Alfred Brockenbrough Williams witnessed the crowd erupt at this performance, with many of the men openly weeping. Late into the night, Williams reported, frenzied horsemen rode through the town crying out "Hampton or Hell!" The candidacy of Wade Hampton in the 1876 governor's race seemed to these white South Carolinians to be the chance to restore South Carolina to "home rule." (1)

The historiography of southern "Redemption" has tended to focus on the ways in which conservative whites used fraud and violence to overturn Reconstruction regimes. Whether the story is told as a heroic narrative of "redemption" or as a dream of democracy deferred, the emphasis has centered on votes--whether bought, coerced, or fraudulently counted. (2) No new evidence challenges the role of intimidation and violence in this and other Redemption contests. Former Confederate brigadier general and leading "straight-out" Democrat, Martin Witherspoon Gary, certainly believed that for the Hampton campaign to succeed without compromise or cooperation with Republicans, "every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one negro." (3)

This article, however, also takes into account Gary's contention that the Hampton campaign must "get up all the enthusiasm we can among the masses." (4) South Carolina Conservatives, like Gary, recognized that these white masses were the key to Democrats' regaining power in postbellum society. They understood, moreover, that power functioned best in a context of cultural consensus. If Conservatives could control the tenets of that consensus in such a way that the white masses acquiesced to domination by the Democratic elite, then Conservative rule would certainly be assured. To this end, in the 1876 campaign Conservatives successfully created and celebrated a public spectacle that drew upon the racial and gendered obsessions of white Carolina culture. The ritual and rhetoric that accompanied the so-called Hampton Days of September and October 1876 depicted the conflict between Democrat Wade Hampton and Republican incumbent Daniel H. Chamberlain as a religious struggle between good and evil (between "Hampton" and "Hell") and preyed upon white anxieties about ideas of race and gender. As public representations of cultural ideology, the Hampton Days celebrations bring us into a tightly woven network of memory and myth.

A close examination of this ideology's manifestation as public spectacle in the Hampton campaign promises two important results. First, it opens a window to the vexed question of southern conservatism. The attempt to define the conservative worldview of the South has generally focused on the lineaments of proslavery ideology or on the planter's relationship to bourgeois capitalism. Eugene D. Genovese's skillful explication sees southern conservatism as "a variant of transatlantic traditionalism" that "expresses a belief in a transcendent order" and "accepts social stratification as necessary and proper." (5) But this ideology, as the Hampton Days celebrations suggest, lived in public spectacle as well as in the writings and ruminations of the southern learned divines and public intellectuals who populate the pages of Genovese's work. …

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