In his new book, Charles Calhoun revisits the question of the role Republicans played to extend voting rights to blacks in the South during the years following the Civil War.
Calhoun, a professor of history at East Carolina University, argues in Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900 (University of Kansas, 2006) that Republican leaders had set out, through the enactment of the 15th amendment, to recreate the ideals of the Declaration of Independence but encountered opposition from white Southern voters.
“Certainly giving blacks the right to vote would be to the Republicans’ benefit. What interested me is what are the ideas behind this and where they fit into the notion of government,” Calhoun said.
The Southern question emerged as one aspect of Calhoun’s larger body of research on the Gilded Age, an era of significant economic and technological change in the United States following Reconstruction. Through his research of the public and private correspondence of Republican Party members of this era, Calhoun sought to gauge their personal hopes for extending voting rights to blacks.
While earlier scholars have blamed Republicans for not being more steadfast advocates for blacks, Calhoun argues that southern Democrats had so strongly resisted the breakdown of white supremacy that Republicans ultimately could not prevail. Calhoun’s interpretation of the disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, as well as the Lodge Federal Elections bill of 1890, shows that Republicans had tried to put the best possible face on an all-but lost cause. “The old interpretation is that Hayes made a deal with the Southerners to pull out the federal troops in the Southern states, and they would give up the disputed election,” Calhoun said.
“My interpretation is considerably different. By the time Hayes was running for presidency, Reconstruction was already on its last legs.”