"Pure Democracy and White Supremacy" : the Redeemer Period in North Carolina, 1876-1894

Bromberg, Alan Bruce, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Holt, Michael, Department of History, University of Virginia

Although the Democratic leaders of North Carolina during the Redeemer period inclined toward the goals of the New South, rapid economic expansion was not the primary goal of the party. The Democratic Party was in an extremely precarious situation during the entire period. In addition to facing a Republican Party which was strong enough to hold the Democrats to a bare majority of the vote in almost every major election, the Democrats had to contend with recurring independent movements in many elections. In addition, the Democratic party itself was a highly diverse coalition of naturally antagonistic groups, such as old-line Whigs and Democrats, easterners and westerners, and small farmers and railroad men, who had nothing in common save their opposition to the Republicans and their he belief in white supremacy. The party's top leaders were constantly feuding among themselves over political power, offices, and patronage. The party's ability to remain united was often in doubt, and party loyalty therefore became a fetish with the Democratic leadership. Racial fears as well as political survival motivated the party leaders, who believed that a Republican victory would give blacks a considerable share of influence in state affairs and allow them to control eastern counties where Negroes were in the majority.

In order to hold the party together and remain in power, the Democrats repeatedly raised the race issue and appealed to white voters to set aside all other issues which might divide the white vote, put the Republicans in office, and lead to "Negro rule. " This tactic kept enough whites in line to allow the Democrats to squeak by every two years. When the Farmers’ Alliance emerged as a political force in the late 1880's, however, the Democratic strategy began to break down, for Alliancemen were more interested in solutions for their economic problems than in rhetoric about white supremacy and the horrors of Reconstruction. At first, the Democrats were able to appease the Alliance by making certain concessions to it, but when the Alliance sought real power by attempting to take over the party machinery in 1892, the Democratic leaders balked and drove the more radical Alliancemen into the Populist Party. The Democrats won the election with only a plurality of the vote, but they failed to see that the farmers' revolt had changed the rules of politics and that the old strategy would no longer work. The Democrats not only made no effort to conciliate the Populists after the 1892 election, but they also resumed their old intra-party disputes over off ices and patronage to a much greater extent than ever before. The party was seriously divided by 1894, and the Panic of 1893 and the fight over free coinage of silver made economic issues too important to many voters to be glossed over by white supremacy rhetoric. When the Populists and Republicans fused in the 1894 election, the Democrats were overwhelmed at the polls.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
North Carolina -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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