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The Redeemers were a political coalition in the South during the Reconstruction era, who sought to overthrow the Radical Republican coalition of Freedmen, carpetbaggers and Scalawags. They were the southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats, the conservative, pro-business wing of the Democratic Party.
Between 1868 and the Compromise of 1877, in the process known as "Redemption," Redeemers won many state and local offices by appealing to Scalawags (white Southerners who previously supported the Republican Party). Their program emphasized opposition to the Radical Republican system that they considered to be corrupt and a violation of true republican principles. They denounced high taxes and high state debts. Once in power, they typically cut government spending; shortened legislative sessions; lowered politicians' salaries; scaled back public aid to railroads and corporations; and reduced support for public education. The process of stripping blacks of their voting rights in the wake of the Compromise was gradual. Blacks continued to vote in significant numbers well into the 1880s and black Congressmen continued to be elected, albeit in ever smaller numbers, until the 1890s. George Henry White, the last Southern black of the post-Reconstruction period to serve in Congress, retired in 1901, leaving Congress completely white until 1929.
In the 1890s, the Redeemers and Bourbon Democrats faced their biggest challenge with the Populists, when their control of the South was threatened by the Farmers Alliance, the effects of Bimetallism and the newly-created Populist Party. As a consequence, William Jennings Bryan defeated the Bourbons and took control of the Democratic Party nationwide.
"Redemption" was deliberately chosen as a term from Christian theology. Historian Daniel W. Stowell concludes that white southerners appropriated the term to describe the political transformation they desired, that is, the end of Reconstruction. This term helped unify a large number of white voters, and encompassed efforts to purge southern society of its sins and to remove Republican political leaders. It also represented the birth of a new southern society, rather than a return to its antebellum predecessor. Historians Gaines M. Foster explains how the South became known as the Bible Belt by connecting this characterization with changing attitudes caused by slavery's demise. Freed from preoccupation with federal intervention over slavery, and even citing it as precedent, white southerners joined northerners in the national crusade to legislate morality. Viewed by some as a "bulwark of morality," the largely Protestant South took on a Bible Belt identity long before H. L. Mencken coined the term.
In the years immediately following Reconstruction, most blacks and former abolitionists held that Reconstruction lost the struggle for civil rights for black people because of violence against blacks and threats against white Republicans. Frederick Douglass and Reconstruction Congressman John R. Lynch cited the withdrawal of federal troops from the South as a primary reason for the loss of voting rights and other civil rights by African Americans after 1877.
By the turn of the century, white historians, led by the Dunning School, saw Reconstruction as a failure because of its political and financial corruption, its failure to heal the hatreds of the war, and its control by self-serving northern politicians, such as the people around President Grant. Historian Claude Bowers said that the worst part of what he called "the Tragic Era" was the extension of voting rights to African American Freedmen, a policy he claimed led to misgovernment and corruption. The Freedmen, the Dunning School historians argued, were not at fault because they were manipulated by corrupt white Carpetbaggers interested only in raiding the state treasury and staying in power. They agreed the South had to be "redeemed" by foes of corruption. Reconstruction, in short, violated the values of "republicanism" and Radical Republicans were "extremists". This interpretation of events was the hallmark of the Dunning School which dominated most history textbooks from 1900 to the 1960s.
Beginning in the 1930s, historians such as C. Vann Woodward and Howard K. Beale attacked the "redemptionist" interpretation of Reconstruction, calling themselves "revisionists" and claimed that the real issues were economic. The Northern Radicals were tools of the railroads, and the Republicans in the South were manipulated to do their bidding. The Redeemers, furthermore, were also tools of the railroads and were themselves corrupt.
In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois published a Marxist analysis in his Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. His book emphasized the role of African Americans during Reconstruction.
By the 1960s, neo-abolitionist historians led by Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner made the struggle of Freedmen center stage. While acknowledging corruption in the Reconstruction era, they hold that the Dunning School over-emphasized it while ignoring the worst violations of republican principles — namely denying African Americans their civil rights, including their right to vote .
- Blum and Poole (2005)
- Blum and Poole (2005)