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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of North Carolina

The Lewis Publishing Company
Chicago and New York, 1919
Volume III by
J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. III
Chapter 9
Social and Economic Conditions during Reconstruction

Thayer's Note: The gentle reader is invited to bear in mind that I did not write the text on this page; I transcribed it from a book published in 1919. It does not reflect my opinions or language, but those of its author and its time.

The close of the war found the state well-nigh prostrate. The people had been taxed to the limit during the war, the productive male population had in the main been engaged in the most unproductive of all occupations, the land had been ravaged by invading armies, crops in large areas had been destroyed by horses turned out to rest, vehicles had almost disappeared, fences were gone, often stables and other farm buildings, and even in some cases the dwellings, were destroyed, and ruin and decay were on every hand.

There was a tremendous shrinkage of live-stock and for a time after the close of the war there was a general seizure of mules and horses by the military authorities. The state was filled with agents hunting for cotton owned by the Confederate Government. But not only Confederate cotton was taken but thieving treasury agents seized a vast amount owned by individuals. What remained was taxed so heavily that North Carolina, not a cotton state, paid $1,959,704.87. The direct tax of 1861 was also collected to the amount of $394,847.63. In addition other property worth $200,000 was seized.

Every bank in the state through the repudiation of the war debt was forced into liquidation, the highest amount received by the stockholders being thirty-six cents on the dollar. New banks of course came very slowly and during reconstruction there were only six in the state, all of them national, with a combined capital of less than $1,000,000. Just as repudiation wrecked the banks, it destroyed many private fortunes and reduced thousands from comfort to extreme poverty. Business was at a standstill for lack of money and people were  p162 entirely unable to meet their obligations. Thousands, probably, went into bankruptcy.

To make conditions worse, bad crops were general. Those of 1865 were good, considering everything, but those of 1866 and 1867 were very small. The fact of loss and disturbance among the male population by itself would explain poor farming. But more than this the changed status of the chief agricultural laboring class and the further fact that probably a majority of that class were making their freedom evident to themselves by abstaining from work, aided and abetted by the Freedmen's Bureau, complicated the situation. Until Christmas, 1865, it was difficult to persuade the negroes to work on account of the "forty acres and a mule" myth which was carefully fostered by the bureau agents. That failing, things looked up and just as conditions were hopeful the passage of the reconstruction acts upset the negroes and conditions rapidly grew chaotic. In spite of the wreck following war, there had been high hope of better times to come and prospects had really seemed bright, but the congressional policy put an end to hope. The desired and hoped for immigration from the North and West did not materialize. Immigration of a sort did come. There were honorable exceptions of course, but for the most part such Northerners as did come were closely akin and bore a strong resemblance to vultures flocking to a feast. Under the guidance of these aliens, a situation developed which was not likely to attract desirable newcomers then and which has served as a check upon their coming in great numbers ever since.

The congressional policy of reconstruction, designed primarily to work a political revolution, also brought about a social and economic one. It is true that the war had done this to some extent, but there were evidences of an approaching adjustment in 1865 and 1866 which was prevented by the establishment of the military government. The effect of the whole system was to postpone for some time a settlement of the relations of the two races upon any basis that was acceptable to the white people. The negroes were separated from them in politics and in religion and a strong effort was made for political reasons, and with some success, to persuade  p163 the negroes that they had no interest in the prosperity of the white people. In consequence, labor conditions were unsettled during the whole period and combined with this, sufficient in itself to cause economic distress, there were bad seasons for several years. Short crops and the burden of taxes, which were largely paid by the land-holding class, made the industry of agriculture languish and, since the key to the whole economic situation of the state was to be found in agriculture, the industrial development which has since been so phenomenal having then scarcely begun, the situation could not have been much worse.

Other elements contributed to the distress of the state. Crime increased and public morals degenerated. Theft became so common that it was a menace to prosperity. Live stock was stolen until in some communities the raising of sheep and hogs was abandoned. Farm products of all sorts were taken to such an extent that the profits of a farm were often thereby swept away. This was partly due to the natural propensities of the negroes, intensified by their necessities, but they were also encouraged in it by white thieves who dealt largely in farm products purchased at night in small quantities with no questions asked. This evil assumed such proportions that the legislature of 1871 passed a law forbidding the purchase of such commodities after dark. That want was common among the negroes is well known, but it is not a matter of such common knowledge that among the white people there were many who scarcely knew from day to day from whence the next day's support would come and this in spite of the fact that every effort was made to find work that could be done. The war, which swept away so much property, in many cases did not leave the capability of making a living. That so many succeeded in acquiring that capacity argued well for the stock and bore good promise of future performances in the economic and industrial upbuilding of the commonwealth. It is interesting to see how helpless emancipation left both classes who were freed by it. The one which was really most benefited was the slower to realize it, but when once it saw the truth, ceased to bewail the lost shackles which had bound it to the institution of slavery and made  p164 haste to lend its aid in the process of dignifying labor. It was without doubt a bitter experience but that it was productive of good results is proved beyond all question by the facts of today. The negroes, on the other hand, were stimulated into an outburst of ecstasy at relief from the metaphorical chains of bondage, and, regarding liberty as inseparable from idleness, proceeded to put it to the test. It must be said for most of them, however, that, when undisturbed by political agitators or outside influences, their behavior was good. They, too, had a bitter lesson, but were prevented from learning it thoroughly by the siren voices of the carpet-baggers who assured them of the gratification of every desire when once they obtained the franchise and lifted their alien friends to profitable office. It took many years of experience before the mass of them discovered that their race had been employed as a step to help white men into office and that their activity in politics had won the displeasure of those who paid wages for labor and to whom, instinctively and in spite of slander and falsehood, they turned when in trouble. In the meantime, the morals of the race had degenerated, the opportunity of political instruction, and, of greater importance, political division, had passed, and the white man's party would have none of them.

From the presence of the negro in politics grew one of the greatest evils for which Reconstruction was responsible, namely, the inevitable blunting of the political moral sense of the white people. North Carolina, unprogressive as it was, had always a highly developed political sense and an equally high standard of political morality. The greatest shock of Reconstruction was the revelation of the depths to which politics could sink. But during these two years of radical misrule, when the ideals of the community were shattered, when an ignorant, inferior, and lately enslaved race, controlled by selfish and corrupt aliens, held the balance of power and, by combination with a small minority of the native whites, administered the government, then the practical necessities of the case overcame scrupulous notions of political morality, and a determination to rule by any methods possible possessed the mass of the white people and held them during the three  p165 following decades. That they were right is not to be doubted in the face of the facts, but it must nevertheless continue to be a cause of regret that such a thing was necessary to secure good government.

How far political and social conditions affected the economic interests of the state cannot be determined. That there was a close relation existing must of course be true. Wages were low, but probably would have been so under any government the state might have had. They fluctuated little during the period. Money was scarce and the usual plan in the country was to rent land to "croppers" on shares which varied in proportion to what the owner supplied. The plan was uncertain in its results but probably not so much so as was the hiring of hands with regular wages, for, in the latter case, there was little or no redress for an employer when his hands deserted him.

The years of the republican regime saw a steady decline in the value of most of the agricultural products of the state. The following table for the years from 1866 to 1870 inclusive, for corn, wheat, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, potatoes, tobacco, and hay are illuminating.


1866 $45,551,450
1867 38,332,716
1868 37,339,097
1869 33,138,770
1870 31,308,654

While the assessment was certainly low as always in North Carolina, the changes through most of the same period are a valuable index to conditions.


Year Land Town lots Live stock Other Personalty
1867 $87,993,293 $9,654,973 Not available Not available
1868 82,204,267 7,386,019 $20,052,456 Not available
1869 69,990,991 9,566,353 18,377,591 $27,536,688
1870 68,240,609 12,900,901 17,424,231 22,344,478

Upon this property taxes steadily increased.

 p166  Table

Year Poll Income State tax on $100 Special taxes on $100
1866 $1.00 $1.00 to $3.00 .10
1867 .50 .50 to 1.00 .10
1868 .50 .50 to 1.00 .10 .05
1869 1.05 .50 to 1.00 .35 .59
1870 1.10 1.50 .20 .1666

The chief burden of this taxation fell upon the conservatives not only because a majority of the white people belonged to that party, but also because they possessed the greater part of the wealth of the state. In addition, in many republican counties, property was assessed so as to bring about that result. This continued long after the conservatives obtained control of the state government.

As a result of these conditions much land, particularly that of large holders, was forced upon the market. A great deal was sold for taxes and still more to get rid of it. Prices were pitifully small. In 1869 twenty-three tracts, totalling 7,872 acres were sold in Wake for $7,718. In 1871, 25,000 acres in New Hanover and 133 Wilmington town lots brought $3,019.66.

It was not wonderful that as time passed there developed a steady exodus from the state, not nearly so large, but still comparable to that which had so alarmed forward-looking men prior to 1835.

So deep was the economic depression consequent upon Reconstruction that conservative victory in 1870 did little to remove it. In fact if anyone in North Carolina had a lingering belief in 1870 that conservative control of the state would mean prompt economic regeneration, it was soon dispelled. Undoubtedly there was more public confidence abroad in the land; the decline in the value of property ceased, but the state debt was still in existence; government, in spite of conservative retrenchment and economy, was still expensive; and poverty was still general. Labor conditions for a short while promised to be even more chaotic, thanks to the campaign  p167 which had been made among the negroes to imbue them with the belief that conservative success meant the restoration of slavery, but this fear was soon dispelled and, after being aroused again in 1872 and 1874, sank into a sleep from which it has never been entirely awakened, although the argument was employed with some effect by the republicans in 1875 and in 1884. It was used in every campaign until the passage in 1900 of the constitutional amendment which limited the suffrage.

The prostration of the state was too serious to be cured by a mere political change, important and necessary as that change was in this case. Good government was a necessary tonic, but years of care and struggle were inevitable before full economic health could be restored. The constitution which had greatly increased the cost of government remained unamended, the people fearing that a convention might mean Federal interference and in any event would be an immediate expense. Many preferred to endure the evils caused by it if only peace might prevail for a time.

The conservatives, once in power, began a policy of rigid economy. Salaries were reduced, better terms made for supplies furnished, and, during the first year, the expense of government was reduced by more than $100,000. Within the next few years, other reductions were made and the expenses of the state government were substantially reduced. In spite of the rigid economy practiced by the conservatives, their expenditures on state institutions steadily increased to the great benefit of the state.

Property values rose slowly during the whole period, accompanied by a fall in the rate of taxation, as can be seen from the tables.

As the state taxes fell the county taxes began to loom large. The most extravagant and worst governed were the "black" counties. In 1873 seventeen of these had a tax valuation of $39,714,222 on which were levied county taxes of $302,522.25.

In all the black counties there was not only extravagance but dishonesty, graft of every kind being general, and the public receiving little benefit. Nor were the black counties  p168 alone in this; it was true of most of the republican counties in the East. Bladen paid in the period between 1868 and 1876 more than $100,000 in county taxes. Both the sheriff and treasurer were defaulters and county orders were not worth ten cents on the dollar.

Business was prostrate and the credit of individuals suffered with that of the state because of the failure to make some settlement of the debt. It was clear that before prosperity could return that this must be done.

Towards the close of the period labor became more settled, but agricultural conditions were far from good. In industry, the manufacture of cotton was only beginning and had no appreciable effect upon the state as a whole. Tobacco culture and manufacture was of growing importance but it was the succeeding decades that was to see its tremendous expansion.

The closing years of the period saw more improvement along all lines. Life became more settled. Political animosities and those growing out of the war began to die away. The convention of 1875 accomplished a good deal in the way of reform; and good and, to North Carolina almost as important, cheap government was well established. All of these things tended to economic and social progress and improvement.

The crime of Reconstruction is today generally recognized by all who care to look facts squarely in the face. To a close observer of Southern conditions, the heinousness of the offense is increased by the knowledge that the South of the present time is still laboring under the burdens thereby imposed. It has made many a Southerner fail to comprehend the wonderful benefits which have really come to the South from emancipation, and it has drawn the sections apart when, with the barrier of slavery removed, they should have come together. So far as North Carolina was concerned, the partisan plan was one of greatest folly. But for Reconstruction, the state would today, so far as one can estimate human probabilities, be solidly republican. This was clearly evident in 1865, when the attempted restoration of President Johnson put public affairs in the hands of former whigs who then  p169 had no thought of joining in politics their old opponents, the democrats. So strong was the opposition to such a thing that it was eight years before there was an avowed democratic party in the state, the whigs who formed and led the conservative party having so decided a detestation for the very name. It was this element that the republican party rejected for the solid negro vote. The latter was soon lost, for the negroes in the mass, proving to be lacking in political capacity and knowledge, were driven, intimidated, bought, and sold, the playthings of politicians, until finally their very so‑called right to vote became the sore spot of the body politic. Their participation in politics gave the democratic party the preponderance of the talent and character of the population and, for many years, a safe majority of the white voters. Coming into power as a result of the disgust of the people for the infamy of the republican administration of the government, the party remained in control of affairs because it proved itself fit to rule, and because there was no hope of decent government outside of it. From time to time it would either have been forced to a more progressive spirit, or would have lost control had the people been willing to trust the opposition. The result was that politics was embittered and freedom of political thought and action was restricted to such an extent that a condition of affairs existed that bore a striking resemblance to that of the fifties, when slavery stifled freedom of speech and thought, with the one difference that in the later case, the very preservation of good government was at stake.

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