Reconstruction Terror: Origins, Applications, and Implications

– Executive Summary

Electoral violence was a common occurrence during Reconstruction (1865-1877). The concentrated terror around voting rights and elections was not random. Nearly every local and national election during the decade after the Civil War implicated vulnerable political power, crucial economic rights, and racial equality. As a result, each ballot was seemingly a referendum on a community’s definition of American identity, current and future.

The Civil War had destabilized social, economic, and political dynamics at a foundational level for White Southerners. Everyday givens in Southern life, like racial superiority and economic dominance, were no longer assumed or expected. What is more, a looming recalibration of those systems featured Black suffrage and elevated labor rights for the freedmen and their families. Such shifts were seen as revolutionary and oppressive to those who otherwise benefitted from the status quo; thus, Southerners across class lines united to counter the revolutionary policies of Reconstruction with strategic violence aimed at voting rights and elections. Paramilitary groups stalked polling sites and coordinated attacks near election days to intimidate Black voters.[1] White extremists mobilized and formed insurgencies in regions where, over local objections, federal law enforcement and Union troops still occupied.[2] Other extremists targeted progressive leaders with lethal attacks.[3] And, when election results ran contrary to what Southern Whites wanted, they cried fraud and promised violence against an oppressive federal system.[4]

The real (and perceived) policy shifts at issue during Reconstruction contributed to a sustained stress on the various drivers of electoral violence presented in this thesis. As a result, the postbellum decade of contested reconciliation provides a meaningful data set for when these drivers are exacerbated for a prolonged period. Thus, a claim of this thesis is that the electoral violence of Reconstruction is not an anachronism, but rather that Reconstruction is a useful lens that provides an extended glimpse of when the drivers are consistently aggravated so that they can be understood, cataloged, and defined, as done here. When assembled in this way, the drivers form an explanatory framework for contextualizing electoral violence in the United States, regardless of historical period.

Indeed, other instances of electoral extremism may benefit from a consideration through the frame of these five drivers and validate the utility of considering such violence and intimidation through such lenses. This thesis organizes and presents the postbellum electoral violence into a set of common drivers. There are five consistent drivers to consider alongside electoral violence during Reconstruction: (1) racism and White hegemony, (2) vulnerable political power, (3) increased economic insecurity, (4) perceived federal overreach, and (5) polarized media and national narratives. These five drivers form the motivating backdrop for the violence of Reconstruction that occurred across a landscape of disputed elections and an attempted federal expansion of voting rights. Ultimately, this thesis contends that these five categorical drivers (and their accompanying violence) are not unique to Reconstruction but instead can form a framework for understanding and contextualizing episodic, electoral terror in America.

[1] John Patrick Daly, The War After the War: A New History of Reconstruction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022).

[2] Daniel Byman, “White Supremacy, Terrorism, and the Failure of Reconstruction in the United States,” International Security 46, no. 1 (July 19, 2021): 53–103,​10.1162/​isec_a_00410. Byman’s work argues that much of the extremism during Reconstruction can be better understood through the lens of national security studies. Specifically, Byman notes (as this thesis also advances) how white violence throughout Reconstruction resembles a traditional insurgency that foments terrorism during the divisive aftermath of a prolonged civil conflict.

[3] “Republicans in Washington estimated Klan membership at only thirty thousand by the 1870 elections, yet targeted assassinations of key activists threatened to destroy the entire Republican Party in the South.” Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, paperback ed. (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), 295.

[4] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, First Perennial Classics ed. (New York: Perennial Classics, 2014), 576.

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