Who Were The Readjusters?

Sprinkled throughout many of my posts are references to William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement. Much of my research on postwar commemorations and memory of the Crater has centered on Mahone’s postwar political career; I recently published an article on this in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography which will also be included as a chapter in my soon-to-be completed manuscript. Here is a brief overview of the Readjusters.

The most important debate within the Commonwealth after the Civil War was over the question of what to do about the state’s debt. At the center of this heated debate was former Confederate general and “Hero of the Crater” William Mahone who had entered politics after the war as a way to maintain his control of the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (later the Norfolk and Western Railroad), and his salary of $25,000. The Panic of 1873 and subsequent economic depression forced the railroad into receivership and Mahone plunged further into state politics. By 1870, the state’s debt had amounted to $45,000,000, much of it having been incurred before the war when Virginia was committed to internal improvements and at a time when its boundaries included the new state of West Virginia. Governor Walker’s Funding Act of 1870 called for Virginia to pay off two-thirds of the debt, while the remaining one-third would be assumed, hopefully, by West Virginia. The funding question, which would catapult Mahone into the center of Virginia state politics, involved whether the state debt should be paid off entirely or somehow “readjusted” downward. The Funders (those who supported paying off the debt) argued that the state had a moral obligation to uphold the original terms of the bonds; for them it was a matter of honor. Those opposed argued from a number of different angles. Many Virginians opposed funding on the grounds that the economic burdens imposed on them by a destructive war exempted them from shouldering such a heavy financial burden. Others argued that the counties of western Virginia (now constituting the state of West Virginia) should shoulder their share of the debt. The African-American community argued that since they had no involvement in contracting the debt during the antebellum years, they were not responsible. Many who took this view were not advocates of outright repudiation, but of some kind downward adjustment.

The question of what to do about the debt was necessarily divisive since it directly impacted on the state’s revenue and previous legislation that authorized financial support for the fledgling public school system and other social services. Much of the early support for readjustment came from western and Shenandoah Valley communities who were enthusiastic about the benefits of public schools and resentful of the more conservative counties in eastern Virginia. White and black urban workers and agricultural workers also supported readjustment.

In 1877, Mahone organized a faction supporting readjustment within the Conservative Party, which included former Democrats and Whigs. Unable to win support within the Conservative Party, Mahone decided to split entirely from the party and by 1879 the Readjusters and Funders became distinct organizations with the Funders in control of the Conservative Party apparatus. At the same time the state shut down half of the schools keeping 100,000 students from attending class; and many of the schools that remained open charged admission. The Readjusters capitalized on this in the 1879 state elections by winning 56 out of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 24 of 50 Senators. With a majority of Readjusters in the General Assembly, Mahone was elected to replace U.S. Senator Robert E. Withers whose term ended in 1880.

With Mahone in the U.S. Senate and Readjusters in control of the General Assembly and the governorship under William C. Cameron, legislation was easily passed. Virginia’s state debt was readjusted downward to $21,000,000 with enough funds left to fulfill campaign promises that benefited poor white and especially African-American communities. In 1882 the General Assembly passed legislation supporting the Literary Fund with an appropriation of $379,000, plus an additional payment to public schools; schools with black teachers were also given support. One Hundred Thousand dollars was appropriated in support of the Normal and Collegiate Institute for Negroes in Petersburg and the Central Hospital for mentally ill African Americans was established in Petersburg. The whipping post was also abolished, which had been used primarily against African Americans. The banning of the whipping post brought about a reaction from the Funder-supported Petersburg Index-Appeal: “The darkey is to be permitted to rob chicken roosts with impunity, with the full knowledge that if convicted of such a digression from the path of rectitude that he cannot be sent to the State prison.” Poor whites and blacks also benefited from the abolition of the one-dollar poll tax. Such legislation was seen by more conservative whites as a threat to established social hierarchies.

Perhaps the greatest threat to these established hierarchies was the distribution of political patronage within the Readjuster Party. At the height of Readjuster control African Americans made up 27 percent of Virginia’s employees in the Treasury Department, 11 percent in the Pensions Bureau, 54 percent in the Secretary’s Office, 38 percent in the Post Office, and 28 percent in the Interior Department, including two black women. With Mahone’s help, African Americans also found jobs as clerks and copyists in Washington. The visibility of African Americans in state government constituted a radical change in the distribution of political power and was seen as a threat to white political rule in Virginia. Readjusters also changed the make-up of the public schools. Their reforms increased the number of black teachers and students, and the establishment of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute opened up new avenues of upward mobility. The number of black teachers soared from 415 in 1879 to 1,588 in 1884, and black enrollment went from 36,000 to 91,000 during those same years.

The first serious setback for Mahone and the Readjusters occurred in the state elections of 1883. Three days prior to voting, a racial riot broke out in Danville, Virginia which left one white and four black men dead. Democrats seized on the riot as evidence of the fruits of Readjuster legislation and capitalized on it by winning two-thirds of the seats in both branches of the General Assembly: Mahone’s control of state government was broken. The situation deteriorated further in 1884 when Mahone decided to campaign for James G. Blaine in the presidential election under the banner of the Republican Party. Grover Cleveland won the state of Virginia by 6,000 votes, and Democrats in the state continued to replace Republican and Readjuster postmasters and other officeholders. Finally, with Fitzhugh Lee’s ascendancy to the governorship in 1886 and Democrat control of the state legislature, Mahone’s service in the U.S. Senate was terminated.

There are a couple reasons why the Readjuster movement has been largely forgotten. First, surveys of American history tend to jump directly from the traditional end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the rise of Jim Crow at the turn of the century. More importantly, it was important for white Virginians to distance themselves from the interracial advances that defined those four years as they began the process of public segregation. White political solidarity required forgetting the possibilities of interracial cooperation. Even as late as the 1940’s the worst charge that could be leveled against an anti-Democratic candidate in Virginia was suggesting a connection with the policies of Mahone and the Readjusters.

Further Reading:
Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia
Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet
Carl N. Degler, The Other South
Nelson M. Blake, William Mahone of Virginia (out of print but available in most college libraries)

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2 comments… add one
  • A.D. Powell Oct 19, 2014 @ 7:28

    Dailey’s book emphasizes the Democrats’ use of racial honor and identity – or the fear of losing it- in persuading white Readjusters and Republicans to support them. The choice, they said, was between being a “white man” or a “nigger.” You can only be a “white man” if you vote for the white man’s party.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 19, 2014 @ 7:32

      It’s been a while since I looked at the book. Incredibly helpful as I was researching Mahone.

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