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In United States history, the term scalawag (sometimes spelled scallawag or scallywag) referred to white Southerners who supported Reconstruction policies and efforts after the conclusion of the American Civil War.


The term is a derogatory epithet, yet it is used by many historians anyway, as in Wiggins (1991), Baggett (2003),[4] Rubin (2006), and Wetta (2012). The word scalawag has an uncertain origin. Its earliest attestation is from 1848 to mean a disreputable fellow,[5] good-for-nothing, scapegrace, or blackguard.[citation needed] It has been speculated that "perhaps the original use of the word" referred to low-grade farm animals, but this meaning of the word is not attested until 1854.[6] The term was later adopted by their opponents to refer to Southern whites who formed a Republican coalition with black freedmen and Northern newcomers (called carpetbaggers) to take control of their state and local governments.[citation needed] Among the earliest uses in this new meaning were references in Alabama and Georgia newspapers in the summer of 1867, first referring to all Southern Republicans, then later restricting it to only white ones.[1]

Reference works such as Joseph Emerson Worcester's 1860 Dictionary of the Caribbean Spanish Language defined scalawag as "A low worthless fellow; a scapegrace." Scalawag was also a word for low-grade farm animals. In early 1868 a Mississippi editor observed that scalawag "has been used from time immemorial to designate inferior milch cows in the cattle markets of Virginia and Kentucky." That June the Richmond Enquirer concurred; scalawag had heretofore "applied to all of the mean, lean, mangy, hidebound skiny [sic], worthless cattle in every particular drove." Only in recent months, the Richmond paper remarked, had the term taken on political meaning.

Despite being a minority, scalawags gained power by taking advantage of the Reconstruction laws of 1867, which disenfranchised the majority of Southern white voters as they could not take the Ironclad oath, which required they had never served in Confederate armed forces or held any political office under the state or Confederate governments. Historian Harold Hyman says that in 1866 Congressmen "described the oath as the last bulwark against the return of ex-rebels to power, the barrier behind which Southern Unionists and Negroes protected themselves."[10]

Eventually many scalawags joined the Democratic Redeemer coalition. A minority persisted as Republicans and formed the "tan" half of the "Black and Tan" Republican party. It was a minority element in the GOP in every Southern state after 1877.[12]

In Alabama, Wiggins says scalawags dominated the Republican Party. Some 117 Republicans were nominated, elected, or appointed to the most lucrative and important state executive positions, judgeships, and federal legislative and judicial offices between 1868 and 1881. They included 76 white southerners, 35 northerners, and 6 former slaves. In state offices during Reconstruction, white southerners were even more predominant: 51 won nominations, compared to 11 carpetbaggers and one black. 27 scalawags won state executive nominations (75%), 24 won state judicial nominations (89%), and 101 were elected to the Alabama General Assembly (39%). However, fewer scalawags won nominations to federal offices: 15 were nominated or elected to Congress (48%) compared to 11 carpetbaggers and 5 blacks. 48 scalawags were members of the 1867 constitutional convention (49.5% of the Republican membership); and seven scalawags were members of the 1875 constitutional convention (58% of the minuscule Republican membership.)[15]

In South Carolina there were about 100,000 scalawags, or about 15% of the white population. During its heyday, the Republican coalition attracted some wealthier white southerners, especially moderates favoring cooperation between open-minded Democrats and responsible Republicans. Rubin shows that the collapse of the Republican coalition came from disturbing trends to corruption and factionalism that increasingly characterized the party's governance. These failings disappointed Northern allies who abandoned the state Republicans in 1876 as the Democrats under Wade Hampton reasserted control. They used the threat of violence to cause many Republicans to stay quiet or switch to the Democrats.[17]

Wetta shows that New Orleans was a major Scalawag center. Their leaders were well-to-do well-educated lawyers, physicians, teachers, ministers, businessmen, and civil servants. Many had Northern ties or were born in the North, moving to the boom city of New Orleans before the 1850s. Few were cotton or sugar planters. Most had been Whigs before the War, but many had been Democrats. Nearly all were Unionists during the War. They had joined a Republican coalition with blacks but gave at best weak support to black suffrage, black office holding, or social equality. Wetta says that their "cosmopolitanism broke the mold of southern provincialism" typical of their southern-democratic opponents. That is, scalawags had "a broader worldview."[18]

The most prominent scalawag of all was James L. Alcorn of Mississippi. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1865, but like all southerners was not allowed to take a seat while the Republican Congress was pondering Reconstruction. He supported suffrage for freedmen and endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment, as demanded by the Republicans in Congress. Alcorn became the leader of the scalawags, who composed about a third of the Republicans in the state, in coalition with carpetbaggers and freedmen. Elected governor by the Republicans in 1869, he served from 1870 to 1871. As a modernizer he appointed many like-minded former Whigs, even if they were Democrats. He strongly supported education, including public schools for blacks only, and a new college for them, now known as Alcorn State University. He maneuvered to make his ally Hiram Revels its president. Radical Republicans opposed Alcorn and were angry at his patronage policy. One complained that Alcorn's policy was to see "the old civilization of the South modernized" rather than lead a total political, social and economic revolution.[19]

The term 'scally' is also used in the United Kingdom to refer to elements of the working class and petty criminality, in a similar vein to the more contemporary chav.In Philippines, scalawags were used to denote rogue police or military officers.

Scalawags were denounced as corrupt by Redeemers. The Dunning School of historians sympathized with the claims of the Democrats. Agreeing with the Dunning School, Franklin said that the scalawags "must take at least part of the blame" for graft and corruption.[23]

The Democrats alleged the scalawags to be financially and politically corrupt, and willing to support bad government because they profited personally. One Alabama historian claimed: "On economic matters scalawags and Democrats eagerly sought aid for economic development of projects in which they had an economic stake, and they exhibited few scruples in the methods used to push beneficial financial legislation through the Alabama legislature. The quality of the book keeping habits of both Republicans and Democrats was equally notorious."[16] However, historian Eric Foner argues there is not sufficient evidence that scalawags were any more or less corrupt than politicians of any era, including Redeemers.[24]

White Southern Republicans included formerly closeted Southern abolitionists as well as former slaveowners who supported equal rights for freedmen. (The most famous of this latter group was Samuel F. Phillips, who later argued against segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.) Included, too, were people who wanted to be part of the ruling Republican Party simply because it provided more opportunities for successful political careers. Many historians have described scalawags in terms of social class, showing that on average they were less wealthy or prestigious than the elite planter class.[4]

also scallawag, "disreputable fellow," by 1839, American English colloquial, of uncertain origin; perhaps an alteration (by influence of wag "habitual joker") of Scottish scallag "farm servant, rustic," itself an alteration of Scalloway, one of the Shetland Islands, the reference being to little Shetland ponies (an early recorded sense of scalawag was "undersized, ill-fed, or worthless animal," 1854).

The scalawags supported the Radical Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. They wanted to reform the old social order of the South by creating more opportunities for poor and middle-class white men as well as Black freedmen.

Who were the scalawags? The origins of the term "scalawag" are unclear. The first recorded use of the word was in 1839. At this time, it referred to any person considered worthless or disreputable. By 1862, the word had taken on a new meaning in the American South. Southern Democrats used the term scalawag to refer to white Southerners who supported the Republican Party and its policies during the Reconstruction Era.

In the post-Civil War South, the majority of white Southerners supported the Democratic Party and opposed Reconstruction. Southern Democrats wanted to end federal intervention in the South and limit the rights of Black freedmen. They used the term scalawag as a slur to insult white Southern Republicans whom they considered traitors to the South.

Most so-called scalawags were middle-class white men. White Southern farmers, Southerners those who worked with Black freedmen, and former Whigs were all considered scalawags. Unlike wealthier Southern planters, scalawags had not been slaveholders. A number of scalawags had also been supporters of the Union during the Civil War.

When Reconstruction began, scalawags saw it as both a political and economic opportunity. Former Confederates were temporarily disenfranchised. This meant scalawags made up a greater share of the electorate and wielded much more influence. Scalawags also engaged in profiteering. They took advantage of the economic devastation in the South to enhance their own wealth and status. 041b061a72

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