Expert Commentary

Higher taxes, more violence against black politicians during Reconstruction era

A new paper out of the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that for each additional dollar in per capita tax revenue collected in 1870, a black politician was 25% more likely to experience violence.

Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served in the House from 1870 to 1879. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

Much of the American South lay razed after the Confederacy surrendered its forces to the Union in 1865 to end the Civil War. Public financing was needed to rebuild cities and infrastructure, but the South did not have a strong history of providing public goods through taxation.

During Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877, more than 1,500 black politicians were elected to public office at all levels of government. Reconstruction refers to the period after the Civil War when the federal government sought to extend constitutional protections to black people. Legislation like the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, for example, attempted to curb intimidation against black voters.

Black politicians ended up representing southern counties where just a few years prior they might have been slaves. With financing needed to rebuild the South, black officeholders were in a position to enact tax policy and expand public goods.

They were also the targets of organized violence perpetrated by white people. Thousands of African Americans died at the hands of organized white people during Reconstruction.

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Trevon Logan, the Hazel C. Youngberg Distinguished Professor of Economics at The Ohio State University, explores the relationship between tax policy and violence against black politicians during Reconstruction.

Higher taxes, higher likelihood of violence

Logan analyzes a database of black office holders in the postbellum South compiled by Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, supplemented with census data and tax records. Logan finds that for each additional dollar in per capita tax revenue collected in 1870, a black politician was 25% more likely to experience violence.

Put another way, a black politician representing a county with hypothetical per capita tax revenue of $2 would have been 25% more likely to be violently attacked than a black officeholder representing a county with per capita tax revenue of $1.

“These places that prefer lower taxes, that [violence] sends a lesson to black politicians and their policy initiatives,” Logan says. “It sends a lesson to any politician, irrespective of race.”

Before the Civil War, the tax base in the South was predicated on slavery. Slaves were considered property, and slave owners were taxed based on the number of slaves they owned. As much as one-half of the tax base in Louisiana was based on slave ownership, Logan writes in his NBER paper, “Whitelashing: Black Politicians, Taxes, and Violence.”

After the Civil War, higher taxes went to pay for things like public schools. Many white Southerners were particularly angry over black people being educated. It wasn’t just the cost. It was “the belief that blacks were unfit for education [that] led many to conclude that educational expenditures on blacks were particularly wasteful,” Logan writes.

After controlling for antebellum factors, the relationship holds

The correlation between higher taxes and violence against black officeholders held after Logan controlled for pre-Civil War economic structures – as measured by cotton, tobacco and sugar production, and the number of acres of improved farmland per county. Antebellum agricultural production didn’t affect the relationship.

Neither did the number of black voters in a county. If the concentration of black voters had been a factor, Logan explains, violence could have been related to voter intimidation instead of tax policy.

The relationship between violence against black officeholders and higher taxes doesn’t seem to have to do with overall racial violence either – the number of post-Reconstruction black lynchings wasn’t related to the volume of violence against black politicians during Reconstruction.

“Overall, the checks establish that the violence against black politicians was particularly focused on their policy agenda,” Logan writes.

Reverting to lower taxes

Logan also finds that counties with the most violence against black politicians saw their taxes fall the most from 1870 to 1880. Overall, taxes declined by an average of 40% from 1870 to 1880 in Southern counties with black officeholders.

“What you do see is that where taxes were higher in 1870, there is a greater reversion back,” Logan says. “They have a reversion backward to low levels of taxes, so the most aggressive retrenchment took place in counties where there were attacks on black politicians.”

An entangled tax history

Revenue streams for the federal government have changed since the Civil War ended. For example, tariffs in the late-1800s were a much larger share of revenue than they are now.

Tax law has since become more complex and the tax base has expanded. It is true that Logan identified this relationship in counties that today have state income and property tax rates on the lower end of the spectrum – but a direct line can’t be easily drawn from this paper’s findings to tax rates today. The twists and turns of U.S. tax policy since the Civil War are too entangled to pull out any single thread, he explains.

(Along these lines, Jhacova Williams, an economist at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, earlier this year presented a paper at an American Economic Association conference that finds black people have lower voter registration rates today in places with high numbers of lynchings from 1882 to 1930.)

From Reconstruction to Redemption

Under the Enforcement Acts, the president could use military force to protect the rights of African Americans. But an 1876 Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Cruikshank, defanged the Enforcement Acts. The case centered on the Colfax Massacre in 1873, when a mob of armed white people killed more than 100 African Americans in Louisiana. The Supreme Court decision, “disallowed federal prosecution of conspiracy charges under the Enforcement Acts,” Logan writes. Cruikshank spelled the beginning of the end of Reconstruction.

A counter-Reconstruction movement that Southern white people called Redemption had been brewing for several years. Congress found that in 1874, Democrats in Alabama used voter intimidation and other tactics to take power in the state legislature. But Congress declined to do anything about it, Logan recounts.

Redemption represented a backslide into antebellum social structures. Nearly a century of oppression, segregation and disenfranchisement of black people followed, notably in the form of Jim Crow Laws.

“Typically, we think of political moments as moving in one direction, particularly in enfranchisement, expansion of public goods or the state, as being things that cannot be undone,” Logan says. “The history of Reconstruction is a salient example that you can undo the expansion of democracy and expansion of public good. You certainly can undo them through the political process, and violence is one means of doing so.”

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