The Lost History of Southern Republicans, Part I

The electoral foundation of the modern Republican Party is the U.S. South. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump won 304 electoral votes, with 155 coming from the eleven states of the former Confederacy. Overall, Trump won 10 of 11 Southern states – losing only Virginia. And as the figure below illustrates, the Republican candidate for president has won a majority of ex-Confederate states since 1972 (with the exception of 1976). And in five elections (1972, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004) the Republican nominee swept the South.

Republican dominance beyond presidential elections has also occurred, albeit more recently. The Republican Party became the majority party in Southern congressional elections in 1994, Southern governor election in 1994, and Southern state legislative elections in 2010.

The reasons for Republican ascendancy in Southern elections are straightforward. Excellent accounts by political scientists Earl and Merle Black, David Lublin, and Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, along with standard journalistic accounts, tell a similar story. The elimination of disenfranchising laws in the ex-Confederate states in the 1960s, led by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, added African Americans to the Southern electorate. Over the next generation, white conservative voters in the South – who had been Democrats – moved to the Republican Party, thanks in part to active attempts by national Republican leaders like Richard Nixon to court them. And the Democratic Party in the South, as a result, became considerably more liberal, and no longer much different from the Democratic Party in the North.

Republican dominance in the South also occurred after the Civil War, when congressional Republicans first established voting rights for African Americans in the First Reconstruction Act (1867), which allowed them to participate in elections to form new Southern state governments, and then in the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which prohibited the use of race, color, or previous condition of servitude in elections more generally. African American votes provided the electoral foundation for the Republican Party in the South during Reconstruction. But after a brief period of Republican electoral success, the Democratic Party – thanks to the use of fraud and violence – successfully reduced African American voting power and whittled away at Republican control. By 1877, the Democratic Party had “redeemed” all eleven ex-Confederate states. Like the modern Republican narrative, this too is well-told story.

But what of the period in between – post-1877 and pre-1960s? Did the Republican Party exist in the South during this time, and if so, in what form or fashion?

The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party in the South did not really exist during this time. That shortly after regaining power in the former Confederacy, the Democratic Party legally disenfranchised African Americans – through devices like poll taxes and literacy tests – and this effectively undercut the electoral basis of the Republican Party in the region. As a result, the South was for generations a one-party Democratic state.

In two articles and a book, Boris Heersink (Fordham University) and I examine the Republican Party during this period and uncover a “lost history.”

Some of the conventional wisdom is correct – for example, in the 18 presidential elections from 1880 through 1948, when 198 Southern states were up for grabs, the Republicans won just six of them, or 3 percent.[1] And once Southern states began adopting disenfranchising laws in earnest – which occurred between 1889 and 1908 – Republican success in congressional elections also dried up considerably. Between the 57th (1901–03) and 82nd (1951–53) Congresses, the Republicans controlled just 86 of 2,655 House seats in the South, or 3.2 percent. All but six of these seats came from North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.[2] And during this same time, no Southern state elected a Republican to the Senate.

Thus, when V. O. Key, Jr. rejected the notion that the Republican Party during this era was a “real party,” and John Aldrich and John Griffin followed suit more recently, they did so within this electoral context. The Republicans simply were not electorally competitive in the South, outside of a small area in Appalachia.

Yet despite Democratic dominance in Southern elections during this period, Republican Party organizations remained active in every ex-Confederate state. This was because a sizable proportion of delegates to the Republican National Convention continued to come from the South. As the figure below shows, from 1880 through 1916, Southern states constituted around 25 percent of Republican convention delegates, a substantial total for a region that provided the party with nothing on election day. A drop occurred thereafter, as a new delegate apportionment scheme went into effect. But the South continued to comprise between 15 and 20 percent of Republican convention delegates through the early 1950s.

The question then is: why? Specifically, why did the national Republican leadership continue to allow the South to control a significant portion of Republican convention delegates during this era? And thus have a hand in the most critical decision for the party – selection of its presidential nominee? The answer has two parts.

First, early on, many national Republican leaders continued to believe that a Southern wing of the party could be resuscitated. The Hayes and Arthur administrations, for example, invested heavily in trying to rebuild the Republican Party in the South by recruiting economically conservative white Democrats (Hayes) and Independents (Arthur). Many Republican leaders also believed that Southern Republicans – especially African Americans – should not be punished (i.e., have their states’ representation reduced) because Democrats used violence and fraud to illegally control the electoral process in the former Confederacy. Thus, when grumblings from some Northern Republicans began in the early 1880s and an attempt to reduce Southern representation at the Republican National Convention was made in 1883–84, it was defeated soundly.

Second, Republican presidents (and presidential hopefuls) had grown accustomed to working with Southern delegates and using them as an important foundation in building a majority for the Republican nomination. By the late-1880s, this would be the dominant reason for protecting Southern representation at the Republican National Convention. By then, hopes for a viable Republican South were dwindling, as efforts to prop up the party in the South failed (and disenfranchising laws in the Southern states would soon follow). As a result, Southern delegations were increasingly referred to as “rotten boroughs,” whereby individual delegates – representing a state party with no real chance for electoral success – willingly sold their convention votes to the highest bidder. Despite this normatively negative turn, presidents and presidential hopefuls saw efficiency benefits with this change and actively sought to work with individuals from the Southern state delegations who could deliver sets of votes – and possibly even the whole state delegation.

As a result, Southern state party “bosses” – two of whom from the the early 20th century, Perry W. Howard of Mississippi, an African American (on the left), and Joseph W. Tolbert, a white man (on the right), appear below – emerged and maintained power by being able to consistently deliver votes at the Republican National Convention. In return, these Southern state party bosses received executive patronage, which they could divvy up or sell to maintain control of the party at home. Thus, from the 1890s onward, Republican state parties in the South became known as “patronage parties” or “post office parties” (as positions associated with the US Post Office, like postmasterships, constituted the bulk of executive patronage appointments). In many years during this era, the president controlled between 15,000 and 20,000 positions (with significant salaries) that could be distributed for patronage purposes – approximately a quarter of which were in the ex-Confederate states. And because the Republicans controlled the White House for much of this era, Republican state parties in the South thrived as patronage machines.

To summarize: because local Republican leaders in the South had a meaningful hand in selecting Republican presidential candidates, despite their states not contributing any electoral votes in the general election, the South remained important to national Republican leaders throughout this period. As a result, national Republican leaders began to use federal (executive) patronage to “buy” Southern convention votes.

This executive patronage, and the considerable profits that could be gained from controlling it, thus inspired frequent – and often fierce – contests over control of the local Republican organizations in the South. Initially, these contests involved different biracial Republican factions associated with (former) elected officials and federal office-holders battling it out. But over time, contests began to take on a racial hue, as a faction of black and white Republicans (the Black-and-Tans) vied for control with a faction of white Republicans that sought to ban African Americans from leadership positions in the party (the Lily-Whites).

In Part II of my blog post on Monday, I will explore these battles between Black-and-Tans and Lily-Whites and illustrate how they varied across different Southern states by tracking the racial composition of delegates to the Republican National Convention. I will also explore the impact those battles had on Republican election performance over time and argue that the the modern Republican Party and its dominance in Southern election has its roots in the outcome of those battles.


[1] Warren Harding won one Southern state (Tennessee) in 1920. Herbert Hoover won five Southern states (Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) in 1928. While Hoover believed his success might spur a breakthrough in the South, many believed his wins were due more to the region’s negative reaction to Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, who was Catholic. In 1932, Hoover won no Southern states when pitted against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

[2] For the first half of the twentieth century, the Appalachian areas of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and southwestern Virginia constituted the GOP’s electoral base in the South – mountain whites who supported the Union during the Civil War and their descendants. The other six House seats all came from the 14th congressional district in Texas, where Republican Harry M. Wurzbach served from the 67th through 72nd Congresses. He was elected outright five times (67th–70th, 72nd) and successfully contested the election of Democrat Augustus McCloskey to the 71st Congress. Wurzbach died in office on February 10, 1930.


  • Jeff Jenkins

    Jeffery A. Jenkins is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Law, Maria B. Crutcher Professor of Citizenship and Democratic Values, and Director of the Political Institutions and Political Economy (PIPE) Collaborative at the University of Southern California. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy (JPIPE) and the Journal of Historical Political Economy (JHPE). He was the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Politics for six years (2015-2020).

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