History Lesson

The Out-of-Towners

Carpetbaggers such as Hillary Clinton don’t deserve their bum rap.

As Hillary Clinton toys with a run for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate seat, the main charge leveled against her has nothing to do with her conventional liberal views, her status as a politician’s wife, or her smarmy New Age morality. Rather, critics blast her status as a carpetbagger–an Illinoisan, by way of Arkansas and Washington, D.C., who would exploit New York’s lax residency requirements for personal glory. So how come no one cares that Moynihan was born in Tulsa, Okla.?

Of course, Moynihan grew up in New York. Still, the point is that in our highly mobile society, carpetbagging is as common a political sin as taking soft money or committing adultery. According to a 1993 tally by Roll Call, 36 senators and 145 House members–about a third of Congress–were born outside the states they represented. Sen. Robert Byrd, known for bringing federal pork to his West Virginia constituents, hails from North Carolina. And his junior colleague, Jay Rockefeller, isn’t a native either. Presidential candidate Bob Smith, hoping to capture New Hampshire’s critical primary as a native son, was born in Trenton, N.J. Yet the charge of carpetbagging remains a favorite campaign-season accusation.

Where does the term come from? Southerners pinned the label on both the opportunistic and idealistic Northerners who packed their worldly possessions into “carpetbags” during Reconstruction and moved to Dixie to enter politics. A term of opprobrium, the word came from the Southerners’ perception that the newcomers represented the dregs of society, seeking nothing but easy political gain. In particular, carpetbaggers were scorned for capitalizing on the freed slaves’ newly granted right to vote. Testifying before a congressional committee in 1872, Alabama Democrat William M. Lowe explained, “A carpetbagger is generally understood to be a man who comes here for office sake, of an ignorant or bad character, and who seeks to array the negroes against the whites.”

While the North won the Civil War, the South won Reconstruction. By the late 1870s, Southern “redeemers” (as they were admiringly called) got the federal government to withdraw the troops that were safeguarding the rights of blacks. Meanwhile, white supremacists regained control of state governments through fraud and violence. Confederate apologists, who wrote the first round of histories of the South, portrayed slavery as a benign, paternalistic institution (for more on this topic, see ” Sambo Returns“) and painted the carpetbaggers as venal and corrupt interlopers.

Hardly a pack of jackals feeding off the crippled South, the carpetbaggers came from various backgrounds and acted from a range of motives, historians tell us. Most were well educated, and included former Union soldiers, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, newspapermen, and agents of the postwar Freedmen’s Bureau.

The opportunism of some carpetbaggers was more economic than political: The war-ravaged and economically stagnant South direly needed Northern investors to spur the kind of dynamic industrial and commercial growth that was transforming the rest of the country. Others, of a religious bent, followed what one called “a Mission with a large M” to help former slaves. Still others simply warmed to the region’s climate, the way Americans would later flock to California. “Maybe I will locate in the sunny South,” one sergeant wrote to his sister in Ohio in 1866. “What think you of roses blooming in open air in November, and the gardens glorious with flowers.” As historian Richard Current noted, the phrase “Go South, young man” supplanted Horace Greeley’s famous exhortation to head West.

While the behavior of a few of the carpetbaggers is, according to Current, “rather difficult to defend,” most were not unusually corrupt. Committed to rebuilding the South, they advocated strong public schools, better roads and railroads, labor reform, and progressive taxation. As for disturbing race relations, of course many carpetbaggers did so–that was the whole idea. In a society drenched in white supremacism, race relations had to be disturbed. Few today would question their virtue on that score.

The carpetbaggers’ reputation has improved, but the word’s negative connotations have spread to cover all ambitious newcomers. The proliferation of railroads, then the automobile, and later the airplane made this a country of mobile, ambitious newcomers. By the mid-20th century, carpetbaggers made up the majority in the West. Yet, as observers dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 have noted, Americans take pride in their local communities: Wherever transience and provincialism collide, the charge of carpetbagging still stings.

In Oakland County, Mich., earlier this year, opponents of a state Senate candidate went to court to try to force him off the ballot, arguing he hadn’t lived in the district long enough. (They lost.) In Massachusetts last year, former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn–a lifelong South Boston resident–leased an East Boston apartment to qualify for an open congressional seat. (He lost, too.) Of course, Flynn was merely imitating John F. Kennedy, who ran for Congress in 1946 by using a hotel as his 11th District “residence.” (He won.) A Kennedy rival placed a mocking newspaper ad: “Congress Seat for Sale. No Experience Necessary. Applicant Must Live in New York or Florida.”

New York’s easy residency requirements–you only need to be a resident at the time of the election–and its political prominence make it a carpetbagger magnet. Detractors assailed Robert Kennedy for his 1964 New York Senate bid; even the liberal New York Times endorsed Republican Kenneth Keating. Six years later, Connecticut resident James Buckley suffered similar charges en route to winning the seat. Candidates have accused opponents of carpetbagging in other high-profile Senate races: Frank Lautenberg vs. Pete Dawkins in New Jersey in 1988; Dianne Feinstein vs. Michael Huffington in California in 1994; Paul Sarbanes vs. Bill Brock in Maryland, also in ‘94. It didn’t help Brock’s case that he had already served as a U.S. senator–from Tennessee.

For all its currency, the carpetbagger charge only carries these days in parochial places and when it plays into other, more potent, liabilities: the naked ambition of Dawkins or Huffington, the Washington-insider image of Brock. Solid candidates, such as RFK (or HRC), weather the charges. And for some politicians, such as Arizona’s John McCain, living in an adopted home state doesn’t seem to matter at all. The Constitution requires only that a senator “when elected, be an inhabitant of that state for which he shall be chosen.” Having rehabilitated the carpetbaggers, we might as well give them back their good name.