Part seven: The 1871 congressional investigation of the Klan: A clash of radical Republicans and conservative Democrats

U.S. Representative Philadelph Van Trump, conservative Democrat of OH, circa. 1867-1873

Based on hastily prepared data, Grant submitted a report on January 12, 1871, of 5,000 disorders, outrages, and homicides occurring in North Carolina and nearby states. A Senate Committee was sent to North Carolina to investigate and reported on March 10. The unanimous Republican majority reported that the Ku Klux Klan was indeed active and was “indulging in a carnival of murders, intimidation and violence of all kinds.” The unanimous Democrat minority report claimed that both the President’s January report and the March report of the Republican majority had been “grossly and willfully exaggerated.” Congress responded by passing the famous “Ku Klux Klan Law,” officially entitled “An Act of Congress to Enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for Other Purposes.” I leave the reader to consider why “and for Other Purposes” was added to the title. On April 7, Congress passed a resolution appointing a Joint Select Committee “to inquire into the condition of the late insurrectionary states.” The Committee consisted of thirteen Republicans and eight Democrats.

At the first meeting of the Committee, Senator Bayard (D, DE), later Secretary of State under President Grover Cleveland, introduced a resolution providing that the examination of witnesses would be governed by the legal rules of evidence prevailing in the courts. Rep. Van Trump (D, OH) submitted a proposal that in taking testimony mere rumors and hearsay should be excluded. Senator Bayard also proposed that witness testimonies be limited to facts existing at the time or which had occurred since the enactment of the law providing for the Committee and its investigation. These precautionary proposals were rejected. Thus facts sought were buried in a mass of material of very doubtful credibility and suspiciously partisan bias.

Once again, I must warn readers that the Democrats of that era had almost nothing in common with the Democrat Party of today. In those days, Democrat and conservative were close political synonyms. Democrats North and South might have differed on how to handle slavery issues, preserve the Union, or execute War policies, but they tended to be Jeffersonian Constitutional conservatives. Moreover, the Republican Party of that day was still largely a Whig party with majority sympathies more inclined to big industrial, railroad, shipping, and banking interests and consolidated national power. The Radical Republicans that dominated the Republican Party for more than a decade after Lincoln’s assassination were dedicated to ruthlessly preserving their own power and prosperity with only nominal lip service to the common good. Lincoln was a big-business-big-government “moderate,” who the Radicals did not trust to smash any possibility of Southern cultural or Jeffersonian political recovery.

The political standards of the Radical Republicans can be seen in the unbelievably dishonest, despotic, and unconstitutional means they used to pass the Fourteenth Amendment. [See my book: The Un-civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths, Chapter 20: Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, pp 183-190.] The Radical Republicans also tried to impeach President Andrew Johnson, because he was implementing Lincoln’s relatively generous policy of bringing Southern States back into the Union, because he opposed the harsh and oppressive Reconstruction plan of the Radical Republicans.

In July, a special sub-committee of three—Senator Scott (R, PA), Rep. Stevenson (R, OH), and Rep. Van Trump (D, OH) went to South Carolina to examine witnesses. On July 29, Senator Scott, also the Chairman of the full Joint Committee, wrote a letter to President Grant setting forth the “revolutionary conditions” in South Carolina and urging prompt Presidential action. Rep. Van Trump, however, issued a minority report expressing a firm conviction that the disorders in South Carolina were “the clearest natural offspring of as corrupt and oppressive a system of local state government as ever disgraced humanity, and utterly unparalleled in the history of civilization.” He further stated that “No modern instance of wrong and oppression, of robbery and usurpation can approach it in wickedness and infamy….No fair-minded man, we care not what may be his prejudices or his party ties, can go down to South Carolina and see the practical workings of the system there without being driven to the admission that the policy…is one of the most terrible blunders ever committed, one of the most reckless and unwise political movements ever inaugurated in a government of fixed laws and constitutions.”

The Radicals, however, increased their pressure on President Grant to act against the Klan in South Carolina by placing nine, mostly Upstate counties, under martial law, which the President did on October 12. Meanwhile, this was stirring great interest in the Northern press. The many correspondents sent by most of the leading metropolitan newspapers sent back the lurid and shocking details expected to sell the most copies. Some, however, made a sincere effort at unbiased reporting and analysis. The New York Herald, moreover, frequently carried stories about the vicious barn-burnings, threats, and terrors to which South Carolina’s white citizens were being subjected by their own state government. One pointed out that many illicit distillers of whiskey used the Ku Klux as a cloak for their private crimes and misdemeanors.

A New York Herald correspondent, after investigating conditions in Spartanburg County, published a summary of his findings.

First. Federal officials admitted that there had been no Ku Klux outrages in the last four months.

Second. The KKK was originally formed for the self-preservation of its members, and not for any special political purpose.

Third. That men of infamous character entered some KKK organizations and perpetrated a series of gross outrages upon individuals.

Fourth. In many instances white and black Radicals imitated the disguise of the Ku Klux and outraged their neighbors, knowing that the blame would not be laid upon them.

Fifth. That if the state government of South Carolina had not been in the hands of corrupt and infamous political adventurers, and had the laws of the state been fairly and impartially administered, public sentiment would have crushed the KKK in its incipiency.

Sixth. There was no necessity for a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Seventh. The KKK, while formidable in numbers, never entertained the idea of resisting the United States Government. If its designs were treasonable, it could in a single night, have over-powered and annihilated the entire military force in Spartanburg County.

Eighth. The effect of the present movement [Radical Republican Reconstruction policies and actions] is dangerous to the future of the Union. It has revived old animosities, reawakened slumbering sentiments, and embittered the whites, not only in nine counties, but throughout South Carolina and the South generally.

Former Confederate General John B. Gordon, later Governor and U.S. Senator from Georgia, testified to the Joint Committee that “Even the burning of Atlanta and the devastation of Georgia during the War did not create a tenth of the animosity created by the Union League’s treatment of the Southern people.”

“The abuses under which the American colonies of England revolted in 1776 were mere child’s play compared to those borne by the South during the period of Reconstruction…”

—Thomas W. Gregory, Attorney General of the United States 1914-1919.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

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