A phenomenon of the Reconstruction period, “fusionism” describes the awkward and short-lived political alliance between moderate wings of the South’s Democratic and Republican Parties.
A phenomenon of the Reconstruction period, “fusionism” describes the awkward and short-lived political alliance between moderate wings of the South’s Democratic and Republican Parties. With newly enfranchised blacks entering the political arena as Republicans, white Democrats (mostly former Confederates) faced a serious challenge to their efforts to regain power. This task was especially difficult in states such as South Carolina, where the black electorate during the 1870s exceeded the white electorate by more than thirty thousand voters. While many South Carolina whites resorted to violent solutions, including the Ku Klux Klan, the state’s moderate Democrats pursued more legitimate means, most notably fusionism. Pragmatic in their approach, fusionists acknowledged the numerical reality of Republican domination, yet sought ways to exploit its emerging factional rifts. One of the chief proponents of fusionism in South Carolina was Francis W. Dawson, editor of the Charleston News and Courier. Noting the uneasiness of many white Republicans over the growing influence of black leadership, Dawson urged the Democratic Party to vote for these disaffected politicos in the hope of further dividing the opposition. In the process, Dawson and other fusionist Democrats tried to lure a few blacks into their fold with dubious guarantees of civil equality and vague promises of economic opportunity.
Never more than an expedient, fusionism ultimately failed as a viable political alternative. Blacks usually rejected fusionist overtures, rightly seeing them as disingenuous attempts to manipulate their votes. Concomitantly, most whites loathed the idea of cooperating with the Republican Party. To them, fusionism demonstrated weakness and betrayed notions of southern honor and white supremacy by tacitly recognizing blacks to be their political equals. After suffering humiliating defeats in the state elections of 1870, 1872, and 1874, South Carolina Democrats discarded the fusionist strategy in favor of a more aggressive and uncompromising approach. By 1876 white hardliners had supplanted political fusion in most of South Carolina with paramilitary force. Local fusion tickets during the 1880s and early 1890s survived in lowcountry counties such as Beaufort and Georgetown, where white Democrats and black Republicans struck arrangements to share political offices. These remaining attempts at fusion politics, however, would fall victim to the virtual elimination of the black vote in the state constitution of 1895.
Clark, E. Culpepper. Francis Warrington Dawson and the Politics of Restoration: South Carolina, 1874–1889. University: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869–1879. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.