Robert Smalls and Reconstruction Politics

Robert Smalls monument (Shutterstock)

Reconstruction politics shares a political lineage with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Both periods sought to fulfill the nation’s mandate that all of its citizens were created equal with inalienable rights, and both periods were thus undergirded by social, political, and economic transformations that produced Black activists who wedded political events with their personal identities. Generations that come of age when there is a high level of social turbulence, like wars or mass movements, produce men and women whose lives are best understood by reference to these social forces and movements. Robert Smalls, a slave, who commandeered the Confederate vessel Planter, and sailed it from Charleston harbor to the Union naval blockade in 1862, represented this form of “personal political salience,” which linked this political event with Smalls’ Reconstruction personal identity. Following his daring escape, Smalls received the appointment of Captain in the Union Army and participated in military campaigns along the South Carolina coast. These military achievements were parlayed into post-Civil War leadership.

Smalls’ base of support was Beaufort County, located twenty six miles south of Charleston, where he helped found South Carolina’s Republican Party and participated in the state constitutional convention, which promoted statewide public education. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1874 and 1876, defeated for reelection in 1878, but seated once more after he was declared the winner in a contested election in 1880. His election in 1880 was followed by defeat in 1886, which marked his last bid for elective office. “To South Carolina whites he was the last symbol of their painful past” and they were ready to go to any lengths to oust him from Congress.

As a legislator he was a staunch partisan Republican and outspoken defender of African Americans in Beaufort County. After his retirement from Congress, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Smalls as collector of customs for the Port of Beaufort, a post which he held until 1913. He continued with some success to keep his county in the Republican column long after the rest of the state was solidly Democratic. As one of the Black delegates to the constitutional convention of 1895, he made a valiant defense against George Tillman’s demagoguery and disfranchisement schemes. In South Carolina, Reconstruction politics were fractionalized as Republicans divided over issues of power, patronage, and reform.

It is in this milieu that Robert Smalls used his social capital to promote identity politics in South Carolina. The political landscape of Beaufort County, which included Edisto Island, St. Helena Island, Lady’s Island, and Fripp Island, provide the context for examining Smalls’ political career and the strategies he employed to ensure African American representation from Beaufort County at both the state and national levels.     

Following the Civil War, Smalls purchased large amounts of real estate in Beaufort, including the house of his former master, which he bought at government auction. In 1864 he attended the Republican National Convention as a member of a delegation that sought political rights for former slaves. He helped to organize the Beaufort Republican Club and succeeded in building an enduring personal political machine. Smalls’ power in a county where African Americans outnumbered whites seven to one, won him the sobriquet, “King of Beaufort County.” As a member of the state constitutional convention of 1868 and the general assembly, he made notable efforts to secure schools and promote opportunities for former slaves to acquire land.

During the 1868 election, candidate Smalls used his Civil War heroism, the issue of land ownership, and the local Allen Brass Band to enhance his popularity and gain support in Beaufort County. Smalls built his own political machine through the use of financial and educational institutions. His political identity began to crystallize in the 1868 election as he expressed his concern for the Beaufort community in local newspapers while founding his own publication The Standard. Through these mediums, Smalls promoted an expansive vision of democracy that promoted economic, political, and social equality.  He was adept at using celebrations such as Emancipation Day to promote identity politics. Smalls’ was known to motivate audiences with keen orations while parades of militiamen rode on horseback through the streets of Beaufort.

As a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1868, Smalls helped create the South Carolina Land Commission to finance the redistribution of land to former slaves. From 1868 to 1879, titles were transferred to 14,000 Black families, mostly in the coastal rice-growing tidelands. Economic conditions in Beaufort County, however, remained dismal for the majority of African Americans. In addition to the South Carolina Land Commission, the legislature, which consisted of eighty seven African Americans, sought to reverse the state’s regressive tax system, and revise the penal code. For Smalls, improving the ability of former slaves to become landowning farmers was the key to restoring dignity and providing economic stability.

The issues of homestead exemptions, relief for the poor and destitute, and political disfranchisement for ex-Confederates allowed Smalls to articulate his vision for postwar South Carolina. Yet during this early period as a political moderate, Smalls supported issues, which were sometimes at variance with other African American leaders. His early support for a poll tax for education when African Americans did not have the means to support a tax placed him at odds with the majority of Black leaders. Smalls viewed the poll tax as necessary to support public education which he championed by calling for a system of state-supported public compulsory education. As a member of the state militia and a veteran of the war, Smalls understood the value and necessity of education for African Americans. Like other soldiers of the U.S. South Carolina Colored Troops, Smalls enhanced his literacy through camp schools which were taught by regularly detailed teachers. Smalls’ military experience provided him with the political capital to transform his service into leadership positions in the state government.

Smalls’ extensive property holdings in Beaufort County allowed him to make the issue of land ownership a key element in his 1868 campaign for the South Carolina General Assembly.   His early legal success against his former owner in the case De Treville vs. Smalls, in which DeTreville sued to regain the Prince Street home purchased by Smalls at government auction, served as a test case for former slaves who sought to protect and maintain their property rights.

Throughout his tenure in the South Carolina legislature, Smalls continued to pursue relief and educational issues. He successfully worked to assist the poor and needy and establish public education.  His election to the newly created Commission to Effect the Establishment of a System of Free Common Schools allowed Smalls to use his “personal political salience” to promote shared educational interests in Beaufort County. The Congressional election of 1874 marked a turning point in Smalls’ political career. At the age of 39, he left Columbia, South Carolina, for Washington, D.C., as a seasoned and sophisticated politician. At the time of his arrival, Republican Reconstruction governments were in the process of being redeemed.

The diminution of Black political power intensified in 1875 with the adoption of the “Mississippi Plan,” which openly assaulted and murdered Republicans, destroyed ballot boxes, and drove former slaves from the polls. In South Carolina, the Hamburg Massacre transformed the state’s political climate. Located across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, Hamburg was one of many centers of African American political power. The Hamburg Massacre in July 1876 was the beginning of redemption for the state’s Democratic Party. Rising political and racial tensions following a Fourth of July celebration led to the death of Hamburg’s African American marshal and the cold-blooded murder of five others. Smalls memorialized the massacre in numerous speeches and championed the cause of state, race, and party in his 1876 re-election bid.

Robert Smalls left his imprimatur on Reconstruction politics in Beaufort County. His principal legacy lies not in the reforms he advocated or implemented, but in the personal political salience he brought to the region in pursuit of first-class citizenship, education, and equality.

Robert Smalls did not spend the last years of his life ruminating over disappointments or defeats. He continued to attend the Republican Party’s national convention and supported the presidency of Benjamin Harrison and other Republican presidential candidates during the final decade of the nineteenth century. He was rewarded with the position of collector of customs for Beaufort County, a position he held until 1913.

In his study of African American leadership, Booker T. Washington who led the newly established Negro Business League, described Reconstruction politicians as “shrewd, resolute, resourceful, and brilliant men” who lead the newly enfranchised race at a critical juncture in history. The men who led South Carolina during the Reconstruction period may not have been a homogenous group, but among them stood a man with deep roots in his community, and who symbolized the aspirations of newly freed African Americans for economic, political, and social equality.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is Professor of History and the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor at Bowie State University. Her areas of specialization include slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and women’s history. Her scholarship has appeared in the Journal of African American History; Georgia Historical Quarterly; Passport; U.S. West-Africa: Interaction and Relations (2008); Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians (2012); Converging Identities: Blackness in the Contemporary Diaspora (2013); and Slavery and Freedom in Savannah (2014). She has published Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018), which won the Georgia Board of Regents Excellence in Research Award. Her current book, Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America, is published with Cambridge University Press. She is editor of Southern Black Women’s Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction which is under contract with Cambridge University Press. She is a former AAUW Dissertation Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @kbphd08.

Comments on “Robert Smalls and Reconstruction Politics

  • Avatar

    Excellent. I too visited this site in Beaufort, SC. In addition, is the storied history of nearby St. Helena Island where the Gullah culture is celebrated through the strength of the Penn Center. It was the Penn center, a secret retreat where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech before traveling to Washington, D.C. Even less well known is Fort Fremont. John C. Fremont, the United States first Republican candidate for President of the United States. One area of my research is the hidden history of Fremont’s rise and fall in the shadow of Lincoln. Fremont who first emancipated enslaved people in Missouri when assigned as the General of the West by Lincoln. Fremont’s wife Jesse Benton, daughter of a formerly powerful Senator, went to Washington, D.C. to argue for Emancipation in 1861, (two years before Lincoln’s) but they were undermined by a member of the Blair Family and effectively dismissed by Lincoln. Not before Fremont had promoted U.S.S. Grant, however. Fremont is well known in the West, the “great” Oregon Trail, but, not in the South, Charleston, where he grew up under the dominance of racist, slavery advocate John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. I collected information from archives at the College of Charleston, where Fremont graduated. Little is known about the argument when Fremont as California’s first U.S. Senator in 1850 argued on behalf of the freedom of his state’s Native Americans only to be defeated by a racist speech written by John C. Calhoun. A speech in the Senate that argued for White Supremacy.

Comments are closed.