AskDefine | Define carpetbagger

Dictionary Definition

carpetbagger n : an outsider who seeks power or success presumptuously; "after the Civil War the carpetbaggers from the north tried to take over the south"

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A candidate who runs in a district where he or she has not previously held residence.
    Though he lived and worked in Los Angeles for sixteen years, the candidate for Attorney General is no carpetbagger; he was born and raised in this state and graduated from the state university.
  2. One of several Northern politicians who migrated to the South during Reconstruction and held public office.
  3. a Northerner with no Southern ties who migrates to the South for work.
    He's just a carpetbagger who was surprised to find that Southerns are not like the cast of The Dukes of Hazzard or Deliverance.
  4. pejorative by extension One who comes to a place or organisation with which they have no previous connection with the sole or primary aim of personal gain, especially political or financial gain; one who carpetbags
  5. One who attempts to force a mutual organisation, such as a building society, to demutualise — to list on a stock exchange, solely for personal pecuniary advantage.

Related terms


Politics, especially US: A candidate who runs in a district where he or she has not previously held residence
US: One of several Northern politicians who migrated to the South during Reconstruction
US: A Northerner with no Southern ties who migrates to the South for work
One who comes to a place or organisation primarily or solely for personal gain
One who attempts to force a mutual organisation to demutualise for personal gain

Extensive Definition

In United States history, carpetbaggers was the term southerners gave to northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1877. They formed a coalition with freedmen (freed slaves), and scalawags (southern whites who supported Reconstruction) in the Republican Party. Together they politically controlled former Confederate states for varying periods, 1867–1877.
The term carpetbaggers was used to describe the white northern Republican politicians who came South, arriving with their travel carpetbags. Southerners considered them ready to loot and plunder the defeated South. Although the term is still an insult in common usage, in histories and reference works it is now used without derogatory intent.
Since 1900 the term has been used more widely in the US to describe outsiders' attempting to gain political office or economic advantage, especially in areas (thematically or geographically) to which they previously had no connection.
In the United Kingdom, the term is often used informally to refer to those who attempt to force a mutual organization, such as a building society, to demutualise — to list on a stock exchange, solely for personal pecuniary advantage.


Reforming impulse

Beginning in 1862, thousands of Northern abolitionists and other reformers moved to areas in the South where secession by the Confederates states had failed. Many schoolteachers and religious missionaries arrived in the South, some of them sponsored by northern churches. Many were abolitionists who sought to continue the struggle for racial equality; they often became agents of the federal Freedmen's Bureau, which started operations in 1865 to assist freedmen and also white refugees. The bureau established public schools in rural areas of the South where public schools had not previously existed. Other Northerners who moved to the South participated in establishing railroads where infrastructure was lacking.
Hundreds of white women moved South; many to teach newly freed African-American children. While African-American families had been enslaved, most southern states prohibited the children from being taught to read or attending school.
While many Northerners went South with reformist impulses after the Civil War, not all Northerners who went South were reformers.

Economic motives

Many carpetbaggers were businessmen who purchased or leased plantations and became wealthy landowners, hiring Freedmen to do the labor. Most were former Union soldiers eager to invest their savings in this promising new frontier, and civilians lured south by press reports of "the fabulous sums of money to be made in the South in raising cotton." The investors were warmly received. However, Foner also notes that "joined with the quest for profit, however, was a reforming spirit, a vision of themselves as agents of sectional reconciliation and the South's "economic regeneration." Accustomed to viewing Southerners—black and white—as devoid of economic initiative and self-discipline, they believed that only "Northern capital and energy" could bring "the blessings of a free labor system to the region."
Carpetbaggers tended to be well educated and middle class in origin. Some had been lawyers, businessmen, newspaper editors, and other pillars of Northern communities. The majority (including fifty-two of the sixty who served in Congress during Reconstruction) were veterans of the Union Army.
Leading "black carpetbaggers" believed the interests of capital and labor identical and the freedmen entitled to little more than an "honest chance in the race of life."
Many northern and southern Republicans shared a modernizing vision of upgrading the southern economy and society, one that would replace the inefficient Southern plantation regime with railroads, factories, and more efficient farming. They actively promoted public schooling and created numerous colleges and universities. The northerners were especially successful in taking control of southern railroads, abetted by state legislatures. In 1870, northerners controlled 21% of the South's railroads (by mileage); 19% of the directors were from the North. By 1890, they controlled 88% of the mileage and 47% of the directors were from the North.

Self-interest and exploitation

Some were representatives of the Freedmen's Bureau and other agencies of Reconstruction; some were humanitarians with the intent to help black people; yet some were adventurers who hoped to benefit themselves by questionable methods. The characters of "the King" and "the Duke" in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are fictional examples; these confidence men enter the novel on the run from local authorities, and "both of them had big, fat, ratty-looking carpet bags."

Examples of prominent northerners in state politics


Union General Adelbert Ames, a native of Massachusetts, was appointed military governor and later was elected as Republican governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction. Ames tried unsuccessfully to ensure equal rights for black Mississippians. His political battles with the southerners and African Americans ripped apart his party.
The "Black and Tan" (biracial) constitutional convention in Mississippi in 1868 included 29 southerners, 17 freedmen, and 24 northerners, nearly all of whom were veterans of the Union army. They included four men who had lived in the South before the war, two of whom had served in the Confederate States Army. Among the more prominent were General Beroth B. Eggleston, a native of New York who had enlisted as a private in an Ohio regiment; Colonel A. T. Morgan, of the Second Wisconsin Volunteers; General W. S. Barry, former commander of a Colored regiment raised in Kentucky; an Illinois general and lawyer who graduated from Knox College; Major W. H. Gibbs, of the Fifteenth Illinois infantry; Judge W. B. Cunningham, of Pennsylvania; and Captain E. J. Castello, of the Seventh Missouri infantry. These were among the founders of the Republican party in Mississippi.
They were prominent in the politics of the state until 1875, but nearly all left Mississippi in 1875–76 under pressure from the Red Shirts and White Liners. These white paramilitary organizations, described as "the military arm of the Democratic Party", worked openly to violently overthrow Republican rule, using intimidation and assassination to turn Republicans out of office and suppress freedmen's voting.
Albert T. Morgan, the Republican sheriff of Yazoo, Mississippi, received a brief flurry of national attention when insurgent white Democrats took over the county government and forced him to flee. He later wrote Yazoo; Or, on the Picket Line of Freedom in the South (1884).
On November 6, 1875, Hiram Revels, a Mississippi Republican and the first African-American U.S. Senator, wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant that was widely reprinted. Revels denounced Ames and northerners for manipulating the Black vote for personal benefit, and for keeping alive wartime hatreds:
Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been, as it were, enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves, and perpetuate it..... My people have been told by these schemers, when men have been placed on the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a Republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people.... The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this state, except perhaps in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated, were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past, and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office, and its emoluments, to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.

North Carolina

Corruption was a powerful charge for Democrats in North Carolina, notes historian Paul Escott, "because its truth was apparent." [Escott 160] For example, General Milton S. Littlefield, dubbed the "Prince of Carpetbaggers," bought votes in the legislature "to support grandiose and fraudulent railroad schemes." Escott concludes that some Democrats were involved, but Republicans "bore the main responsibility for the issue of $28 million in state bonds for railroads and the accompanying corruption. This sum, enormous for the time, aroused great concern." Foner says Littlefield disbursed $200,000 (bribes) to win support in the legislature for state money for his railroads, and Democrats as well as Republicans were guilty. [Foner 387] North Carolina Democrats condemned the legislature's "depraved villains, who take bribes every day;" one local Republican officeholder complained, "I deeply regret the course of some of our friends in the Legislature as well as out of it in regard to financial matters, it is very embarrassing indeed."
Extravagance and corruption increased taxes and the costs of government in a state that had always favored low expenditure, Escott pointed out. This was in the context in North Carolina and other southern states, however, of a planter class whose insistence on low taxes was for their own benefit. They used their money toward private ends rather than public investment. None of the states had established public school systems before the Reconstruction state legislatures created them, and they had systematically underinvested in infrastructure such as roads and railroads. Planters whose properties occupied prime riverfront locations relied on river transportation, but smaller farmers in the backcountry suffered.
Escott claimed, "Some money went to very worthy causes—the 1869 legislature, for example, passed a school law that began the rebuilding and expansion of the state's public schools. But far too much was wrongly or unwisely spent" to aid the Republican Party leadership. A Republican county commissioner in Alamance eloquently denounced the situation: "Men are placed in power who instead of carrying out their duties . . . form a kind of school for to graduate Rascals. Yes if you will give them a few Dollars they will liern you for an accomplished Rascal. This is in reference to the taxes that are rung from the labouring class of people. Without a speedy reformation I will have to resign my post."
Albion W. Tourgée, formerly of Ohio and a friend of President James A. Garfield, moved to North Carolina as a lawyer and judge. He once opined that "Jesus Christ was a carpetbagger." Tourgée later wrote A Fool's Errand, a largely autobiographical novel about an idealistic carpetbagger persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.

South Carolina

The leading carpetbag politician in South Carolina was Daniel Henry Chamberlain, a New Englander who was an officer of a predominantly black regiment. He served as South Carolina's attorney general from 1868 to 1872 and as Republican governor from 1874 to 1877. As a result of the national Compromise of 1877, Chamberlain lost his office, although he had managed to be reelected in a campaign marked by egregious voter fraud and violence against freedmen by Democratic Red Shirts, who succeeded in suppressing the black vote in some majority-black counties. While serving in South Carolina, Chamberlain was a strong supporter of Negro rights.
Some historians of the early 1930s claimed that Chamberlain was later influenced by Social Darwinism to become a white supremacist, and supporter of states' rights and laissez-faire in the economy. By 1896, liberty meant the right to save oneself from the rising tide of equality. Chamberlain justified white supremacy by arguing that, in evolutionary terms, the Negro obviously belonged to an inferior social order.
Charles Stearns, also from Massachusetts, wrote an account of his experience in South Carolina: The Black Man of the South, and the Rebels: Or, the Characteristics of the Former and the Recent Outrages of the Latter (1873).
Francis L. Cardozo, a black minister from New Haven, Connecticut, served as a delegate to South Carolina's Constitutional Convention (1868); he made eloquent speeches advocating that the plantations be broken up and distributed among the freedmen, who wanted their own land to farm.


Henry C. Warmoth, the Republican governor of Louisiana from 1868 to 1874, was a less idealistic politician. As governor, Warmoth was plagued by accusations of corruption that continued long after his death. He supported the franchise for freedmen. At the same time, he used his position as governor to trade in state bonds for his personal benefit. The newspaper company which he owned received a contract from the state government. Warmoth remained in Louisiana after Reconstruction and died in 1931 at age 89.


George E. Spencer was a prominent Republican U.S. Senator. His 1872 reelection campaign in Alabama opened him to allegations of "political betrayal of colleagues; manipulation of Federal patronage; embezzlement of public funds; purchase of votes; and intimidation of voters by the presence of Federal troops." He was a major speculator in a distressed financial paper.


Tunis Campbell, a black New York businessman, was hired in 1863 by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to help former slaves in Port Royal, South Carolina. When the Civil War ended, Campbell was assigned to the Sea Islands of Georgia, where he engaged in an apparently successful land reform program for the benefit of the freedmen. He eventually became vice-chair of the Georgia Republican Party, a state senator, and the head of an African-American militia which he hoped to use against the Ku Klux Klan.


William Hines Furbush, born a slave in Kentucky in 1839, received an education in Ohio, and migrated to Helena, Arkansas in 1862. Back in Ohio in February 1865, he joined the Forty-second Colored Infantry at Columbus. After the war, Furbush migrated to Liberia through the American Colonization Society. He returned to Ohio after 18 months and moved back to Arkansas by 1870.[Wintory 2004] Furbush was elected to two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, 1873–74 (Phillips County) and 1879–80 (Lee County).
In 1873 the state passed a civil rights law. Furbush and three other black leaders, including the bill's primary sponsor state Senator Richard A. Dawson, sued a Little Rock barkeeper for refusing to serve the group service. The suit resulted in the only successful Reconstruction prosecution under the state's civil rights law. In the legislature, Furbush worked to create a new county, Lee, from portions of Phillips, Crittenden, Monroe and St. Francis counties.
Following the end of his 1873 legislative term, Furbush was appointed sheriff by Republican Governor Elisha Baxter. Furbush won reelection as sheriff twice and served from 1873 to 1878. During his term, he adopted a policy of "fusion," a post-Reconstruction power-sharing compromise between Democrats and Republicans. Furbush was originally elected as a Republican, but he switched to the Democratic Party at the end of his time as sheriff. In 1878, Furbush was again elected to the Arkansas House. His election is noteworthy because he was elected as a black Democrat in an election season notorious for white intimidation of black and Republican voters in black-majority eastern Arkansas. Furbush is the first known black Democrat elected to the Arkansas General Assembly.
In March 1879, Furbush left Arkansas for Colorado, where he worked as an assayer and barber. In Bonanza, Colorado, he avoided a lynch mob after shooting and killing a town constable. At the trial, he was acquitted of murder. He returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, by 1888, following another stay in Ohio.
In 1889, he and E. A. Fulton, a fellow black Democrat, announced plans for the National Democrat, a party weekly intended to attract black voters to the Democratic Party. After failing to attract black voters and following white Democrats' passage of the Arkansas 1891 Election Law that disfranchised most black voters, Furbush left the state. He traveled to South Carolina and Georgia, but they soon disfranchised black voters, too.
The last stop of Furbush was in October 1901 at Marion, Indiana's National Home for Disabled Veterans. He died there on September 3, 1902. He was interred at the Marion National Cemetery.


Carpetbaggers were least visible in Texas. Republicans were in power from 1867 to January 1874. Only one state official and one justice of the state supreme court were northerners. About 13%-21% of district court judges were northerners, along with about 10% of the delegates who wrote the Reconstruction constitution of 1869. Of the 142 men who served in the 12th legislature, only 12 to 29 were northerners. At the county level, they included about 10% of the commissioners, county judges, and sheriffs.
New Yorker George T. Ruby, was sent as an agent by the Freedmen's Bureau to Galveston, Texas, where he settled. Later elected a Texas state senator, Ruby was instrumental in various economic development schemes and in efforts to organize African-American dockworkers into the Labor Union of Colored Men. When Reconstruction ended, Ruby became a leader of the Exoduster movement, which encouraged Southern blacks to homestead in Kansas to escape the white supremacist violence and oppression of segregation.


The Dunning school of American historians (1900–1950) viewed carpetbaggers unfavorably, arguing that they degraded the political and business culture. The revisionist school in the 1930s called them stooges of Northern business interests. After 1960, the neoabolitionist school emphasized their moral courage.

Modern usage

United States

Carpetbagger is used to describe a politician who runs for office in a place to which he previously had no connection. In 1964, Robert Kennedy moved to New York to run for the Senate and deflected the carpetbagger image with humor, opening one speech with, "My fellow New Yorkites!"
In 2000, many New Yorkers considered Hillary Clinton to be a "carpetbagger" when she moved to New York to run for the Senate. Both Kennedy and Clinton were elected.
Some Texans may have considered George W. Bush to be a carpetbagger, as he was born in Connecticut and educated at Andover and Yale, but tried to identify himself as an ordinary Texan. Bush was elected Governor of Texas and two terms as President of the United States for the Republican Party.
John Ellis "Jeb" Bush (born February 11, 1953), brother to George W. Bush, was elected the 43rd Governor of Florida. Some consider him a good example of a "modern day carpetbagger," though he relocated from Texas to Florida several years prior to starting his political career there.
In 2004, Republican Alan Keyes was called a carpetbagger when he moved to Illinois only one month before the election for senator, which he lost to Barack Obama. John McCain was also accused of being a carpetbagger in his first congressional election in 1982.
In Harold Robbins' novel The Carpetbaggers, the word has the generic meaning of a presumptuous newcomer who enters a new territory seeking success. In this case, the territory is the movie industry, and the newcomer is a wealthy heir to an industrial fortune who, like Howard Hughes, simultaneously pursued aviation and moviemaking avocations.

United Kingdom

Carpetbagging was used as a term in Britain in the late 1990s during the wave of demutualizations of building societies. It indicated members of the public who joined mutual societies with the hope of making a quick profit from the conversion. Investors in these mutuals would receive shares in the new public companies, usually distributed at a flat rate, thus equally benefiting small and large investors, and providing a broad incentive for members to vote for conversion-advocating leadership candidates. The word was first used in this context in early 1997 by the chief executive of the Woolwich Building Society, who announced the society's conversion with rules removing the most recent new savers' entitlement to potential windfalls and stated in a media interview, "I have no qualms about disenfranchising carpetbaggers." The chief executive was subsequently removed from office in disgrace after it was widely reported that he was receiving unauthorised benefits from the society's gardeners.
During this period, a group of pro-demutualisation supporters formed a website,, which highlighted the best ways of opening share accounts with UK Building Societies. This led many Building Societies to implement "anti carpetbagging" policies, such as not accepting new deposits from customers who lived outside the normal operating area of the Society. The Derbyshire Building Society became famously known as "The Fortress" as, for a number of years, it insisted on a minimum balance on savings accounts of £10,000.


During World War II, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services surreptitiously supplied necessary tools and material to anti-Nazi resistance groups in Europe. The OSS called this effort Operation Carpetbagger, and the modified B-24 aircraft used for the night-time missions were referred to as "carpetbaggers." (Among other special features, they were painted a non-glare black to make them less visible.) Between January and September 1944, Operation Carpetbagger ran 2,263 sorties between RAF Harrington, England, and various points in occupied Europe.



  • Ash, Stephen V. When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861–1865 University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Barnes, Kenneth C. Who Killed John Clayton. Duke University Press, 1998; violence in Arkansas.
  • Brown, Canter, Jr. "Carpetbagger Intrigues, Black Leadership, and a Southern Loyalist Triumph: Florida's Gubernatorial Election of 1872" Florida Historical Quarterly, 1994 72 (3): 275–301. ISSN 0015-4113. Shows how African Americans joined Redeemers to defeat corrupt carpetbagger running for reelection
  • Campbell, Randolph B. "Carpetbagger Rule in Reconstruction Texas: an Enduring Myth." Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 1994 97 (4): 587–596. ISSN 0038-478X
  • Richard Nelson Current. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation (1988), a favorable view.
  • Currie-Mcdaniel, Ruth. Carpetbagger of Conscience: A Biography of John Emory Bryant, Fordham University Press, 1999; religious reformer in South Carolina.
  • Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, Stoff. Nation of Nations: A Concise Narrative of the American Republic. 3rd. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002.
  • Durden, Robert Franklin; James Shepherd Pike: Republicanism and the American Negro, 1850–1882 Duke University Press, 1957
  • Paul D. Escott; Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850–1900, University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
  • Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory Of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 1993, Revised, 1996, LSU Press.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988). Harper & Row, 1988, recent standard history.
  • Fowler, Wilton B. "A Carpetbagger's Conversion to White Supremacy." North Carolina Historical Review, 1966 43 (3): 286–304. ISSN 0029-2494
  • Garner, James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi (1902)
  • Harris, William C. The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
  • Harris, William C. "James Lynch: Black Leader in Southern Reconstruction," Historian 1971 34 (1): 40–61. ISSN 0018-2370; Lynch was Mississippi's first African American secretary of state.
  • Klein, Maury. "Southern Railroad Leaders, 1865–1893: Identities and Ideologies" Business History Review, 1968 42 (3): 288–310. ISSN 0007-6805 Fulltext in JSTOR.
  • Morrow, Ralph E.; Northern Methodism and Reconstruction Michigan State University Press, 1956.
  • Olsen, Otto H. Carpetbagger's Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgee (1965)
  • Simkins, Francis Butler, and Robert Hilliard Woody. South Carolina during Reconstruction (1932).
  • Tunnell, Ted. Edge of the Sword: The Ordeal of Carpetbagger Marshall H. Twitchell in the Civil War and Reconstruction. LSU Press, 2001, on Louisiana.
  • Ted Tunnell, "Creating 'the Propaganda of History': Southern Editors and the Origins of Carpetbagger and Scalawag," Journal of Southern History, (Nov 2006) 72#4
  • Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk; The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865–1881. University of Alabama Press, 1991
  • Woolfolk, Sarah Van V. "George E. Spencer: a Carpetbagger in Alabama," Alabama Review, 1966 19 (1): 41–52. ISSN 0002-4341
  • Wintory, Blake. "William Hines Furbush: African-American Carpetbagger, Republican, Fusionist, and Democrat," Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 2004 63 (2): 107–165. ISSN 0004-1823
  • Wintory, Blake. "William Hines Furbush (1839–1902)" Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (2006).
  • Bryant, Emma Spaulding. Emma Spaulding Bryant: Civil War Bride, Carpetbagger's Wife, Ardent Feminist; Letters and Diaries, 1860–1900 Fordham University Press, 2004. 503 pp.
  • Fleming, Walter L. Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational, and Industrial 2 vol 1906. Uses broad collection of primary sources.
  • Louis F. Post. "A 'Carpetbagger' in South Carolina," The Journal of Negro History Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan., 1925), pp. 10–79 in JSTOR; autobiography.
  • Twitchell, Marshall Harvey. Carpetbagger from Vermont: The Autobiography of Marshall Harvey Twitchell. ed by Ted Tunnell; Louisiana State University Press, 1989. 216 pp.
carpetbagger in Danish: Carpetbagger
carpetbagger in German: Carpetbagger
carpetbagger in Spanish: Carpetbagger
carpetbagger in Galician: Carpetbagger
carpetbagger in Japanese: カーペットバッガー
carpetbagger in Serbian: Карпетбагер
carpetbagger in Swedish: Carpetbaggers
carpetbagger in Vietnamese: Carpetbagger

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

bunco artist, bunco steerer, cardsharp, cardsharper, con artist, con man, confidence man, crimp, horse coper, horse trader, jackleg, land pirate, land shark, land-grabber, mortgage shark, pettifogger, pitchman, shark, sharp, sharper, sharpie, shortchanger, shyster, slicker, spieler
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