Carpetbagger: Definition and Origin of the Political Term

How a Derogatory Term From the 1860s Remains a Political Insult

The Man with the (Carpet) Bags by Thomas Nast
1872 Harper's Weekly political cartoon of Carl Schurz depicted as a carpetbagger, which reflected Southern attitudes toward Northerners during Reconstruction.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The term "carpetbagger" is routinely applied to political candidates who run for office in a region where they are recent arrivals. The term came about in the years following the Civil War, when northerners flocked to the defeated South to do business and were bitterly portrayed as unscrupulous outsiders engaged in political corruption and unethical business practices.

As its most basic level, the name derived from luggage common at the time, which resembled bags made of carpeting. But "carpetbagger" did not merely mean someone who traveled and carried a carpetbag.

Fast Facts: Carpetbagger

  • Political term arose during Reconstruction and became widespread.
  • Term was originally a very bitter insult leveled at northerners who ventured into the defeated South.
  • Some people called carpetbaggers had noble motives, but were opposed by white supremacist figures in the South.
  • In the modern era, the term is used to describe someone running for election in a region in which they have no longstanding roots.

Roots in Reconstruction

In its earliest usage in the American South, the term was considered quite negative and was leveled as an insult. The classic carpetbagger was, in the eyes of defeated southerners, a conniving northerner appearing in the South to take advantage of circumstances.

Southern society during Reconstruction was a complicated landscape of competing interests. Defeated Confederates, embittered by the loss of the war, deeply resented northerners. And organizations like the Freedmen's Bureau, which sought to help the millions of the formerly enslaved gain basic education while transitioning to life after slavery, were often met with resentment and even violence.

The Republican Party had been hated in the South before the Civil War, and Lincoln's election in 1860 was the trigger that started the march of slave states seceding from the Union. But in the South after the Civil War, Republicans often won political office, especially where the former slaves were allowed to vote. Legislatures dominated by Republican officeholders were denounced as "carpetbagger governments."

As the South had been shattered by the effects of the war, with its economy and infrastructure severely damaged, outside help was necessary. Yet it was often resented. And much of that resentment became wrapped up in the term carpetbagger.

An alternative explanation is that the northerners who ventured southward following the Civil War were, in many cases, bringing much-needed expertise and capital to the region. Some of those disparaged as carpetbaggers were opening banks and schools and helping to rebuild the infrastructure of the South which had been badly damaged, if not entirely destroyed.

Some corrupt characters did descend on the South, seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the defeated Confederates. But those with altruistic motivations, including teachers and employees of the Freedmen's Bureau, were also routinely denounced as carpetbaggers.

Historian Eric Foner, who has written extensively on the period of Reconstruction, offered his interpretation on the term carpetbagger in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1988. Responding to a brief news item in the newspaper which noted the negative connotations of the term, Foner said that many of those who went southward after the end of the Civil War did have good intentions.

Foner wrote that the term, as an insult, was used mainly by "white supremacist opponents of Reconstruction" policies. He also noted that most carpetbaggers were "former soldiers from middle-class backgrounds who went South seeking a livelihood, not political office."

Concluding his letter, Foner said that the concept of the carpetbagger was essentially rooted in racism. The term was popularized by those who believed the former slaves were "unprepared for freedom, hence they relied on unscrupulous northerners, hence Reconstruction produced misgovernment and corruption."

Examples in Modern Politics

In the modern era, the use of carpetbagger endures to denote someone who has moved into a region and run for office. The modern usage of the term is far removed from the deep bitterness and racial aspect of the Reconstruction era. Yet the term is still considered to be an insult, and it often features in negative campaigning.

A classic example of someone called a carpetbagger was Robert Kennedy when he announced his run for the U.S. Senate in New York State. Kennedy had lived in suburban New York for part of his childhood, and could claim some connection to New York, but he was still criticized. Being called a carpetbagger didn't seem to hurt, however, and he won election to the U.S. Senate in 1964.

Decades later, First Lady Hillary Clinton faced the same charge in the same place when she ran for a Senate seat in New York. Clinton, who had been born in Illinois, had never lived in New York, and was accused of moving to New York just so she could run for Senate. Once again, the carpetbagger attacks didn't prove effective, and Clinton won her election to the Senate.

Associated Term: Scalawags

A term often associated with carpetbagger was "scalawag." The term was used to describe a white southerner who worked with members of the Republican Party and supported Reconstruction policies. To white southern Democrats, scalawags were perhaps even worse than carpetbaggers, as they were viewed as betraying their own people.

Sources:

  • Netzley, Patricia D. "carpetbaggers." The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of The Civil War, edited by Kenneth W. Osborne, Greenhaven Press, 2004, pp. 68-69. Gale Ebooks.
  • Foner, Eric. "What It Meant to Be Called 'Carpetbagger.'" New York Times, 1988 September 30. Section A, page 34.