The term, carpetbagger, has changed over the years, particularly since 1900. Originally, carpetbaggers referred to a group of Northerners who moved to the South during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War in the United States, which lasted from 1865 to 1877. Derogatory in meaning, the word, carpetbaggers, alluded to the low-priced, makeshift luggage of the post-Civil war days, which was fashioned from old carpets. The word carpetbagger has settled into modern usage to denote any outsider who attempts to gain political office or economic advantage.
During their heyday, the carpetbaggers formed a coalition in the Republican Party joined with the Freedman’s Bureau, which was composed of free slaves, and the Scalawags who were Southern whites. This gave them some control over the legislature of the southern states, and they were very successful in seizing control of the southern railroad system. The carpetbaggers’ vision was for a new South that, through education, would rise from its ashes under the promising embrace of industrial capitalism.
Many carpetbaggers were Union army veterans from middle class origins. They were on the whole, well educated and many held prominent positions in their previous northern communities such as lawyers, businessmen and newspaper editors. Carpetbaggers invested their savings in leasing or purchasing plantations and became large landowners, despite the fact that they decried the evils of the plantation system. Many too were lured southwards because of press reports that fortunes could be made from raising cotton.
In some ways, carpetbaggers were like the imperialists of the early twentieth century who were determined to “lift the white man’s burden”. There is no question of their genuine, reforming spirit, and many among them were former abolitionists, missionaries and teachers. But they were also an arrogant lot. Carpetbaggers saw themselves as the saviors of the south’s regeneration whose people they knew, whether they were black or white, were lacking in initiative and self-discipline. They had the answer, the only solution for the war-torn South.
Some carpetbaggers were exploitative and dishonest, and unfortunately, that fact stained the reputation of many who were not. The word carpetbagger strikes a derogatory chord even years after its general usage has changed. Some modern politicians have been accused of being carpetbaggers, notably Hilary Clinton and even Bobby Kennedy when he ran for the Senate.