The Conservative Party formed late in 1867 to unite Virginia men who were opposed to the emerging Reconstruction policies of the radical Republicans in Congress and to the work that the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868 had begun doing to reform the state’s politics and government. These reforms were required by Congress in the “Act to Provide for the More Efficient Government of the Rebel States,” passed in 1867 and often called the First Reconstruction Act. Many white Virginia voters refused to vote in the October 1867 election of members of the Constitutional Convention, which as a result had a working majority consisting of African Americans, many of whom had recently been enslaved, and immigrants from northern states and, many of whom were sympathetic to the radical reformers.
The Conservative Party officially came into being at a convention in Richmond on December 11 and 12, 1867. The Richmond Daily Dispatch printed transcripts of the full proceedings, as did the other two daily newspapers in the capital. On the day that the convention met, the Dispatch headlined its editorial, “The White Convention.” At the meeting’s end, the editor of the Richmond Daily Enquirer and Examiner noted approvingly, “The silent contempt with which eight hundred Virginia gentlemen treated the vile rabble called a ‘Constitutional Convention,’ which is performing in the Capitol, was especially worthy of commendation. It provided the means for counteracting its villainies, erected a noble platform upon which there is room for all honest men, and the moment the work was done the Convention adjourned.”
Democrats and formermade up the Conservative Party’s leadership, with Whigs taking the lead in calling for and organizing the new party. Most of the party’s first leaders desired to restore government in Virginia to the business, professional, and commercial agricultural leaders who had dominated state politics until the democratic reforms of the Constitution of 1851 created universal white manhood suffrage. Under the direction of Richmond attorney , a former Whig, who was the Conservative Party’s first state organizer and chair, local party members quickly organized throughout the state. Daniel issued a series of printed circular letters containing instructions and arguments to be used in recruiting members for the new party. Circular No. 4, dated February 12, 1868, concluded, “Attempts are being made to engraft in the constitution measures looking to the relief of the people from debt, being a bribe by which it is hoped white votes can be bought for negro suffrage, negro office-holding, and negro equality generally. Let us hope that these base influences will be lost upon a people determined, for themselves and their posterity, that this is, and ever shall be, ‘a white man’s government.‘”
New Constitution and the Elections of 1869
Conservative Party leaders and supporters generally disapproved of the democratic reforms embodied in the constitution that the convention drafted, particularly the clauses granting African American men the right to vote and disfranchising most men who had served in political or military office under the Confederate States of America. For that reason, the military governor of Virginia, John M. Schofield, refused to schedule the necessary ratification referendum in 1868., a former Whig congressman from Staunton who had helped found the Conservative Party, assembled a group of like-minded men, called the Committee of Nine, to negotiate a compromise with President and leading members of Congress. The compromise called for a separate vote on former Confederate disfranchisement at the time of the referendum with the understanding that African American suffrage would remain in the new state constitution.
Such a compromise was a bitter pill for some Conservative Party leaders to swallow, including Raleigh Daniel. Nevertheless, on July 6, 1869, the qualified voters ratified the new constitution and rejected the disfranchisement clauses. These actions allowed the new state constitution to go into effect, and the newly elected members of the General Assembly ratified theand amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as required by Congress for seating senators and representatives in January 1870. Ratification formally readmitted Virginia to the Union and ended the brief reform period of Reconstruction in the state.
Conservative Party candidates won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in the 1869 general election, but the party nominated no candidates for statewide office, endorsing instead a ticket of moderate Republicans to present a united front against the state’s radical Republicans. Although united in opposition to radical Republicans, the Conservatives were divided on many issues facing the state at the end of Reconstruction, including even the issue of black suffrage. Most of them agreed on reviving the state’s economy, however, which by the time of the Civil War had become a thriving mixed economy of commercial, agricultural, milling, manufacturing, and mining and other extractive industries, all supported by modern banks and government-funded canals and railroads. The Virginia Conservative Party, unlike conservative parties in some other post–Civil War southern states, was not devoted to restoring a simple agrarian economy and plantation elite.
Even though many Conservative Party leaders, some prominent members actively sought to lure African American voters away from the radicals in the 1869 elections. One Conservative Party leader, , a Richmond banker, hosted a barbecue for African Americans on an island in the James River. During the event, a bridge collapsed and killed Branch. Many of the black men who were at the barbecue later attended Branch’s funeral. About thirty black Virginians won election to the assembly that year, many of them sharing the economic objectives of the Conservatives, and some also favoring participation of former Confederates in politics as a measure of reconciliation.
Public Schools and the Debt
In spite of some opposition to free public education within the Conservative Party, the party’s majority elected to the General Assembly in 1869 created the state’s first system of free public schools for all children, as the new state constitution required. That was a major innovation in public policy because the pre–Civil War attempts to devise a statewide system of public education had failed. The constitutional convention had defeated a proposal to make the public schools racially integrated, and in 1870 the assembly required that the schools be racially segregated. Schools for African Americans were often smaller and more crowded than schools for white students.
Conservative Party Leaders with Competing Railroad Interests
Second, the assembly voted to pay the large public debt left over from the pre–Civil War years by issuing new bonds with thirty-four-year maturity and six percent annual interest. By fully funding the old debt, political and business leaders hoped to establish Virginia and Virginians as good credit risks and thereby attract Northern and foreign investors whose money would stimulate economic recovery and growth. The Funding Act of 1871, as it was commonly known, quickly became unpopular with many Conservatives as well as both white and black voters. Interest payments on the debt consumed a large part of the annual tax revenue, and the act had made the interest-bearing coupons on the new bonds receivable for taxes, so within two years as much as a third or a half of the annual revenue came into the treasury in the form of coupons rather than money. A decade of chronic deficits followed that severely reduced the money available for funding the popular public school system. Conservatives also became divided over solutions, some insisting that the state’s credit required full and prompt payment even if that meant reducing money available for the schools; others advocating refinancing the debt at a lower interest rate or even repudiating part of the principal in order to not starve the schools.
The two factions came to be calledand Readjusters, and during the 1870s the divisions between them became wider and more bitter. The insistence of many Conservative Funders that payment of the debt was more important than supporting the public schools alienated most of the state’s African American voters as well as many white voters whose children were also for the first time attending free public schools. The longer the debt crisis starved the schools of revenue, the more voters deserted the Conservatives and Funders and supported the Readjusters.
Demise of the Conservative Party
Conservative Party members continued to win statewide elections and majorities in the General Assembly, but Republicans did well in statewide and national elections. Most Conservatives by the mid-1870s supported the Democratic Party in national elections, but some supported Republicans. The divisions within the Conservative Party appeared particularly threatening to Conservative Funders who were also Democrats and feared that if poor white and black voters chose to support the Readjusters, the Readjusters and Republicans would win control of the state. Virginia’s Republican Party had strong support from the state’s African American voters, but it lacked strong leadership. In 1877, the party even failed to nominate candidates for statewide office, allowing the Conservative Party ticket to run and win unopposed.
Marking the last major success for the Conservative Party, Governor Frederick W. M. Holliday won the 1877 election but vetoed a popular bill in 1878 that was designed to increase revenue available for the public schools and in the process denounced the public school system. Readjusters in the General Assembly began organizing to oppose the Conservative Funders, and in 1879 created the Readjuster Party. Conservatives lost control of both houses of the General Assembly in the autumn elections that year. In 1881, most of the state’s African American Republicans formed a coalition with the Readjusters and not only won enlarged majorities in the assembly but also defeated the last Conservative Party ticket for statewide offices. In the two General Assemblies that met in 1880 and 1882, the Readjusters refinanced the debt and reformed the tax code to benefit farmers and working men of both races.
Voters killed the Conservative Party by repeatedly defeating Funder candidates who gave preference to payment of the debt over support of the public schools, even though some prominent Conservatives had favored refinancing the debt to reduce the rate of interest. By 1883, the Conservative Party ceased to exist, and many of its members joined or rejoined the revived Democratic Party. In the elections that year, the Democratic Party won majorities in both Houses of the General Assembly and in 1885 won all the statewide offices by appealing to white voters on the issue of white supremacy.