"A Final Solution of the Negro Question"
Throughout the nineteenth century, southern Democrats had one continual objective: to preserve racial hierarchy in their home region. Direct efforts in the 1870s, though, failed to eliminate the threat that Republicans might renew Reconstruction. So, in the 1880s, white southerners in Congress developed an array of softer, less direct approaches. Their goal was to foster reconciliation with white northerners, undercutting support for Reconstruction and securing white supremacy for the South. With one issue more than any other, they succeeded: expansion of the U.S. Navy. Recognizing that global developments and the decrepit state of the U.S. Navy were increasing concern about national defense, Congressman Hilary Abner Herbert (D-AL) positioned himself to become a champion of naval expansion. A former enslaver with no maritime experience, the Confederate colonel leveraged an appointment as chair of the House Committee on Naval Affairs in 1885. Over the next eight years, Herbert established bipartisan and cross-sectional support for naval legislation in the House and spearheaded the most drastic peacetime military buildup Americans had ever seen. The interests of this “Father of the New Navy,” though, were chiefly sectional. For Herbert, militarization was a means to advancing reconciliation and securing white supremacy for the South. He stated this purpose clearly both in private and public. In 1890, he put it into practice. When Republicans introduced legislation to address voting rights in the South, Herbert wielded his reputation for bipartisanship and reconciliation against it, threatening violence and an end to economic unity. On the national level, Herbert’s use of naval expansion to further reconciliation escalated militarization and paved the way for an overseas U.S. empire. In the South, the Alabamian’s efforts helped open the door for a new system of legalized white supremacy that he celebrated as “a final solution of the negro question.”