Carpetbaggers was a derisive term that referred to northern merchants who arrived in the South in the early days of Reconstruction (1865–1877), the twelve-year period of rebuilding that followed the American Civil War (1861–1865). Carpetbaggers were so named because many of them carried carpetbags as luggage. Some Southerners even quipped that these northerners could carry all of their belongings in a carpetbag— implying that carpetbaggers were nothing more than transients.
Many northern businessmen who migrated to the South settled there, but Southerners viewed the newcomers as outsiders and, worse, as opportunists who only intended to make a quick profit before returning North. Nevertheless, carpetbaggers played an important role during Reconstruction. Some, aided by the African American vote, were elected to public office and impacted state and local policy. But others proved to be corrupt. Because of the latter, the term "carpetbagger" became synonymous with a meddling, opportunistic outsider.
See also: Reconstruction, Scalawags
The term carpetbagger arose in the South after the American Civil War (1861–65). At first, people used it to refer to any unwelcome stranger. The term soon evolved, however, to refer particularly to a northern businessman or politician who came south to take advantage of the postwar environment. Many northerners became politically active in the South during the Reconstruction years—the time when the states that had separated from the Union were reorganized after the Civil War—and many local southerners strongly resented them.
Carpetbags were a common suitcase made of strong fabric resembling carpet. The term carpetbaggers indicated that the northerners were so transitory that all they brought with them could fit into a carpetbag. In hopes of preventing northerners from building a lasting political presence, southern Democrats used the term to accuse Republican northerners of taking advantage of the economic and social challenges facing the South. Southern foes hoped to create an image of poor, meddling northerners who were working only for their own selfish interests.
Many northern Republicans were sincere and played important roles in southern politics during the first few years of Reconstruction. The efforts of the southern Democrats to oppose them, however, eventually paid off. Carpetbaggers disappeared as Democrats reclaimed political power throughout the South.
CARPETBAGGERS. In the face of the dire financial collapse that followed the Union army's decimation of the physical and commercial infrastructure of the South, once-wealthy Southerners frequently found themselves thrust into abject poverty. An economy thus thrown into chaos made an attractive target for Northern speculators hoping to buy properties at a fraction of their pre-war values in exchange for ready cash. Known for their cheap, shoddy luggage indicative of the transient nature of their business travels, these "carpetbaggers" often enlisted local poor whites or Newly freed slaves as their assistants. This invasion of their property by these geographic, economic, and/or racial outsiders insulted the Southern planters' love for tradition and heritage. During Reconstruction, these carpetbaggers formed the foundation of the Republican party in the South.
Kennedy, Stetson. After Appomattox: How the South Won the War. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.
car·pet·bag·ger / ˈkärpitˌbagər/ • n. derog. a political candidate who seeks election in an area where they have no local connections. ∎ hist. (in the U.S.) a person from the northern states who went to the South after the Civil War to profit from Reconstruction. ∎ a person perceived as an unscrupulous opportunist.
In extended usage, the term now denotes a political candidate who seeks election in an area where they have no local connections.