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Bourbon Democrats

The term ‘‘Bourbon’’ was once used to describe Democratic leaders who succeeded Republican Radicals and Carpetbaggers in Southern state governments in the years following the Civil War. The reference was not to corn whiskey but to the Bourbon kings of France, who, it was claimed, had learned nothing from the long and bitter years of the French Revolution and had instead endeavored to return to the practices that had produced the upheaval. In its Southern context, the term implied that the Democrats had learned nothing from the Civil War and were intent upon reclaiming political power, preventing blacks from voting and holding public office, maintaining white supremacy and white unity, and erasing every accomplishment of Reconstruction governments.

This fails to do justice to the flexibility of West Virginia Bourbons. The West Virginia Democrats who followed the Republican founders of the state included Governors Mathews, Jackson, Wilson, Fleming, and MacCorkle. These men were ready to adjust to changing political conditions and to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the federal Constitution, which conferred freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote and hold office upon former slaves. West Virginia Bourbons also came to terms with the new industrial character of the nation. However devoted they may have been to Southern, or traditional, American ideals, they were ready to attract industry to the state. In this respect, the step was not a giant one, since West Virginians had clamored for decades for development of the state’s resources and construction of suitable types of transportation.

In short, Bourbonism in West Virginia had a flexibility that stood for the retention of Southern values while coupling them with acceptance of the new industrial goals and necessities. After 1871, there came an increasing accommodation between political parties, which shared common goals, and also between races, so that ‘‘Jim Crow’’ racial discrimination in West Virginia was of a milder form than in the Deep South.

Written by Otis K. Rice


  1. Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.

  2. Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

  3. Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1976.

  4. Williams, John Alexander. The New Dominion and the Old: Ante-Bellum Statehood Politics as the Background of West Virginia's Bourbon Democracy. West Virginia History, (July 1972).