Reconstruction in the South

Reconstruction in the South

This pamphlet edited by Edwin C. Rozwenc is in the “Problems in American Civilization” series and is an older collection of essays, published in 1952. The nine essays in the pamphlet are heavily biased toward the view of Reconstruction popularized by William A. Dunning of Columbia University and those who agree with his views. This view is heavily weighted toward a white supremacist viewpoint and discounts the intelligence and abilities of African-Americans while heaping abuse on those who would like to see African-Americans gain equal rights.

In his introduction, Rozwenc wrote, “Not until James Ford Rhodes wrote his volumes on the history of the United States did a considerable body of scholarly historical writing on Reconstruction appear. Rhodes, in the two volumes he devoted to the political history of the Reconstruction period, took the position that the radical Reconstruction program had prevented a happy readjustment of the South to the Union. In his opinion, the evils that he pictured in the South came from the forcing of universal Negro suffrage upon the South–an action which he described as the ‘worst provision’ of the Reconstruction Acts. James Schouler, who completed his voluminous History of the United States Under the Constitution with a volume on the Reconstruction period, concurred fully with Rhodes’ opinion on the evil effects of Reconstruction policies upon the South. The general political histories of Rhodes and Schouler were supported by the monographic studies of individual southern states guided and influenced by William Archibald Dunning in his seminar at Columbia University. These scholarly studies, together with Dunning’s own writings on the subject, produced an impressive body of historical writing which exposed the corruption and abuses of government in the South under carpetbagger and Negro domination and dealt sympathetically with the efforts of those who worked to restore white supremacy to the South. A similar view was taken by other academic historians of the period–Walter Fleming, John W. Burgess, and Woodrow Wilson. As a matter of fact, a striking degree of acquiescence in the interpretations of Rhodes and Dunning characterized the writing and teaching of American historians in the years that followed and, to a considerable degree, those interpretations are still held widely by American historians. More recently, however, there has been a tendency to revise the interpretations of the Rhodes and Dunning generation by examining more closely some of the social and economic changes that came in the South during the Reconstruction period and by re-examining the motivations of conflicting political groups in the South–Negroes, carpetbaggers, scalawags, white restorationists–in the more objective way of the political scientist who seeks to probe the purposes, slogans, and the power potentialities of interest groups. The writings of these historians suggest that there were many constructive social and political developments in the Reconstruction period and assert that honesty and dishonesty in politics were not monopolies of any one group.” [pp. vi-vii] Interestingly, in his short descriptions of the essays in the book, Rozwenc wrote that W. E. B. Du Bois’ essay was “written with intensity of racial feeling” [p. vii] while he doesn’t say the other essays, rife with racist viewpoints, were written with any racial feeling.

Woodrow Wilson’s essay is titled, “The Reconstruction of the Southern States.” In it, he writes, “There was one very serious and radical objection to Mr. Lincoln’s plan for restoring the states, which would in all likelihood have forced even him to modify it in many essential particulars, if not to abandon it altogether. … The main difficulty was that it did not meet the wishes of the congressional leaders with regard to the protection of the negroes in their new rights as freemen. The men whom Mr. Lincoln had called upon to reorganize the state governments of the South were, indeed, those who were readiest to accept the results of the war, in respect of the abolition of slavery as well as in all other matters. No doubt they were in the beginning men who had never felt any strong belief in the right of secession–men who had even withstood the purpose of secession as long as they could, and had wished all along to see the old Union restored. They were a minority now, and it might be pretty safely assumed that they had been a minority from the outset in all this fatal business. But they were white men, bred to all the opinions which necessarily went along with the existence and practice of slavery. They would certainly not wish to give the negroes political rights. They might be counted on, on the contrary, to keep them still as much as possible under restraint and tutelage.” [p. 4] With Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson took over the presidency. “Throughout 1865 Mr. Johnson pushed the presidential process of reconstruction successfully and rapidly forward. Provisional governors of his own appointment in the South saw to it that conventions were elected by the voters who had taken the oath prescribed in the amnesty proclamation, which Mr. Johnson had reissued, with little change either of form or of substance; those conventions proceeded at once to revise the state constitutions under the supervision of the provisional governors, who in their turn acted now and again under direct telegraphic instructions from the President in Washington; the several ordinances of secession were repealed, teh war debts of the states were repudiated, and the legislatures set up under the new constitutions hastened to accept and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, as the President demanded. By December of the very year of his inauguration, every southern state except Florida and Texas had gone through the required process, and was once more so far as the President was concerned, in its normal relations with the federal government. The federal courts resumed their sessions in the restored states, and the Supreme Court called up the southern cases from its docket.” [p. 4] Wilson also writes, “An extraordinary and very perilous state of affairs had been created in the South by the sudden and absolute emancipation of the negroes, and it was not strange that the southern legislatures should deem it necessary to take extraordinary steps to guard against the manifest and pressing dangers which it entailed. Here was a vast ‘laboring, landless, homeless class,’ once slaves, now free; unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control; never sobered by the discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence; excited by a freedom they did not understand, exalted by false hopes; bewildered and without leaders, and yet insolent and aggressive; sick of work, covetous of pleasure–a host of dusky children untimely put out of school. In some of the states they outnumbered the whites–notably in Mississippi and South Carolina. They were a danger to themselves as well as to those whom they had once served, and now feared and suspected; and the very legislatures which had accepted the Thirteenth Amendment hastened to pass laws which should put them under new restraints.” [p. 5] And the editor doesn’t think this was written with “an intensity of racial feeling?” We can see all the racist assumptions inherent in Wilson’s position here. Ignoring the beginnings of the terrorist violence and after defending the black codes as being necessary, Wilson writes, “The negroes, at any rate, had the full advantage of the federal power. A very active and officious branch of the War Department saw to it that the new disabilities which the southern legislatures sought to put upon them should as far as possible be rendered inoperative. That, however, did not suffice to sweeten the temper of Congress. The fact remained that Mr. Johnson had rehabilitated the governments of the southern states without asking the leave of the houses; that the legislatures which he had authorized them to call together had sought, in the very same sessions in which they gave their assent to the emancipating amendment, virtually to undo the work of emancipation, substituting a slavery of legal restraints and disabilities for a slavery of private ownership; and that these same legislatures had sent men to Washington, to seek admission to the Senate, who were known, many of them, still openly to avow their unshaken belief in the right of secession. … Congress, accordingly, determined to take matters into its own hands. With the southern representatives excluded, there was a Republican majority in both houses strong enough to do what it pleased, even to the overriding, if necessary, of the President’s vetoes. Upon assembling for their regular session in December, 1865, therefore, the House and Senate at once set up, by concurrent resolution, a joint committee of nine Representatives and six Senators, which was instructed to inquire into all the conditions obtaining in the southern states, and, after sufficient inquiry, advise the houses upon the question whether, under the governments which Mr. Johnson had given them, those states were entitled to representation. … By February, 1866, it had virtually been settled that the admission of their representatives to Congress should await the action of the reconstruction committee; and that purpose was very consistently adhered to. An exception was made in the case of Tennessee, but in her case only. The houses presently agreed to be satisfied with her ‘reconstruction,’ and admitted her representatives to their seats in both House and Senate by an act of the 24th of July, 1865. But  the other states were put off until the joint committee had forced them through a process of ‘Thorough,’ which began their reconstruction at the very beginning, again, and executed at every stage the methods preferred by the houses.” [pp. 6-7] Showing his virulent racism and his lack of credibility, Wilson’s essay ends with, “The first practical result of reconstruction under the acts of 1867 was the disfranchisement, for several weary years, of the better whites, and the consequent giving over of the southern governments into the hands of the negroes. And yet not into their hands, after all. They were but children still; and unscrupulous men, ‘carpetbaggers’–men not come to be citizens, but come upon an expedition of profit, come to make the name of Republican forever hateful in the South,–came out of the North to use the negroes as tools for their own selfish ends; and succeeded, to the utmost fulfillment of their dreams. negro majorities for a little while filled the southern legislatures; but they won no power or profit for themselves, beyond a pittance here and there for a bribe. Their leaders, strangers and adventurers, got the lucrative offices, the handling of the state moneys raised by loan, and of the taxes spent no one knew how. Here and there an able and upright man cleansed administration, checked corruption, served them as a real friend and an honest leader; but not for long. The negroes were exalted; the states were misgoverned and looted in their name; and a few men, not of their number, not really of their interest, went away with the gains. they were left to carry the discredit and reap the consequences of ruin, when at last the whites who were real citizens got control again.” [pp. 10-11]

James G. Randall’s essay is called, “Reconstruction Debacle.” It’s hard to believe, but I found this one even worse than Woodrow Wilson’s essay. Randall starts, “For the seceded states the Grant period constituted the darkest days of ‘reconstruction.’ Coming south after the war to make money and seize political power, the Northern ‘carpetbagger’ became the dominant figure in Southern politics for a decade. In collusion with the carpetbaggers were the ‘scalawags,’ native whites in the South who took advantage of the chance for aggrandizement which the postwar regime offered. Southern as they were, familiar with Negro characteristics and unembarrassed by the extravagance and gaucherie of the carpetbaggers, they obtained control of numerous offices and became a power in local politics. Aided by a system which gave the vote to the Negro while it disfranchised the more substantial element among the whites, these political adventurers improved upon the system and added extra-legal touches of their own. Elections in the South became a byword and a travesty. Ignorant blacks by the thousands cast ballots without knowing even the names of the men for whom they were voting. Southern communities in their political, social, and economic interests were subjected to the misguided actions of these irresponsible creatures directed by white bosses.” [p. 11]

Randall also disparages the Union League. “By 1867 the Union League had become strongly intrenched in the South; and it proved an effective instrument in the organization of the Radical Republican party among the blacks. … Ritual, ceremony, high-flown phrases about freedom and equal rights, sententious references to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, accompanied by song, prayer, and oratory, had a compelling effect upon Negro emotions, while the black man’s instinctive dependence upon whites made conquest easy; so that the sanctimonious League functioned with remarkable success in capturing and delivering the Negro vote. The Leagues ‘voted the Negroes like ‘herds of senseless cattle’ ‘ is the statement of competent observers.” [p. 12] Notice the blatant racism involved which Randall simply accepts in a matter-of-fact manner. He’s not finished. “Supported by the Grant administration and fortified by military power, the Radical Republican state machines plunged the Southern commonwealths into an abyss of misgovernment. … Southern legislatures were composed largely, sometimes predominantly, of Negroes. J. S. Pike, in a passage that has become classic, described the dense Negro crowd, which, amid clamor and disorder, did the debating, squabbling, and lawmaking in South Carolina. Speaker, clerk, doorkeepers, pages, and chaplain were black. No one talked more than five minutes, said Pike, without interruption. Their ‘bellowings and physical contortions’ baffled description. It seemed to him barbarism overwhelming civilization with physical force; yet there was a curious earnestness about it all. In the confusion and uproar, with guffaws greeting the speaker as he rapped for order, the uncouth lawmakers were taking themselves seriously. … Some of the justices put into office by the Radicals could not write. According to a report of conditions in Mississippi, where the Ames Republicans controlled the Negro vote and used it ‘as a solid mass,’ the legislature contained Negroes who could neither read nor write, members of grand juries were ‘totally illiterate,’ and the Republicans nominated as mayor of Vicksburg a man who was under indictment for twenty-three offenses.” [p. 13] Randall’s essay is filled with this same vitriol instead of objective history. It’s no wonder most Americans don’t have the foggiest notion about Reconstruction.

The next essay is by Roger W. Shugg and is titled, “Class and Race Strife in Louisiana.” It’s just as bad as its predecessors. “The [Louisiana] Constitution of 1868 nevertheless gave the Negro many nominal advantages, several of which actually worked to his disadvantage. Although he had but recently emerged from a servile condition of enforced ignorance, and was on the whole illiterate, he was granted the right to vote and to hold any office in the state. These dubious privileges only made him the tool of others until he became intelligent enough to have a will and understanding of his own. For the convention it was enough to open all public schools to freedmen, though five delegates warned their colleagues that to mix the races in this way and to waive all color discrimination would be to wreck the educational system. No less disastrous for the immediate future of the negro was the convention’s unqualified declaration of social equality, which aroused greater resentment among white people than colored suffrage.” [p. 18] Notice how there’s no problem if illiterate whites were to vote or hold office, but there’s a huge problem if allegedly illiterate African-Americans voted or held office. According to Shugg, “The power to make laws was ostensibly reposed with a colored majority, for seats in both houses were allotted according to total population. This revival of the 1852 basis of representation was bitterly resented by white people, because the colored were no longer merely counted but actually allowed to vote and represent themselves. Although the black belt possessed no more legislative seats than before the war, the majority of Negroes in this region, and not a minority of white planters, were now in a position to control legislation. This obliteration of the color line which had previously determined who should constitute a majority in the state led to a fierce struggle between blacks and whites. Peace was to be restored only with the triumph of white supremacy in 1877. For nine years previous to this date, however, Louisiana was in the grip of carpetbag government. Its political structure, based on the Constitution of 1868, was strong because it centralized ‘imperial power in the governor’s hands.’ ” [p. 19] This makes it sound as though the violence was equal on all sides. It wasn’t. It was heavily weighted on the side of the white supremacist terrorist groups. Shugg tells us, “Carpetbag rule was eventually caught in two dilemmas, and its failure to solve them provoked violent opposition which led ultimately to its downfall. First was the fact that its electoral majorities consisted of colored votes: without support of the Negro at the polls, radicals could not obtain office; but to rely on the ballots of one race, and that the weaker, was to united the other and stronger race in implacable hostility; and the Negro would prove to be unreliable in the face of such enemies, because whatever his political allegiance, his economic necessities bound him to the white planter. Second was the no less important fact that carpetbag government fed on corruption; since radicals lacked the confidence of business or white citizens, and depended on the protection of the Federal army for their precarious tenure of power, they could not draw their party funds and individual perquisites from the economic development of the state.” [p. 21] Shugg ignores the fact that Reconstruction governments were no more corrupt than previous or subsequent governments.

In his essay titled, “Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama,” Walter L. Fleming writes, “After the war it was certain that taxation would be higher and expenditure greater, both on account of the ruin caused by the war that now had to be repaired, and because several hundred thousand negroes had been added to the civic population. Before the war the negro was no expense to the state and county treasuries; his misdemeanors were punished by his master. Yet neither the ruined court-houses, jails, bridges, roads, etc., nor the criminal negroes can account for the taxation and expenditure under the carpet-bag regime.” [p. 24] Notice the racism in assuming African-Americans were all criminals and had always committed crime and would always commit crimes. The rest of the article is more of the same and ignores the free education provided by Reconstruction governments, which of course would lead to increased taxes.

Horace Mann Bond, in his essay, “Social and Economic Forces in Alabama Reconstruction,” writes, “The story of Reconstruction in Alabama, more than a twice-told tale, has become a commonly accepted pattern for the historical description of the South. In the definitive work of Walter Lynwood Fleming, the central figures and facts are set forth with a conviction, and documentation, that for thirty years has closed the subject to further investigation. The central figure in this stereotype are the shiftless, poor white scalawags; the greedy carpetbaggers; the ignorant, deluded, sometimes vicious Negroes; and the noble, courageous and chivalrous Southrons who fought and won the battle for White Supremacy. The accepted facts are: the imposition of a corrupt carpetbagger-Negro regime on a proud State; the accumulation of a debt of $25,503,593; the final victory of Honesty; and the shouldering of this immense debt by a war-ridden, despoiled people who toiled for generations under the incubus of fearful interest payments. We enjoy, today, an advantage in perspective over Fleming, who was himself the son of a planter partially ruined by the War, and whose thesis, in some degree, was the expression of a class-attitude affected by the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction, thinking in terms of ethical evaluations, and seeking as even historians will, to fix blame. It is pertinent to remember that Fleming wrote, and published, less than thirty years after the occurrence of the events he described. Bond’s essay is far more fact-based and more objective than the previous essays. It’s packed with economic data regarding Alabama in Reconstruction. He tells us, “It is strange that but little attention has been given to the effect of the Panic of 1873 upon the course of Reconstruction in the South. The failure of Jay Cooke removed from the scene, not only a heavy investor in Southern railroads, but also an ‘angel’ of the Republican party in the section; and left supreme in the field of these investments the combined forces of the Drexels and the rising Junius S. Morgan. While these circumstances may be of speculative interest here, they are worthy of study.” [p. 41] Bond tells us, “The election of 1874 determined the fate of the Republican Party in Alabama. George Houston, poetically represented in Democratic literature and in Fleming’s account as ‘The Bald Eagle of the Mountains,’ and as the defender of ‘White Supremacy,’ was elected by a large majority. neither the campaign literature nor Fleming referred to his close cooperation and participation in the Sloss and L. & N. enterprises. Almost too innocently, Fleming states that: ‘The campaign fund was the largest in the history of the State; every man who was able, and many who were not, contributed; assistance also came from Northern Democrats, and Northern Capitalists who had investments in the South or who owned part of the legal bonds of the State.’ As the ‘legality’ of the bonds had not been determined at the time when these gentlemen made their contributions, the discrimination seems doubtful. Obviously the ‘Northern capitalists’ who contributed to the Democratic fund did so in the hope that with Democratic victory the bonds they owned would be declared legal by the new government.” [pp. 42-43] Regarding effects on education, Bond writes, “[Edgar W.] Knight states that one of the reasons for the backwardness of Alabama in education was the fact that ‘upon Alabama was heaped a debt of $18,000,000.’ [Ellwood P.] Cubberly states, similarly, that the Reconstruction government caused backwardness in the schools through ‘wasting of resources.’ These statements may be seen to be exaggerated and incorrect, especially when they lay blame for immense ‘debts’ upon ‘Negro,’ ‘Republican’ regimes in Alabama. There was no ‘Negro’ government; no such debts were left after Reconstruction; and what debts were created resulted from the activities of various capitalists working through both Republican and Democratic Party channels. The debt settlement of 1876 left the residual obligations of the State Government, including both bonded debt and the various trust funds for which the State was responsible, at approximately $12,000,000. It has been shown, above, that these same obligations in 1868, when the Reconstruction government took control, amounted approximately to $9,500,000. What is true is that in the negotiations leading up to the refunding of the debt, the holders of various State obligations drove a hard bargain with the Debt Commission regarding future tax policy. The Constitutional Convention of 1875 was in session while the debt negotiations were being held, and the articles adopted on taxation and finance were dictated by the arrangement with the bondholders. Considering their financial affiliations, it can be readily imagined that Governor Houston and his fellow-committeemen were all too eager to comply.” [p. 48]

With “The Negro in Mississippi Politics,” Vernon Lane Wharton continues the movement toward more fact-based, less vitriolic essays. He tells us that by the terms of the state’s constitution, the governor appointed civil servants to various local offices. “The Governor, J. L. Alcorn, as an old and relatively conservative citizen of the state, made appointments that at least were up to the usual standard for such officials. In some caes, the entire county lists were made up of Democrats or old Whigs. Alcorn’s selections for the judiciary were made up almost entirely of leading members of the state bar. Altogether, the total of his appointments included 247 Republicans, 217 Democrats, and seventy-two members of other opposition groups. So far as possible, Alcorn avoided the appointment of Negroes. It appears that no member of that race except Robert H. Wood of Natchez was made mayor of any town. With the possible exception of Coffeeville and Greenville, no town had a Negro majority on its board of aldermen. Even after the election of 1871, a Negro majority in a municipal government seems to have been unknown. The city of Jackson, with a powerful Republican machine that maintained its control for thirteen years after the overthrow of the party in the state, only once had more than one Negro on its city council of six members. The one exception followed the election of 1874, when two Negroes became aldermen. In Natchez, where the Negroes held an enormous majority they placed only three members on a council of seven. Efforts of the Negro majority to gain control of the board in Vicksburg in 1874 lost the support of the white members of their party, and with it the election. The chief complaint against the participation of the freedmen in the government of the towns grew out of their appointment as policemen. The presence of such officials helped to bring on the Meridian riot in 1871, and furnished the central theme of the attack on the Republican government in Jackson. The general attitude of the whites as expressed by Ethelbert Barksdale, was that ‘negroes ought not to be put in a position to discharge constabulary functions which it is proper for white men to exercise.’ Law enforcement implied domination, and as Barksdale said, the white race was ‘not in the habit of being dominated by the colored race.’ ” [pp. 51-52] After going over the level of African-American participation at various levels of government throughout the state, Wharton tells us, “Thus, in a state which held a large negro majority, members of that race made up less than two-sevenths of the total membership of the house, and less than three-eighths of the the Republican majority. Their representation in the senate was even smaller.” [p. 56] In concluding his essay, he tells us, “Altogether, as governments go, that supplied by the Negro and white Republicans in Mississippi between 1870 and 1876 was not a bad government. Never, in state, counties, or towns, did the Negroes hold office in proportion to their numbers, although their demands in this direction were undeniably increasing. The Negroes who held county offices were often ignorant, but under the control of white Democrats or Republicans they supplied a form of government which differed little from that in counties where they held no offices. The three who represented the state in the national Congress were above reproach. Those in the legislature sought no special advantages for their race, and in one of their very first acts they petitioned Congress to remove all political disabilities from the whites. With their white Republican colleagues, they gave to the state a government of greatly expanded functions at a cost that was low in comparison with that of almost any other state. The legislature of 1875 reduced that cost to some extent, and opened the way for further reductions by the passage of constitutional amendments. It also removed some of the apparent injustices in the system of taxation. But one situation it did not alter. The Republican party had come to be branded as a party of Negroes, and it was apparent that the Negroes were more  and more determined to assert their right to control that party. It is also true that many of the Negroes, probably a majority, favored a further expansion of the functions of the state, entirely at the expense, according to the whites, of white tax-payers. The way was open for the formation of a ‘white-line’ party.” [p. 62]

In “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” W.E.B. DuBois quotes John W. Burgess of Columbia University from Burgess’ book, Reconstruction and the Constitution: “A great political scientist in one of the oldest and largest of American universities wrote and taught thousands of youths and readers that ‘There is no question, now, that Congress did a monstrous thing, and committed a great political error, if not a sin, in the creation of this new electorate. It was a great wrong to civilization to put the white race of the South under the domination of the Negro race. The claim that there is nothing in the color of the skin from the point of view of political ethics is a great sophism. A black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason; has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.’ ” [pp. 62-63] He then tells us, “Here is the crux of all national discussion and study of Reconstruction. The problem is incontinently put beyond investigation and historic proof by the dictum of Judge Taney, Andrew Johnson, John Burgess and their confreres, that Negroes are not men and cannot be treated as such. The student who would test this dictum by facts is faced by this set barrier. The whole history of Reconstruction has with few exceptions been written by passionate believers in the inferiority of the Negro. The whole body of facts concerning what the Negro actually said and did, how he worked, what he wanted, for whom he voted, is masked in such a cloud of charges, exaggeration and biased testimony, that most students have given up all attempt at new material or new evaluation of the old, and simply repeated perfunctorily all the current legends of black buffoons in legislature, golden spittoons for fieldhands, bribery and extravagance on an unheard-of scale, and the collapse of civilization until an outraged nation rose in wrath and ended the ridiculous travesty.” [p. 63] He nailed it perfectly there. He tells us, “And yet there are certain quite well-known facts that are irreconcilable with this theory of history. Civilization did not collapse in the South in 1868-1876. The charge of industrial anarchy is faced by the fact that the cotton crop had recovered by 1870, five years after the war, and by 1876 the agricultural and even commercial and industrial rebirth of the South was in sight. The public debt was large; but measured in depreciated currency and estimated with regard to war losses, and the enlarged functions of a new society, it was not excessive. The legislation of this period was not bad, as is proven by the fact that it was retained for long periods after 1876, and much of it still stands.” [p. 63] DuBois dispels much of the racist mythology that grew up around Reconstruction. Regarding South Carolina’s constitutional convention and its resulting constitution, he writes, “Discriminations of race and color were abolished by the constitution, and practical application was attempted in the case of the public schools, and the militia. The convention framed the most liberal provisions for the right of suffrage that any of the Southern constitutions provided. They did not attempt, as in Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi, to restrict the voting of whites further than was provided by the Reconstruction acts. Indeed, Whipper, a colored delegate, wished to petition Congress  to remove all political disabilities from the white citizens. … the motion was passed. … Of course, they made no distinction in race and color. The rights of women were enlarged. The property of married women could not be sold for their husbands’ debts, and for the first time in its history, the state was given a divorce law. Education was discussed at length, and a free common school system voted for.” [pp. 72-73]

Francis B. Simkins wrote the penultimate essay, titled “New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction.” He starts by surveying some Reconstruction historiography. “Conservative scholars have described the follies and rascalities of Negro politicians and their Carpetbagger friends so as to make the reader thankful that such knavery cannot be repeated in his time. Less scrupulous writers have so effectively correlated the events of Reconstruction with those of their own times that their books have been best sellers. The outstanding example of this is Claude Bowers’ Tragic Era, in which an attack upon the Republican enemies of Alfred E. Smith in 1928 is veiled behind attacks upon the Republican leaders of 1868, 1872, and 1876. At least one novelist has so effectively connected certain lurid aspects of Reconstruction with the race prejudices prevailing in the South in his times that the situations he described have become a part of the Southern folk beliefs. The Ku Klux Klan is used as either a glamorous or sinister symbol for the arousal of issues of race, religion, and patriotism in which all Americans, radicals and reactionaries, Negro lovers and Negro haters, are vitally and perennially concerned. … A biased interpretation of Reconstruction caused one of the most important political developments in the recent history of the South, the disfranchisement of the blacks. The fraud and violence by which this objective was first obtained was justified on a single ground: the memory of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction. Later, amid a flood of oratory concerned with this memory, the white rulers of the South, in constitutional conventions of the 1890’s and 1900’s, devised legal means to eliminate the Negro vote.” [pp. 84-85] Simkins tells us, “The capital blunder of the chronicler of Reconstruction is to treat that period like Carlyle’s portrayal of the French Revolution, as a melodrama involving wild-eyed conspirators whose acts are best described in red flashes upon a canvas. Such a treatment creates the impression that Southern society was frenzied by misery. This is at best the picturesque pageantry of the artist; at worst, the cheap sensationalism of the journalist or the scenario writer. At all odds it is woefully one-sided and unhistorical. Of course the South during Reconstruction, like France during the Revolution, had its prophets of despair, its fanatical idealists, its unprincipled knaves. Luckily the behavior of these damned souls is not the whole story of Reconstruction, but merely a partial recording of the political aspects of the era.” [p. 85] In discussing some of the falsehoods published about Reconstruction, Simkins writes, “One of the accepted conventions of Reconstruction scholars is that Carpetbaggers failed because their measures were excessively radical. We have often been told how the Four Million were suddenly hurled from slavery into freedom; how black barbarians were forced to attempt the roles of New England gentlemen; how seven hundred thousand of these illiterates were given the vote and the privilege of office-holding. But were these measures genuine radicalism, actual uprootings which inevitably led to fundamental changes in Southern society? The answer is that they were scarcely more than artificial or superimposed remedies from the outside which in no real sense struck at the roots of Southern life. A truly radical program would have called for the confiscation of land for the freedmen. Land was the principal form of Southern wealth, the only effective weapon with which the ex-slaves could have battled for economic competence and social equality. But the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the direction of land endowments for its wards were fitful and abortive.” [p. 88] He writes, “Several generations of historians have asserted that the Reconstruction governments were so grievously corrupt and extravagant that they checked all efforts at material rehabilitation. There was, of course, corruption and waste–expensive spittoons, thousand dollar bribes, fraudulent bonds, and so on. But the actual financial burdens of government which tolerated such acts have been exaggerated. Their expenditures seem small when compared with the budgets of twentieth-century states and extravagant only against the parsimony of the governments immediately preceding and following. The extravagant bond issues of the Reconstruction governments were not an immediate burden upon contemporaries and afflicted subsequent generations only to the extent to which they were not repudiated.” [p. 89] He continues, “It seems that the worst crime of which they have been adjudged guilty was the violation of the American caste system. The crime of crimes was to encourage Negroes in voting, officeholding, and other functions of social equality. This supposedly criminal encouragement of the Negro is execrated ever more savagely as with the passing years race prejudices continue to mount. … Attempts to make the Reconstruction governments reputable and honest have been treated with scorn, and the efforts of Negroes to approach the white man’s standards of civilization are adjudged more reprehensible than the behavior of the more ignorant and corrupt. Social equality and negroism have not a chance to be respectable. Such views logically grow out of the conviction that the Negro belongs to an innately inferior race and is therefore incapable by his very nature of exercising with sagacity the higher attributes of civilization.” [pp. 89-90]

Coming as it does at the end of the pamphlet, E. Merton Coulter’s essay, “Blackout of Honest Government” is a regression back to the older racism of the previous authors. He repeats the same discredited claims. He blames African-Americans for violence during Reconstruction instead of the white supremacist terrorist groups who started and engaged in the vast majority of the violence, and he even defends the KKK, claiming they were “called into existence by violence.” [p. 104] His essay has absolutely no credibility whatsoever.

If you’re a student of Reconstruction historiography and are interested in several different interpretations of Reconstruction, you may find this pamphlet useful. If, however, you’re looking to understand Reconstruction and want reliable information, the few essays here that provide that information are not worth the time and effort to acquire the book and go through it.

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2 comments

  1. Pat Young · · Reply

    Thanks Al. I am hoping to get some discussion of the historiography of Reconstruction going over at CWT and this was useful.

    1. Glad to hear, Pat. More is on the way.

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