Reconstruction: A Tragic Era?

This is another pamphlet collecting a series of essays showing the development of Reconstruction historiography. This one, edited by Seth M. Scheiner, was published in 1968 as part of Holt, Rinehart and Winston’s “American Problem Studies” series. It’s divided into three sections: “The Presidential-Congressional Contest for Leadership,” with five essays, “Congressional Reconstruction,” with five essays, and “The Aftermath of Reconstruction,” with four essays. Editor Scheiner explains, “Historians have generally divided Reconstruction into three periods, but they have disagreed on the wisdom of the proposals, the motives of individuals, the tactics employed, and the effect of policies pursued in each phase. The first phase deals with the disagreement between Congress and Abraham Lincoln, and then Andrew Johnson, over the procedure by which the southern states should be reconstructed. Congressional opposition to Lincoln’s plan for the speedy and lenient readmission of the southern states marked the opening of the struggle over who should take the lead in reconstructing the South. After the assassination of Lincoln, the legislative-executive battle continued during the administration of Andrew Johnson. Congress emerged from the conflict victorious. It passed over Johnson’s veto the Civil Rights Bill, the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, and the Reconstruction bills, which placed the southern states under military rule until they adopted constitutions acceptable to Congress. … Reconstruction entered its second phase with the passage of the Reconstruction acts in 1867. Congress now put its program into operation. Southern governments established under Congressional Reconstruction–called Radical because of the alleged relation of these governments to the Radical Republicans–varied in duration from three years in two states to ten years in three. … While the final period–from 1877 until about the turn of the twentieth century–falls outside the limits of Reconstruction, it is crucially related to any discussion of the era. What transpired in the aftermath of Reconstruction is a measure of the success or the failure of the era itself. The alleged weaknesses of the Reconstruction settlement are often held responsible for the collapse of the Republican party in the southern states and the Negro’s decline in status after President Rutherford B. Hayes removed the last of the troops from the South–the so-called Compromise of 1877.” [pp. 1-2]

In “Presidential and Congressional Failure,” an excerpt from his book, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, Volume VI, James Ford Rhodes says, “When Andre Johnson became President he endeavored to reconstruct the shattered Union substantially on the lines which Lincoln had laid down. He imposed three conditions on the late Confederate States which they must comply with before they should be entitled to representation in Congress. These were, the repeal of their ordinances of Secession, the abolition of slavery by their conventions and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment by their legislatures, and the entire repudiation of their State debts incurred in the prosecution of the War. These conditions were with slight exceptions complied with and, on the assembling of Congress in December 1865, it seemed to Johnson that the senators and representatives elect from the Southern States ought to be admitted to their seats in the Senate and the House. It was evident, however, from the beginning that Congress proposed to have a hand in this important work and through a Joint Committee on Reconstruction and the Committees on the Judiciary they constructed a policy of their own imposing still other conditions on the Southern States. They passed a law conferring full civil rights on the negro and widened the scope of the Freedmen’s Bureau which had been established before the death of Lincoln. They adopted the Fourteenth Amendment and required of the Southern States its ratification before they should be restored to their old place in the Union.” [pp. 9-10] According to Rhodes, “Most revolutions go too far and so did ours, but it undoubtedly would not have done so had not Lincoln been killed. Three men are responsible for the Congressional policy of reconstruction: Andrew Johnson by his obstinacy and bad behavior; Thaddeus Stevens by his vindictiveness and parliamentary tyranny; Charles Sumner by his pertinacity in a misguided humanitarianism. Emerson’s words tell the story. ‘They mix the fire of moral sentiment with personal and party heats, with measureless exaggerations and the blindness that prefers some darling measure to justice and truth.’ ” [p. 12]

An excerpt from his 1930 book, The Critical Year: A Study of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction is Howard K. Beale’s contribution, titled, “An Economic Interpretation.” In Beale’s view, “In any campaign the issues which the politicians raise and questions which actually interest the public are apt to be confused. In 1866 they were inextricably entangled. Postwar excitement, dormant bitterness, and fear provided the Radicals with excellent raw material for a campaign of hysteria; hence most political speeches were largely claptrap. For the issues one must seek further. Important issues there were. But most of them were avoided because the Radicals regarded them as dangerous to their cause, and the Conservatives thought it futile to push them until the states were all back in the Union. On some questions opinion was hopelessly divided in both Radical and Conservative camps. The Radical campaign was waged to keep in power the party that had carried on the War and was still in the saddle in 1866. Conservatives sought to restore the Union in order to end the Radical monopoly of power and throw the government open to free competition of interests and sections, realizing full well that a return of the South would greatly improve their own chances of controlling the government.” [p. 13] Since the Radical Republicans had no monopoly of power in 1866, Beale’s statement itself is largely claptrap. He claims, “Most historians and thoughtful public men now condemn the Radical program of reconstruction. Yet it was adopted. These men differ in analyzing the causes underlying the failure of the Johnson policy, but they generally agree in assigning as chief among them the unreasonable conduct of the South and the stubbornness and stupidity of Johnson. While they condemn the man, many have come to regard Johnson’s policy as the most statesmanlike of any. Some of his bitterest enemies lived to acknowledge this. Yet it failed.” [p. 14] Beale, of course, is writing this in a time when many historians accepted the view that African-Americans were inherently inferior, and any policy that intended equal rights for them was wrong-headed. Beale shows where his sympathies lie clearly: “While resentment against Copperheads was most violent in the West and border East, bitterness toward the South was cooling rapidly in non-abolitionist circles and, let alone, would gradually have died out. Abolitionists, however, had embraced as part of their creed belief in Southern wickedness, expressed in their definition of the Constitution as ‘a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.’ Many New England teachers and preachers throughout the North continued with all sincerity to paint Southerners as disciples of the devil. Those who held this view of the South, opposed its return to participation in government. To many, abolitionism had become a religion which made it a God-given duty, now that the slaves were free, to elevate them to civil and political equality with the white man. Many such ‘[N-word]heads’ knew nothing of the Southern negro, but they devoutly believed in their own theories; others of them actually worked with the negroes as missionaries and teachers, but like many reformers were blinded to practical difficulties by t heir own enthusiasm.” [p. 14] Beale’s virulent racism is affecting the way he’s viewing Reconstruction. Beale claims, “Many Northerners honestly saw in the Black Codes a Southern attempt to reenslave the black; others were interested in the negro chiefly because his vote would be a Republican one, and would counteract that of his white neighbor. But a considerable group dreaded the return of Southerners to power not because they feared disaster to the nation, but because they foresaw in it injury to themselves, their section, or their class.” [p. 15] This is Beale’s political argument. “Sheer love of power made many men hesitate before voluntarily relinquishing it by allowing Southerners to return to Congress. To politicians, whose chief function is to elect themselves and members of their party to office, retention of control seemed a sufficient cause for Radicalism, but this motive could not be publicly avowed.” [p. 15] So he’s reading their minds, since he admits there was nothing they said to substantiate this claim. We now get to his economic argument. “For years before the War, the Northeast had been unable to get protection for industry. Then during the Civil War high taxes on industry had made necessary a high tariff, and, with the South out of the way and the North rather evenly divided, protectionists had managed to make the tariffs more than cover the taxes they supposedly offset. If the South were readmitted before this high tariff was permanently established, the protectionists would be overwhelmed.” [p. 15] He doesn’t say how any tariff could be permanently established. It sounds like claptrap because any tariff could be repealed or changed by a subsequent Congress at any time. Beale continues, “Bondholders throughout the country feared, and were encouraged to fear, a repudiation of the debt through a return of Southern representatives. The South was traditionally opposed to national banks; hence, Eastern bankers and supporters of the new national banking system dreaded to see the South return.” [p. 15] The lack of logic here is palpable, since if this argument was true, then southern states could never be allowed to have representatives and senators back in Washington, something nobody thought would happen. Even allowing for black votes, no party is ever permanently in power. Beale further claims, “Hard money men, deflationists, business men who wished federal protection in the extension of their business into what they feared would be an inhospitable South, land speculators who sought confiscated lands, and new corporations that feared government regulation or sought government aid, shared this dread. The growing capital-owning group of the Northeast, then, sought to keep the South out until through negro suffrage it could be brought again under Northern control. The agricultural and debtor classes, on the other hand, would have welcomed Southern aid in Washington.” [p. 15] Beale’s position was that the Radical Republican support for black rights “were pure shams.” [p. 17] He claims the actual goal was political and economic domination, a view that is contradicted by the actual facts of what the Radicals said and did. He himself admits he has no evidence to support his claims.

The next essay, Eric McKitrick’s “Andrew Johnson’s Failure as a Party Leader,” comes from McKitrick’s 1963 book, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. He tells us, “By May, 1865, Andrew Johnson had decided that the initial problems of reconstruction–of re-establishing civil governments in the rebellious states and preparing those states to resume their normal functions in the Union–might best be handled, not by calling a special session of Congress, but by a continued exercise of executive powers. His first major step was taken on May 29. On that day he issued two  proclamations, one of which laid down the terms whereby individual Southerners at large might obtain amnesty. This was done under the authority of the President’s pardoning power. In the other, which he issued in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he appointed a provisional governor for North Carolina and authorized him to establish a government there, thus setting postwar reconstruction on its way. He was shortly to issue similar proclamations for six other states. Lincoln himself had acted by proclamation at moments when he preferred, at least temporarily, not to be hampered by the more cumbersome process of acting jointly with Congress.” [p. 19] He tells us, “The amnesty policy, in addition to its general provisions, contained qualifications which guaranteed, at least in principle, that large categories of former participants in the rebellion would come under individual scrutiny before being granted full pardon. Nor did the other proclamation–the one for North Carolina, which was to serve there and elsewhere as the basis for presidential reconstruction–foreclose the possibility of reasonable guarantees and safeguards for the future loyalty of any state governments that might be set up in the South. Federal agencies were re-established there, and the provisional governor was instructed to appoint civil officers, state and local, giving preference to loyal people. A constitutional convention was to be called which would amend the state’s organic law in conformity with the results of the late conflict.” [p. 19] In his review of presidential reconstruction under Johnson, McKitrick says, “After the conventions had done their work–voiding the prewar ordinances of secession, abolishing slavery, and repudiating the rebel state debt–regular elections were held in the course of which were chosen state governors, state legislatures, and members of Congress. By late fall these legislatures had been organized and were in session. When a legislature had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, the President would as a rule retire the state’s provisional governor, and the elected governor would assume the full exercise of his duties. At this point–although Federal garrisons would not immediately be withdrawn–the former rebel states were, as far as the President was concerned, in full and legitimate operation. It was thus that by the end of 1865 all these states, with the exception of Texas, had been ‘reconstructed’ and were, in Johnson’s opinion, entitled once more to full rights of representation in the federal Congress.” [p. 20] There was a problem, though. “Some states would not nullify secession, but ‘repealed’ it; others would not abolish slavery straight out, but for the record’s sake simply acknowledged, in effect, its destruction by force of arms. Two of them–Mississippi and South Carolina–failed altogether to repudiate their Confederate debt before adjourning, which evoked agitated messages of remonstrance from the President. Mississippi actually refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment.” [pp. 20-21] In addition to some other problems McKitrick identifies, “By early winter two sets of developments had progressed enough to provide the North with a major focus for bitterness. One involved Southern intentions toward the masses of newly freed Negroes; the other had to do with the character of the men being elected to public office in the Southern sates. Legislation defining the rights of ‘persons of color’ was already under way in several of these states, and the ‘black code’ of Mississippi had been substantially completed. Though the Mississippi code guaranteed certain basic civil rights (to sue and be sued, to make contracts, and to acquire property), the severe restrictions which it placed upon landownership, labor arrangements, and testimony in the courts, together with its rigorous definitions of vagrancy, were widely denounced as a savage effort to fling the Negro back into that very state of slavery from which he had so recently been lifted. Similar codes in South Carolina and Louisiana would evoke similar anger, and those of other states would seem less severe only by contrast. … As for political rights in Congress, the Southern people apparently supposed that they were now entitled without qualification to all that they had once enjoyed. Their presumptions seemed all too clearly written in the records of the men they sent to represent them. Waiting to be seated, as the Thirty-ninth Congress assembled in December, were an inordinate number of Confederate military officers and former members of the Confederate Congress. Here was a bizarre dramatization of the serious difficulties now obstructing the speedy reconciliation which had been so widely assumed, earlier in the year, to be both possible and desirable.” [pp. 21-22] This is when the Republicans sought to take control of Reconstruction. The Clerk of the House, in calling the roll, omitted the names of the representatives from the former confederate states, and Congress formed a Joint Committee of Fifteen to decide member qualifications. “Thaddeus Stevens, its most energetic member, made it clear that his committee intended to make the most extensive and unhurried deliberations, not only upon membership, but also upon the entire question of reconstruction and the adequacy of the President’s policy.” [p. 22] Congress wrote legislation designed to protect the newly freed people and to seize control of Reconstruction. “The first of such measures was the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, originating in the Senate under the sponsorship of Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. By its terms the Freedmen’s Bureau–the federal agency most directly concerned with the affairs of displaced Negroes–was to have its jurisdiction widened, its powers strengthened, and its life extended. Another, the Civil Rights Bill, was an even more direct response to the ‘black codes’; it forbade discrimination between citizens on grounds of race or color and represented an effort to assert jurisdiction for the federal government over matters which, owing to the looseness of presidential policy, had been improperly allowed to pass by default to the recently rebellious states. It was mainly in connection with this legislation that any possibility of compromise was finally withdrawn. The President himself removed all remaining doubts by making the break open and explicit.” [p. 22] Johnson vetoed both the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill, and in doing so his messages were worded as assaults. McKitrick tells us that Johnson himself was responsible for the poor relationship that developed between Congress and himself.

“The Economic Interpretation Challenged” by Stanley Coben, comes from a 1959 article he published in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. He tells us, “A closer examination of the important economic legislation and congressional battles of the period, and of the attitudes of businessmen and influential business groups, reveals serious divisions on economic issues among Radical legislators and northeastern businessmen alike. Certainly neither business leaders nor Radicals were united in support of any specific set of economic aims. Considerable evidence also suggests that the divisions among businessmen often cut across sectional as well as industrial lines. Furthermore, evidence indicates that few northeastern business groups were interested in southern investments in the early postwar years, and that these few were hostile to Radical Reconstruction.” [pp. 29-30] Coben provides ample evidence that “The tariff split northeastern businessmen more than any other issue.” [p. 30] “Northeaster businessmen,” he tells us, “were thus far from united in support of high tariffs after the Civil War. Leading business interests of New England and New York believed that they lost more than they had gained from high postwar tariffs.” [p. 35] He tells us, “From evidence such as this, the reconstruction program of the Radicals cannot be explained as an organized attempt by the business interests of the Northeast either to preserve and promote their own economic advantages or to obtain protection for economic exploitation of the South. Actually, northeastern businessmen had no unified economic program to promote. Important business groups within the region opposed each other on almost every significant economic question, and this lack of a common interest was likewise reflected in the economic views of Radical congressmen. Thaddeus Stevens, for example, dominant Radical leader in the House, was a fervent protectionist and a proponent of paper money inflation; Charles Sumner, Senate Radical leader, spoke and voted for the lower tariff schedules and for resumption of specie payments. With both the businessmen and the legislators thus divided on economic issues, and with the New York merchants and financiers–who were in a position to gain most from economic exploitation of the South–definitely critical of the Radicals’ program, it seems clear that factors other than the economic interests of the Northeast must be used to explain the motivation and aims of Radical Reconstruction.” [pp. 35-36] This article definitely blasts Beale’s claims out of the water.

LaWanda and John Cox’s 1963 book, Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865-1866: Dilemma of Reconstruction America, provides their entry, “Civil Rights: The Issue of Reconstruction.” They tell us, “No oratory of Charles Sumner, no lash of Thaddeus Stevens’ tongue nor of his reputed political whip, could drive the Republican majority in Congress into sustained open warfare with the President. This accomplishment was Johnson’s alone. By refusing Presidential support to any program that would effectively secure equality before the law to the four million slaves whom the national government had made free, he fatally alienated the reasonable men who wished to act with him rather than against him. For some, the principle of equal status was decisive; for others, the prospect of repudiation by their Republican constituencies may have been sufficient reason. Johnson might have called for modified civil rights legislation or asked for a constitutional amendment to put beyond question the right of Congress to secure for the freedmen civil equality. He did neither. By giving countenance to the Democratic claim that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional, Johnson helped to destroy any possibility that the civil rights issue, as Senator [Edwin D.] Morgan had hoped, would be removed from the political arena.” [p. 37] The Coxes show the Republican concern with protecting the equal rights of the former slaves. “What had been taking place in the Republican party since the close of the civil conflict was a gradual metamorphosis, similar to the one that had taken place during the war. The war years transformed the Republicans, a political amalgam originally united on the principle of opposition to the extension of slavery, into a party committed to the destruction of slavery. This objective had been formally embodied in the party platform of 1864. The platform, however, had not included a plank supporting equal legal status for the freed slaves, despite the fact that such a plank was offered and considered. By the winter of 1865, Republicans generally had expanded their repudiation of slavery into a condemnation of legal discriminations which by then seemed to them the last vestiges of slavery. Important elements within the party held that the freedmen’s rights must include an equality of suffrage, but on this more advanced positions, Republicans were not yet agreed. They had, however, come to identify Republicanism with a defense of basic civil rights for the freed slave. … Thus what had once been an advanced, or ‘Radical,’ position within Republican ranks, by 1866 had become accepted and moderate. To most opponents of equal civil status, however, the principle still appeared ‘Radical.’ Herein lies one clue to the confusion in the use of the term ‘Radical’ which plagues any serious student of the period. The term is inescapable; yet a man labeled a ‘Radical’ by one set of contemporaries or historians is often found designated a ‘moderate’ by another group of contemporaries or historians.” [p. 41] “In other words,” they tell us, “many Radicals were moderate men. The Radical opponents of President Johnson were united in one demand–that of national protection for the freedmen. On other issues of Reconstruction they held widely divergent views.” [p. 42] We often hear wild claims that the Radicals were focused on “revenge” and “hatred of the South.” The Coxes demolish that red herring. “Nor were the Radicals distinguishable from the general run of Union men, as is often claimed, by vindictiveness toward the South or clamor for the heads of ‘traitors.’ Indeed, New York’s outstanding Radical leader, Horace Greeley, was a leading figure in the movement for amnesty and forgiveness. Henry Wilson, Radical senator from Massachusetts, wrote to Johnson in support of a plea for the parole of Clement C. Clay of Alabama. Even Thaddeus Stevens offered his services in the defense both of Clay and of Jefferson Davis. The feeling against Southern leaders of the rebellion, which found expression both in a stubborn indignation at the prospect of their speedy return to the halls of Congress and in an emotional demand for Jefferson Davis’ trial and conviction, cut across the division between pro-Johnson and anti-Johnson men.” [p. 42] They tell us, “The only common denominator that united the Radicals of 1866, and the only characteristic they shared which could logically justify the term radical, was their determination that the rebel South should not be reinstated into the Union until there were adequate guarantees that the slaves liberated by the nation should enjoy the rights of free men.” [p. 42] They also tell us the troubles Johnson faced were of his own making. “In refusing to accept the equal rights provisions of the Civil Rights Act or of the Fourteenth Amendment, Johnson won lasting gratitude from white Southerners to whom the concept of equality between the races was anathema, and this despite the ordeal of military government and immediate universal Negro suffrage which they in all likelihood would have been spared had Johnson’s course been different. But with this decision, the President lost the confidence and respect of moderate Republicans. … By standing adamant against a federally enforceable pledge of minimum civil equality for the Negro as a prerequisite to restoration of the secession states, Johnson precipitated a great issue of moral principle central to the battle over Reconstruction; and he brought upon himself an unparalleled humiliation.” [p. 45]

The book’s second section, “Congressional Reconstruction,” begins with “The Tragic Decade,” a selection from William A. Dunning’s 1907 book, Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877. Dunning’s influence has been pervasive and explains much of the misinformation Americans have about Reconstruction. He claims, “The registration of voters was so directed as to insure beyond all peradventure the fullest enrollment of the blacks and the completest exclusion of disfranchised whites. When the returns were all in it appeared that the negroes were in the majority in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the whites in Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas, while in Georgia the numbers were about equal. The first exercise by the newly enfranchised class of their high privilege was in the elections for the various constitutional conventions. In these elections, as in the registration, the military authorities assumed the duty of promoting in every way participation by the blacks, and of counteracting every influence tending to keep them from the polls. The result of the elections was a group of constituent assemblies whose unfitness for their task was pitiful. No one of them, indeed, lacked members of fair ability and creditable purpose; but the number of such members was small, and they were for the most part entirely out of touch with the intelligent and substantial classes of the population for whom they were framing a government. … but the mass of the delegates consisted of whites and blacks whose ignorance and inexperience in respect to political methods were equalled [sic] only by the crudeness and distortion of their ideas as to political and social ends.” [pp. 46-47] He also accuses the Reconstruction governments of incompetence. “The most conspicuous feature of maladministration was that of the finances. To the ambitious northern whites, inexperienced southern whites, and unintelligent blacks who controlled the first reconstructed governments, the grand end of their induction into power was to put their states promptly abreast of those which led in the prosperity and progress at the North. Things must be done, they believed, on a larger, freer, nobler scale than under the debased regime of slavery. Accordingly, both by the new constitutions and by legislation, the expenses of the governments were largely increased … The result of all this was promptly seen in an expansion of state debts and an increase of taxation that to the property-owning class were appalling and ruinous. And the fact which was of the first importance in the situation was that this class, which paid the taxes, was sharply divided politically from that which levied them, and was by the whole radical theory of the reconstruction to be indefinitely excluded from a determining voice in the government.” [p. 47] “In respect o the blacks,” he claimed, “the governments had now to assume many responsibilities which in slavery either pertained to the masters or had no existence. Thus the administration of criminal justice for the newly enfranchised citizens and the regulation of their family and property relations made an important increase of public expenditure inevitable.” [p. 47] Again we see the racist assumption that African-Americans were nothing but criminals and unable to care for themselves.

In a selection from his 1961 book, Reconstruction After the Civil War called “A Re-evaluation of Negro Participation,” John Hope Franklin tells us, “Out of a population of approximately four million, some 700,000 qualified as voters, but the most of them were without the qualifications to participate effectively in a democracy. In this they were not unlike the large number of Americans who were enfranchised during the age of Jackson or the large number of immigrants who were being voted in herds by political bosses in New York, Boston, and other American cities at this time. They were the first to admit their deficiencies.” [p. 51] He says, “Indeed, when they came out of slavery many Negroes did not know their own names; many did not even have family names. It goes without saying that a considerable number had not the vaguest notion of what registering and voting meant. None of this is surprising. It had been only two years since emancipation from a system that for more than two centures had denied slaves most rights as human beings. And it must be remembered that in these two years the former Confederates, in power all over the South, did nothing to promote the social and political education of the former slaves. What is surprising is that there were some–and no paltry number–who in 1867 were able to assume the responsibilities of citizens and leaders.” [p. 52] He then gives us some examples of African-American leaders of the time. “Among South Carolina’s Negro leaders was state treasurer Francis L. Cardozo, educated at Glasgow and London, who had been a minister in New Haven and, after the war, was principal of a Negro school in Charleston. Robert B. Elliott, born in Massachusetts, trained at Eton College in England, and elected to Congress in 1870, was urbane and articulate. J. J. Wright, a state supreme court justice, had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and had been a respected member of the Pennsylvania bar before moving to South Carolina after the war. Congressman James Rapier’s white father sent him to school in Canada, and when he returned to his native Alabama after the war he had not only an ample formal education but a world of experience gained from travel and work in the North. Florida’s secretary of state, Jonathan C. Gibbs, graduated from Dartmouth College and had been a Presbyterian minister for several years when reconstruction began. Among the Negro leaders of North Carolina James W. Hood, assistant superintendent of public instruction, and James H. Harris, an important figure in the 1868 constitutional convention, were educated, respectively, in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Many others, among them Henry M. Turner of the Georgia legislature, Hiram Revels, United States senator from Mississippi, and Richard H. Gleaves, member of Congress from South Carolina, had much more than the rudiments of a formal education when they entered upon their official duties. Significant among Negro leaders were those who were almost wholly self-educated. Robert Smalls of South Carolina pursued his studies diligently until he had mastered the rudiments. Later he went to the United States House of Representatives. In Mississippi, John Roy Lynch regularly took time off from his duties in a photographer’s studio to gaze across the alley into a white schoolroom, where he kept up with the class until he had mastered the courses taught there. When he became speaker of the Mississippi house and later a member of Congress, he relied on this earlier training. Before Jefferson Long went into Congress from Georgia, he had educated himself and had become a merchant tailor in Macon. There were numerous other self-educated Negro leaders, including John Carraway and Peyton Finley of Alabama, James O’Hara and A. H. Galloway of North Carolina, and James W. Bland and Lewis Lindsay of Virginia. From this educated element came the articulate, responsible Negroes who contributed substantially to the writing of the new constitutions and the establishment of the new governments in the former slave states. Most of the Negro leaders were ministers. A fair number taught school. Some were employees of the Freedmen’s Bureau or another federal agency. Here and there one found a Negro who had been trained in the law. There were, of course, farmers; and there were some artisans engaged in a variety of occupations. The economic interests and aspirations of the Negro leaders varied widely. It would be wrong to assume that they had no economic interests or that they had no views regarding the economic future of the South.” [pp. 52-53] Unlike what the Dunning School spewed, we find “One of the really remarkable features of the Negro leadership was the small amount of vindictiveness in their words and their actions. … The spirit of conciliation pervaded most of the public utterances the Negroes made. … Negroes generally wished to see political disabilities removed from the whites. … Negroes attempted no revolution in the social relations of the races in the South. … Nor did any considerable number of Negroes seek to effect an economic revolution in the South.” [pp. 53-54] Professor Franklin does a great service in correcting the misclaims of the Dunning School.

In “Carpetbagger Constitutional Reform in the South Atlantic States,” from his 1961 article in the Journal of Southern History of the same name, Jack B. Scroggs looks at the positive contributions the Radicals made in southern laws during Reconstruction. He writes, “Indeed, the primary aim of the carpetbagger group was the extension of political democracy, the assumption being that with complete political equality for all men Republican principles would prevail and the Southern Republican party would capture and retain control of the state governments. Demonstrating a lack of understanding of Southern society and politics, a great many of these leaders were struggling to impose constitutional changes on a reluctant South simply because they considered the changes long overdue.” [p. 59] He continues, “Liberal constitutional provisions embodying the ideal of democratic equalitarianism which had developed during the past half century formed the framework of the new instruments of government. Many of these provisions were copied from constitutions of Northern states, and the carpetbaggers, as one would expect, were generally foremost in their advocacy. The states with the most able carpetbagger leadership emerged with the most democratic and progressive constitutions, and, as able Northern leadership decreased, the liberality of the documents tended to decrease proportionally.” [pp. 59-60] Specifically, he tells us, “In all of the South Atlantic states the conventions incorporated into the new constitutions permanent relief measures under the provisions protecting homesteads, which had the advantage of avoiding the odium attached to the term ‘stay laws.’ These liberal homestead provisions assured the citizen of retaining in his possession a minimum amount of property by exempting it from attachment for debts. Although an innovation in these states, homestead provisions provoked little opposition from any quarter, the only controversy developing over the amount of the exemption. The Radicals wished to make the exemption large enough to protect the small owners but not so large as to give protection to owners of large landholdings.” [pp. 60-61] They addressed bills of rights in the Southern states during this time. “The bills of rights in the Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina constitutions had sections designed to prevent in the future the imposition of property qualifications for voting or for holding office, and carpetbagger S. S. Ashley secured the adoption of a section guaranteeing all people in North Carolina the right to a public education. Finally, the bill of rights adopted in each of the state constitutions except in Georgia declared that all rights not delegated by the constitutions were reserved to the people.” [p. 62] Scroggs also discusses various reforms in the constitutions, including universal male suffrage, making more executive department officers accountable to the public through elections, liberalizing qualifications for general assembly membership, and judicial reforms.

“Radical Rule: The Tragic Decade Thesis Disputed” is an excerpt from Kenneth M. Stampp’s 1965 book, The Era of Reconstruction. In discussing the carpetbaggers, he wrote, “Among the carpetbaggers were some who fit the stereotype: disreputable opportunists and corruptionists who went south in search of political plunder or public office. Because these carpetbaggers were so conspicuous and gained such notoriety, conservative southern democrats succeeded in portraying them as typical, though actually they constituted a small minority. Few of the carpetbaggers came to the South originally for the purpose of entering politics; many of them arrived before 1867 when political careers were not even open to them. They migrated to the South in the same manner and for the same reasons that other Americans migrated to the West. They hoped to buy cotton lands or to enter legitimate business enterprises: to develop natural resources, build factories, promote railroads, represent insurance companies, or engage in trade. A large proportion of the carpetbaggers were veterans of the Union Army who were pleased with the southern climate and believed that they had discovered a land of opportunity. Others came as teachers, clergymen, officers of the freedmen’s Bureau, or agents of the various northern benevolent societies organized to give aid to the Negroes. These people went south to set up schools for Negroes and poor whites, to establish churches, and to distribute clothing and medical supplies. … But whether honest or dishonest, northern settlers who became active in radical politics incurred the wrath of most white southern conservatives. For their supreme offense was not corruption but attempting to organize the Negroes for political action.” [pp. 69-70] He next discusses the scalawags. “Always a minority of the southern white population, more numerous in some states than in others, the scalawags usually belonged to one or more of four distinct groups. The first and largest of these groups was the Unionists. Having been exposed to severe persecution from their Confederate neighbors during the war, southern Unionists were often the most vindictive of the radicals; they were quite willing to support those who would retaliate against the secessionists, and they hoped that congressional reconstruction would give them political control in their states. … However, a very large proportion of this Unionist-scalawag element had little enthusiasm for one aspect of the radical program: the granting of equal civil and political rights to the Negroes. They favored the disenfranchisement of the Confederates to enable them to dominate the new state governments, but they were reluctant to accept Negro suffrage. … Insofar as there was any relationship between scalawags and the class structure of the South, it resulted from the fact that a minority of the poor whites and yeoman farmers were attracted to the radical cause. There had always been … an undercurrent of tension between them and the planter class, and some of them deserted President Johnson when it appeared that his program would return the planters to power. Lower-class whites who joined the radicals sometimes hoped for a seizure of the planters’ lands. … A third source of scalawag strength came from Southerners engaged in business enterprise and from those living in regions, such as East Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, and northern Alabama, which were rich in natural resources and had an industrial potential. Among such men there was considerable support for the economic policies of the Republican party–for the national banking system, the protective tariff, and federal appropriations for internal improvements. In general, the radical governments invited northern capitalists to invest in the South, granted loans or subsidies to the railroads, and gave charters and franchises to new corporations. Some of the scalawags were thus identified with the concept of a  New South whose economy would be more diversified than that of the Old. Finally, the radicals drew a little of their scalawag support and some of their leaders from upper-class Southerners who had been affiliated with the Whig party before the Civil War. … Upper-class Whig scalawags found it relatively easy to accept equal civil and political rights for Negroes, first, because among them race hatred was less often the prime motivating force of political action and, second, because they were optimistic about their chances of controlling the Negro vote.” [pp. 71-73] Regarding the Reconstruction governments, Stampp tells us, “One of the positive achievements of many of the radical governments was the adoption of more equitable tax systems which put a heavier burden upon the planters. Before the war the southern state governments had performed few public services and the tax burden on the landed class ahd been negligible. … As a matter of fact, taxes, government expenditures, and public debts were bound to increase in the southern states during the postwar years no matter who controlled them. For there was no way to escape the staggering job of physical reconstruction–the repair of public buildings, bridges, and roads–and costs had started to go up under the Johnson governments before the radicals came to power. So far from the expenditures of the reconstruction era being totally lost in waste and fraud, much of this physical reconstruction was accomplished while the radicals were in office. … Radical rule, in spite of its shortcomings, was by no means synonymous with incompetence and corruption; far too many carpetbagger, scalawag, and Negro politicians made creditable records to warrant such a generalization. … Finally, granting all their mistakes, the radical governments were by far the most democratic the South had ever known. They were the only governments in southern history to extend to Negroes complete civil and political equality, and to try to protect them in the enjoyment of the rights they were granted. The overthrow of these governments was hardly a victory for political democracy, for the conservatives who ‘redeemed’ the South tried to relegate poor men, Negro and white, once more to political obscurity.” [pp. 78-79]

Thomas Pressly’s “Racial Attitudes, Scholarship, and Reconstruction” comes from his review essay in the February, 1966 issue of the Journal of Southern History. This is a historiographical review of Dunning and Stampp, contrasting their views.

The third section of the book, “The Aftermath of Reconstruction,” begins with “The Failure to Achieve Land Reform” by James M. McPherson, taken from his 1964 book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. He tells us, “After the war many abolitionists stepped up their agitation for the confiscation and redistribution of large plantations. … President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation of May 29, 1865, dealt a sharp blow to radicals who hoped for wholesale confiscation. The proclamation restored political and property rights to most rebels who would take an oath of allegiance. In subsequent months Johnson issued a large number of special pardons to men who had been exempted from the May 29 proclamation.” [pp. 85-86] He tells us the abolitionists continued to work for confiscation, hoping Congress would act and override the president. “One of the anticipated functions of the Freedmen’s Bureau was resettlement of freedmen on abandoned and confiscated land. Johnson’s pardon and amnesty program, however, threatened to leave the Bureau with very little land for this purpose. In August 1865, Johnson issued a series of executive orders to General Howard instructing him to restore all confiscated property to former rebel owners except that which had already been sold under court decrees. These orders affected nearly all lands under Bureau control. The status of property along the South Atlantic coast assigned to the freedmen by Sherman’s Order no. 15 … became a burning issue during the winter of 1865-1866. More than 40,000 freedmen lived on 485,000 acres with the ‘possessory titles’ granted by Sherman’s Order. In October 1865, Johnson sent General Howard to the sea islands to persuade the freedmen to return their farms to teh pardoned owners. Howard had no taste for his mission, but like a good soldier he carried out his superior’s orders. He urged the freedmen quietly to abandon their farms and go back to work for their former masters.” [p. 86] Despite protests from the freed people living on the land and abolitionists, “In the end most of the freedmen were dispossessed. But the Freedmen’s Bureau bill passed over Johnson’s veto in July 1866 contained a provision for the lease of 20 acres of government-owned land on the sea islands to each dispossessed freedman with a six-year option to buy at $1.50 per acre. At the same time Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, extending the principle of the homestead law of 1862 to the public lands of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The bill stipulated that until January 1, 1867, no one who had supported the Confederacy would be eligible for a homestead. This provision was intended to give the freedmen and Unionist whites first chance at the land. Abolitionists hoed for good results from the Southern Homestead Act, but their hopes were doomed to disappointment. Most of the lands opened for settlement were of inferior quality, and few freedmen had the necessary capital to buy tools and farm implements or to support themselves while they were trying to coax the first crop from the sandy soil. As a means of placing the freedmen on fertile land of their own, the Southern Homestead Act was a failure.” [p. 87] There were private efforts to get land for the freed people, but these mostly failed as well. “In 1880 Frederick Douglass attributed the failure of Reconstruction to the refusal of Congress to provide the freedmen with an opportunity to obtain good land of their own. ‘Could the nation have been induced to listen to those stalwart Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, some of the evils which we now suffer would have been averted,’ declared Douglass. ‘The negro would not today be on his knees, as he is, supplicating the old master class to give him leave to toil. … He would not now be swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders for wages with no money in them.’ Many abolitionists still alive in 1880 would have agreed with Douglass. They had done their best to call attention to the necessity of land for the freedmen, but the nation was not sympathetic enough toward the plight of the Negro to provide any adequate means by which he could obtain land. As a result the Negroes remained economically a subordinate class, dependent upon white landowners or employers for their livelihood. The South was not ‘reconstructed’ economically, and consequently the other measures of reconstruction rested upon an unstable foundation.” [p. 91]

W. R. Brock’s contribution is “Racial Ideology and the Weaknesses of Radical Reconstruction,” taken from his 1963 book, An American Crisis: Congress and Reconstruction, 1865-1867.  Brock, who received his training in England, writes, “The abolitionist argument was based largely upon pure a priori statements or upon experience with fugitive slaves; a mass of arguments could be produced against the one, while the defiance of the occasional runaway did not prove that the mass of his fellows were not fitted by nature for a subordinate position. The behaviour of the negro was obviously different from that of the whites and, though those who knew him best granted him some admirable traits, they would also maintain that he was sadly deficient in the capacity for industry, thrift, self-reliance, enterprise, sexual restraint and the whole galaxy of virtues esteemed by nineteenth-century civilization. The abolitionist argument that the negro appeared ‘inferior’ because he had lived in slavery for generations failed to carry weight because no free negro society could be found to prove the proposition. Moreover there was an added complication in the mixed ancestry of so many of those who, like Frederick Douglass, were quoted as evidence of innate negro intelligence. … It was not accepted in the North any more than it was in the South and even abolitionists were anxious to disclaim any intention of forcing social contacts between the races and all shied away from the dread subject of racial amalgamation. An initial weakness of the Radical ideology was therefore its dependence upon a concept which was not self-evident, lacked scientific proof, and offended popular susceptibilities. The usual weakness of equalitarian theory lies in demonstrating that people ought to be treated as equals in spite of natural inequalities, and this difficulty is acute when dealing with people of different races.” [p. 93] He makes the point that “The concept of negro equality demanded interference with the processes of local government on a scale never before contemplated in America or in any other nation. … Racial equality would have to be an artificial creation imposed upon Southern society; the negro would have to have guarantees which were not given to the white man, and the quest for equality would demand unequal incidence of the law. No other minority required special legislation to ensure equal status in the courts, or the care of a Federal bureau, or the use of force to protect the right to vote. Negro equality implied that something must be taken from the whites, and this was explicit in two features of Radical policy: confiscation and disqualification.” [p. 94] Some of the problems the Radicals faced were the result of Northern white opinions. “Once the Northern majority had refused to accept the principle that wherever the law operated race must be forgotten, and had accepted the distinctions between rights which were rights and rights which were privileges, the whole idea of equality under the law was lost. Natural right became neither more nor less than the right which the majority was prepared to recognize and to protect.” [p. 98]

In “The Separation of the Races During Reconstruction,” a selection from his 1965 book, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1861-1877, Joel Williamson discusses when segregation became an integral part of southern life. “For the native white community, separation was a means of avoiding or minimizing problems which, they felt, would inevitably arise from the inherent inferiority of the Negro, problems which the North, in eradicating slavery and disallowing the Black Code, would not allow them to control by overt political means. In this limited sense, segregation was a substitute for slavery. Thus, first, total separation was essential to racial purity, and racial purity was necessary to the preservation of a superior civilization which the whites had labored so arduously to construct, and suffered a long and bloody war to defend. … Separation also facilitated the subordination of the inferior race by constantly reminding the Negro that he lived in a world in which the white man was dominant, and in which the non-white was steadfastly denied access to the higher caste. Further, the impression of Negro inferiority would be constantly reinforced by relegating the baser element, whenever possible, to the use of inferior facilities. … Finally, separation was a logical solution to the problem posed by the widespread conviction that the races were inherently incompatible outside of the master-slave relationship. If the white man could not exist in contentment in the proximity of Negroes, then partial satisfaction might be achieved by withdrawal from association with members of the inferior caste.” [pp. 106-107] In considering how segregation developed, he determined, “Contrary to common belief, the separation of the races was not entirely the work of the whites. Suspicious, resentful, and sometimes hateful toward the whites, chafed by white attitudes of superiority, and irritated by individual contacts with supercilious whites, Negroes, too, sought relief in withdrawal from association with the other race. … A major facet in the new pattern of agriculture was the removal of Negro labor from the immediate supervision of white men. As the Negro agriculturalist moved his labor away from the eye of the white man, so also did he move his family and his home. … Negroes in the trades and in domestic service followed similar trends. Furthermore, Negroes chose to withdraw from white-dominated churches, though they were often urged to stay, and they attended racially separated schools in spite of the legal fact that all schools were open to all races. Negroes also tended to withdraw from political association with members of the white community. Finally, on those few occasions when Negroes entered into polite social situations with whites, Northern as well as Southern, they were often ill at ease. … During Reconstruction, the Negro’s withdrawal was never a categorical rejection of the white man and his society. In the early days of freedom, it was primarily a reaction against slavery, an attempt to escape the unpleasant associations of his previous condition and the derogatory implications of human bondage. However, as the memory of slavery faded, a more persistent reason for withdrawal emerged. Essentially, it was the Negro’s answer to discrimination. Almost invariably, attempts by individual Negroes to establish satisfactory relations across the race line were unsuccessful, and, all too often, the pain of the experience was greater than the reward for having stood for principle. During Reconstruction and afterward, only a few were willing to undergo such pain without the certainly of success. It was much easier, after all, simply to withdraw. Withdrawal as a solution to the race problem was by no means satisfactory to the Negro leadership. Implicit in the behavior of Negro leaders during Reconstruction was a yearning for complete and unreserved acceptance for members of their race by the white community. However, overtly, and rather politically, they carefully distinguished between ‘social equality’ and what might be appropriately termed ‘public equality.’ … What the Negro leadership did insist upon was public equality, that is, absolute civil and political parity with whites and full and free access to most public facilities.” [pp. 108-109] In considering white actions, he tells us, “It was upon this emotional, uneven ground that an essentially new color line was drawn. It was established in a kind of racial warfare, of assaults and withdrawals, of attacks and counterattacks. Nevertheless, well before the end of Reconstruction, both forces had been fully engaged and the line was unmistakably formed. Even before the Radicals came into power in South Carolina in 1868, native whites had already defined a color line in government-supported institutions, on common carriers, in places of public accommodation and amusement, and, of course, in private social organizations. The degree of separation in each of these areas varied. In many instances, obviously, some compromise between expense and the desire for complete separation had to be made. Usually, the compromise involved the division of available facilities in some manner. If this was thought to be inconvenient, Negroes were totally excluded. … Withdrawal was also the means by which native whites combated attempts by Republican officials to end separations in institutions supported by the government. … Whites also refused to engage in normal civic activities in which the color line was not distinctly drawn. Thus, native whites chose not to join militia companies in which Negroes participated and were reported to be extremely apprehensive of being forced to undergo the ‘humiliation’ of joining a mixed company. Too, whites were reluctant to sit with Negroes n the jury box. … This general withdrawal of whites from participation in civil affairs resulted in a tendency within the white community to govern itself outside of the official system. … Native whites also tended to withdraw from public places where the color line could not be firmly fixed and the Negro could easily assert his equality. … The same reaction was manifested by the whites wherever the Negro leadership succeeded by legal means in ending separation.” [pp. 110-111] He continues, “By the end of Reconstruction, Negroes had won the legal right to enjoy, along with whites, accommodations in all public places. In reality, however, they seldom did so. On the opposite side of the racial frontier, the pattern of separation was fixed in the minds of the whites almost simultaneously with the emancipation of the Negro. By 1868, the physical color line had, for the most part, already crystallized.” [pp. 111-112]

In “Forgotten Alternatives,” the final essay of the book, C. Vann Woodward continues the discussion of the rise of segregation. This is an excerpt from his 1966 book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “The immediate response to the collapse of slavery,” he writes, “was often a simultaneous withdrawal of both races from the enforced intimacy and the more burdensome obligations imposed by the old regime on each. Denied the benefits of slavery, whites shook off its responsibilities–excess hands, dependents too old or too ill or too young to work, tenants too poor to pay rent. Freedmen for their part often fled old masters and put behind them old grievances, hatreds, and the scene of old humiliations. One of the most momentous of racial separations was the voluntary withdrawal of the Negroes from the white-dominated Protestant churches, often over white protest, in order to establish and control their own separate religious institutions.” [p. 113] He also says separations were also involuntary due to whites maintaining the ideology of white supremacy. “The first year a great fear of black insurrection and revenge seized many minds, and for a longer time the conviction prevailed that Negroes could not be induced to work without compulsion. … In the presence of these conditions the provisional legislatures established by President Johnson in 1865 adopted the notorious Black Codes. Some of them were intended to establish systems of peonage or apprenticeship resembling slavery. Three states at this time adopted laws that made racial discrimination of various kinds on railroads. Mississippi gave the force of law to practices already adopted by railroads by forbidding ‘any freedman, negro, or mulatto to ride in any first-class passenger cars, set apart, or used by and for white persons.’ … While the law might not provide for it and individuals might deplore it, segregation of the schools nevertheless took place promptly and prevailed continuously. There were very few exceptions.” [pp. 114-115] He tells us, “The Redeemers who overthrew Reconstruction and established ‘Home rule’ in the Southern states conducted their campaign in the name of white supremacy. The new rulers did not, however, inaugurate any revolution in the customs and laws governing racial relations. They retained such segregation practices as had grown up during Reconstruction, but showed no disposition to expand or universalize the system. … More than a decade was to pass after Redemption before the first Jim Crow law was t appear upon the law books of a Southern state, and more than two decades before the older states of the seaboard were to adopt such laws. There was much segregation and discrimination of an extra-legal sort before the laws were adopted in all the states, but the amount of it differed from one place to another and one time to another.” [pp. 117-118]

This pamphlet had a great deal of good information in it. While again it’s most useful for the student of the historiography of Reconstruction, it’s also useful for those students looking to learn about that time period.


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