The Reconstruction Presidents

In this outstanding book, Brooks D. Simpson traces Reconstruction through the administrations of the four presidents who dealt with the issues arising from bringing the confederate states back into their proper relationship with the Union–Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes. It’s not a biography of these presidents but rather it’s a history of Reconstruction using their presidencies as the framework for organizing what happened.

He starts off letting us know, “A complete understanding of Reconstruction policy must recall that the issue of how best to reunited the nation was at least as important to most white Americans as was defining exactly what freedom and equality meant for black Americans. The central dilemma for most Republican policy makers was how best to promote both sectional reconciliation and justice for black Americans,a  matter complicated by differing opinions on exactly what would constitute racial justice and what role government would play in securing it.” [p. 2]

He not only analyzes Reconstruction, but he also analyzes the policies of each president in the study. “A study of four presidents’ approaches to Reconstruction seems to offer a promising opportunity for comparative analysis. The nature and use of presidential power, the relationship between making and implementing policy, the interplay between policy and partisan advantage, and the impact of personal characteristics, style, and beliefs are concerns common to an examination of these four presidencies. However, the persistence of such themes by itself is not sufficient to engage in a disciplined comparative analysis: what impresses the historian who examines these presidencies collectively is the specificity of context in each case. Each president came to office facing different circumstances, each posing its own challenges. During most of his presidency, Lincoln had to give priority to winning a war for reunion; in contrast, Johnson assumed office just as that conflict wound down to a close. Grant entered the White House with what on the surface seemed overwhelming advantages, yet they soon dissipated–and were bound to do so–while Hayes succeeded him under conditions that might have crippled a lesser man or politician. Although all four men can collectively be termed the Reconstruction presidents, the Reconstructions over which they presided and which they helped shape also differed in important ways as the process evolved over time.” [p. 4] Indicative of the incisive analysis throughout the book, he mentions the famous phrase, “politics is the art of the possible,” and then explains, “This statement, appealing in its (sometimes deceptive) simplicity, is more often cited than understood. Before assessing presidential performance, one must first ascertain what was possible. Those historians who are critical of the performance of these four men for not achieving more for black Americans find it rather difficult to offer a historically viable alternative that improves markedly on what happened, even with the immense advantages offered by hindsight.” [p. 4]

Lincoln is a Reconstruction president because he concerned himself with reconstructing the Union almost from the beginning of the secession crisis. Brooks tells us Lincoln “understood that the most lasting reconstruction would be on terms accepted voluntarily by southern whites, and he harbored hopes that they might initiate such measures. The concerns and prejudices of border state unionists also shaped his approach to reconstruction, for he could not risk those states falling into the Confederate column. Finally, he realized that the Republican party, while it might have achieved majority status in the North, remained a minority in the country as a whole. The very reuniting of the country would endanger the party’s hold on power. He explored ways of building a southern wing to the Republican party, grounded on notions of economic development and opportunity and offering an alternative to plantation slavery.” [p. 11] Lincoln’s number one goal throughout the war was to preserve the Union, and that meant reconstructing the Union. He wanted to control that process, but knew that Congress also had a role to play, “for it would decide whether to seat the delegates sent to Washington by the loyal state governments established with his blessing and support.” [p. 37] That also meant he had to work with moderate and radical Republicans. “Radical Republicans, whatever their disagreements among themselves on how best to achieve their agenda, believed that if reconstruction was to be successful, it had to achieve fundamental change in southern society. Emancipation was not enough: any settlement had to secure for blacks basic civil rights–and, according to many, political rights included some form of suffrage. Other Republicans were less sure of these objectives or wanted to achieve them without upsetting current institutional frameworks of governance; in turn, Radicals were far less concerned about achieving reconciliation with southern whites than were their more moderate colleagues.” [pp. 36-37]

Abraham Lincoln made many momentous decisions in his presidency. Certainly the decision to resist secession was one. Another was the decision to elevate Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of lieutenant general. One of his momentous decisions, though, would turn out to be something he wouldn’t have predicted to have such far-reaching consequences: the decision to put Andrew Johnson on the ticket in 1864 as his vice presidential nominee. “The assassination of Abraham Lincoln removed from the political scene a master politician who tried to balance conciliation with justice and understood how to frame policy in accordance with circumstances. But Lincoln’s death in itself cannot explain what happened to the course of Reconstruction between 1865 and 1869. Just as important was the man who became president on April 15, 1865, Andrew Johnson. No other single individual contributed more to the shaping of the contours of reconstruction policy. … Of the four presidents who occupied office during Reconstruction, Johnson enjoyed the most freedom of action and the greatest opportunity to leave his mark on determining its course.” [p. 67] Johnson, however, would not prove to be equal to the task or the opportunity. Instead, he would pursue an agenda that harkened back to his roots as a southern white supremacist Democrat. “In large part because many of its main features remained ill-defined, the Lincoln legacy proved a rather malleable tool for Johnson to manipulate. He chose what best suited his own desires, invoking the name of the martyred president to deflect criticism. Once in a while he would either distort, or simply fabricate Lincoln’s words to justify his acts, as when he claimed that the only change Lincoln wanted in the Constitution was an amendment compelling states to send representatives to Congress, a perverse idea lacking supporting evidence. Johnson remade his predecessor in his own image and used Lincoln’s name much as he used the Constitution–as a justification of his actions and nothing more.” [p. 72] Johnson tried at every turn to frustrate the Radicals’ goal of ensuring equal rights for African-Americans. “Johnson believed that if anyone knew what was best for black people, it was neither northern whites, who supposedly did not know the ‘condition of colored men,’ nor the blacks themselves, but southern whites, including their former masters. Blacks had to learn that freedom meant work, not waiting for a handout from the government; they also had to conform to acceptable notions of family life. Under slavery, Johnson asserted, ‘four millions of people lived in open and notorious concubinage.’ That black efforts to maintain families had been disrupted by slaveholders’ actions seems to have escaped the president’s memory. In hi mind blacks were lazy and promiscuous, certainly not models for the hard-working, family-minded (white) Americans that Johnson celebrated.” [p. 76] Brooks gives us outstanding analysis of Johnson’s failed policies and his mistakes throughout his term of office, including his errors of judgment that culminated in his impeachment and near removal from office.

Ulysses S. Grant took office after Johnson’s term expired. Grant faced a complex situation. “The new president struggled to reconcile several goals in his quest to frame a southern policy. He simultaneously sought to protect black civil and political rights and conciliate white southerners in aiming to establish a stable postwar political order resting on the consent of all the governed, white and black. That the protection of blacks and the conciliation of whites often seemed irreconcilable objectives complicated the already demanding task of framing a policy that would be just to everyone and accepted by all involved. Moreover, he was enough of a politician to understand that he had to maintain Republican political power. Given declining northern concern about southern affairs and a growing reluctance to endorse federal intervention in the South, persistent efforts to protect southern Republicans might erode the party’s voter base in the North. To sacrifice the party nationally as a result of its southern policy would be suicidal, and if one characteristic marked Republican regulars in the 1870s, it was their tenacious commitment to survival.” [p. 135] To make things even harder for Grant, “the means of policy were limited due in large part to the contracting boundaries of reconstruction. Johnson had dashed whatever hope there may have been for reconstituting the structure of the South socially, economically, and politically through confiscation and redistribution. Grant still might push for programs to promote southern development, but otherwise he could do little to recast many aspects of the southern social and economic order in light of prevailing notions of federalism and the proper scope of government.” [pp. 135-136] Grant had to deal with the white supremacist terrorist violence Johnson tolerated during his presidency. Grant pushed for ratifying the 15th Amendment to guarantee African-Americans the right to vote and tried to “arm black Americans with yet another tool, economic clout. With confiscation and redistribution now eliminated as possible means of such empowerment, he turned to foreign policy, embarking on one of the most controversial initiatives ever embraced by a president.” [p. 145] He negotiated to annex the republic of San Domingo, which would provide blacks a sanctuary and the economic leverage he wanted to give them. Since they were the major source of southern labor, providing them a place to relocate outside the South would put pressure on white southerners to treat them fairly so as not to lose that valuable labor source. This plan fell apart, however. Grant did all he could to help African-Americans while also trying to conciliate white southerners. It was ultimately a self-contradictory strategy. He did, however, do more to protect African-Americans than any other reconstruction president.

Rutherford B. Hayes came into office as a result of the Compromise of 1877, “in which Hayes was declared president in the aftermath of a disputed election that tested yet again the viability of American political institutions. Once in office, he proved a man of his word: the withdrawal of federal support from Republican regimes in Louisiana and South Carolina marked the end of Reconstruction.” [p. 199] Hayes, however, didn’t look at it as an end to Reconstruction, as Brooks tells us. He looked at it “as an opportunity to implement a new southern policy. Unlike Grant, who had vacillated between conciliation and coercion, Hayes, convinced that intervention had proved counterproductive, committed himself to conciliating white southerners to entice them to join the Republican party. The vast majority of accounts claim that in pursuing this policy, he abandoned the freedpeople to the tender mercies of their former masters; Hayes, on the other hand, insisted that his aim was to protect the freedmen by removing race as the primary dividing line in southern politics, compelling white southerners to bid for black votes to win elections. In the end, Hayes’s policy proved misguided. Although there were signs of a potential realignment in some southern states, the Republican party did not regain majority status. White southerners took what they could get without reciprocating. The erosion of black rights continued, although in some states blacks were able to exercise some control over their own lives at the local level. Hayes was unwilling to admit that his policy had failed, but by 1880, Republicans realized that they need not worry about the South as they assembled an electoral majority at the national level.” [p. 199] The discussion of Hayes’s policy decisions explodes the myth that all he did was withdraw troops and end Reconstruction. Hayes tried to deal with the situation, though he ultimately was unsuccessful. “Rutherford B. Hayes’s approach to reconstruction has been praised as an exercise in healing statesmanship or damned as a betrayal of black aspirations. It was neither. In truth, Hayes played the hand that was dealt him, although he often pretended to make a virtue out of necessity. Had he done nothing after acceding to the Democrats’ return to power in Louisiana and South Carolina, the course of events during his administration would have been much the same. He had no other choice but to abandon intervention in the South, and, for the most part, Grant had already abandoned it for him. His attempts to forge coalitions with southern whites seemed admirable but were naive; they were not even original with him, for Grant had taken tentative steps in that direction during his presidency.” [pp. 232-233]

This book is really well done, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about Reconstruction.


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