Five Myths About Reconstruction

This is sociologist James Loewen’s latest contribution to the Washington Post’s “Five Myths About …” series.

1. Reconstruction was a failure.  Loewen tells us, “This view came to dominate public thinking from 1890 until about 1940, when world events and the Great Migration began to reshape the country’s perception of race and racism. … Reconstruction was portrayed during this era as a terrible time, especially for whites but really for everyone, a failure of a government propped up only by federal bayonets. ‘No people were ever so cruelly subjected to the rule of ignorant, vicious and criminal classes as were the southern people in the awful days of reconstruction,’ the New Orleans Times-Picayune proclaimed in 1901. … Some people today even think that Reconstruction was an effort to physically rebuild the South, rather than to aid its political reentry into the Union. In 2013, for example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted a huge exhibit, ‘The Civil War and American Art.’ ‘Reconstruction,’ the museum claimed, ‘began as a well-intended effort to repair the obvious damage across the South as each state reentered the Union.’ The curator said that the rebuilding ‘soon faltered, beset by corrupt politicians, well-meaning but inept administrations, speculators, and very little centralized management.’ ” Loewen says, “On the contrary, former Confederates saw Reconstruction as a problem precisely because it was succeeding. New Republican state administrations passed popular measures such as homestead exemption laws that abated taxes on residences, making it harder for people to lose their homes. They also repaired roads and bridges and built new schools and hospitals. Soon, Republicans were drawing 20 percent and even 40 percent of the white vote and almost all the black vote. Democrats grew desperate. After abortive attempts to win black votes, they resorted to intimidation and violence. These tactics were central to the restoration of white Democratic rule across the South by 1877. And thus Reconstruction ended, but not because it failed.”

Here I think Loewen is only partly right. I maintain it depends on what Reconstruction’s goal was. If the goal was simply to bring the confederate states back into their normal relationship with the Union, then it succeeded. But that could have happened a lot earlier if that was the goal.  The support for Congressional Reconstructions shows conclusively that wasn’t the goal–or at least not the only goal. Quite obviously, a major goal during Reconstruction was to protect the freedom of African-Americans and give them equal political and social rights. After some initial failures and successes, Reconstruction may have been successful on paper as African-Americans were legally recognized as citizens of the United States and had their right to vote constitutionally protected. Additionally, the equal protection clause ostensibly guaranteed equal protection of the laws. In practice, though, Reconstruction failed at this goal. With the victory of the white supremacist terrorists in the South, African-American social and political progress was almost wiped out. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” If Reconstruction’s goal was to create and sustain a viable southern Republican Party, again it failed. If the goal was to repair the damage done by the war, then it partially succeeded, as much rebuilding was successfully completed, although much more needed to be done. Loewen’s last two sentences reveal a problem he has in his formulation. The victory of the terrorists in the South overthrew Reconstruction. In that sense how can it not be considered to have failed? Overall, then, I would say all of those goals were part of Reconstruction, thus Reconstruction succeeded in some ways and failed in other ways.

2. African Americans took over the South during Reconstruction. According to Loewen, “The official Mississippi history textbook used in the ninth grade across the state in the 1960s flatly declared Reconstruction a period of ‘Carpetbag and Negro Rule.’ This propaganda was effective: When I asked a seminar of black freshmen at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Miss., in 1969 what happened during Reconstruction, 16 of the 17 students said blacks took over the governments of the Southern states, but because they were too soon out of slavery, they messed up, and whites had to take control again. In 1979, after I moved to Vermont, I was stunned to hear the minister of the largest Unitarian Church there repeat the same summary in a sermon. … Far from suffering under black dominance, all of the Southern states had white governors throughout Reconstruction. All but one (South Carolina) had white legislative majorities. Mississippi’s Constitutional Convention of 1868 is still called the “Black and Tan Convention,” but only 16 of its 94 delegates were black. Of course, a government that is 17 percent black looks “black” to people used to the all-white governments before and after.”

Loewen is on much stronger ground here. The claim that Reconstruction was a period of “Negro rule” is most definitely a myth. While African-Americans held some positions, they were not the controlling power during this time period. For the most part, they didn’t make the rules.

3. Northerners used Reconstruction to take advantage of the South and get rich. Loewen tells us, “The story — as exemplified in the 2011 edition of the textbook ‘The American Journey’ — is that fortune-hunters from the North ‘arrived with all their belongings in cheap suitcases made of carpet fabric.’ Penniless, they would then make it rich off the prostrate South. John F. Kennedy said in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘Profiles in Courage,’ ‘No state suffered more from carpetbag rule than Mississippi.’ The first clue that this view might be far-fetched comes from the fact that the economies of most Southern states were in ruins. Fortune-seekers will go where the money is, and it was not in the postwar South. Instead, immigrants from the North were mostly of four types: missionaries bringing Christianity (and often literacy) to newly freed people; teachers eager to help black children and adults learn to read, write and cipher; Union soldiers and seamen who were stationed in Mississippi and liked the place or fell in love; and would-be political leaders, black and white, determined to make interracial government work.”

Again, Loewen is on strong ground here. The myth of the Carpetbagger is strong and still holds sway among many who never actually read any real history of Reconstruction.

4. Republicans “waved the bloody shirt” to hide their lack of substantive policies. Loewen says, ” ‘Waving the bloody shirt’ has come to mean trying to win votes through demagoguery — blaming opponents for things they didn’t do or did long ago. Its first use of this sort refers to Republicans blaming Democrats for the carnage of the Civil War years after it ended. Kennedy made this claim in ‘Profiles in Courage,’ writing that ‘Republican leaders . . . believed that only by waving the bloody shirt could they maintain their support in the North and East, particularly among the Grand Army of the Republic.’ In his 2005 biography of Republican politician John A. Logan, Gary Ecelbarger accuses Logan of ‘waving the bloody shirt’ beginning in 1866 and ‘for decades to come.’ Actually, the bloody shirt was a real shirt, owned by a white Republican, A.P. Huggins. He was superintendent of the Monroe County Public Schools, a majority-black school system in Aberdeen, Miss., and took his job seriously. White supremacist Democrats warned him to leave the state, but he refused. On a March evening in 1870, they went to his home, rousted him from bed in his nightshirt and whipped him nearly to death. His bloody shirt was taken to Washington as proof of Democratic terrorism against Republicans in the South.”

Loewen is more right than wrong here. He’s right that the original “bloody shirt” was real and belonged to white Republican Huggins. He’s right that the violence was real, but Republicans did use the tactic to build political support for their Reconstruction program. I maintain there’s nothing wrong with that, because their program was to provide protection from the terrorist violence white Southerners were inflicting on blacks and white Republicans.

5. Republicans gave up on black rights in 1877. According to Loewen, “Every textbook says the Compromise of 1877 meant that ‘the federal government would no longer attempt to . . . help Southern African Americans,’ to quote ‘The American Journey.’ ‘Violence was averted by sacrificing the black freedmen in the South,’ according to another textbook, ‘The American Pageant.’ Republicans did eventually abandon civil rights, but not right after the Compromise of 1877 effectively ended Reconstruction. Until 1890, African Americans still voted across Dixie. In his inaugural address in 1881, Republican President James A. Garfield said: ‘The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people. . . . So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws.’ ”

Again, I’d have to say he’s more right than wrong. As Brooks Simpson shows in his terrific book, The Reconstruction Presidents, the Compromise of 1877 didn’t spell the end of Reconstruction policy. Hayes still made moves. And it’s true that the return of the troops to their barracks can be overstressed, as by that time there were comparatively few troops left on duty throughout the South. But the fact of the matter is the terrorists got their way, Democrats took over the southern states, and they began the movement away from equality for African-Americans with nary a protest from white Republicans, who became more interested in business and reconciliation.

Altogether, the article is well done, and while I have a few quibbles with it, as shown above, it’s generally accurate.

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6 comments

  1. On the success or failure of Reconstruction, as a lawyer, I view its failings against the achievement of passing three Constitutional Amendments in less than a decade. The 13th was inevitable, but the 14th might not even have passed in the 1950s.

    1. That’s a good point about the 14th Amendment maybe having a tough time being ratified in the 1950s, Pat. I think it says a lot about the Radicals’ intentions that they sought constitutional protections for African-Americans.

  2. Al, Nicely done! Thanks! Rea

  3. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    This ought to be interesting. We are covering Reconstruction on Monday and we use The American Journey for the text. I think I’m going to present them with Jim Loewen’s article and let them dig into it and Reconstruction.

    1. Check into this article also, Jimmy:
      http://www.jstor.org/stable/2954450?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

      Blog post upcoming on it sometime in the future.

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