A Reconstruction Roundup

There have been a few Reconstruction items published recently.

Eric Foner has this article in the Slate Academy about black officeholders in South Carolina during Reconstruction. He tells us, ” Just a few years after the end of slavery, hundreds of black men throughout the South occupied positions of real political power at all levels. In some ways it was amazing that a former slave could be assessing property for taxation purposes on the local level, and that a black man, Jonathan Jasper Wright, sat on the Supreme Court of South Carolina.” Prior to the Civil War, Professor Foner found only two black men who held any public office in the United States: “Macon Allen, the first black lawyer in American history, held a justice of the peace position in Massachusetts in the 1850s, and John Langston, later a congressman from Virginia, held a minor position in Ohio.” Professor Foner estimates about 2,000 black men held public office positions by 1877. “In South Carolina, some black men continued to hold one office or another until around the turn of the century. Then, it pretty much ended. The next significant group of black officials emerged in the North in the 1920s and ’30s as a result of black migration and the beginnings of black political power there, but it was not until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that America again saw the rise of African American officeholding in any significant numbers in the South.” Critics of Reconstruction regarded the specter of black officeholders with nothing less than horror. “The Democratic press called these legislatures and constitutional conventions ‘menageries’ and ‘monkey houses.’ They ridiculed former slaves who thought themselves competent to frame a code of laws. They said that these officials were ignorant, illiterate, propertyless, and that they lacked education and the economic wherewithal to take part intelligently in government. James S. Pike, a northern journalist who came to South Carolina and wrote the famous book about African American legislators called The Prostrate State in the 1870s, said after visiting the state legislature, ‘It is impossible not to recognize the immense proportion of ignorance and vice that permeates this body.’ ” Once they regained control of southern states, there were opponents of Reconstruction who tried to ethnically cleanse history of black officeholders in their states. ” In Georgia, after the Democrats regained control of Georgia’s government, Alexander Abrams, who compiled the legislative manual each year, announced that he was going to omit black lawmakers from the biographical sketches. He wrote, ‘I am not going to include these Black legislators because it would be absurd to record the lives of men who were but yesterday our slaves and whose past careers embrace such occupations as boot blacking, shaving, table waiting, and the like.’ A quote like this reveals the combination of racism and class prejudice that went into the opposition to Reconstruction. It wasn’t just that these men were black, but that they were poor, that seemed to mark them as being somehow ineligible to be part of the public world.” The distortions of black officeholders was enshrined in popular culture in movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. The distortions were aided by historians of the racist Dunning School. ” For example, E. Merton Coulter wrote that of the 37 black men who served in the Georgia Constitutional Convention in 1868, ‘most of them could not read and write.’ But according to the 1870 manuscript census, the great majority of them were not illiterate. Scholars of South Carolina history also repeated a charge which the Democratic Party leveled at the black delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1868. The Democratic Party issued a document in 1868 saying that of the 71 black delegates, only 14 were on the tax list. But the manuscript census reveals again that that was just not true. Most of them did own property. Thirty-one of them owned more than a thousand dollars’ worth of property, which in those days was a fairly substantial sum.” I highly recommend reading the entire article, because it provides excellent information on some of the black officeholders.

Allen C. Guelzo is next with this article on History News Network regarding “The History of Reconstruction’s Third Phase.” He tells us, “Looked at coldly, the dozen years that we conventionally designate as “Reconstruction” constitute the bleakest failure in American history, and they are all the more bleak for squatting, head-in-hands, between the towering drama of the Civil War and the savage conflicts of the Gilded Age. As a nation, we delivered four million African American slaves from bondage, at the hideous cost of a generation of American youth and the murder of our greatest president — and then allowed the freedpeople to slip back into the leering control of the same Southern white ruling class which had caused the war in the first place. If slavery was the birth defect of the American founding, Reconstruction was its principal malpractice case.” Professor Guelzo also gets into Reconstruction historiography, beginning with the racist “Dunning School.” “Reconstruction was actually one of the first subjects to become the focus of an entire school of professional historical practice, in this case the ‘school’ created by William Archibald Dunning at Columbia University before the First World War and the students (and dissertations) he guided into explorations of Reconstruction in the former Confederate States. It was quite a ‘school’: Walter Lynwood Fleming on Alabama (1905), J.G.D. Hamilton on North Carolina (1906), Charles Ramsdell on Texas (1910), William Watson Davis on Florida (1913), C. Mildred Thompson on Georgia (1915). And these were all models of patient and meticulous research (even David Donald admitted that the Dunning dissertations were ‘triumphs of the application of the scientific method to historiography’). But they also sang, with some isolated exceptions, what amounted to Act II of the Lost Cause Opera – that from 1865 until 1877, the trampled-down and misunderstood white South was disfranchised, oppressed, and humiliated by a bizarre alliance of vengeful Northern ‘carpetbaggers,’ sell-out Southern ‘scalawags,’ and incompetent black stooges, fresh from picking cotton. Together, the Dunningites painted this misalliance as carnival of misrule, in which corruption and self-enrichment were screened behind Yankee bayonets and an attitude of hypocritical moral superiority, until the Northern public came to its senses, and the defeated Southern whites gained their second wind and threw the rascals out.” He then details the reaction against the Dunning School: “But the Dunning School’s over-reach generated an equal but opposite re-action, starting with W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in 1930, and climaxing over the next generation in Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction (1967) and one of the single greatest pieces of American historical writing, Eric Foner’s massive Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988). Composed in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement and the ‘Second Reconstruction’ of the 1950s and ‘60s, the New Reconstruction historiography turned the tables on the Dunning School. Far from being an exercise in corruption and debased democracy, argued New Reconstructionists, the Reconstruction years of 1865 to 1877 had been a valiant effort to make good on the promises of equality made by the American founding and sanctified in the blood of the Civil War. The carpetbaggers and scalawags were not opportunists, feeding like kites on Southern defenselessness, but crusaders in pursuit of an egalitarian democracy, and the freed slaves were the banner-carriers of a new birth of labor freedom. That they failed was a tragedy to be mourned, and the blame lay equally with Northern Republicans who lacked the stamina to sustain the idealism of the war years and revanchist white supremacists in the South who shamelessly terrorized blacks and their white allies into submission.” His criticism of the newer Reconstruction historians is that they were also guilty of their own overreach. “Du Bois, Stampp and Foner all operated in differing degrees from Marxist premises, and great was their temptation to see Reconstruction, not as a political event, but as an economic and social one in which the real issue was a struggle of classes, with race sometimes acting as a surrogate for class, and sometimes as a barrier. Just as European Marxists re-wrote the Paris Commune into a fable of failed social revolution, Reconstruction became, in the hands of the New Reconstructionists, the great missed-opportunity of the American 19th century to tear America away from the strangling hands of industrial capitalism. Still, as Foner insisted in his subtitle, Reconstruction was, as a revolution, also more unfinished than failed, thus opening the suggestion that the brave new world envisioned by those dozen years might yet become a part of the American future.” The overreach comes also when compared with the aspirations enunciated by the freedpeople of the time. “The crusaders, black and white, who hoped to build a new South out of the ashes of the old plantation order had no plans for a proletarian paradise. Quite to the contrary, they were plain and eager in their demand for a thorough-going capitalist effacement of the kingdom of the thousand-bale planters. Northern republicans had, after all, waged their war on behalf of free labor (an ideology whose greatest expositor has always been no one other than Eric Foner), and what they expected to create in the defeated Confederacy was a mirror image of small-producer manufacturing and independent family farms. The Union ‘represents the principles of free labor,’ declared a New York pamphlet, and only when ‘the victory of the Northern society of free labor over the landed monopoly of the Southern aristocracy’ was complete could the Civil War be declared over. ‘Reconstruction,’ added Frederick Douglass, will ’cause Northern industry, Northern capital, and Northern civilization to flow into the South, and make a man from New England as much at home in Carolina as elsewhere in the Republic.’ ” “No one offered a more vigorous second to that motion,” says Professor Guelzo, “than the freedpeople, who wanted nothing so much as to become self-interested bourgeois owners of property.” Professor Guelzo sees Reconstruction not as a class revolution but rather a bourgeois revolution. “Understanding Reconstruction as a bourgeois revolution – in fact, according to Barrington Moore, the last bourgeois revolution – creates an opportunity for a third re-visioning of Reconstruction, and without the Eurocentric necessity to make it conform to the New Reconstructionists’ Marxism or the Progressive racism that fueled the Dunningites.” Like many of Professor Guelzo’s essays, this one is provocative.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson has this article in Jacobin on “Killing Reconstruction.” She tells us, “As Northerners struggled to fight and fund a war of unprecedented magnitude, they replaced a prewar system run by a handful of wealthy Southern slaveholders with a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ That new, popular government took firm root in the country after the war, as citizenship was extended and all men got the right to vote. Between 1860 and 1870, it seemed, a Second American Revolution had finally aligned the Constitution with the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal. It didn’t last.” She then looks at the denouement of Reconstruction: “A year after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, many soured on the idea of popular government. They looked to the South, where an observer warned that a ‘proletariat Parliament’ dominated by black men was ruining South Carolina, and to the North, where the rising power of workers made a popular magazine snarl that ‘the interference of ignorant labor with politics is dangerous to society.’ They concluded that not everyone should have a say in government. With this ideological shift, things changed fast. In 1875, the Supreme Court suggested that citizens could be denied voting rights so long as discrimination was not based on race. The next year, white voters took back the South. Lincoln’s vision of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people had lasted only about a decade.” Her conclusion for why Reconstruction failed centers not on white southern terrorists who intimidated black voters and white Republicans in the South, but rather on northern white voters. “Reconstruction failed not because Southern whites opposed it — although most of them did — but because Northerners abandoned it. They came to believe that antebellum slaveholders were right in one important way: they had warned that poor workers must not be allowed to vote because, given the chance, they would insist on a redistribution of wealth.” In an opposing view from Professor Guelzo’s, Professor Richardson writes, “rom March through May 1871, workers in Paris established a commune. This relatively minor development in world affairs became headline news in America because in 1866, after years of failure, entrepreneurs had finally completed a transatlantic telegraph cable that linked America to Europe. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 had provided sensational copy to feed a nation hungry for exciting news after its own war. With the end of that conflict, editors turned to scenes from the Commune to fill their columns. They reported lurid stories of the Commune as a nightmare, a ‘wild, reckless, irresponsible, murderous mobocracy.’ Workers in Paris had taken over the government and were confiscating all money, factories, and land. Their plan was to redistribute wealth from men of means to themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that the ‘Communists of Paris’ were operating with the ‘communistic idea ‘that property is robbery.’ ‘ In that, they were echoing the International Workingmen’s Association, which, the Boston Evening Transcriptwarned, was made up of ‘agrarians, levelers, revolutionaries, inciters or anarchy, and . . . promoters of indiscriminate pillage and murder.’ During the Civil War, when American workers were laying down their lives to protect the nation, few Northerners would have believed that the working class would deliberately destroy society. Indeed, wartime Republicans thought that workers were key to a healthy economy, and they deliberately remade the government during the war to respond to the needs of those they believed were central to the Union cause.” She tells us Republicans passed the Homestead Act, the Land Grant Act, created a Department of Agriculture, funded an intercontinental railroad, and passed the Thirteenth Amendment. “When Northern Democrats howled in horror at the racial equality established by the Thirteenth Amendment, Republican James Ashley of Ohio retorted that their free labor would make America ‘the most powerful and populous, the most enterprising and wealthy nation in the world.’ Only six years later, Republicans were willing to entertain the idea that, far from being the heart of America, workers were dangerous levelers. Far from advancing their interests, the government must be protected from their influence.” She traces the root of these problems to the development and expansion of industry in the North to support the war effort. ” There was little labor agitation during the war as the drain of men to the battlefields kept unemployment low, but wages did not keep up with inflation. At the same time, government contracts poured tax dollars into the coffers of industrialists and financiers. As soon as the war was over, workers organized to demand that Congress level the economic playing field. As workers began to organize, growing industries brought immigrants to New York City, where they tended to vote for Democrats. New York State was Republican, but control of the city determined which way the state would swing in national elections. New York had far more electoral votes than any other state, giving its largest municipality special importance in national politics. In 1870, New York as a whole had swung into the Democratic column, which did not bode well for Republicans hoping to maintain control of the White House in 1872.” Professor Richardson says in 1871 Republicans warned the Paris Commune could happen in the United States. “The First International had established headquarters in the city in 1867, where they were fomenting disturbances, Republicans warned. They were at war against capital and property, and would force anyone who owned anything to divide it with those who had nothing. In their eyes, every small farmer was a member of the ‘landed aristocracy,’ who should be forced to share his wealth. This philosophy would only appeal to poor, lazy, vicious men, who would rather steal from the nation’s small farmers and mechanics than work themselves.” Professor Richardson traces the postwar white southern governments’ establishing black codes leading to the Reconstruction Acts along with Andrew Johnson’s resistance and the Republicans’ overcoming that resistance. “When Republicans began to attack Northern workers, Southern Democrats abandoned overtly racist arguments and instead began to insist that ex-slaves were forcing communism on the South. The Fifteenth Amendment established black male suffrage in 1870, and South Carolina had a black majority. This meant that white South Carolinians could argue that their state provided a perfect illustration of workers plundering the wealthy through the ballot box. Before the Civil War, wealthy white Southerners had explicitly warned Northerners that letting poor workers vote would destroy society. Slave owners argued that a society’s workers were strong and loyal, but they were also stupid, and must be kept down. Like logs driven into the ground to form the foundation of a house, these people were the ‘mudsill’ of society, performing its menial labor. Their work supported the small, refined upper class, which led progress and civilization.” Maintaining these statuses, of course, meant continued rule by the upper class. She then goes into the economic argument against rule by the “mudsills” developed by white southerners during Reconstruction and by the Dunning School afterward, which blamed corruption on the rule by the “mudsills.” She continues, “In reality, African-American legislators tended to vote in favor of propertied interests rather than workers, but white observers insisted they were radical levelers. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes. But while taxes in South Carolina had fallen disproportionately on professionals, bankers, and merchants before the war, the new legislature placed taxes on land, making large landowners pay new, large tax bills. The same legislature also used state funds to buy land to sell to settlers — usually freedmen — at low prices. South Carolina Democrats railed in racist agony against the ‘crow-congress,’ the ‘monkey-show,’ but they also interpreted the new tax through a class lens. One observer commented that, with prominent white South Carolinians disenfranchised and black men voting, ‘a proletariat Parliament has been constituted, the like of which could not be produced under the widest suffrage in any part of the world save in some of these Southern States.’ When the South Carolina government began to collect the new tax, a ‘Tax-payers’ Convention’ insisted that workers were confiscating property.” She tells us northern Republicans picked up this class argument. “Explicitly, the New York Tribune compared ex-slaves to the Paris Communards. It ran an interview with Georgia Democrat Robert Toombs, a former slaveholder who had been a staunch secessionist and served as the first Confederate secretary of state. He explained that a mob was ‘the most dangerous class in the world to be trusted with any of the powers of government.’ Unless voting was limited to men of property, ‘the lower classes . . . the dangerous, irresponsible element’ would control government and ‘attack the interests of the landed proprietors.’ According to Toombs: ‘Only those who owned the country should govern it, and men who had no property had no right to make laws for property-holders.’ In the end, the Taxpayer’s Convention called only for the South Carolina government to trim its budget, but the convention’s work reached far beyond that lackluster end. White Southerners had managed to turn their racial animosities into an economic argument acceptable to northern Republicans.” With the economic downturn of 1873, northerners began attacking “socialists” and “socialism” in the Reconstruction governments. “In 1875, the Supreme Court offered a way to guard America from this creeping socialism. In Minor v. Happersett, it ruled that citizenship did not necessarily guarantee voting. This opened the door for restrictions based on qualifications other than race, which was prohibited under the Fifteenth Amendment. In the election of 1876, whites took back the South. In 1880, the former Confederacy voted solidly Democratic.” She then traces the continuation of these views and their effects to the present day.

In this interview, the Library of America speaks with Richard White, who recently published a new book on Reconstruction, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, an entry in the “Oxford History of the United States” series. He tells us, “Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields. Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded. By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home. Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.” In discussing voting behavior, Professor White says, “Political participation became a proclamation and celebration of communal identity. The so-called army campaigns that rallied voters in parades and mass meetings played on culture, religion, and ethnicity. Compared to the politics of identity, ideology was weak gruel. Voters turned out in startling numbers throughout this period. By the end of the century this was beginning to change as Democrats attained ascendancy in the South and suppressed the black vote, and as Republicans in the North sought to suppress the immigrant vote. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, when it appeared that ideology and class interests were undercutting older loyalties, there was a general movement among the more privileged classes to turn against democracy and restrain it. After the Great Strike of 1877, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, one of the leading liberal intellectuals, considered universal suffrage a mistake. He thought the ‘untaught classes’ were in ‘wide-spread revolt against civilization.’ One reason that we don’t have political participation today on the level of the first Gilded Age is because so many of the attempts to restrain voting have succeeded. Even after the worst abuses—poll taxes, the grandfather clause in the South, etc.—have been removed, voters still face onerous rules for registration, residence, and proof of identity. Recent court cases demonstrate the perseverance of such restrictions. We shouldn’t wonder that voting declines when there are so many active attempts to suppress the vote. Identity politics has hardly vanished, but many voters find it harder to match those identities to a political party. As partisan loyalties decline and independent voters increase, it’s harder to mobilize the vote.”


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