Capitol Men

This book by Philip Dray is a very good read. As the subtitle tells us, it’s a book about Reconstruction, though it also gives us information on the first African Americans elected to the US Congress, though it’s not really through the lives of these men. The cover features a replica of the Currier & Ives lithograph, dated 1872, showing these men. “The portrait, showing Hiram Revels of Mississippi; Benjamin Turner of Alabama; Jefferson Long of Georgia; Robert De Large, Robert Brown Elliott, and Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina; and Josiah Walls of Florida was a proud symbol of the liberation of America’s newest citizens, proof of the tremendous social revolution the Civil War had wrought. The picture was considered an object of scorn among many Southern whites, however, who refused to countenance the sudden transformation of slaves into holders of public office. Emancipation, and then the appearance of black federal troops in the conquered South, had been offense enough; when, under the terms of congressional Reconstruction, men of color began to vote, win elections, and wield political authority, the patience of Southerners was pushed to its limit.” [p. ix]

As we all know, white southern terrorists and Democrats in the rest of the country joined to overthrow Reconstruction. In the wake of that overthrow, they propagated the lie that the former confederate states had been “redeemed” from a bad and corrupt government. “The myth of the Southland redeemed from Reconstruction’s errant policies would become a fixture of American memory, retold in countless memoirs, articles, and works of history, from the 1874 appearance of The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government, by James Shepherd Pike, to the early-twentieth-century Klan-glorifying novels of Thomas Dixon. It provided the backdrop for two of the most commercially successful films of the twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939); it resurfaced in 1956 in John F. Kennedy’s award-winning book of political biography, Profiles in Courage; and it remained for years a staple of high school and college textbooks. Yet beyond the distortions and the myths lie Reconstruction’s considerable achievements–strides in universal education, the forging of black political know-how and leadership, broad national efforts to solve problems of racial prejudice and injustice, and the creation of laws that, although largely nullified by the Supreme Court, stayed on the books, a valuable heirloom in the nation’s attic trunk, available for use at an appropriate future time. They would be crucial to the civil rights revolution of the mid-twentieth century. Reconstruction’s echoes resonate still. When Florida election officials in the year 2000 forced voters in heavily minority district to wait for hours in line before casting a ballot, and when Ohio Republicans, four years later, stationed poll monitors at voting places to intimidate black voters, they were reviving methods that had proved effective nearly a century and a half before, in the Reconstruction South. The debates heard today over affirmative action, police profiling, school integration, economic parity, and reparations for slavery would be largely familiar to Americans of the 1870s and 1880s, when newspapers carried, almost daily, stories of black citizens denied their rights, when black congressmen pleaded with their white colleagues to treat seriously the terror tactics of Southern vigilantism, and when a justice of the Supreme Court inquired, in an infamous ruling, how long those recently emerged from slavery would continue to be ‘the special favorite of the laws.’ Current efforts to safeguard civil rights and the rights of the accused, in an age of terrorism and illegal immigration, have their antecedents in the post-Civil War struggle for national standards of citizenship and personal freedom as well as guarantees of due process.” [p. xi]

We learn much about the first Black members of Congress. “The black representatives to Congress, the subject of this book, emerged from diverse backgrounds. Many were of mixed racial ancestry and had the social advantages of white parentage, such as access to education; some were free before the war, whereas others had been slaves; several were professionals–lawyers, teachers, or ministers–while others had worked as skilled artisans or tradesmen; a few had won distinction in the military. As black men who competed successfully to attain elective office in a society dominated by whites, they tended to be exceptional individuals–as resilient as they were resourceful. South Carolina’s Robert Smalls had hijacked a Confederate steamer and delivered it to the Union blockade off Charleston. P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana started out as an accomplished riverboat gambler. Robert Brown Elliott outdid the former vice president of the Confederacy in a debate on the floor of the House, and his colleague from South Carolina, Richard Cain, when he could not secure government help to make land available to the freedmen, formed his own corporation to do so. The portly, goateed senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, born a slave, once hid for his life from a Confederate raiding party yet rose to become a prosperous Delta planter who traveled as a dignitary to European courts, where it was said he displayed ‘the manners of a Chesterfield.’ ” [p. xii]

The book goes into Reconstruction and even takes us after Reconstruction, giving us insight into the great Exodus of African Americans from the South after the end of Reconstruction. “The freedom to pick up and seek better prospects elsewhere is in many ways the story of America, and for its citizens something of a national birthright. It was, however, a privilege largely denied African Americans. Thus, when Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s, the nation could only look on with surprise and no small amount of concern as substantial numbers of Southern blacks began acting o the impulse to emigrate. … The prospect of large numbers of blacks, particularly laborers, exiting their usual locales naturally created apprehension among whites. From the standpoint of history, the exodus movements of the late 1870s have a fairly distinct beginning and end, but at the time, the contours of the situation were unknowable. … Although the exodus fever of 1878-80 caught the nation largely unawares, the idea of an out-migration of blacks from the South was in fact almost as old as the United States.” [pp. 273-274] Mr. Dray gives us a short overview of the colonization movement and while Liberian emigration was a part of the exodus, the Exoduster Movement to the Midwest was much more important. “The fascination with Liberian emigration was soon eclipsed by a domestic resettlement of far greater significance–the mass departure of thousands of disaffected black Southerners for the Kansas frontier, the so-called Exoduster Movement. Like the interest i Liberia, the western exodus was fueled by the perception that Reconstruction’s demise had rendered life untenable in the South. … In addition to a loss of political standing, the migrants most often cited dissatisfaction with sharecropping.” [p. 283] Added to that was the white supremacist terrorist activities that continued after Reconstruction and the systems set up by the white supremacist state governments of the South to keep oppressing African Americans. “Piled onto the inequities of sharecropping ad farm labor was the fear of white harassment or problems with the law. With slave labor no longer available, many Southern states had turned to convict labor programs to construct state roads, monuments, and public buildings; they also profited by selling prisoners’ labor to municipal or, at times, private enterprises, such as farms or railroads, in what was known as the convict lease system. To bused state economies, convict lease arrangements were irresistible; they were self-supporting and in many cases profitable. But for those trapped inside it, the system was a kind of living purgatory. Arrested for even minor violation of the law, a black man could find himself stuck for weeks or months on a convict work gang, working off his ‘debt to society’ under a blazing sun. Abject violence, night riding, lynching, and other forms of terror were of course also a powerful inducement to exit the region.” [p. 284]

For many, the stories of these men will be new, because with only a few notable exceptions their stories have been suppressed. “As long as forces largely inimical to Reconstruction dominated Reconstruction scholarship, Robert Brown Elliott and P.B.S. Pinchback, Joseph Rainey and Blanche K. Bruce, and other black officials were often depicted as incompetents and thieves, or worse, simply airbrushed from the historical record. Later, when greater objectivity was brought to the subject, the black representatives nonetheless often remained marginal figures, their role in Congress and on the national political stage considered largely symbolic. Either view tends to invalidate black political initiative and, in any case, flies in the face of the evidence, which indicates that when the reconstructed states of the South began holding elections that included their enfranchised black populations, men of color were elected to Congress and to state and local positions, or were appointed by their state legislatures to seats in the U.S. Senate, in relatively fair proportion to their constituencies and even with the support of whites.” [pp. 352-353]

The book is very well done, though there are a few errors that don’t detract from the overall narrative. On page xiii Oliver Otis Howard’s first two names are reversed to Otis Oliver Howard. Elsewhere, the names are in the correct order. The discussion about the Lincoln Administration’s policies on slavery and Lincoln’s reaction to John C. Frémont’s and David Hunter’s proclamations are flawed, not giving the full story of why those proclamations had to be revoked. Finally, he relied on William McFeely’s very flawed biography of Ulysses S. Grant for his interpretation of Grant’s presidency. Additionally, I would have liked to have seen even more information on the featured men.

Nevertheless, I can still recommend this book for students of Reconstruction. The above errors are relatively minor and don’t detract from the book’s usefulness.


  1. Nancy Abbott · · Reply

    Your review of the book was very impressive! You seem to have missed your calling! I’m glad to see more books on the Black Leaders emerging after the war. I watched a very good show the other night about the Black migration out of the South in the 20th Century. I can’t recall the title. It had to do with the automobilegiving Black Southern families the ability to leave the south and the violence towards themthat they were dealing with. Nancy

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    1. Thanks for the nice comment, Nancy. The trouble African Americans faced on the road led to the Green Book.

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