Sunday, April 24, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 25: Reconstruction

I had intended to focus mostly on the Reconstruction period itself in the posts for the last week of April.  But I've come across several really good examples of the persistence of the Lost Cause viewpoint, so I'm going to include several of those as well.

Reconstruction is a poorly-understood period of American history.  The Lost Cause view of Reconstruction is that President Andrew Johnson tried to have a moderate Reconstuction process in the South that would quickly reintegrate the defeated former Confederate states rapidly back into the Union.  However, South-hating fanatics, the Radical Republicans, managed to seize control of the process and impose Republican governments on the South, which badly mistreated the Southererns and were hopelessly corrupt.  Finally in the mid-1870s, cooler heads prevailed and the federal government pulled its remaining troops out of the South.  Southern leaders recognized they had to accept the new status quo, and happily rejoined the Union.

Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, exemplified this new spirit in 1880 in his last public speech, in which he said:

The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations; before you lies the future - a future full of golden promise, a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed.  Let me beseech you to lay aside all bitter sectional feelings, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a re-united country.

By this time, the democratic Reconstruction governments had been overthrown by force, violence and corruption, and black citizens in the South were being largely deprived of their right to vote along with most other political and civil rights. It would be another ten years or so before the segregation laws, known as Jim Crow, formalized the new arrangement.  But the chance that had been so promising at the end of the war, to guarantee genuinely democratic elections for blacks and whites and to defeat the spirit of rebellion among the Southern rich and their less respectable allies, was long gone.

The Web site for the PBS American Experience program Reconstruction: The Second Civil War is quite a good one.  It has a lot of information and transcripts, and quite a bit of online video is available.  You can watch the entire two-part program online, as a matter of fact.

It used to be fashionable to talk about Presidential Reconstruction (1865-1867) followed by Congressional Reconstruction (1867-1876), the latter also known as Radical Reconstruction.  Everyone still seems pretty much agreed that with the Presidential election of 1876, Reconstruction was essentially over.

It's probably just as well that the old formula timelines on Reconstruction aren't used so much any more, because it probably overemphasized the difference between the two periods.  During Johnson's term in office, a number of important measures were taken to set up a democratic political order in the South that would include blacks and promote economic development.  Many of those initiatives were pushed on the reluctant President by Congress.  And among the general public in the North at the end of the war and immediately thereafter, there was much more interest and willingness to press democratic reforms on the Southern power structure than there would be in 1876.  As historian David Blight says in the PBS program:

There was good evidence in 1865 that a lot of white Southerners, the leadership even of the Confederacy, would have accepted relatively harsh policies at that moment. But very soon it became clear that Andrew Johnson wanted a rapid, lenient restoration of the Union with as little alteration of the Constitution and the creation of black civil and political rights as possible.

Johnson is someone who drew on his worst instincts rather than his best when he became President.  He was a Tennessee Democrat, and he agreed to be Lincoln's vice presidential running mate on a national unity ticket in 1864.  He was a sincere and dedicated Unionist.  But he was also a racist, and had deeply anti-democratic instincts when it came to empowering and educating the former slaves, who were typically referred to in those days as the "freedmen" (which was understood to include black women, though hardly on a equal basis).

During this period, many former Confederate officials and people whose loyalty to the United States and its Constitution were considerably more than questionable were allowed to assume full citizenship rights and serve as officeholders.  Southern states began passing Black Codes, which were meant to hold the freedmen in serf-like status.  Former slaves were often compelled to work under very restrictive wage contracts for their former masters.  Many of the old Southern planter class, the former Slave Power, were attempting to restore something very like the old slave system.

In fairness to Johnson, for all his faults, he was also highly suspicious of the planter class.  He was enough of a Jacksonian to imagine himself a partisan of the poor whites of the South.  But the United States had a radically different form of democracy now.  Slavery was ended, the old social system based on slavery had been overthrown, the citizenry now included black Americans as well.  The federal government needed to approach this as a post-revolutionary situation.  Johnson did not.  And his racial fear of free blacks, no doubt fed by the prewar fear of "servile insurrection," rapidly led him to abandon any serious Jacksonian notions about restricting the power of the planter class in favor of ordinary white workers and farmers.  It would by no means be the last time in American history when racism would trump democracy.

This period was accompanied by violence against blacks, much of it organized and systematic.  The narrator in the PBS program says:

Black laborers who insisted on better wages and working conditions were regularly met with threats and violence. Vigilantes lynched whole families, and used the bullwhip on men and women as they had in slavery days. In 1865, more than two thousand black men women and children were reported murdered in Louisiana alone.

In 1867, Congress imposed much more restrictive rules on the former Confederate states with the Reconstruction Acts, which mandated that the South be put under five military districts to be controlled by the federal Army until genuinely loyal governments could be put into place.  During the following decade, a great deal was accomplished along those lines.  Former slaves began voting and participating actively in political life, the Black Codes were repealed, the Amry provided better protection for Southern blacks especially but also for whites, whose freedom had in practice been severely restricted in antebellum times.  A great deal of progress was made toward educating the freedmen.

However, even though most Americans have heard the phrase "40 acres and a mule," and may even have some idea that it relates to this period, no large-scale land reform ever took place.  There were some interesting and important small-scale instances of land reform.  But it never happened on a large scale.  If the federal government had seized the property of planters who had actively supported the Confederacy - which was virtually all of them - as contraband of war and redistributed it on a careful basis to black and white farmers, the power of the planter class would have been severely undermined.  And the social position and political influence of ordinary Southerners, black and white, would have been immensely strengthened.  It didn't happen.

By 1876, the Republican Party was well on its way in its transformation from being the party of abolition to the party of big business.  Republican politicians were losing their stomach for continuing Reconstruction.  And the shared racial views of white Americans North and South made equality and protection of civil rights for the former slaves a low national priority.  The beginning of the end of Reconstruction was in Missisippi in 1875, when the Democrats used force, violence and intimidation on a massive scale, including murder, to prevent blacks and white Republicans from voting in the elections that year.

When the Republicans agreed to withdraw the remaining federal troops from the South as part of a deal with the Democrats to settle the disputed presidential election of 1876, the "Mississippi Plan," as it was called, was employed in other Southern states, as well.  Blacks were largely disenfrachised, terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan - which were very much part of the Democratic Party power structure in the South at that time - were free to operate with little fear of the law being enforced against them, and severe economic restrictions could again be imposed on blacks.

A tremendous opportunity had been missed.  The federal government made two mistakes that in retrospect doomed Reconstruction.  One was that they allowed former Confederate soldiers to keep their weapons as personal property.  In the mid-1870s, when the democratic Reconstruction governments were trying to block violent depredations by terrorist groups, the fact that the terrorists had easy access to good weapons was an important factor in the outcome.  In some cases, Klan groups were able to forcibly seize shipments of arms that were on their way to the Army or official state militias in the South.

The other huge mistake was Johnson's two years of essentially allowing the planters to proceed with restoring the prewar social adn political order without the formal institution of slavery.  It's a good illustration that in 1865, the rules that Johnson imposed on former Confederates participating in politics were so lax that Alexander Stephens, who had been the vice president of the Rebel government that had been finally defeated earlier that same year, was elected to Congress!

As the narrator in the PBS program puts it:

In December 1865, the Thirty-Ninth Congress, the first since the end of the Civil War, convened in Washington. More than sixty former Confederates prepared to take their seats, including four generals, four colonels and six Confederate cabinet officers, even Alexander H. Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, expecting as one observer put it, "to govern the country he had been trying to destroy."

Two years immediately after the war was a great deal of time to lose.  And Johnson's pitiful Reconstruction policies encouraged continued resistance on the part of white Southerners, including the old leaders of the Confederacy, who otherwise would very likely have been willing to accept a more democratic order.

Those are "what-if's."  Obviously, we can't say sure what would have happened with a more thorough Reconstruction policy immediately after the war.  But it's one of the great tragedies of US history that we didn't get the chance to find out.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

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