Crossposted from Left Toon Lane, Bilerico Project & My Left Wing

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Reconstruction is the period from 1863 to 1877, when the government of the United States attempted to resolve the issues of the American Civil War (1861-1865), after the Confederacy was defeated and slavery ended. Reconstruction addressed how secessionist Southern states would return to the Union, the civil status of the leaders of the Confederacy, and the Constitutional and legal status of the Negro Freedmen. After the Civil War, violent controversy erupted throughout the South over how to tackle such issues.

The start of Reconstruction is often dated to the capitulation of the Confederacy in 1865, although some historians date it to 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. The constitutional amendments and legislative reforms that laid the foundation for the most radical phase of Reconstruction were enacted from 1865 until 1871.

By the 1870s freedmen were voting. Reconstruction had made progress to provide the former slaves with equal rights under the law. Republican legislatures, coalitions of whites and blacks, established the first systems of public school systems in the South. Beginning in 1874, however, there was a rise in white paramilitary organizations, such as the White League and Red Shirts, whose political aim was to turn out the Republicans. They also disrupted organizing and terrorized blacks to bar them from the polls. From 1873 to 1877, conservative white Democrats (calling themselves “Redeemers”) regained power in state elections throughout the former Confederacy. In 1877 President Rutherford Hayes withdrew federal troops, causing the collapse of the remaining three Republican state governments. Through the enactment of disfranchising statutes and constitutions, and extralegal means, the white Democrats subsequently removed most blacks and hundreds of thousands of poor whites from voter rolls in every Southern state. White Democrats established one-party rule and enforced a system of racial segregation that continued throughout the South into the 1960s.

Bitterness from the heated partisanship of the era lasted into the 21st century. But in other ways white veterans in the North and South undertook reconciliation, which reached a height in the early 20th century. This reconciliation coincided with the nadir of American race relations, during which there was an increase of racial segregation throughout America, disfranchisement of most African-Americans in the South, and racial violence, especially in the South. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were constitutional legacies of the Radical period. These established the rights on which African Americans, poor whites and their allies based extensive litigation, leading to US Supreme Court rulings starting in the early 20th century that struck down disfranchising provisions, civil rights legislation that was enacted in the mid-1960s, and additional constitutional amendments protecting and expanding the franchise.

Reconstruction came in three phases. Presidential Reconstruction, 1863-66 was controlled by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, with the goal of quickly reuniting the country. It can be said to have begun with the Emancipation Proclamation. The programs proposed by Lincoln and subsequently by Johnson (who by late 1865 had lost the support of most of the Republican party) were opposed by the Radical Republicans. This political faction gained power after the 1866 elections and began Congressional Reconstruction, 1866-1873 emphasizing civil rights and voting rights for the freedmen.

Supported by the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, in 1868 new state governments came to power in the former Confederacy which were based on a Republican coalition of freedmen, carpetbaggers and scalawags. In the Redemption, 1873-1877, white Southern Democrats (calling themselves “Redeemers”) defeated the Republicans and took control of each southern state, marking the end of Reconstruction. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes withdrew federal troops, causing the collapse of the remaining three Republican state governments.

During the Civil War, Republican leaders agreed that slavery and the Slave Power had to be permanently destroyed, and that all forms of Confederate nationalism had to be suppressed. Moderates said this could be easily accomplished as soon as Confederate armies surrendered and the Southern states repealed secession and ratified the 13th Amendment–all of which happened by September 1865.

President Abraham Lincoln was the leader of the moderate Republicans and wanted to speed up Reconstruction and reunite the nation as painlessly and as quickly as possible. Lincoln formally began Reconstruction in late 1863 with his Ten percent plan, which went into operation in several states but which Radicals opposed. Lincoln pocket vetoed the Radical plan, the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864, which was much more strict than the Ten-Percent Plan. The opposing faction of Radical Republicans were skeptical of Southern intentions and demanded more stringent federal action. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner led the Radical Republicans.

Radical Republican Charles Sumner argued that secession had destroyed statehood alone but the Constitution still extended its authority and its protection over individuals, as in the territories. Thaddeus Stevens and his followers viewed secession as having left the states in a status like newly conquered territory.

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson switched from the Radical to the moderate camp. By 1866, however, Johnson, with no party affiliation, broke with the moderate Republicans and aligned himself more with the Democrats who opposed equality and the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship to former slaves. Radicals attacked the policies of Johnson, especially his veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was intended to protect the civil rights of freedmen.

Congress rejected Johnson’s argument that he had the war power to decide what to do, since the war was over. Congress decided it had the primary authority to decide on how Reconstruction should proceed because the Constitution stated Congress had to guarantee each state a republican form of government. The issue became how republicanism should operate in the South; that is, how the freedmen would achieve citizenship, what the status of the Confederate states should be, and what should be the status of men who had supported the Confederacy.

The election of 1866 decisively changed the balance of power, giving the Republicans control of Congress and enough votes to overcome Johnson’s vetoes. They moved to impeach Johnson because of his opposition to Congressional policies. Johnson was acquitted by one vote, but he lost the influence to determine much Reconstruction policy.

Republicans established military districts in the South and used Army personnel to administer the region until new governments loyal to the Union could be established. They granted citizenship and suffrage to former slaves. They temporarily suspended the franchise for the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 white men who had been Confederate officials or senior officers.

With the power to vote, freedmen started participating in politics. A Republican coalition of freedmen, southerners supportive of the Union, called scalawags; and northerners who had migrated to the South (some who were returning natives, but most were Union veterans), snidely called carpetbaggers, organized to create constitutional conventions. They created new state constitutions to implement changes affecting former slaves.

A loyalty issue emerged in the debates over the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864. Wade-Davis required voters to take the “Ironclad Oath,” swearing that in the past they never had supported the Confederacy or been one of its soldiers. Lincoln ignored the past and asked voters to swear that in the future they would support the Union. The Radicals lost support following Lincoln’s pocket veto, but they regained strength after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Congress had to consider how to bring southern states back into the Union. Suffrage for ex-Confederates was one of two main concerns. First, both sides tried to keep the other from voting. It was a question of whether to allow some or all ex-Confederates to vote. The moderates wanted virtually all of them to vote, but the Radicals repeatedly tried to impose the Ironclad oath, which would allow none to vote. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposed, unsuccessfully, that all ex-Confederates lose the right to vote for five years. The compromise that was reached disfranchised many ex-Confederate civil and military leaders for a limited period. No one knew how many temporarily lost the vote, but one estimate was 10,000 to 15,000.

Second (and closely related to discussions about disfranchising ex-Confederates) was the issue of whether freedmen should be allowed to vote. The issue was how to receive the four million former slaves as citizens. If they were to be fully counted as citizens, some sort of representation for apportionment of seats in Congress had to be determined. The population of enslaved African Americans had been counted as three-fifths of a comparable number of free whites. If the freedmen could not vote, the South would gain additional seats in Congress by having the benefit of four million “new” citizens counted toward representation, but with only whites representing them. Many conservatives (including most white southerners, northern Democrats, and some northern Republicans) opposed black voting. (Some northern states that had referendums on the subject about the same time limited the ability of their own small populations of blacks to vote. That was not the same issue as Congress faced with the South.)

Lincoln had supported a middle position to allow some black men to vote, especially army veterans. Johnson also believed that such service should be rewarded with citizenship. Lincoln proposed giving the vote to “the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.” In 1864, Governor Johnson said, “The better class of them will go to work and sustain themselves, and that class ought to be allowed to vote, on the ground that a loyal negro is more worthy than a disloyal white man.” As President in 1865, Johnson wrote to the man he appointed as governor of Mississippi, recommending, “If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution in English and write their names, and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars, and pay taxes thereon, you would completely disarm the adversary [Radicals in Congress], and set an example the other states will follow.”

Senators Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Thaddeus Stevens, leaders of the Radical Republicans, were initially hesitant to enfranchise the largely illiterate ex-slave population. Sumner preferred at first impartial requirements that would have imposed literacy restrictions on both blacks and whites. He believed, however, that he would not succeed in passing legislation to disfranchise illiterate whites who already had the vote.

(Oddly enough, southern states did precisely that themselves with new constitutions and statutes from 1890-1908. Anxious not to have to contend again with coalitions between poor whites and blacks as arose in the 1890s, Democrats disfranchised both in most southern states. In Alabama, for instance, they reduced the franchise for poor whites, whereas the state had been established with universal white suffrage in 1819. From 1900-1903 the white vote went down by more than 40,000, although the population increased. By 1941, 600,000 poor whites in Alabama had been disfranchised, compared to 520,000 blacks.)

Because there was no universal public education in the South, many poor whites were illiterate. In 1880, for example, the white illiteracy rate was about 25% in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia; and as high as 33% in North Carolina. This compares with the 9% national rate and a black rate of illiteracy that was over 70% in the South. By 1900, with emphasis within the black community on education, however, the majority of blacks had achieved literacy.

Sumner soon concluded that “there was no substantial protection for the freedman except in the franchise.” This was necessary, he stated, “(1) For his own protection; (2) For the protection of the white Unionist; and (3) For the peace of the country. We put the musket in his hands because it was necessary; for the same reason we must give him the franchise.” The support for voting rights was a compromise between moderate and Radical Republicans.

The Republicans believed that the best way for men to get political experience was to be able to vote and to participate in the political system. They passed laws allowing all male freedmen to vote. In 1867, black men voted for the first time. Over the course of Reconstruction, more than 1,500 African Americans held public office in the South. They did not hold office in numbers representative of their proportion in the population, but often elected whites to represent them. (The question of women’s suffrage was also debated but was rejected.)

Northern anger over the assassination of Lincoln and the immense human cost of the war led to demands for harsh policies. Vice President Andrew Johnson had taken a hard line and spoke of hanging rebel Confederates, but when he succeeded Lincoln as President, Johnson took a much softer line, pardoning many Confederate leaders and ex-Confederates to maintain their control of Southern state governments, Southern lands, and black people. Jefferson Davis was held in prison for two years, but other Confederate leaders were not. There were no treason trials. Only one person–Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of the prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia–was executed for war crimes.

In March 1865, Congress had established the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau provided food, clothing, and fuel to destitute former slaves and white refugees.

Although resigned to the abolition of slavery, many ex-Confederates were not willing to accept the granting of civil rights to the freedmen. The defeated feared that after the abolition of slavery, the freedmen would threaten their economic and political preeminence in the South. In the words of Benjamin F. Perry, president Johnson’s choice as the provisional governor of South Carolina: “First, the Negro is to be invested with all political power, and then the antagonism of interest between capital and labor is to work out the result.”

However, the fears of the mostly conservative planter elite were partly assuaged by the actions of president Johnson, who ensured that a wholesale land redistribution from the planters to the Freedman did not occur. President Johnson ordered that confiscated or abandoned lands administered by the Freedman’s Bureau would not be redistributed to the freedmen but be returned to the pardoned owners. Land was returned that would have been forfeited under the provisions of the Confiscation Acts passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862.

Southern state governments quickly enacted the restrictive “black codes”. However they were abolished by Congress and seldom had effect because the Freedman’s Bureau (not the local courts) handled the legal affairs of freedmen. The Black Codes were based on northern vagrancy laws.

Under the black codes, the freedmen had more rights than did free blacks before the war, but they still had only a limited set of second-class civil rights, no voting rights, and their rights as citizens such as owning firearms, serving in a jury when no black was present in the case, and moving about the countryside without employment were prohibited. Among other provisions, the Black Codes stringently limited blacks’ ability to control their own employment. The Black Codes outraged northern opinion. They were overthrown by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that gave the Freedmen full legal equality (except for the right to vote).

The freedmen rejected gang labor procedures that had been used in slavery and with the strong backing of the Freedman’s Bureau they forced planters to bargain for their labor. Such bargaining led to the establishment of the system of sharecropping, which gave the freedmen greater economic independence and social autonomy than gang labor. However, because they lacked capital and the planters continued to own the means of production (tools, draft animals and land), the freedmen were forced into producing cash crops (mainly cotton) for the planters, and they entered into a crop-lien system which eventually led to the permanent indebtedness of the majority of the freedmen. To pay off their debt, some freedpeople would even be auctioned off as servants.

Northern officials gave varying reports on conditions for the Freedmen in the South. One harsh assessment came from Carl Schurz who reported on the situation in the states along the Gulf Coast. His report  documents dozens of extra-judicial killings and claims that hundreds or thousands more African Americans were killed:

The number of murders and assaults perpetrated upon Negroes is very great; we can form only an approximative estimate of what is going on in those parts of the South which are not closely garrisoned, and from which no regular reports are received, by what occurs under the very eyes of our military authorities. As to my personal experience, I will only mention that during my two days sojourn at Atlanta, one Negro was stabbed with fatal effect on the street, and three were poisoned, one of whom died. While I was at Montgomery, one negro was cut across the throat evidently with intent to kill, and another was shot, but both escaped with their lives. Several papers attached to this report give an account of the number of capital cases that occurred at certain places during a certain period of time. It is a sad fact that the perpetration of those acts is not confined to that class of people which might be called the rabble.

– Carl Schurz, “Report on the Condition of the South,” December 1865 (U.S. Senate Exec. Doc. No. 2, 39th Congress, 1st session).

The report includes sworn testimony from soldiers and officials of the Freedman’s Bureau. In Selma, Alabama, Major J.P. Houston noted that whites who killed 12 African Americans in his district never came to trial. Many more killings never even became official cases. Captain Poillon describes white patrols in southwestern Alabama “who board some of the boats; after the boats leave they hang, shoot, or drown the victims they may find on them, and all those found on the roads or coming down the rivers are almost invariably murdered. The bewildered and terrified freedmen know not what to do–to leave is death; to remain is to suffer the increased burden imposed upon them by the cruel taskmaster, whose only interest is their labor, wrung from them by every device an inhuman ingenuity can devise; hence the lash and murder is resorted to intimidate those whom fear of an awful death alone cause to remain, while patrols, Negro dogs and spies, disguised as Yankees, keep constant guard over these unfortunate people.”

In response to the Black codes and worrisome signs of Southern recalcitrance, the Radical Republicans blocked the readmission of the ex-rebellious states to the Congress in fall 1865. Congress also renewed the Freedman’s Bureau, but Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill in February 1866. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, leader of the moderate Republicans, took affront at the black codes. He proposed the first Civil Rights Law, because the abolition of slavery was empty if “laws are to be enacted and enforced depriving persons of African descent of privileges which are essential to freemen… A law that does not allow a colored person to go from one county to another, and one that does not allow him to hold property, to teach, to preach, are certainly laws in violation of the rights of a freeman… The purpose of this bill is to destroy all these discriminations.”

The key to the bill was the opening section:

“All persons born in the United States … are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery … shall have the same right in every State …to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

Congress quickly passed the Civil Rights bill; the Senate on February 2 voted 33-12; the House on March 13 voted 111-38.

Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. His veto message objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the Freedmen at a time when eleven out of thirty-six states were unrepresented and attempted to fix by Federal law “a perfect equality of the white and black races in every State of the Union.” Johnson said it was an invasion by Federal authority of the rights of the States; it had no warrant in the Constitution and was contrary to all precedents. It was a “stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government.”

The Democratic Party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, north and south, supported Johnson. However the Republicans in Congress overrode his veto (the Senate by the close vote of 33:15, the House by 122:41) and the Civil Rights bill became law. Congress also passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill over Johnson’s veto.

The last moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment, whose principal drafter was Representative John Bingham. It was designed to put the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution, but it went much further. It extended citizenship to everyone born in the United States (except visitors and Indians on reservations), penalized states that did not give the vote to Freedmen, and most importantly, created new federal civil rights that could be protected by federal courts. It guaranteed the Federal war debt would be paid (and promised the Confederate debt would never be paid). Johnson used his influence to block the amendment in the states since three-fourths of the states were required for ratification. (The amendment was later ratified.) The moderate effort to compromise with Johnson had failed, and a political fight broke out between the Republicans (both Radical and moderate) on one side, and on the other side, Johnson and his allies in the Democratic party in the North, and the conservative groupings (which used different names) in each southern state.

Republicans in Congress took control of Reconstruction policies after the election of 1866. They passed legislation over President Johnson’s vetoes. They passed constitutional amendments against his wishes. Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, and the Republican faction that called themselves “radicals” led efforts to extend suffrage to freedmen. They were generally in control, although they had to compromise with the moderate Republicans. (The Democrats in Congress had almost no power.) Historians generally refer to this period as Radical Reconstruction.

The South’s white leaders, who regained power in the immediate postwar era before the vote was granted to the freedmen, renounced secession and slavery, but not white supremacy. People who had previously held power were angered in 1867 when new elections were held. New Republican lawmakers were elected by a coalition of white Unionists, freedmen and northerners who had settled in the South. Some leaders in the South tried to accommodate new conditions.

With the Radicals in control, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867. The first Reconstruction Act placed ten Confederate states under military control, grouping them into five military districts.

Three new Constitutional amendments were adopted. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and was ratified in 1865. The 14th Amendment was rejected in 1866 but ratified in 1868, guaranteeing citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, except Native Americans, and granting them federal civil rights. The 15th Amendment passed in 1870, decreeing that the right to vote could not be denied because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The amendment did not declare the vote an unconditional right and only prohibited these specific types of discrimination while specific electoral policies were determined within each state.

The ten Southern state governments were re-constituted under the direct control of the United States Army. One major purpose was to recognize and protect the right of African Americans to vote. There was little or no fighting, but rather a state of martial law in which the military closely supervised local government, supervised elections, and tried to protect office holders and freedmen from violence. Blacks were enrolled as voters; former Confederate leaders were excluded for a limited period. No one state was entirely representative. Randolph Campbell describes what happened in Texas:

The first critical step … was the registration of voters according to guidelines established by Congress and interpreted by Generals Sheridan and Griffin. The Reconstruction Acts called for registering all adult males, white and black, except those who had ever sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and then engaged in rebellion…. Sheridan interpreted these restrictions stringently, barring from registration not only all pre-1861 officials of state and local governments who had supported the Confederacy but also all city officeholders and even minor functionaries such as sextons of cemeteries. In May Griffin … appointed a three-man board of registrars for each county, making his choices on the advice of known scalawags and local Freedman’s Bureau agents. In every county where practicable a freedman served as one of the three registrars…. Final registration amounted to approximately 59,633 whites and 49,479 blacks. It is impossible to say how many whites were rejected or refused to register (estimates vary from 7,500 to 12,000), but blacks, who constituted only about 30 percent of the state’s population, were significantly overrepresented at 45 percent of all voters.

All Southern states were readmitted to representation in Congress by the end of 1870, the last being Georgia. All but 500 top Confederate leaders were pardoned when President Grant signed the Amnesty Act of 1872.

Republicans took control of all Southern state governorships and state legislatures, leading to the election of numerous African-Americans to state and national offices, as well as to the installation of African-Americans into other positions of power. About 137 black officeholders had lived outside the South before the Civil War. Some had escaped from slavery to the North and returned to help the South advance in the postwar era. Many of them had achieved education and positions of leadership elsewhere. Other African American men who served were leaders in their communities, including a number of preachers. As was the case in white communities, all leadership did not depend on wealth and literacy.

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the first historians to document the freedmen’s deep commitment to education and demonstrated that African Americans played a critical role in establishing universal public education as fundamental to southern state constitutions during congressional Reconstruction. Many slaves had taken risks to learn to read although forbidden to do so by law; African Americans started “native schools” before the end of the war; Sabbath schools were another widespread means freedmen created for teaching literacy. When they gained suffrage, black politicians took this commitment to public education to state constitutional conventions.

African Americans and white Republicans joined to build education at the state level. They created a system of public schools, which were segregated by race everywhere except New Orleans. Most blacks approved the segregated schools because they wanted to control education for their children, the schools provided jobs for black teachers, and kept their children in a much safer learning environment. In general, elementary and a few secondary schools were built in the cities. But the South had relatively few cities.

In the rural areas the public school was often a one-room affair that attracted about half the younger children. The teachers were poorly paid, and their pay was often in arrears. Conservatives contended the rural schools were too expensive and unnecessary for a region where the vast majority of people were cotton or tobacco farmers. They had no vision of a better future for their residents. One historian found that the schools were less effective than they might have been because of “poverty, the inability of the states to collect taxes, and inefficiency and corruption in many places prevented successful operation of the schools.”

Numerous private academies and colleges for Freedmen were established by northern missionaries. Every state created state colleges for Freedmen, such as Alcorn State University in Mississippi. The state colleges created generations of teachers who were critical in the education of African American children.

In 1890, the black state colleges started receiving federal funds as land grant schools. They received state funds after Reconstruction ended because, as Lynch explains, “there are very many liberal, fair-minded and influential Democrats in the State who are strongly in favor of having the State provide for the liberal education of both races.” Before this period, however, planters had opposed public education for freedmen and underfunded schools.

Every Southern state subsidized railroads, which modernizers felt could haul the South out of isolation and poverty. Millions of dollars in bonds and subsidies were fraudulently pocketed. One ring in North Carolina spent $200,000 in bribing the legislature and obtained millions in state money for its railroads. Instead of building new track, however, it used the funds to speculate in bonds, reward friends with extravagant fees, and enjoy lavish trips to Europe. Taxes were quadrupled across the South to pay off the railroad bonds and the school costs. There were complaints among taxpayers, because taxes had historically been very low, since there was so little commitment to public works or public education. Taxes historically had been much lower than in the North, reflecting a lack of public investment in the communities. Nevertheless thousands of miles of lines were built as the Southern system expanded from 11,000 miles (17,700 km) in 1870 to 29,000 miles (46,700 km) in 1890. The lines were owned and directed overwhelmingly by Northerners. Railroads helped create a mechanically skilled group of craftsmen and indeed broke the isolation of much of the region. Passengers were few, however, and apart from hauling the cotton crop when it was harvested, there was little freight traffic. As Franklin explains, “numerous railroads fed at the public trough by bribing legislators…and through the use and misuse of state funds.” The effect, according to one businessman, “was to drive capital from the State, paralyze industry, and demoralize labor.”

Reconstruction changed the tax structure of the South. In the U.S. from the earliest days until today, a major source of state revenue was the property tax. In the South, wealthy landowners were allowed to assess the value of their own land. These assessments were almost valueless and the pre-war tax rate was almost nothing. Pre-war southern states did not educate their citizens or build and maintain any infrastructure. State revenues came from fees and from sales taxes on slave auctions. Some states assessed property owners by a combination of land value and a capitation tax, a tax on each worker employed. This tax was often assessed in a way to discourage a free labor market, where a slave was assessed at 75 cents, while a free white was assessed at a dollar or more, and a free African American at $3 or more. Some revenue also came from poll taxes. These taxes were more than poor people could pay, with the designed and inevitable consequence that they did not vote.

During Reconstruction, new spending on schools and infrastructure, combined with fraudulent spending and a collapse in state credit because of huge deficits, forced the states to dramatically increase property tax rates. In places, the rate went up to ten times higher–despite the poverty of the region. The infrastructure of much of the South–roads, bridges, and railroads–scarce and deficient as it was–had been destroyed during the war. In part, the new tax system was designed to force owners of large estates with huge tracts of uncultivated land either to sell or to have it confiscated for failure to pay taxes. The taxes would serve as a market-based system for redistributing the land to the landless freedmen and white poor.

Now that they were called upon to pay a tax on their property, angry plantation owners revolted, and the conservatives shifted their focus away from race to taxes. Former Congressman John Lynch, a black Republican leader from Mississippi, concluded, “The argument made by the taxpayers, however, was plausible and it may be conceded that, upon the whole, they were about right; for no doubt it would have been much easier upon the taxpayers to have increased at that time the interest-bearing debt of the State than to have increased the tax rate. The latter course, however, had been adopted and could not then be changed.”

The white Southerners who lost power reformed themselves into “Conservative” parties that battled the Republicans throughout the South. The party names varied, but by the late 1870s, they simply called themselves “Democrats.” Historian Walter Lynwood Fleming describes mounting anger of Southern whites: “The Negro troops, even at their best, were everywhere considered offensive by the native whites… The Negro soldier, impudent by reason of his new freedom, his new uniform, and his new gun, was more than Southern temper could tranquilly bear, and race conflicts were frequent.”

While both the planter-business class and the common farmer class of the South both opposed black suffrage, they did so for different reasons. These common farmers were now competing economically with the recently freed blacks and wanted to keep them inferior. They opposed black suffrage for racial reasons. On the other hand, the planter-business class opposed black suffrage for economic reasons, not racial reasons. Any laboring class, no matter what race, given universal suffrage could lead to an attack on the property that the planter class loved so much. These conservatives felt that their property interests were now in danger because the laboring class was ignorant and would vote to raise taxes significantly. After being faced by these taxes, the planter-business class that by teaming up with the blacks they could lift the tariffs and further their own political agendas. The Democrats nominated blacks for political office as well as tried to steal other blacks from the Republican side. But when these attempts to combine with the blacks failed, the planters joined the common farmers in simply trying to displace the Republican governments.”
Fleming is a typical example of the conservative pro-white interpretation of Reconstruction. His work defended some roles of the KKK but denounced its violence; Fleming accepted as necessary the disenfranchisement of African Americans because he thought their votes were bought and sold. Fleming described the first results of the movement as “good” and the later ones as “both good and bad.” According to Fleming (1907) the KKK “quieted the Negroes, made life and property safer, gave protection to women, stopped burnings, forced the Radical leaders to be more moderate, made the Negroes work better, drove the worst of the Radical leaders from the country and started the whites on the way to gain political supremacy.” The evil results, Fleming said, was that lawless elements “made use of the organization as a cloak to cover their misdeeds… the lynching habits of today [1907] are largely to conditions, social and legal, growing out of Reconstruction.”

Ellis Oberholtzer (a northern scholar) in 1917 explained:

Outrages upon the ex-slaves in the South there were in plenty. Their sufferings were many. But white men, too, were victims of lawless violence, and in all portions of the North as well as in the late “rebel” states. Not a political campaign passed without the exchange of bullets, the breaking of skulls with sticks and stones, the firing of rival club-houses. Republican clubs marched the streets of Philadelphia, amid revolver shots and brickbats, to save the negroes from the “rebel” savages in Alabama… The project to make voters out of black men was not so much for their social elevation as for the further punishment of the Southern white people–for the capture of offices for Radical scamps and the entrenchment of the Radical party in power for a long time to come in the South and in the country at large.”

Reaction by conservatives included the formation of violent secret societies, especially the Ku Klux Klan. Violence occurred in cities and in the countryside between white former Confederates, Republicans, African-Americans, representatives of the federal government, and Republican-organized armed Loyal Leagues. The victims of violence were overwhelmingly African Americans, although white supporters were also attacked.

As early as 1868 Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, a leading Radical during the war, concluded that:

Congress was right in not limiting, by its reconstruction acts, the right of suffrage to whites; but wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens and all unable to take its prescribed retrospective oath, and wrong also in the establishment of despotic military governments for the States and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions; no classes excluded from suffrage; and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the Constitution and laws, and of sincere attachment to the constitutional Government of the United States.

By 1872, President Grant had alienated large numbers of leading Republicans, including many Radicals by the corruption of his administration and his use of federal soldiers to prop up Radical state regimes in the South. The opponents, called “Liberal Republicans”, included founders of the party who expressed dismay that the party had succumbed to corruption. They were further wearied by the continued insurgent violence of whites against blacks in the South, especially around every election cycle, which demonstrated the war was not over and changes were fragile . Leaders included editors of some of the nation’s most powerful newspapers. Charles Sumner, embittered by the corruption of the Grant administration, joined the new party, which nominated editor Horace Greeley. The badly organized Democratic party also supported Greeley.
Grant made up for the defections by new gains among Union veterans, as well as strong support from the “Stalwart” faction of his party (which depended on his patronage), and the Southern Republican parties. Grant won a smashing landslide, as the Liberal Republican party vanished and many former supporters–even ex-abolitionists–abandoned the cause of Reconstruction.

In the South, political-racial tensions built up inside the Republican party. In 1868, Georgia Democrats, with support from some Republicans, expelled all 28 black Republican members (arguing blacks were eligible to vote but not to hold office.) In several states the more conservative scalawags fought for control with the more radical carpetbaggers and usually lost. Thus, in Mississippi, the conservative faction led by scalawag James Lusk Alcorn was decisively defeated by the radical faction led by carpetbagger Adelbert Ames. The party lost support steadily as many scalawags left it; few new recruits were acquired. Meanwhile, the freedmen were demanding a bigger share of the offices and patronage, thus squeezing out their carpetbagger allies. Finally some of the more prosperous freedmen were joining the Democrats, as they were angered at the failure of the Republicans to help them acquire land.

Although historians such as W.E.B. Du Bois looked for and celebrated a cross-racial coalition of poor whites and blacks, such coalitions rarely formed in these years. With long-term agricultural problems, there was an alliance later in the century between Populists and Republicans whose coalition won control in several states, especially in 1894. White Democrats reacted by creating more legislative and constitutional barriers to voter registration and voting by poor whites and blacks.

Writing in 1915 and demonstrating contemporary biases about Reconstruction, Congressman Lynch explained that,

While the colored men did not look with favor upon a political alliance with the poor whites, it must be admitted that, with very few exceptions, that class of whites did not seek, and did not seem to desire such an alliance.

Lynch explained that poor whites resented the job competition from freedmen. Furthermore, the poor whites

with a few exceptions, were less efficient, less capable, and knew less about matters of state and governmental administration than many of the ex-slaves…. As a rule, therefore, the whites that came into the leadership of the Republican party between 1872 and 1875 were representatives of the most substantial families of the land.

Thus, the Democrats encouraged the poor whites to ally with them over race. They became bitterly opposed to black Republicans. Elite white Democrats subverted any coalition threat to their control by passage of statutes and new constitutions from 1890-1908 that effectively disfranchised most blacks and hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

By 1870, the Democratic-Conservative leadership across the South decided it had to end its opposition to Reconstruction as well as to black suffrage in order to survive and move on to new issues. The Grant administration had proven by its crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan that it would use as much federal power as necessary to suppress open anti-black violence. The Democrats in the North concurred. They wanted to fight the Republican Party on economic grounds rather than race. The New Departure offered the chance for a clean slate without having to refight the Civil War every election. Furthermore, many wealthy landowners thought they could control part of the newly enfranchised black electorate to their own advantage.

Not all Democrats agreed; an insurgent element continued to resist Reconstruction no matter what. Eventually, a group called “Redeemers” took control of the party in the states. They formed coalitions with conservative Republicans, including scalawags and carpetbaggers, emphasizing the need for economic modernization. Railroad building was seen as a panacea since northern capital was needed. The new tactics were a success in Virginia where William Mahone built a winning coalition. In Tennessee, the Redeemers formed a coalition with Republican governor DeWitt Senter. Across the South some Democrats switched from the race issue to taxes and corruption, charging that Republican governments were corrupt and inefficient. With continuing decrease in cotton prices, taxes squeezed cash-poor farmers who rarely saw $20 in currency a year but had to pay taxes in currency or lose their farm.

In North Carolina, Republican Governor William Woods Holden used state troops against the Klan, but the prisoners were released by federal judges. Holden became the first governor in American history to be impeached and removed from office. Republican political disputes in Georgia split the party and enabled the Redeemers to take over.

In the lower South, violence continued and new insurgent groups arose. The disputed election in Louisiana in 1872 found both Republican and Democratic candidates holding inaugural balls while returns were reviewed. Both certified their own slates for local parish offices in many places, causing local tensions to rise. Finally Federal support helped certify the Republican as governor, but the Democrat McEnery in March 1873 brought his own militia to bear in New Orleans, the seat of government.

Slates for local offices were certified by each candidate. In rural Grant Parish in the Red River Valley, freedmen fearing a Democratic attempt to take over the parish government reinforced defenses at the Colfax courthouse in late March. White militias gathered from the area a few miles outside the settlement. Rumors and fears abounded on both sides. William Ward, an African-American Union veteran and militia captain, mustered his company in Colfax and went to the courthouse. On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, the whites attacked the defenders at the courthouse. There was confusion about who shot one of the white leaders after an offer by the defenders to surrender. It was a catalyst to mayhem. In the end, three whites died and 120-150 blacks were killed, some 50 while held as prisoners. The disproportionate numbers of black to white fatalities and documentation of brutalized bodies are why contemporary historians call it the Colfax Massacre rather than the Colfax Riot, as it is known locally.

This marked the beginning of heightened insurgency and attacks on Republican officeholders and freedmen in Louisiana and other Deep South states. In Louisiana Judge T.S. Crawford and District Attorney P.H. Harris of the 12th Judicial District were shot off their horses and killed from ambush October 8, 1873 while going to court. One widow wrote to the Department of Justice that her husband was killed because he was a Union man and “…of the efforts made to screen those who committed a crime…” {US Senate Journal January 13, 1875, pp.106-107}.
In the North, a live-and-let-live attitude made elections more like a sporting contest. But in the Deep South, many white citizens had not reconciled themselves to the defeat of the war or the granting of citizenship to freedmen. As an Alabama scalawag explained, “Our contest here is for life, for the right to earn our bread…for a decent and respectful consideration as human beings and members of society.”

The Panic of 1873 hit the Southern economy hard and disillusioned many Republicans who had gambled that railroads would pull the South out of its poverty. The price of cotton fell by half; many small landowners, local merchants and cotton factors (wholesalers) went bankrupt. Sharecropping, for both black and white farmers, became more common as a way to spread the risk of owning land. The old abolitionist element in the North was aging away, or had lost interest, and was not replenished. Many carpetbaggers returned to the North or joined the Redeemers. Blacks had an increased voice in the Republican Party, but across the South it was divided by internal bickering and was rapidly losing its cohesion. Many local black leaders started emphasizing individual economic progress in cooperation with white elites, rather than racial political progress in opposition to them, a conservative attitude that foreshadowed Booker T. Washington.

Nationally, President Grant took the blame for the depression; the Republican Party lost 96 seats in all parts of the country in the 1874 elections. The Bourbon Democrats took control of the House and were confident of electing Samuel J. Tilden president in 1876. President Grant was not running for re-election and seemed to be losing interest in the South. States fell to the Redeemers, with only four in Republican hands in 1873, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina; Arkansas then fell after the Brooks-Baxter War in 1874.

Political violence had been endemic in Louisiana, but in 1874 the white militias coalesced into paramilitary organizations such as the White League, first in parishes of the Red River Valley. It was a new organization that operated openly and had political goals: the violent overthrow of Republican rule and suppression of black voting. White League chapters soon rose in many rural parishes, receiving financing for advanced weaponry from wealthy men. In one example of local violence, the White League assassinated six white Republican officeholders and five to twenty black witnesses outside Coushatta, Red River Parish in 1874. Four of the white men were related to the Republican representative of the parish.

Later in 1874 the White League mounted a serious attempt to unseat the Republican governor of Louisiana, in a dispute that had simmered since the 1872 election. It brought 5000 troops to New Orleans to engage and overwhelm forces of the Metropolitan Police and state militia in an effort to turn Republican Governor William Kellogg out of office and seat McEnery. The White League took over and held the state house and city hall, but they retreated before the arrival of reinforcing Federal troops. Kellogg had asked for reinforcements before, and Grant finally responded, sending additional troops to try to quell violence throughout plantation areas of the Red River Valley, although 2,000 troops were already in the state.

Similarly, the Red Shirts, another paramilitary group, arose in 1875 in Mississippi and the Carolinas. Like the White League and White Liner rifle clubs, these groups operated as a “military arm of the Democratic Party”, to restore white supremacy.

Democrats and many northern Republicans agreed that Confederate nationalism and slavery were dead–the war goals were achieved–and further federal military interference was an undemocratic violation of historic Republican values. The victory of Rutherford Hayes in the hotly contested Ohio gubernatorial election of 1875 indicated his “let alone” policy toward the South would become Republican policy, as indeed happened when he won the 1876 Republican nomination for president.

An explosion of violence accompanied the campaign for the Mississippi’s 1875 election, in which Red Shirts and Democratic rifle clubs, operating in the open and without disguise, threatened or shot enough Republicans to decide the election for the Democrats. Republican Governor Adelbert Ames asked Grant for federal troops to fight back; Grant initially refused, saying public opinion was “tired out” of the perpetual troubles in the South. Ames fled the state as the Democrats took over Mississippi.

This was not the end of the violence, however, as the campaigns and elections of 1876 were marked by additional murders and attacks on Republicans in Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Florida. In South Carolina the campaign season of 1876 was marked by murderous outbreaks and fraud against freedmen. Red Shirts paraded with arms behind Democratic candidates; they killed blacks in the Hamburg and Ellenton, SC massacres; and one historian estimated 150 blacks were killed in the weeks before the 1876 election across South Carolina. Red Shirts prevented almost all black voting in two majority-black counties. The Red Shirts were also active in North Carolina.

Reconstruction continued in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida until 1877. The elections of 1876 were accompanied by heightened violence across the Deep South. A combination of ballot stuffing and intimidating blacks suppressed their vote even in majority black counties. The White League was active in Louisiana. After Republican Rutherford Hayes won the disputed U.S. Presidential election of 1876, the national Compromise of 1877 was reached.

The white Democrats in the South agreed to accept Hayes’s victory if he withdrew the last Federal troops. By this point, the North was weary of insurgency. White Democrats controlled most of the Southern legislatures and armed militias controlled small towns and rural areas. With the white Democrats’ passage of disfranchising constitutions and statues, African Americans who wanted to exercise their legal rights were repeatedly thwarted by white Democrats for most of the next 75 years. They considered Reconstruction a failure because the Federal government withdrew from enforcing their ability to exercise their rights as citizens.

The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of a period, 1877-1900, in which white legislators passed laws and new constitutions that created barriers to voter registration and voting for African-Americans and poor whites, ushering in the nadir of American race relations. White Democrats also passed Jim Crow laws imposing segregation in public facilities and transportation, as well as other restrictions on blacks. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Populist Party in some cases allied with black Republicans. Faced with this threat, white Democrats moved to reduce the franchise among both groups. State legislatures passed laws directed at reducing voting by blacks and illiterate whites, chiefly by creating new requirements for voter registration. “It was the very success of interracial coalitions that catalyzed the disfranchisement movement among the previously ruling white class.”

From 1890 to 1908, starting with Mississippi, ten of the eleven states of the Confederacy passed new constitutions or amendments that created new requirements for voter registration, such as poll taxes, literacy and understanding tests, and residency requirements. The effect on black disfranchisement was immediate and devastating. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were removed from voter registration rolls across the South and effectively disfranchised. Tens of thousands of poor whites were also disfranchised. One-party rule under white Democrats was established. In both cases, disfranchisement lasted until deep into the 20th century.

Reconstruction civil rights legislation was overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Most notably, the court held in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), that the 14th Amendment gave Congress the power only to outlaw public, rather than private, discrimination. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court went further, ruling that state-mandated segregation was legal as long as the law provided for “separate but equal” facilities.

African Americans immediately started raising legal challenges to disfranchisement. Early challenges taken to the Supreme Court over Mississippi’s constitutional voter registration requirements, Williams v. Mississippi (1898), and Alabama’s disfranchising provisions, Giles v. Harris (1903), were unsuccessful, which encouraged other states to adopt similar provisions. Booker T. Washington, better known for his public position as an accomodationist, used his political contacts to raise funds and arrange representation for several of these legal challenges.

In 1909 the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established. Soon it began to participate in legal challenges, and established its Legal Defense Fund as a separate organization. In 1915, in Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the grandfather clause was unconstitutional in Oklahoma. This was the first case in which the NAACP had filed a brief with the Supreme Court. Other states using the grandfather clause also had to repeal it, but states quickly developed new measures for continuing disfranchisement. The NAACP proceeded with litigation challenging disfranchising provisions on a case by case basis and slowly accumulated some victories.

When the Supreme Court ruled white primaries unconstitutional in Smith v. Allwright (1944), civil rights organizations rushed to register African-American voters. By 1947 the All-Citizens Registration Committee (ACRC) of Atlanta managed to get 125,000 voters registered in Georgia, raising black participation to 18.8% of those eligible, from 20,000 on the rolls in 1940. Georgia, among other Southern states, passed new legislation (1958) to once again repress black voter registration. It was not until African-American leadership gained passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all American citizens regained the ability to exercise their suffrage, first gained by African Americans after the Civil War.

The interpretation of Reconstruction has swung back and forth several times. Nearly all historians, however, have concluded it was a failure. In the 1865-75 period, most writers took the view that the ex-Confederates were traitors and Johnson was their ally who threatened to undo the Union’s Constitutional achievements. In the 1870s and 1880s many writers argued that Johnson and his allies were not traitors but blundered badly in rejecting the 14th Amendment and setting the stage for Radical Reconstruction.

Booker T. Washington, who grew up in West Virginia during Reconstruction, concluded that, “the Reconstruction experiment in racial democracy failed because it began at the wrong end, emphasizing political means and civil rights acts rather than economic means and self-determination.” His solution was to concentrate on building the economic infrastructure of the black community, in part by his leadership of Tuskegee Institute. However, historians have discovered that Washington also used his significant resources and called on northern allies to secretly provide financing and representation in numerous lawsuits that challenged Southern segregation restrictions and constitutional disfranchisement, as in Alabama’s Giles v. Harris (1903) and Giles v. Teasley (1904).

In popular literature two novels by Thomas Dixon–The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden — 1865-1900–romanticized white resistance to Northern/black coercion, hailing vigilante action by the KKK. Other authors romanticized the benevolence of slavery and the happy world of the antebellum plantation. These sentiments were expressed on the screen in D.W. Griffith’s anti-Republican 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation.

The Dunning School of scholars based at the history department of Columbia University analyzed Reconstruction as a failure, at least after 1866, for quite different reasons. They claimed that it took freedoms and rights from qualified whites and gave them to unqualified blacks who were being duped by corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. As one scholar notes, “Reconstruction was a battle between two extremes: the Democrats, as the group which included the vast majority of the whites, standing for decent government and racial supremacy, versus the Republicans, the Negroes, alien carpetbaggers, and renegade scalawags, standing for dishonest government and alien ideals. These historians wrote literally in terms of white and black.”

In the 1930s, “revisionism” became popular among scholars. As disciples of Charles A. Beard, revisionists focused on economics, downplaying politics and constitutional issues. They argued that the Radical rhetoric of equal rights was mostly a smokescreen hiding the true motivation of Reconstruction’s real backers. Howard Beale argued Reconstruction was primarily a successful attempt by financiers, railroad builders and industrialists in the Northeast, using the Republican Party, to control the national government for their own selfish economic ends. Those ends were to continue the wartime high protective tariff, the new network of national banks, and to guarantee a “sound” currency. To succeed the business class had to remove the old ruling agrarian class of Southern planters and Midwestern farmers. This it did by inaugurating Reconstruction, which made the South Republican, and by selling its policies to the voters wrapped up in such attractive vote-getting packages as northern patriotism or the bloody shirt. Historian William Hesseltine added the point that the Northeastern businessmen wanted to control the South economically, which they did through ownership of the railroads. However, historians in the 1950s and 1960s refuted Beale’s economic causation by demonstrating that Northern businessmen were widely divergent on monetary or tariff policy, and seldom paid attention to Reconstruction issues.

The black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, in his Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, published in 1935, compared results across the states to show achievements by the Reconstruction legislatures and to refute claims about wholesale African-American control of governments. He showed black contributions, as in the establishment of universal public education, charitable and social institutions, and universal suffrage as important results, and he noted their collaboration with whites. He also pointed out that whites benefited most by the financial deals made, and he put excesses in the perspective of the war’s aftermath. He noted that despite complaints, several states kept their Reconstruction constitutions for nearly a quarter of a century. Despite receiving favorable reviews, his work was largely ignored by white historians.

In the 1960s, neoabolitionist historians emerged, led by John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner. Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, they rejected the Dunning school and found a great deal to praise in Radical Reconstruction. Foner, the primary advocate of this view, argued that it was never truly completed, and that a Second Reconstruction was needed in the late 20th century to complete the goal of full equality for African Americans. The neo-abolitionists followed the revisionists in minimizing the corruption and waste created by Republican state governments, saying it was no worse than Boss Tweed’s ring in New York City.

Instead they emphasized that suppression of the rights of African Americans was a worse scandal and a grave corruption of America’s republican ideals. They argued that the real tragedy of Reconstruction was not that it failed because blacks were incapable of governing, especially as they did not dominate any state government, but that it failed because whites raised an insurgent movement to restore white supremacy. White elite-dominated state legislatures passed disfranchising constitutions from 1890-1908 that effectively barred most blacks and many poor whites from voting. This disfranchisement affected millions of people for decades into the 20th century, and closed African Americans and poor whites out of the political process in the South.

Re-establishment of white supremacy meant that within a decade, people forgot that blacks were creating thriving middle classes in many states of the South. African Americans’ lack of representation meant they were treated as second-class citizens, with schools and services consistently underfunded in segregated societies, no representation on juries or in law enforcement, and bias in other legislation. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of Federal legislation that African Americans regained their suffrage and civil rights in the South, under what is sometimes referred to as the “Second Reconstruction.”

More recent work by Nina Silber, David Blight, Cecelia O’Leary, Laura Edwards, LeeAnn Whites, and Edward J. Blum, has encouraged greater attention to race, religion, and issues of gender while at the same time pushing the “end” of Reconstruction to the end of the nineteenth century, while monographs by Charles Reagan Wilson, Gaines Foster, W. Scott Poole have offered new views of the southern “Lost Cause”.

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