lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 16 12:51:44 MST 2006
Civil War hangover?
A master historian argues that race relations in today's American South
might be dramatically different -- and better -- if Reconstruction had been
By Andrew O'Hehir
Jan. 16, 2006 | Amid the racist darkness of the 1930s -- an era when
bigotry against African-Americans may have been worse than under slavery,
and when the vast majority of white Americans collaborated in their
systematic subjugation -- W.E.B. Du Bois kept alive the memory of another
day and another social order. "The unending tragedy of Reconstruction,"
wrote the legendary black intellectual, "is the utter inability of the
American mind to grasp its real significance, its national and world-wide
implications ... This problem involved the very foundations of American
democracy, both political and economic."
These words not only serve as the epigraph to Columbia University historian
Eric Foner's new book "Forever Free," they are the clarion call Foner has
spent his whole career answering. Foner may not possess the pop-culture
appeal of Harvard professor Howard Zinn, but he is without doubt the other
important radical historian of the American academy. If Zinn's specialty is
the grand, sweeping generalization -- the idea, more or less, that
everything you think you know about American history is wrong -- Foner's
work has remained tightly focused on the contentious idea of freedom, that
amorphous concept that has meant so many different things to so many
Americans. (Among the titles of his 13 books are "Free Soil, Free Labor,
Free Men," "Nothing but Freedom," "Freedom's Lawmakers," "The Story of
American Freedom," "Give Me Liberty!" and now "Forever Free.")
Foner's field of special expertise is what might be called without
exaggeration the crucible of American freedom: the Civil War, the
emancipation of the slaves and the ambiguous, myth-shrouded period that
followed known as Reconstruction. He never puts it this directly, either in
this new, somewhat compressed popular history or in his 1988 magnum opus,
"Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877," but he sees
Reconstruction, with all its contradictions and unrealized possibilities,
as the key to all of American history.
Given the many thousands of words Foner has already devoted to the topic of
Reconstruction, the existence of "Forever Free" requires a little
explanation. It was originally intended to be the companion volume to a
television series that has yet to be produced; the residue of that project
can be seen in Joshua Brown's interpolated "visual essays," which explore
the changing representations of African-Americans and race relations
throughout the period. To avid readers of history, there isn't much here
that's dramatically new, but as a cogent and gripping account aimed at a
wide audience, "Forever Free" fills a valuable niche.
More than that, this stripped-down narrative makes the long-term resonances
and contemporary significance of Reconstruction more apparent than ever.
One should be cautious about drawing parallels between the vastly different
societies of America in 1865 and America in 2005 (and Foner never does so
directly). But in both cases, we see a society so sharply divided along
racial and cultural lines that it encompasses opposing and indeed
incompatible worldviews. Undoubtedly it's simplistic to reduce the now
trite "red-vs.-blue" division of the 21st century to an extended Civil War
hangover, but it's not completely misguided either.
The age of emancipation and Reconstruction saw an explosive collision
between federal and state power, and between Congress and the White House.
It saw the federal government intervene in local affairs to serve as the
protector of a persecuted minority group's civil rights, and saw local
regimes of low taxation and limited government used as a smokescreen for
reestablishing white supremacy and traditional oligarchy. Along the way, it
remade the landscape of electoral politics, shaping both major political
parties into recognizable precursors of their modern selves. And as Du Bois
tried to remind the 20th century, it asked still-unanswered questions about
whether freedom for African-Americans -- or any other Americans --
signified more than the freedom to sell their labor rather than have it
beaten out of them.
Whatever else it was, the period of a dozen or so years after the Civil War
was one of incredible political drama, unlike anything else in our history.
Four million newly minted United States citizens, who had been other men's
chattel months earlier, were thrust into the historical and political
limelight. In alliance with both the "radical Republicans" of the North and
a surprising array of Southern whites, they tried to build a biracial
democracy on the ruins of a slave society. The legacy of this revolutionary
experiment -- more revolutionary than any social change ever effected in
the U.S., before or after -- has been debated ever since. Indeed, it was
debated extensively at the time, and its participants were aware that it
cast the notion of American freedom into sharp relief. In the words of
Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the former slaves were to be
"then, thenceforward, and forever free." But what did that mean?
Leaving aside the question of how to understand Reconstruction, its basic
facts are astonishing enough. After the surrender of the Confederacy and
the assassination of Lincoln, the Republican majority in Congress was (at
least briefly) determined to crush the spirit of Southern rebellion and
provide full citizenship to the freed slaves. Waging a ferocious battle
against President Andrew Johnson (whose vision of Southern Reconstruction
was, to put it gently, less ambitious), Congress drove through the 13th,
14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, enshrining the concept of
universal equality before the law in that document for the first time. That
extraordinary Washington conflict reached its climax in 1868, when Johnson
was impeached by the House and avoided removal from office by a single vote
in the Senate.
Whether newly emancipated or free-born, African-Americans flooded into the
political and civic life of the Reconstruction South with prodigious
enthusiasm. Many of the social organizations that had persisted underground
under slavery, such as the black churches, black schools and black social
organizations, became legitimate for the first time. (A fair number of
these Reconstruction institutions, such as the traditional black colleges
and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, remain prominent in
African-American life today.) Within a few years, a middle class of black
preachers, doctors and other professionals had begun to emerge, partly
because of existing disparities in wealth and education between free
blacks, rural plantation slaves and urban domestic slaves (some of whom had
led relatively privileged lives).
These are the most energizing sections of Foner's propulsive narrative:
Even white Southerners with openly racist attitudes and allegiances to the
defeated aristocracy were struck by black Americans' appetite for literacy,
political discourse and civic engagement after emancipation. "You never saw
a people more excited on the subject of politics than are the Negroes of
the South," wrote an Alabama plantation overseer in 1867. "They are
Upward of 2,000 African-Americans were elected or appointed to office
across the South before Reconstruction had run its course, a number not
matched for more than a century afterward. These included the first two
black U.S. senators, Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both of
Mississippi (with Revels actually taking the Senate seat that had been
abandoned by Jefferson Davis), and the wonderfully named Pinckney B.S.
Pinchback, who served briefly as governor of Louisiana amid the chaos of
that state's 1872 gubernatorial election. Far more important were the many
hundreds of black men who served as sheriffs, magistrates, constables,
county supervisors and other local officials across the region; it was
their prevalence that made hostile whites believe that they were living
through "a terrifying social and political revolution," or as hostile later
historians would put it, a botched experiment in "Negro rule."
In fact, high office was almost universally reserved for whites throughout
Reconstruction, and while several states had black electoral majorities or
near-majorities, only South Carolina ever had a black majority in its state
Legislature. That state's African-Americans, in fact, consistently called
for the most radical and sweeping reforms during Reconstruction (including
the confiscation and redistribution of plantation land), which may be why
they had to endure an especially repressive segregationist regime in later
years. Across the South, the Republican Party remained an uneasy coalition
between freed slaves, free-born blacks, Northern "carpetbaggers" and
Southern white "scalawags," which mostly meant small farmers and other less
affluent whites who had little attachment to the antebellum slave economy.
Reconstruction governments were often awkward and plagued with problems
that would draw the eager attention of later scholars. But there can be no
doubt, Foner insists, that "the appearance of African Americans in
positions of political power a few years after the end of slavery
represented a truly radical transformation in Southern and American
history." By the early 1870s, he goes on, "biracial democratic government,
something unprecedented in American history, was functioning throughout the
South," and "the old planter elite had been evicted from political power."
As one South Carolina legislator would put it in a later memoir: "We were
eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable
institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for
the education of the deaf and dumb ... rebuilt the bridges and
reestablished the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and
placed it on the road to prosperity." Even Foner admits this is too rosy a
portrait. Some Reconstruction governments were corrupt, although not
exceptionally so by 19th century standards, and the Republican Party became
increasingly divided by factional infighting, sometimes between blacks and
whites and sometimes between radicals and moderates.
What was even more important, and not much discussed by later scholars
hostile to Reconstruction, was the fact that the Southern experiment in
biracial democracy came under violent attack from virtually its moment of
birth. Various counterrevolutionary white militia groups had emerged by the
late 1860s; the best known of them, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan.
Klansmen and similar "night riders" murdered dozens of black public
officials, burned out freedmen who had purchased "white land," and
frequently assaulted whites who spoke out for equal rights, taught blacks
to read or simply voted Republican. By some accounts the Klan murdered
1,300 people during the 1868 election campaign; Foner calls the
Reconstruction-era Klan "the most extensive example of homegrown terrorism
in American history."
President Ulysses S. Grant moved aggressively to crush this white terrorist
resistance in the early 1870s, using the far-reaching powers granted him by
the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Indeed, the Bush administration's Patriot
Acts were self-consciously modeled after the KKK Act, which responded to a
perceived national emergency by federalizing a whole range of criminal
offenses and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. The Nation, then as now
a liberal newsweekly, complained about the unprecedented expansion of
federal power. But the KKK Act also looked forward to the civil rights
legislation of the 1960s. "If the federal government cannot pass laws to
protect the rights, liberty and lives of citizens," asked former Union Army
Gen. Benjamin Butler, "why were guarantees of those fundamental rights put
in the Constitution at all?"
Foner, in fact, doesn't quite give Grant his due. As a leading exponent of
the radical reassessment of American history, Foner tends to steer away
from the deeds of Great Men and focus instead on mass movements, local
organizations and community leaders we're unlikely to know about. This is
all to the good when it foregrounds stories like those of John R. Lynch, a
former slave who became a Louisiana justice of the peace and influential
memoirist, or Abram Colby, a Georgia legislator who was abducted by the
Klan and whipped viciously before his wife and daughter. The Klansmen asked
him, "Do you think you will ever vote another damned radical ticket?" He
assured them he would vote Republican till the day he died. "They set in
and whipped me a thousand licks more."
But Grant, so often derided by later historians as a drunkard and
incompetent -- judgments more recently called into question -- was almost
certainly the last president before Dwight Eisenhower to behave as if the
federal laws mandating racial equality actually meant something. (It may
not be an accident that both men had experience commanding black troops in
combat.) Grant was apparently given to vulgar racial talk in private life,
but it's reasonable to assume that African-Americans preferred a president
who called them ugly names but crushed the Klan to the many who followed,
who said polite things about "the Negro" but tolerated vicious regimes of
white supremacy and racist violence.
In the North, political leaders were increasingly concerned with the rising
power of labor unions and the resulting workplace strife, developments
fueled by a major influx of new immigrants from poor European countries
like Ireland, Italy, Poland and Russia. As the Democrats began to identify
themselves more and more distinctly as the party of the white working
class, moderate Northern Republicans became the party of stability and
order, identified with affluent WASPs and big business. In this context,
the enduring turmoil and racial discord of the South seemed like a
distraction, even an embarrassment. By the mid-1870s, the abolitionist
generation of radical Republicans had left the stage, Grant's
administration was embroiled in scandal, and both parties were eager to
restore what was deemed normalcy to the South.
Five years ago, we heard a great deal about the the disputed presidential
election of 1876, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the
winner despite receiving 250,000 fewer votes than Democrat Samuel Tilden.
As part of the final compromise that put Hayes in the White House, Tilden
extracted a promise that federal troops would be withdrawn from the South
and full local autonomy reestablished. In practice, this meant that
political control of the region rapidly reverted to white Democrats, and
more specifically to the same tiny class of wealthy white landowners who
had dominated the South before the Civil War. In some areas, blacks
continued to vote, and black Republicans continued to hold office, as late
as the 1890s. But Reconstruction was over, and a long, dark period in
American history was just beginning.
What lay ahead were the Jim Crow segregation laws, the rise of widespread
lynching and the reborn "homegrown terrorism" of the Klan, often acting as
a de facto arm of local government. For African-Americans, the age of
freedom promised after emancipation was delayed for almost a century, until
the "second Reconstruction" of the civil rights movement.
By the dawn of the 20th century, disenfranchising blacks and defunding
black schools and other government services was official policy throughout
the South. Laws mandating poll taxes, literacy requirements and other
hurdles never mentioned race (and so were held not to violate the 15th
Amendment), but their expressed aim was to "reduce the colored vote to
insignificance," as a Charleston, S.C., newspaper put it. Louisiana's 1890
Constitution, for example, reduced the number of black registered voters
from 130,000 to around 1,000 (and also disenfranchised about 80,000 poor
Many of the "Redeemer" Democratic state governments of the late 1870s and
after sound strikingly like today's Republicans, at least on fiscal issues.
They took office promising massive cuts in taxes and spending, which served
the dual role of helping rich planters and merchants retain their fortunes
and denying education, healthcare and other services to the blacks and poor
whites who had most likely voted Republican. Reconstruction schools had
generally been segregated, but South Carolina, for example, had expended
the same amount per student regardless of race. By 1895, white students
were receiving three times the per-capita resources as blacks, a trend that
would worsen dramatically in years to come.
By the time Du Bois published his prophetic book "Black Reconstruction in
America" in 1935, white historians almost unanimously regarded
Reconstruction as a disastrous and illegitimate experiment, concocted by
wild-eyed Northern radicals and carried out by incompetent Southern blacks.
If certain things about the Jim Crow era were regrettable (the argument
went), white rule was nonetheless necessary, largely because of the innate
"negro incapacity" to overcome childish ignorance or lustful passions.
Foner cites Columbia professor John W. Burgess, one of the founders of
American political science, who explained that blacks "were a race of men
which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, and
has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind."
Needless to say, today's academic world is much closer to Foner than to
Burgess. Ever since Kenneth M. Stampp's 1967 "The Era of Reconstruction"
began to rehabilitate the radical Republican perspective, historians have
quibbled over the details rather than the bigger picture. Reconstruction is
portrayed as a noble experiment, perhaps naive or poorly executed, that
challenged the nation to live up to its purported ideals. Disagreements
exist over the roles played by Lincoln and Grant, or whether the radical
approach of Northerners like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens -- who
wanted the Southern aristocracy broken up and dispossessed -- was
preferable to the more conciliatory and legalistic strategies of moderate
Republicans North and South.
But Foner is arguably less concerned with his colleagues' views than with
the currents of folk memory and public opinion -- which he says keep alive
the negative stereotypes of Reconstruction -- and with the way the period
permanently altered Americans' notions of freedom. African-Americans
understood that concept, he argues, in a way that had been shaped by the
experience of slavery and the forceful rhetoric of underground preachers
who drew heavily on the biblical story of Exodus. Freedom was to be more an
existential condition than a statutory one, a liberation of mind, body and
spirit that would right the wrongs perpetrated upon an entire race across
three centuries of bondage and torment.
Out of this understanding grew the call for "40 acres and a mule"
envisioned under Gen. William T. Sherman's famous Field Order 15, the
demand for slave reparations after the Civil War (a movement that remains
alive today), and the vision of what is now known as affirmative action.
Foner clearly believes that all these were morally justified, and that the
American South would be an unimaginably different place today if the freed
slaves had indeed been granted land ownership along with the means to work
it. In that sense, he understands Reconstruction as a tragic missed
opportunity to create real racial justice.
Beyond that, Foner rejects the now-standard progressive narrative of
American history, in which emancipation and Reconstruction mark "the
logical fulfillment of a vision originally articulated by the founding
fathers." Indeed, as he says, the original Constitution never mentions the
concept of equality, and "limiting the privileges of citizenship to white
men had long been intrinsic to the practice of American democracy."
Reconstruction, he continues, was "less a fulfillment of the Revolution's
principles than a radical repudiation of the nation's actual practice of
the previous seven decades."
American political culture of the 19th century, Foner writes, rested on
federalism, limited government, local autonomy and deeply rooted ideas
about the superiority of whites to blacks and men to women. These were the
political values so dramatically reasserted when the Redeemers came to
power after 1877, and it's not unfair to suggest that, however they may
have been rhetorically modulated in recent years, they remain the values of
the white Christian Southern majority today.
During the protracted battle with Congress that led to his impeachment,
Andrew Johnson protested that the Reconstruction ideals that blacks were
entitled to civil equality, and that the federal government had the power
to define and protect citizens' rights, violated "all our experience as a
people." Foner thinks he was right. Americans have never resolved the
conflict between these radically opposed visions of freedom: the
egalitarian model of republican citizenship on one hand, the hierarchical
model of localized independence and self-government on the other. Based on
the political landscape we see around us, 130 years after the end of
Reconstruction, we never will.
-- By Andrew O'Hehir
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