OneMansView, December 31, 2009
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Unconscionable chapter in American history
It is a pleasant fiction held by many, even taught in high schools, that the Civil War was fought to free slaves and in fact did just that. Unfortunately, such a view is simplistic in the extreme. This book demolishes any such simplistic notions in its comprehensive examination of the incredible struggles of freedmen and their allies during the era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, to achieve even a modicum of freedom, much of which had been yanked away by the end of the 19th century by the old Southern oligarchy. Despite the overall excellence of the book, the sheer volume of the information of this tumultuous time makes this book a challenging read. Economic, sociological, and political developments are examined from the intersecting parameters of individual states, multi-state farming regions, race, class, political parties, North vs. South, businessmen vs. farmers, etc.
One fact that this book makes evident is that Reconstruction was not one, well-thought program. In fact, Reconstruction lurched from one policy to the next, involving at various times the control of the Union army, the Freedman's Bureau, Presidential Reconstruction, Radical (Congressional) Reconstruction, policies of neglect, and finally Redemption. In addition, these multifarious programs and regimes of control were capriciously managed almost always to the detriment of freedmen, depending on the competencies and prejudices of administrators. Reconstruction, if nothing, is very complex - difficult to summarize.
The author details any number of pervasive factors that formed a backdrop to the entire period of Reconstruction. First, he notes a substantial divide between upcountry, small yeoman farmers and Blackbelt plantation owners. Many of those yeomen had Union sympathies, if not actually serving in the Union army, which resulted in harsh retribution at the hands of Confederates. After the War, they shared with freedmen a strong tendency, at least initially, to vote Republican and a vulnerability to the depredations of the crop-lien system. More significant was the utter unwillingness of Southern elites to give up total control over their former slaves. They wanted no part of Northern free-labor ideology. They induced Union army occupiers, as well as through Black codes, passed during President Johnson's version of Reconstruction, to make it illegal for a freedman to be unemployed, and in some cases, to live in towns, to not be under a year-long labor contract, to travel freely, etc. However, it was the reaction of both radical and moderate Republicans to this harsh regime that sought to virtually re-enslave that precipitated Radical Reconstruction. Congress overrode Presidential vetoes of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment and in the Reconstruction Act demanded that Southern states ratify that Amendment and legislate freedmen suffrage before being readmitted to the Union.
By far the most horrendous aspect of Reconstruction was the unmitigated violence perpetrated on freedmen by white Southerners. The violence organized under the Ku Klux Klan was so pervasive that Congress created special legislation to curtail it. But the Klan was only the tip of the iceberg. After the War, the violence was mostly to enforce the Black Codes; later, after the readmittance of the states, the ascendance of the Republican Party, and the election of hundreds of local and state freedmen, the violence was used to deter political participation. The Colfax Massacre in Louisiana, April, 1873, in which whites in support of the Democratic candidate in a disputed election killed at least 150 blacks, some waving white flags of surrender, is only the most egregious of countless acts of violence. It was this sort of intimidation that played a large role in more Southern states being "redeemed" each election cycle.
Of course, the North was an inextricable part of Reconstruction. Many so-called Radicals, led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, wanted to confiscate rebel lands and redistribute them to freemen. As the author shows, some redistribution occurred, but often such takings were overruled and lands returned. Moderates wanted reconciliation and amnesty, partly to make the South a safe place for Northern investments, especially in railroad building. The Depression of 1873 abruptly ended inflated hopes that a new era of prosperity would raise all boats, including the fortunes of freedmen. But more important to the demise of Reconstruction than economic disruptions was a shift in Republican Party concerns from a principled opposition to slavery and the coercion of freedmen to a concern with electoral politics. Increasingly, it was held that freedmen must achieve civil and political equality on their own, regardless of the forces arrayed against them; and that the expanded, interventionist state necessary to fight the Civil War must be reduced. Less principled, it was suggested that Reconstruction had been a terrible mistake, wasted on people without the capacity to fully contribute to society. The backroom dealings that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in 1877, retaining Republican control, essentially ended Reconstruction, permitting Southern elites to reverse virtually all of the gains of the previous ten years - the re-imposition of slavery being the only exception. Even forms of Black Codes were reinitiated.
In the final analysis, the author contends that Reconstruction was a failure. It did not integrate freedmen into society. Despite legislation and several Constitutional amendments freedmen were, in practice, not able to exercise wide-ranging civil and political rights inherent in US citizenship. The author suggests that the failure reflects on the inadequacy of the national state, not its being too large as claimed. Yet, the status quo was changed. For a brief period, there was joint government involving blacks and some whites. It was the insistence of freedmen that led to the funding and establishment of public schools as well as community-based institutions including churches, fraternal organizations, and mutual-aid societies, many of which endured and sustained the black community during the dark era of Jim Crow, or the imposition of blatantly discriminatory laws.
Some reviewers have suggested that the author's alleged affinity for Marxist thought invalidates the book. In actuality, the book is very even-handed, very detailed, and sources well documented. The book, however, does not sugarcoat the egregious suppression of rights and the killing of thousands of freedmen for trying to exercise those rights. Furthermore, these reprehensible acts went on for one hundred years. This book is probably not widely read; it should be. No other book even attempts to be this thoroughgoing in describing and explaining Reconstruction. Sadly, this book is a window into the conceit of American moral superiority.