The sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War has unleashed a cacophony of voices from across the South and outside the region, including elected officials, Civil War re-enacters, and professional neo-Confederates, spreading falsehoods and myths about that pivotal time in U.S. history. They contend that the conflict was barely about slavery (if at all), that post-slavery and Jim Crow conditions were not that bad, States' Rights is the only legitimate form of government, and the South is now a paragon of racial tolerance and enlightenment. Confederacy defenders carefully ignore the original documents of the Confederacy that conflict with their modern views and re-interpretations. As usual, debates over history are often metaphors for present-day political battles.
While arguments about the war generate fierce debate, the period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, remains virtually unknown to large portions of the American public. Few university students, let alone your average citizen, can identify the time period, Reconstruction leaders, its accomplishments, or reasons for its collapse. And yet, it is the era that some have referred to as the country's greatest moment of democracy and it should be taught and remembered and, unlike the Confederacy, honored.
First and foremost, it needs to be stated in unambiguous and unqualified terms that slavery was the cause of the Civil War and the reason that the South seceded. In the words of the leaders of the Confederacy, spoken and written, slavery is given primacy over any other issue in justifying the attempted secession of eleven states. In his 1861 speech to the Confederate Congress, Confederate President Jefferson Davis details how Northern states initiated a continuous series of measures that were "devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves." Worried about the economic costs of abolition, Jefferson avers,
With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens cited a philosophical defense of slavery as the reason for the war. In 1861, speaking with clarity that some in 2010 deny, Stephens stated that enslavement was the "proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization" and it was "the immediate cause of the late rupture," referring to the war. He opposed (slaveholder) Thomas Jefferson's view that slavery was morally wrong and Jefferson's belief in the equality of the races. Stephens emphasized, in his now infamous "Cornerstone" speech,
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.
Davis, Stephens, and other rebel leaders were as clear in the 1860s as to the cause of the war as the South was in its decision to join the American Revolution a century earlier. Protection of the institution of slavery was paramount and was the nonnegotiable condition that Southern leaders and ideologues articulated in both joining the Union and deciding to leave it.
States' Rights was a trope, a tactic to be used when convenient but abandoned when not. For the South, the goal was neither federalism nor States Rights, but preservation of slavery by any means necessary. While the South led the fight at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to ensure that States' Rights prevailed as the dominant means by which it would prevent federal intrusion into the operation of the slave system, that principle was overthrown when it came down to the right of states to protect escapees or otherwise interfere with slavery's function. Although in other criminal manners, states had the right to deny extradition, the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 sought to override state authority to protect those who ran away to the North.
In fact, by 1860, Southern leaders were vehemently opposed to States' Rights; they viewed the actions of many states in the north as direct attacks not only against the region, but the U.S. Constitution itself — as they interpreted it. Ironically, the South viewed Northern states as committing treason. In the secession doctrines issued by South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and other states, they accused Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, and others of not enforcing federal fugitive slave laws, allowing free blacks to vote, and harboring abolition societies. By enfranchising free blacks, the South accused Northern states of violating the 1857 Dred Scott decision that allowed slavery in new territories. And, they argued, since slavery was protected by the Constitution, abolitionist groups by definition were acting in an unconstitutional, i.e., illegal and treasonous, manner.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as a representative of the antislavery (but not pro-abolition) Republican Party triggered a panic by Southern leaders that slavery's future was threatened. The will of the electorate be damned, the South saw secession as its only recourse to protect the slavery system. While Lincoln and Northern leaders began the war to preserve the Union, the conflict inexorably evolved to the point where the abolition of slavery was the only recourse to save it. The South's secessionist stratagem to save slavery accelerated its demise. There was nothing heroic or noble in the decision to create a total slave nation and start a war costing tens of thousands of lives and social ruin for decades. However, there was an upside to the resolution of the conflict.
Unlike the end of slavery in most every other nation in the Caribbean and Latin America, efforts were made to integrate the newly freed blacks into U.S. society, if not on a fully equal basis, at least with some degree of preparation and support. Led by radical Republicans such as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens and Sen. Charles Sumner, amendments were passed to the Constitution and federal programs were constructed that sought to match the rhetoric of inclusion with its practice. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) officially ended slavery and gave citizenship to blacks, respectively. Importantly, the programs and policies established to aid African-Americans would benefit many white Americans as well. Schools established to educate blacks throughout the South were nearly all integrated, so white students were educated as well. The extension of voting rights to black men also opened space for poor white men who had been denied the vote due to poll taxes and property requirements. The Freedmen's Bank, which granted loans and provided land to black farmers, was a boost to the Southern economy that was profitable to all.
There were actually two periods of Reconstruction: Presidential Reconstruction (1865–1867) and Radical Reconstruction (1867–1877). In the first, Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, acted in a tepid manner at best in providing rights and support for African-Americans. Much of Johnson's focus was on the reintegration of southern whites with as minimal punishment as possible. Over his opposition the aforementioned amendments were passed. And in 1866, despite his veto, which was overridden by Congress, a Civil Rights law was established. Dissatisfied with Johnson's vacillations and hostility to black rights, the radicals took over and implemented a range of programs including the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave voting rights to blacks, and sent federal troops to the South to protect those rights.
For nearly 10 years, there was rapid economic, educational, and political progress for African-Americans. Black colleges were created, such as Fisk University (1866) and Howard University (1867). A significant number of ex-slaves became local officials, such as mayors, sheriffs, and judges, and some even went on to become U.S. senators and representatives. For the first time in American history, African-Americans were able to genuinely engage in the social, economic, and political life of U.S. society.
Reconstruction, wounded and weakened, would finally come to an end in 1877 with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise in which, in exchange for the presidency following the disputed 1876 election, Hayes's Republican Party agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South. For the next seven decades, segregation and racial violence would characterize southern race relations. At the same time, a revision of the cause of the Civil War unfolded, a conflict now viewed as a glorious and heroic defense of individual and States' Rights against a tyrannical national government.
It is thus not surprising that contemporary political leaders, such as Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, promote Confederate History Month in their respective states. To celebrate what was essentially an act of sedition but to continue to ignore the importance of the Reconstruction era says much about the dominance of neo-Confederate ideas 150 years after the fact. These ideas, however, are not restricted to a view of the distant past, but, in fact, echo arguments made about the state of today's politics and race relations. Tea Party proponents, Southern conservatives, and Republican ideologues contend, like the neo-Confederates, that the federal government has grown too big, too oppressive, and too intrusive. They oppose federal intervention and programs on principle regardless of the merits of the situation or constitutional legality.
Just as the radical Republicans, abolitionists, and black activists challenged the arguments of neo-Confederates in the 1860s and 1870s, so, too, should those notions be fought against once again today.