Echoes of Reconstruction

I’ve been reading the Washington Monthly pretty regularly since I discovered the publication a little over thirty years ago. With this background, let me say the January/February issue, released today, is one of the best ever. I’ll try to explain why in occasional posts this week, but let’s start with Nicholas Lemann’s succinct but powerful article about Reconstruction and its legacy.

Though what is still often called the “revisionist” take on Reconstruction (often associated with the work of Eric Foner) is fairly well-known and accepted by historians of the period, the popular consensus North and South probably hasn’t much changed: Reconstruction was an overreach by post-Lincoln “radical Republicans” that generated predictable resistance from a justifiably outraged white southerners and had to be abandoned as a well-intentioned failure (I haven’t seen the movie Lincoln just yet, and gather its popularity may have reopened the question a bit).

But as Lemann explains, the abandonment of Reconstruction was attributable as much to hostility and indifference in the North (not least from within a Republican Party more interested in the peaceful economic exploitation of the South than in guaranteeing political rights for ex-slaves) as to armed resistance in the South:

Most of the rest of America chose to understand black political empowerment in the South in terms that are still familiar in conservative discourse today: excessive taxation, corruption, and a power imbalance between federal and state government. These arguments were more presentable than simply saying that black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and they built sympathy for the white South among high-minded reformists in the North who were horrified by the big-city political machines that immigrants had created in their own backyard. Good-government reformers hated the idea of uneducated people taking over the democratic machinery and using it to distribute power and patronage, rather than in more high-minded ways. Liberal northeastern publications like the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Weekly were reliably hostile to Reconstruction, and their readers feasted on a steady diet of horror stories about swaggering corrupt black legislators, out-of-control black-on-white violence, and the bankruptcies of state and local government.

So it was not terribly surprising that when Republicans needed southern complicity to win the deadlocked presidential election in 1876 (in which its own nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, was on record favoring an end to Reconstruction), they quickly abandoned Grant’s brave but highly controversial efforts to maintain African-American voting rights (even as northern states were rejecting them in their own jurisdictions) against united white southern opposition.

But as Lemann notes, remembering Reconstruction accurately is not just a matter of getting the historical record right:

Once your ear is tuned to hear them, echoes of Reconstruction are all around us today. The distinctive voting patterns of the South are a product of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and the dramatic switch in the South’s political loyalties beginning in the 1960s is a direct result of the Democratic Party’s aligning itself with the original goals of Reconstruction. Reconstruction was the beginning point for most of our debates about the proper size and extent of the federal government; the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were the first important measures directing the national government to do something affirmatively, rather than forbidding it to do something. It’s no accident that African Americans are consistently the group with the most favorable view of government; essentially all of their progress toward full legal equality came as a result of government—specifically, federal government—action. Periods of greater state and local power were periods of at best no progress, and at worst more terror. And psychologically, the yawning gap that still exists between the way whites and blacks understand Reconstruction—which, unlike the Civil War and the civil rights movement, has had almost no depictions for popular audiences since the days of Gone With the Wind, but gets communicated privately inside family homes in very different ways—must partly account for what remains of the profound gaps between the races in their perception of the essential nature of the national project.

Read it all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.