Andrew Johnson’s Good Deed

To the extent that Americans think about Reconstruction, most tend to consider it as either a missed opportunity for African Americans or a disastrous experience for white Southerners. The truth is, though most Americans rarely think about Reconstruction at all. In Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, Columbia Professor Eric Foner tries to elevate the period in the public’s imagination and to show that for blacks, Reconstruction as a glass half-full rather than one-half empty. Paradoxically, Johnson played crucial role in this. His vanity, stubbornness, and bad judgment–along with white Southerners’ refusal to acknowledge defeat, and the full implications of emancipation–may have actually have helped the freed slaves achieve greater political rights for this brief period than they otherwise would have. Moreover, Foner argues, Reconstruction laid down the legal and constitutional foundation for what would become, a century later, the civil rights movement.

Johnson’s ineptitude and the Southerners’ continued belligerence pushed moderate Republicans to the left, resulting in a more radical Reconstruction than might have happened otherwise. Furious congressional Republicans fought bitterly with Johnson, a Democrat who was recruited to run with Lincoln on the Union ticket, over which branch would control Reconstruction. The battle culminated in Johnson’s impeachment. When Congress wrested control of Reconstruction from the president, it passed progressive laws such as the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, which specified that anyone (except Native Americans) who was born in the United States was an American citizen and enjoyed equality before the law. Blacks, like whites, could own or rent property, enter into contracts, and, in the great American tradition, sue people. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1866 and ratified in 1868, demanded due process and equal protection under the law. These powerful clauses would be the foundation of Civil Rights rulings from the 1930s on but attracted little attention in the 19th and early 20th centuries, making this the stealth amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed and ratified in 1869, extended the vote to African-American men, but alienated white women who had been longtime allies of the abolitionists because women of all races were intentionally left out as beneficiaries of this amendment.

The immediate consequences of these legislative changes were profound. “By the early 1870s, biracial democratic government, something unknown in American history, was functioning effectively in many parts of the South, and men only recently released from bondage were exercising genuine political power,” Foner writes. The process was less a fulfillment of the Revolution’s pledges than “a radical repudiation of the nation’s actual practice of the previous seven decades.” As many as 2,000 black men held office, mostly in the South, ranging from justice of the peace to United States senator. Thousands more were involved in Republican Party politics and in shaping opinion as newspaper editors and ministers. Up to 90 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots. African Americans did not “control” the South, as the story has been handed down, but were active participants in shaping the politics of the postwar South, Foner points out. To this day, it is not unusual to read in the paper that so-and-so is the first African American to serve in his post–or serve in so high a position–since Reconstruction.

While the political changes were profound, so were the economic ones. The closest analogy in our time would be to the collapse of Communism. Suddenly, slaves who grew up with a set of expectations about how they would be cared for, the kind of work they would do and where they would live had options. For some, this was liberating. For others, it was frightening. And still others, especially the elderly, found themselves without means. Whites whose livelihoods and lifestyles were predicated on having bondsmen were left equally at sea–at least in the first few months of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, neither Foner nor anyone else has written a study that effectively gets across the real economic and psychological upheaval that Southerners, black and white, experienced.

Even as they faced the formidable difficulty of finding their way economically, former slaves were determined to make up for lost opportunities in other parts of their lives. Mostly, they sought out the things that were hallmarks of any respectable Victorian community, and this effort to do things that “normal” white Americans did make up the heart of Forever Free. Former slaves and their children went to freedmen’s schools, many of which were underwritten by Northern white organizations. They learned to read and write and do math. They formed their own churches and paid for the land and building themselves. Desperate to reconnect with lost–or sold–friends and family members, some freedmen traveled the South looking for their loved one. Those who had jumped the broom in the slave days now got married–legally. Seeking Victorian respectability, many husbands discouraged their wives from working for money or sometimes even working in the family fields. The thought was that, like white women, these former slaves should stay at home, raise the children and tend the garden. When times got hard, though, that commitment went by the wayside in many a black family.

Politically, times got very hard for many freedmen in the South around 1867. When African Americans gained political power, white supremacist/terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan formed to intimidate black politicians and voters. This brings us to a central weakness of the book. Foner does a fine job telling the story from the African-American perspective, but he offers little insight into what motivated whites. That they were racist is wildly obvious, that they were on the defensive is a clear subtext. While the planter class is the villain just offstage, the yeomen do not even seem to be in the wings. What was their role in this drama? Foner is so focused on telling the story of African Americans bravely insisting on their own dignity, asserting their rights, and moving forward in the world that he fails to explore the motivations of Southern whites who reacted so strongly against them.

After the Panic of 1873 hit, the North became increasingly weary of Reconstruction. What began with so much promise ended with a Faustian bargain over who would occupy the White House in 1877. The previous year’s presidential race between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes featured disputed returns from South Carolina, Louisiana, and, yes, Florida. To make a long story short, Hayes’s people reached an understanding with Southern Democrats who installed him in the White House and removed what was left of the Union forces from Southern capitals. Republican governments, many of them featuring black politicians, quickly fell apart. The era of Jim Crow had arrived. Not until the Civil Rights Movement would African Americans begin to reclaim some of what they had lost.

This is Foner’s third book on Reconstruction. His first, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, published in 1988, was widely acclaimed. Its offspring, A Short History of Reconstruction, is standard reading in college Civil War courses. Yet neither of these books–nor those by any other historian–has particularly succeeded in penetrating the contemporary public’s indifference toward Reconstruction or in producing an awareness of that period’s role in modern America. Clearly frustrated that “this critical moment in our nation’s history has failed to establish itself in the national memory, at least with any accuracy or full depth of understanding,” Foner in Forever Free attempts to reach a wider audience.

This volume differs from the others in important ways. First, it focuses more on individuals. One of the off-putting things about many works on Reconstruction is that the human element gets lost amid the swirl of legislation, party conventions, and court battles. Even in discussions about such dramatic events as Klan assaults, one typically has the sense of Larger Forces at Work, rather than individual people making individual decisions that affect other living, breathing human beings. Foner delves deeply into the politics of the time, to be sure, but he spends much more time showing how political decisions affected real people.

Another change that differs greatly from Foner’s previous works is the visual presentation in Forever Free. The book is richly illustrated with rarely seen images strikingly laid out. Indeed, this book has the potential to become a model for future history books that target a broader audience. Between chapters, is a “visual essay”: a number of portraits, political cartoons, and depictions of events accompanied by a somewhat pedantic interpretive text written by Joshua Brown, an historian of visual culture at City University of New York. This has the unfortunate effect of making the reader feel like she is sitting through a beautifully illustrated if rather dull art history lecture.

Foner wrote this book to spur more interest in Reconstruction and its centrality in American history. Perhaps he will get his wish with this thoughtful and engaging book, and Americans will begin to see more clearly what the promises of Reconstruction were and what the costs of its failures have been. Hurricane Katrina held a mirror to the nation and showed us the ugly inequalities that still plague America. Forever Free is a timely reminder not only of how we got to where we are today, but also of the immense and long-lasting toll of squandered opportunity.

Jennifer Weber is an assistant professor of history at the University of Kansas. Her book, Copperheads, will be published next year by Oxford University Press.

Jennifer Weber is an assistant professor of history at the University of Kansas. Her book, Copperheads, will be published next year by Oxford University Press.