Reconstruction Sesquicentennial Approaching

Nancy LeTourneau mentioned this yesterday, but as a proud scalawag I will claim a right of personal privilege to my own post on Eric Foner’s important op-ed in the New York Times about the approaching sesquicentennial of the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

For those less obsessed with the era than I am, I will note that Foner is the reigning historian of Reconstruction. His 1988 book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, did much to overthrow the dominant (though itself revisionist) view of Reconstruction as an act of partisan hubris that exposed a supine Dixie to the avarice and incompetence of barbaric ex-slaves allied with corrupt Yankee Carpetbaggers (Foner was also the author of a book I’ve read and re-read for many years: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, a challenge to the traditional idea of the GOP as a simple continuation of Whiggery).

In no small part thanks to Foner, Reconstruction is now viewed differently, though as he notes in his op-ed, the Heroic Southern POV “retains a stubborn hold on the popular imagination.”

Today, scholars believe that if the era was “tragic,” it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed….

The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the Republican Party to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.

Most offices remained in the hands of white Republicans. But the advent of African-Americans in positions of political power aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction’s opponents. They spread another myth — that the new officials were propertyless, illiterate and incompetent. As late as 1947, the Southern historian E. Merton Coulter wrote that of the various aspects of Reconstruction, black officeholding was “longest to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.”

There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed. In fact, the new governments had a solid record of accomplishment. They established the South’s first state-funded public school systems, sought to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable and outlawed racial discrimination in transportation and public accommodations. They offered aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike.

Reconstruction also made possible the consolidation of black families, so often divided by sale during slavery, and the establishment of the independent black church as the core institution of the emerging black community. But the failure to respond to the former slaves’ desire for land left most with no choice but to work for their former owners.

It was not economic dependency, however, but widespread violence, coupled with a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality, that doomed Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism. Meanwhile, as the Northern Republican Party became more conservative, Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.

Reconstruction was formally abandoned as part of a grand compromise that allowed the disputed presidential election of 1876 to be resolved in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who was already enamored of the disastrous (or at least extraordinarily premature) idea that a southern Republican Party could be built via cooperation with white supremacists. The South’s subsequent rulers, whether they deemed themselves Populists or Bourbons, were self-consciously determined to reverse the consequences of the Civil War as much as was possible short of the actual restoration of slavery. As Foner notes, though, the triumph of Jim Crow did not take the “Reconstruction Amendments” off the books, and they ultimately provided the constitutional foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Foner thinks the relevance of Reconstruction to current events is sadly self-evident:

Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.

Conservative hostility to “birth citizenship”–a concept, as Foner notes, that was introduced by the Civil Rights Act of 1866–universal voting rights, and democracy itself (an object of contempt to “constitutional conservatives” who insist we are a Republic whose governing model was fixed forever by the Founders), are all again on the rise, along with antebellum notions of “states rights” and of the incapacity of nonwhite people to govern themselves. Indeed, there are distinct echoes of the southern (and then national) reaction to Reconstruction in the claims of so many conservatives that “liberalism” is a corrupt bargain between liberal elites and a dependent underclass to despoil the productive elements of the country.

So yes, the Reconstruction sesquicentennial is timely, if we pay attention to it. We will pay attention to it here at PA, I can promise you that.

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.