Friday, April 11, 2014

What We're Reading: New History

The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas Egerton

Douglas Egerton’s previous book, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (previously reviewed on this blog) was an engaging narrative about the personalities who shaped the political debate in America on the eve of the Civil War. The Wars of Reconstruction looks at the altered political landscape in the country that followed the war and Lincoln’s untimely assassination. Much of the attention here is on the critical early years of the Johnson administration and the battles between Andrew Johnson and the Republican Congress over what would be the place of the newly freed slaves in American politics and society. Suddenly, and virtually unimaginable but a few years earlier, the nation had four million new citizens. How would they earn their livelihood? What would be their political and social status? Johnson was a border state Democrat from Tennessee who supported the Union and was put on Lincoln’s ticket in 1864 for the sake of attracting Unionist votes throughout that region. But while a Unionist, Johnson, a former slave owner, had very little interest in securing the rights that came with citizenship for newly freed slaves, and indeed the viability of his own political future depended much on restoring the Southern states to the Democratic column as soon as possible. He knew he would not be the Presidential nominee of Republicans in the next election. The Republicans, too, had concerns about the future of their party, and saw the enfranchisement of black Americans, who were a majority of the population in many Southern states at the time, as key to their building a viable and sustainable national party.

 
 
LEFT: Lincoln's Unionist ticket Vice-President Andrew Johnson, A Democrat from Tennessee, became President of the United States upon Lincoln's assassination. He was a former slave owner and had little sympathy for the plight of freedmen or for their hopes of securing political and social equality. His attempts to remove more progressive members of his cabinet and his failure to enforce reconstruction legislation lead to conflicts with Congress and his impeachment. RIGHT: Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was one of the leaders of a coalition of "radical" and moderate Republicans who were determined to secure civil and voting rights for newly freed African-Americans.

At the adoption of the 13th Amendment, Southern states and municipalities, with leaders of the rebellion back in power as a result of Johnson’s profligate pardons, enacted Black Codes that in many respects reestablished involuntary servitude. Radical and moderate Republicans viewed this as nothing more than a repudiation of the Union victory. They saw it as a matter of the late rebellion being continued by other means, and they were determined to honor the sacrifice that so many soldiers had made, that the “new birth of freedom” of which Lincoln had spoken at Gettysburg would not die in its infancy. It was a conflict that resulted in the Reconstruction Act, Johnson’s impeachment, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, amendments that would end slavery nationally, define national citizenship and guarantee equal protection of the laws to all citizens, and protect the right of former slaves to vote. The Republican Congress with its veto-proof majority divided the Southern states into districts under military control. Those states were “reconstructed” in light of these new amendments , their state constitutions rewritten, and they went through the process of applying for readmission to the Union. Egerton looks at not only what went on in Washington, but how this struggle played out in both the North and in the states of the former Confederacy. He provides readers with a broad survey of Reconstruction up to 1877, the year that is generally considered to be the end of Reconstruction. In that year a political deal was made that settled the disputed Hayes vs. Tilden election and resulted in the withdrawal of the last remaining federal troops from the South. The author argues that 1877 was not as conclusive an end as has been so frequently assumed, and explores some of the period’s lingering progressive legacies that lasted well into the final decades of the 19th century.


A famous Reconstruction era cartoon by Thomas Nast that was often reproduced in 20th century school textbooks. Much of the Southern version of Reconstruction was built around the characters of the “Carpetbagger” (Northerners who travelled to the South after the war to exploit distressed Southerners for personal gain) and “Scalawags” (native Southerners who had been Unionists or became Republicans). Most Northerners who travelled south, however, were teachers, ministers, and political activists who came to assist the newly freed slaves.

When I was a boy in school, the Southern view of Reconstruction had triumphed in American history. The story we were told was that Reconstruction was a period in which Republican radicals, like Thaddeus Stevens, took bitter revenge on the South for its rebellion. We saw in our history books cartoons of “Carpetbaggers,” Northerners who came to the South to exploit for personal gain the devastated economic and political fortunes of the defeated Confederacy. Egerton traces the development of this Southern narrative through major historical works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he credits its ultimate triumph to the popular novels of Southern writers and their translation into movies such as Gone With the Wind and, in particular, D.W. Griffith’s racist saga Birth of a Nation. The Wars of Reconstruction is a work in the broad revisionist review of the period that has been underway since the latter part of the 20th Century. It is an important addition to that scholarship and explores themes that deserve additional study in the development of the history of this era.


During the early days of Reconstruction major race riots broke out in both Memphis and New Orleans in 1866. Nearly 100 African-Americans were murdered and hundreds were injured. The national backlash to these events was reflected in the outcome of elections that year, where enough Republicans were elected to both houses of Congress that they had a veto proof majority. They were able to pass the Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto and send the Fourteenth Amendment to the states for ratification.

The writing in this book is perhaps not as compelling as that in books that are built around a major historical figure, those works in which notable actors serve as protagonists of a sort. And as extensive as the research here has been, a reader will get the sense that the book is not by any means comprehensive. In many respects, it has the feel of a miscellany of local events, however representative those incidents may be of what was occurring across the broad geographical and political landscape. But it exposes a violent period in American history about which most Americans simply have no knowledge. The African-American Civil War hero Robert Smalls, who later served in Congress, estimated that during Reconstruction 53,000 African-Americans had been murdered in the South. Their white supporters, too, were often the targets of violent harassment and were designated for assassination by the nascent Ku Klux Klan. It is hard to say which is more astonishing, that this happened in the United States of America or that we have so little historical memory of the depth and scope of this violence.

Egerton writes, “Too often the central question becomes why Reconstruction failed, as opposed to ended, suggesting it was flawed and contributed to its own passing.” Reconstruction ended, he argues, because there was not the political will in the nation to combat the violence employed by former Confederates to establish the Jim Crow South. It is a past we are reluctant to face. As the author says, “…members of a nation who rightly regard themselves as residents of a more just and democratic society than many others on the planet are collectively loath to admit that good and honorable policies were consciously overturned by a reactionary minority while thousands of people across the nation found it easier to look the other way.” Most white Americans either did not want equal political and social rights for African-Americans or were unwilling to support a sustained battle to secure them.


The Freedmen's Bureau was an agency of the War Department created during Reconstruction to assist freed slaves with basic needs such as food and clothing, finding employment and contracting their labor, establishing schools and churches, reuniting families and formalizing marital relationships, and advocating for the civil rights of freedmen in local courts and jurisdictions.

If there is a protagonist in this story, it is certainly the collective group of African-American freedmen, those free blacks living in the North and South and the newly freed, who energetically sought to secure the rights and privileges of full citizenship for their race. Egerton’s account should dispel forever any notion that the first Civil Rights Revolution failed because newly freed African- Americans were unprepared, uncertain or hesitant to claim full rights as equal citizens. Reading The Wars of Reconstruction, one is struck by the fact that there is in fact no psychological, philosophical or political distance between African-American activists of 1865 and those who fought the second battle for equal rights 100 years later. The demands and aspirations were the same, and the sense of kindred spirit is unmistakable. The country allowed that first movement for African-American equality to be cruelly crushed by violence and murder, on what was simply a shocking scale. It is a hidden episode of American history and a story that must finally be told.

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