Reconstruction: Now You See It, Now You Don’t


Gen. Robert E. Lee (gray) surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (blue)

Gen. Robert E. Lee (gray) surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (blue)

So, that takes care of the very broad history of slavery in America. Finally, liberty and justice for all, right?

Wrong.

The Civil War was fought, for various reasons, but all of them boiling down to slavery, even though there was a lot of back and forth about the issue between 1861 and 1865.

Ultimately, it was in large part due to the slaves themselves that abolition was pushed through. During the war, droves of runaway slaves met the Union army, forcing the generals to do something. Many slaves were freed on the spot and given jobs despite the political opinions in Washington.  Most proved to be good workers and fighters and it gradually became clear to all that freeing the slaves would help the Union army win the war.

As for the war itself: lots of battles, lots of burning, lots of bloodshed.

In the end, the Union army won, and some four million slaves were freed. That was the beginning of the Reconstruction Era.

Lincoln wanted to bring the Southern states back into the union as quickly as possible, and with as little resentment as possible. He did, however, intend to impose the right to vote on the South and he had given land to former slaves. But he was assassinated before things were finalized.

vetoHis successor, Andrew Johnson, differed from Lincoln in that he was a strong believer in states’ rights to determine who could vote. He also took the land the former slaves had been given and gave it back to the previous owners. In short, the South was pretty much allowed to get back to business as usual–whites firmly in charge.

Yes, slavery was abolished, but the white Southerners imposed “black codes” which severely limited blacks’ rights and secured black labor by prohibiting blacks from leaving the area they were from.

Apart from no longer being slaves, Southern blacks still had no rights.

Now, Lincoln and Johnson were moderate Republicans–Republicans being the progressive party at the time.  The more radical Northern Republicans, many of whom were free men of color, were enraged by the black codes. They wanted complete equality for blacks. Johnson vetoed several of their proposals but his vetoes got vetoed.

In 1866 elections in the North gave the Radical Republicans more power in Congress, and they came down on the South like a ton of bricks. In 1867 the South was divided into five military districts with a federal army presence, and many Republicans from the north were appointed as temporary state governors, mayors, etc., tasked with the establishment of government entities based on complete equality.

freedmen in Louisiana state government

freedmen in Louisiana state government

Teachers, missionaries and businessmen also came south. They were tasked with rebuilding the Southern infrastructure, establishing schools and churches for blacks,  and making sure blacks got paid fairly and that they could vote in safety.

Now that Southern blacks could vote, they voted Republican. So two years after the Civil War, there were black mayors and black representatives in both state and federal governments.

carpetbaggerThe Republicans from the North who came down to ensure the establishment of fair government and an economy based on paid labor were called “carpetbaggers” by resentful Southern whites, who saw them as opportunists come to make money off their misery. Southern white Republicans were called “scalawags”.

Many whites couldn’t stand to see such freedom and equality for a people who a few years ago hadn’t been considered anything more than assets, like cattle and machinery.

TheKKK(2)The Ku Klux Klan and similar groups rose up, while at the same time the North was getting tired of paying for a military presence in the South. They felt that slavery was over and done with.  Radical Republicans put up a fight, but it became hopeless after the federal army withdrew from the South in 1875.

In the presidential election of 1876, the vote was very close, and a deal was struck that Rutherford would be president in exchange for the North leaving the South alone to do as they pleased again.

Yes, African-Americans, who had only just gotten a taste of freedom and equality, were sold out in a political maneuver.

White supremacists drove the last remaining Republicans out of office and reestablished black codes–now called Jim Crow laws–which segregated society–from separate schools to separate water fountains.

eddikcatedThe right to vote was restricted in various ways, for instance by requiring blacks to take a literacy test. Even those who passed all the requirements had a hard time voting, because intimidation by the KKK and such made it virtually impossible.

By 1877 reconstruction was over and undone with. It would take almost another hellacious century before the Jim Crow laws were completely abolished in 1965 as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

Lynching

The next post in this series is about an event in Meridian, Mississippi during the Reconstruction Era.

14 responses to “Reconstruction: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

  1. If I may.. I think you can walk away from “slavery in America” and the Civil War, and Reconstruction with some 4 basic points.

    1. Slavery, forced servitude, whatever label you put on it, is a human trait and not just limited to kings, queens, dictators, Caesars, czars, presidents, or nasty potentates. Also, in the history of man those being forced into slavery have not always been blacks. In fact, wholesale black slavery is a relative newcomer. The first slaves were peoples from territories conquered by other warring territories (war also being a trait of man)… slavery being part of the spoils of war and less about being an economic asset. Subsequently enslavement has also included those of a particular race, religion, or even gender. The concept of slavery was interwoven into many societies as natural to the status quo. So.. there’s no real need to assign some collective level of guilt to the Dutch, or whomever brought the first slaves into the pristine and virgin New World… nor to the Americans of the Civil War era who, by our contemporary standards, we consider narrow-minded and morally incompetent. Now.. this does not mean we just sit back and let slavery happen, but we can look back and understand that human enslavement is part of being human unless we decide for ourselves, within our societies, to change it.

    2. Because you might have been considered an Abolitionist in your circa 1800 ideals that slavery in any form is wrong, it did NOT mean you were into black social equality. As I mentioned before in another post, the average 19th century person thought that blacks either wanted to go “home” (meaning, return to Africa) or should be sent “home”. Most Americans thought blacks were an inferior race and if anything they needed “parenting” by whites to survive because of their seemingly intellectual inferiority. Even Abe Lincoln had a level of this same feeling.

    3. Again, as I blurbed in an earlier post, the Emancipation Proclamation remains one of the most incorrectly interpreted American historical documents. Whether you went to a one room schoolhouse in America or in the Netherlands, or in Timbiktu, it has been acclaimed as the document that “freed the slaves in America” by Abraham Lincoln, who thought of it from some divine moral inspiration one day while pondering the fate of the country in front of the evening fireplace. Um.. no. The document was a presidential decree proclaiming slaves being free in only ten states, and it was a timed political move at a critical juncture of the War. An important document to be sure, as it led in part to the culmination of the 13th Amendment, which did free the slaves everywhere (but did not establish social freedoms).

    4. The American Civil War was NOT about slavery. It was essentially about states’ rights. In other words, the southern states were feeling imposed upon by the northern states in that Congress was favoring certain social controls and regulations that would have had an impact on southern businesses, especially agriculture. Among this was a rising public groundswell against slavery in general. Slave laws were decided at the state level and were very confusing… especially when non-slave states had laws to return escaped slaves to their southern owners. When southern states started to secede from the Union the war was about keeping the states together… preserving the Union… not about freeing slaves. The southern states were seceding in order to determine their own way of life and not live to the dictates of a northern Congress, which they perceived as bullying them.

    Anyway.. just thought I’d summarize a bit. Sorry for such large posts! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Doug,
      Thanks for the long comment! I’m not sure we share the same definition of a summary, though.

      Your point 1: Sure, many civilizations, countries, races, etc. had slavery, but I find it a bit hard to let the South off that easily.First of all, I bet your mother told you that just because some other kids did something, that didn’t mean you should. I know mine did. And I tell my kids the same thing. Second, I don’t buy it that the slaveholders were simply being men of their times who didn’t know any better. If slavery was still considered completely normal and they weren’t able to see past their time, then how did the Northerners manage to feel differently? They lived in the same time and the same country, after all. No, I think the slaveholders knew it was wrong and inhuman, and that’s why so many pro-slavery folks went to enormous lengths with their scientific racism to rationalize that blacks weren’t actually human like you and me.

      As for point 2: I completely agree. I make the same point in my post Freedom: Some Qualifications.

      Point 3: No, Lincoln didn’t think it up one fine evening. That’s not what I learned, either, in my quite sizable high school, thank you very much :-). My high school history teacher actually pooh-poohed Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves, claiming he was completely opportunistic in regards to the issue. Be that as it may, after much back and forth and a lot of pressure and convincing by free men of color and Radical Republicans and other abolitionists, he came to the conclusion that the slaves should be freed. And he freed them. He did. The 13th Amendment was adopted in January of 1865. Lincoln was also going to give them the vote, but then he was assassinated in April. That the amendment wasn’t adopted until December is hardly reason to say Lincoln didn’t free the slaves.

      Point 4: Yes, the Civil War was fought because the Southern states didn’t want the federal government in their lives, telling them what to do, like, well, ABOLISH SLAVERY, for instance, and so they wanted to secede, which the North would not allow. Keeping the freedom to have slaves and thus keep their economic status quo was definitely a big reason for the South to want to secede.

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      • I appreciate your sentiment and anti-slavery zeal. But I’m not really setting the South apart from some blame for slavery. I think we can agree that slavery was (and still is, regarding human trafficking) all about economics. Someone in the American South didn’t one day wake up and decide to oppress blacks simply for house servants. The hugely agricultural South depended a lot on the human effort.. planting, harvesting, processing, and the distribution of consumable crops and cotton to the rest of the country and for export to Europe, especially in the case of cotton. Slaves from Africa, from the founding of our country, were a source of cheap labor. They became an economic asset, hence property… and EVERYONE, North, South, Europe, benefited from from this system (one can compare to us buying from Wal-Mart products made in Pacific Rim sweathouses). There’s enough so-called guilt to go around for everyone back then. The reason those in the North became sensitive to slavery was in large part attributed to the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted contemporary slave life. Also, the North was not agricultrally dominated and hence did not feel any kinship economically (although incorrectly) and could afford more progressive moral ideas because the average worker was tied to heavier industry.

        A smart plantation owner might be more benevolent toward their slaves given they were an asset… a business investment to protect. Also, some plantation owners were indeed human enough for more moral treatment of their slaves beyond being just property. But in the end, whether you beat and tortured your slaves into submission or included them as a plantation “equal”, slavery was (and is) still slavery. But there was no question… slavery made business profitable and everyone purchased and consumed products harvested by slave labor… and yes, you can say that America was built on the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality for all… and slave labor. But.. we are who we are today because we had to travel that road. We may not be the best place in the world to live in but our form of government and the spirit in which is was founded surely is passing the test of time.

        Nice debate, by the way. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I like your comparison to us buying at Wal-Mart nowadays. Very true.

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  2. Whenever I hear Southerners/textbooks say the war was about “states’ rights” I can only think that the phrase is an example of dog whistle politics because really it was specifically about landowners’ right to make money using slave labor. The current textbooks which come out of Texas make a big deal of emphasizing this point (i.e. that it was states’ rights rather than slavery). I can only assume that if George Orwell was still around he would be rolling his eyes.

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  3. I cringe every time I hear the phrase “states’ rights”. It always seems to be trotted out when states are trying to do (or keep doing) something awful, be it slavery, death penalty, resisting equal marriage rights, or lack of regulation of big business. We’re a nation, first and foremost, so shouldn’t everyone in the nation have the same rights and rules? Especially in today’s world when so many people do move from state to state (I lived in four), I don’t understand why more emphasis should be put on individual states than on national rights. Times have changed, and states have changed (or at least they need to).

    And now with states like Texas and North Carolina jumping on the opportunity to make voting more difficult (which ultimately targets certain groups and demographics), it feels like we’ve taken the proverbial two steps back after our one step forward.

    (This is early morning ramblings on topics that frustrate me. More coffee and more words are probably needed to really make my point.)

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    • I agree. It’s inconsistent and impractical. And yes, look what (part of) the South does again to limit the black (and Hispanic) vote the moment they get the chance.

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    • ddddddd
      You ladies make a sound point that even 150 years later there’s still some regional vestiges of the Old South. But it might be worthy to keep in mind that the American Civil War was a deciding point as to whether, as a nation, we held to preserving states rights over preserving the Union. We are in fact a mobile society more than ever and as time passes the lines get more blurry between what the federal government mandates through legislation and what an individual state might call their own domain. As a nation we were founded on the precept of individual free and independent states forming a union with a centralized government. The individual states represented residents who had specific economic and moral differences. Remember the melting pot idea? We always have been a diverse population made up of people who tend to live with others of similar culture and ideology. People in the east pass laws prohibiting making a U-turn at stop lights; in the west it’s permissible. Is there a right or wrong either way? Nope (although one could argue anything). In the east it seems you can barely own a firearm.. while in the west one is permitted to carry the damn things around in public without a permit. A guy from Arizona re-locating to Chicago is wondering why the Second Amendment that protected his right to own and carry and fire his guns in AZ doesn’t seem to work all that well in Illinois… even worse in Chicago… and even worse than that in a couple suburbs of Chicago. I’m not wanting to get into the gun debate but I am simply using the idea to illustrate how We, the People, like to impose our own regional level of morality.

      Here’s my particular gripe since we are all lamenting over our morning coffee. As a nation we are so consumed with personal liberty and freedom and it’s reflected in our laws, as it should be. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as guaranteed by the Constitution. Yet when someone murders someone else is that not the ultimate denial of personal freedom? How can the same crime of murder in Texas end up with the death penalty for the murderer yet in Ohio that murderer could end up with a jail sentence of 10 years? It seems to me that murder should be a federal offense (with federal punishment) given it’s the ultimate denial of personal freedom for any victim. Now reality steps in and given all the murder cases in this country, from city, to county, to state, the government bureaucracy to handle all that would be huge to be sure, and we are nowhere ready for that grand debate as a nation. But here again, regional morality dictates the diversity in punishment. Some states have a death penalty and other states don’t. Makes one wonder that with our mobile society that we are less about the “United States” of America, and more toward just plain “America”.

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      • Hm. I suppose you have a point that at least different states can pass different laws, so that there’s always a state you can move to if you don’t agree with the one you live in. Is that what you are saying? Texas wants the right to have the death penalty, but what if it was the federal government that wanted the death penalty. Then I’d suddenly be all for states’ rights not to have it. But it does seem, though, that the folks calling for states’ rights in general are more conservative, wanting the right to bear arms anywhere, the right to limit voting of the poor (because they’d vote progressive, is the thought behind it), the right to pay women less, the right not to have universal healthcare.

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      • Barbara… you sound like a fervent liberal! 🙂
        I gotta admit I’m more a liberal conservative these days. But I would agree with you that it seems conservatives are more for the idea of states rights, but I think it depends more on the issue than just plain across-the-board. Yet very generally speaking, conservative core values favor less governmental control of our lives, hence a greater shove toward states rights. But here’s the interesting thing provided by our Constitution… checks & balances. Some maverick state could end up passing some seemingly rediculous law… but that law can be challenged through the Supreme Court. True.. it’s not an “every citizen” path given the lawyer expense, but not every legal challenge begins with the average person. The government can bring a case against a state, or even vice versa. Right now the political environment is in such a mess between the two parties, especially the republicans. Congress is non-effective, republicans have no one to toss into the next election that could beat Hillary… worse yet, they have no platform to engage the national debate. Most disconcerting for an old fart like myself. 🙂

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      • You’re only just now realizing that I’m pretty liberal, Doug? 😉 I am most of the time, though there are some issues where I’m amazed that I find myself standing with conservative Christians. You never know with me.
        Yes, checks and balances … at least you’ve got that, but wouldn’t it be better if stupid laws weren’t enacted in the first place? That’s where a multi-party system helps. Then you don’t have to wait for decades before someone successfully brings something to the attention of the Supreme Court. But we digress.If you want, we can have that discussion over at my series of posts about the parliamentary system vs the American system of government.

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      • I agree about the stupid laws. But then that begs the question… who judges whether or not a law is “stupid” (once we have defined universally exactly what “stupid” is)? One person’s common sense is another person’s sheer idiocy. Ahh.. the diversity of the human kind! But yes.. we digress from the post theme… kinda sorta. 🙂

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      • Well, that’s easy: I do. Because I’m always right. 🙂

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