The Rebirth of A Nation

jpgThe question we didn’t quite nail in this conversation was: how did the Lincoln Republicans blow the victory they’d won on the battlefield? Weren’t they bluffed, waited and in simple truth terrorized out of the real emancipation they’d fought for? In Congress and the White House the Republicans held all the cards at the war’s close, yet their project of radical reconstruction failed utterly, and the mission of building an interracial democracy went aglimmering. Chris Devers, listening in, points to a starker verdict from Doug Muder on-line: that the Confederacy continued the war through 1877 to victory in unrefereed overtime.

What the Lincoln Republicans did win — despite opposition from President Andrew Johnson — was the near-radical Constitutional amendments, a sort of life-support system for the dream. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th promised birthright citizenship and “equal protection of the laws,” and the 15th prohibited discrimination at the ballot box. Eric Foner said emphatically in our conversation that the 14th amendment (main platform of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s) wouldn’t have a chance of passage in Congress today. The 15th amendment is being tested even now.

Heather Cox Richardson scored it provocatively: that the war victory and the lost reconstruction gave us the left-right divide that Americans have shouted across ever since:

The question of ‘for whom should the American government work’ is the fundamental question that we have grappled with since the very first day of Reconstruction…Should it be helping the “makers” by creating extraordinarily low taxes? Or should the federal government be helping as many people as possible to be able to rise into middle class, into a competency, into a place where they can feed their kids and move their own way up through society? …It’s a tension that speaks directly to what Lincoln was up to when he helped to form the Republican party, what the early Republicans were at work at in Reconstruction… when the weight shifts from a government that should work for everybody, giving everybody a say — African Americans, women, immigrants — to a government that reflects the needs and wants of a very few wealthy people.

Both our guests Eric Foner and Heather Cox Richardson want to shout it from the rooftops: the little-known history of Reconstruction is where the story of the Civil War gets really interesting. It’s the period when, as Drew Faust has said, Americans became modern. The federal government came into its own, bringing with it new institutions: absentee ballots, common currency, an income tax, new rails, and global trade. W.E.B. DuBois called Reconstruction black America’s “brief moment in the sun.” Two of history’s nine black U.S. Senators represented Mississippi briefly during the 1870s. Black empowerment during Reconstruction was incomplete and, ultimately, doomed by Klan violence and a national loss of nerve. But it birthed the ideas of inclusion, citizenship, and democracy that we’ve struggled to realize ever since.

Guest List
Eric Foner
Columbia University professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, author  — most recently — of Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
Heather Cox Richardson
professor of history at Boston College, historian of American political ideology, and author of To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party
Reading List
Why Reconstruction Matters
Eric Foner, The New York Times
Our lead guest has revised our view of Reconstruction. Recently he made the case that it still matters, a tragic tale of a good national change gone bad:

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.

Frederick Douglass, The Atlantic (1866)
The most famous black man of his time argues for a radical Reconstruction — conducted, not as a matter of constitutional amendment, but as a total social revolution in the South:
The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected, spite of all the laws the Federal Government can put upon the national statute-book... One of the invaluable compensations of the late Rebellion is the highly instructive disclosure it made of the true source of danger to republican government. Whatever may be tolerated in monarchical and despotic governments, no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them. What was theory before the war has been made fact by the war.
"It was a deliberate choice... and a sin"
Elias Asquith + Heather Cox Richardson, Salon
An interview with our guest Heather Cox Richardson about the political dimensions of Reconstruction that led to the Republicans and Democrats swapping sides:
So what is it that happens during Reconstruction that eventually turns Southern whites so strongly against Republicans?   [Democratic President Andrew] Johnson looks at [Republican reforms] and he recognizes that the Republicans are popular enough that if he doesn’t do something to rein them in, a Democrat will never be elected [president] again. He’s got a personal stake in that, but he’s also concerned about the growth of federal government; he thinks it’s way too big already, because [due to] patronage, [the government] is only hiring Republicans and they will always vote Republican and then pretty soon there won’t be any Democrats.   So he vetoes [two ambitious and popular Republican bills] … and in his explanation for his two vetoes … he pulls together a number of things: The idea that if you let everybody have a say in American society, [voters] will redistribute wealth; he pulls together racism; and he pulls together hatred of Republicans on the part of Democrats. So he says that these bills — which are designed to help white people as well as black people — are a deliberate attempt by Republicans to redistribute tax dollars … to black people … and bleed “hardworking white men” dry for the sake of African-Americans.   That link, right there, [between] taxes and helping black people — regardless of what it does for society or regardless of how good it is for everyone — is still the language we use; we’re taking from “makers” and giving to “takers.”
Black Reconstruction
W. E. B. DuBois
The Massachusetts sociologist Du Bois was one of the first, daring revisers of a poisonous narrative of Reconstruction, with racist assumptions and Southern sympathies. He picks up where Douglass left off, saying that Reconstruction itself was a beautiful project — that failed only in its execution:
The unending tragedy of Reconstruction is the utter inability of the American mind to grasp its real significance, its national and worldwide implications. It was vain for Sumner and Stevens to hammer in the ears of the people that this problem involved the very foundations of American democracy, both political and economic. We are still too blind and infatuated to conceive of the emancipation of the laboring class in half the nation as a revolution comparable to the upheavals in France in the past, and in Russia, Spain, India and China today.   We were worried when the beginnings of this experiment cost Eighteen Millions of Dollars, and quite aghast when a debt of Two Hundred and Twenty-Five Millions was involved, including waste and theft. We apparently expected that this social upheaval was going to be accomplished with peace, honesty and efficiency, and that the planters were going quietly to surrender the right to live on the labor of black folk, after two hundred and fifty years of habitual exploitation. And it seems to America a proof of inherent race inferiority that four million slaves did not completely emancipate themselves in eighty years, in the midst of nine million bitter enemies, and indifferent public opinion of the whole nation. If the Reconstruction of the Southern states, from slavery to free labor, and from aristocracy to industrial democracy, had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort, we should be living today in a different world.   The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure. It did not fail where it was expected to fail. It was Athanasius contra mundum, with back to the wall, outnumbered ten to one, with all the wealth and all the opportunity, and all the world against him. And only in his hands and heart the consciousness of a great and just cause; fighting the battle of all the oppressed and despised humanity of every race and color, against the massed hirelings of Religion, Science, Education, Law, and brute force.

Related Content

  • Mark Aisenberg

    After a brief window of time following Emancipation, African-American political and economic progress was forcibly halted. But somehow, perhaps simply because physical mobility was now legal, African-American music began its spread. I’ve always been fascinated by the emergence of blues, jazz, ragtime, etc. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That would be a great supplemental show.

  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris and guests. Interesting, provocative discussion. These shows are fantastic Chris. I am reminded of Faulkner’s line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner’s observance of history’s obstinacy seems pertinent here. I agree with Professor Foner about our current congress. I too doubt that this congress would pass The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

    Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

    Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

    But who knows, we could both be wrong in our underestimation of the current congressional character. It seems to me we have a congress, and have had congresses, bent on eroding protections. Let us consider the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, rigged up for us by President Clinton and Senator Biden. It has created a tax payer funded, private prison industrial complex. It has lead to an incarceration industry that warehouses human beings like domestic livestock. It has exacerbated the drug problem. This is but one example that there has been an obstinate force in our congressional organs for neglecting their constitutional responsibilities contained within Section 5. We now have a militarized police force. No accident. For somehow, magically, the patriot act and the war on terror seem to trump this amendment; thus, the domestic security apparatus treat the citizenry as an insurgency.

    And yet, on some days, someone in the congress finds where they have misplaced their collective hearts and minds. Rep. Hank Johnson on the House floor reads names of African Americans killed in several states by police. Or, on some days a presidential candidate attempts to hit the reset button on race relations in this country, and by doing so, solidifies a campaign message for advocate and critic alike. It sites the historical resiliency turned into the much hoped for reality that will deliver us to the ever elusive post-racial America. The America where our outlook can remain calmly fixed upon our fun-house, rear-view mirror of cultural perception.

    “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

    — Barack Obama “A More Perfect Union speech”, March 18, 2008, The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    The Lynching era continues today. The names of its victims too numerous to enumerate here. Apparently, the past isn’t through yet. The death urge still haunts America, as it does all empires, from the past to the current present. History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names. James Cone connects the dots for us: “In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” ― James H. Cone, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” His data may be somewhat off, but the message is a bulls-eye. And the past, like a common thug, stands it ground. Negotiating with its shadow through the force of rope, gun, overwhelming numbers, and blind jurisprudence.

    The Past Stands It Ground

    The Past Stands It Ground

    The Past Stands It Ground

    The Past Stands It Ground

    The Past Stands It Ground

    These images of reckless brutality, of collateral damage, are abundant. Tragically, sickeningly so. Consult your local cable news station or white bread media pundit. It’s never about race, because for white euro-ethnic power, white euro-ethnic domination, white euro-ethnic racial supremacy, it’s never about power, domination, and race. Uh-huh. Sure. A little white lie that has swallowed whole epochs, guilt free and calorie free.

    The long night of wrestling for our rights, our guarantee of life and liberty, of putting decency front and center as a mandatory public good, must continue. It is the long night in which we wrestle with the better angels of our nature; which we do all too often through the perfunctory vehicle of the lesser angels of our nature. — The Parrot

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Godard’s movie “Notre Musique” (mentioned elsewhere in other context by other ROS commenter), a kind of exploration of memory and history, has the US Civil War as a kind of leitmotif throughout. We are of course familiar with the literature that “orbits” this war such as
    “Absalom, Absalom” and “The Red Badge of Courage”, as well as the dueling
    narratives of the two lady novelists regarding slavery: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
    “Simon Legree” picture compared to Margaret Mitchell’s “Scarlett O’Hara” one.

    What nobody much mentions is the global input and output structures of the war, ie the war as a major contributor to the subsequent “cleavage structure” of the world, as the following roundtable discussion hints at:

    “In many ways the American Civil War can be thought of as a world war fought primarily on American soil.”

    “The war was also fought on a global scale.
    There were naval battles off the coast of France
    and on the Atlantic, and a raid across the border from Canada by Confederates into Vermont. The June 1864 battle between the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France ended in the sinking of the famed Confederate commerce raider. The CSS
    Shenandoah, a notorious commerce raider in the Pacific, eventually surrendered
    in Liverpool, England with the ship subsequently sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar shortly thereafter.

    It left a global military legacy as well.
    Many Confederate officers ended up in the armies of Mexico,
    Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America. Some of the most famous to flee the
    military defeat of the South were John C. Breckenridge, Matthew Fontaine Maury,
    and Jubal Early. The subsequent impact of Confederate defeat caused thousands
    to flee to Central and South America, even today the descendants of those
    people in Brazil “Los Confederados” hold celebrations of their connection to the Confederacy.
    Following the war, European armies would study the implications of the American
    Civil War from Sandhurst and Saint Cyr to the Prussian Military Academy. This was, in
    part, a by-product of the many foreign visitors who watched the Civil War’s
    battles as official, international observers. Even from a strictly military
    perspective, the global implications of the war were enormous.”

    Susanna Lee: Sven Beckert’s (ROS listeners will remember his
    recent discussion of his book “Empire of Cotton”—RM)
    work is instructive here. The Civil War reshaped the global cotton economy and
    created new global networks of labor, capital, and state power. The war caused
    manufacturers to look elsewhere for cotton, including India, Brazil, and Egypt,
    and also spurred imperial endeavors to insure reliable sources. The Civil War
    necessitated that cotton planters invent new forms of labor to replace slavery.
    Former slaveholders in the United States South worked out a system of
    sharecropping with freed people. This system ultimately became economically
    coercive through labor codes, crop liens, and debt quagmires. These
    workers–some as in the case of most African Americans in the South embarking on
    their lives as freed people–had to deal with an economy in which they would be
    subject to fluctuations of the world market. This new system of labor emerged
    around the world in India, Asia, and Egypt as well as the United States.
    The state supported this new system of labor through laws and regulations.

    Robert May: The global implications of the Civil War were
    profound, especially for Europe, Latin America and British
    North America but also for other parts of the world (for instance,
    the war was the backdrop for the 1862 Anglo-American treaty for more effective
    suppression of the African slave trade). As the war began, foreign nations had
    to weigh the legality under international law and risks of recognizing the
    Confederacy and/or providing it with aid in the face of Union threats of war.
    Further, they had to decide whether to obey or defy the hastily proclaimed
    Union blockade of Rebel ports, knowing that the consequences either way would
    be serious. When European powers decided to respect the blockade, they ensured
    shortages of cotton imports from the South, which in turn triggered, by 1862,
    serious dislocations in the economies of several cotton-dependent European
    powers (especially Great Britain) leading to shifts in global trade and
    production patterns. British leaders incentivized increased cotton production
    in alternative locales like India and Egypt.
    Neutral shipping interests, wool producers, and certain other economic sectors
    abroad, on the other hand, enjoyed a kind of “war dividend” because of the
    cotton shortage and the way Confederate privateers crippled the U.S. merchant
    marine. European colonies in the Caribbean boomed as way-stations in Confederate smuggling efforts. Europeans by the many thousands enlisted in Union and Confederate forces (about a quarter of all Union soldiers were born abroad). For Irish nationalists,
    or “Fenians,” service in the Union army was often seen as a way to prepare
    militarily for eventual service back across the Atlantic in the cause of Irish
    independence from Britain.European observers flocked to the war for many reasons, partly to learn how the conflict was affecting military tactics, strategies, and tactics.”


    Perhaps the Mandelbrot concept of “fractal geometry” in some evocative way tells us about the global aspect of the war.

    Remember that the MIT Press book, “North-South: The Brandt Report” circa 1980/81 is about global North-South co-evolution and tension and one may ask about the fractal pattern, without wanting to push the comparison beyond its elastic limit, of the internal American “North-South” and the global one.

    Think of North and South, nationally and globally as subplanets at different scales.

    Richard Melson

  • Pete Crangle

    Mark, I think this is an excellent idea for a show. I would add that a discussion of minstrelsy might also be relevant, especially within the context of social structures that were prevalent before and after the civil war. Minstrelsy was not simply entertainment “lite”, it was a form of propaganda to reinforce white supremacy; a paradox. It is a precursory to many things that are still around in the American culture. I would argue, there is still a fraction of white America who view African Americans in this way. A complicating factor for President Obama, or any politician whose presence is a reminder of slavery and supposed a priori inferiority. Best regards… — The Parrot

  • Mark Aisenberg

    The book, Delta Blues, by Ted Gioia, is excellent on the topic.

  • Potter

    We don’t really have a union do we?

    I am impressed in this show by the conclusion that regardless of what was fought for and presumably won and regardless of the laws that came into being, especially through the difficult process of amendment, that the prevailing power in our society prevails and manipulates to win it’s way and that nothing is settled by law. And this is widely so- not just here in the US. When the people tune out or relax, then they lose. This is also of course Ben Franklin’s legendary ” A republic if you can keep it”.

    Thank you!