The 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.