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