Victor Nuovo: The aftermath of the Civil War
Editor’s note: This is the 49th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
The term “Reconstruction” when applied to the aftermath of the Civil War has several uses. The South suffered the loss of its infrastructure: its major cities were laid waste, its railroads torn up; its communication systems destroyed; all these had to be rebuilt. Moreover, its economy was destroyed, not only because of the physical damage caused by invading armies, but also because its primary labor force, which produced its major products for export, was no longer enslaved, but free; they became a free labor force, who, by law, possessed the irrevocable right to negotiate the terms and conditions of their labor.
Moreover, although the states that seceded were allowed to retain their political identity, it was required, before they could be readmitted to the Union, that they be reconstituted, and that their new constitutions receive congressional approval and presidential endorsement, and, this above all, that they be framed according to the principle of human equality — at least for men.
Thus, Reconstruction also possessed moral and political uses that applied equally to North and South. In this respect, the entire nation was reconstituted; and, as President Lincoln hoped, there would be a “rebirth of Freedom.” The historian Eric Foner, a leading authority of the subject, describes passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments as a second founding of the nation. The 13th, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery; the 14th, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States; the 15th, ratified in 1870, prohibited any state from denying or restricting the right to vote of any citizen.
But, above all, post-Civil War reconstruction required that the very idea of the People of the United States had to be enlarged to include all persons born or naturalized in the United States, regardless of race or ethnicity. Legally, this was accomplished by constitutional amendment. But what remained was the complete implementation of this new law throughout the nation.
To accomplish this, in March 1865, Congress passed legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau; the bill was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. It became an agency of the U.S. military, and functioned very much like agencies created after World War II by the Allied Powers to preside over the reconstruction of Germany and Japan. At its head, Lincoln appointed General Oliver Otis Howard. Howard was acclaimed as a fighting general; he lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He pursued his new duties with energy and moral purpose. His principal goal was to endow former slaves with a sense of their own moral worth and autonomy, and prepare them for economic independence, and to that end he encouraged the creation of Black colleges and churches. He was one of the founders of Howard University, which was intended to train teachers and ministers; he served as its president from 1869-’74; the university is named after him. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Bureau was the creation of Black churches, which played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement during the last century. They produced Martin Luther King Jr., and many other heroes of liberty.
But the programs and policies of the Freedmen’s Bureau did not go unchallenged. The challenges came from two sources, the Neo-Confederate “Redeemers,” whose slogan was “The South shall rise again” and whose chief goal was to reduce Freedmen to their former state of servitude, by any means, legal or illegal, often violent; the other came from the office of the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson.
Johnson (1808–’75) was serving as U.S. Senator from Tennessee in 1860, when his state seceded from the Union. He chose not to resign his office, but remained loyal to the Union. He later served as military governor of Tennessee. Although a Democrat, Lincoln chose him as his running mate on a national union ticket, as part of a strategy to promote postwar reconciliation with the South. It was an unfortunate choice for the nation. When, following Lincoln’s murder, Johnson became president, he favored the interests of former slave owners and shared the prejudices of white supremacists. He demeaned the moral and intellectual capacity of Blacks. Left to themselves, he claimed, they would revert to barbarism. He summed up his position on reconstruction by declaring that “White men alone must manage the South,” as he believed they always did in the North. He vetoed bills to expand the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which Congress overrode.
His struggles with Congress, especially with Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful proponent of the full civil rights of Blacks, led finally to his impeachment by the House. The Senate failed to convict him, falling one vote short of the required two-thirds majority.
The other source of opposition to enlightenment policies of reconstruction came from white Southerners, supported by the indifference of a multitude of white Northerners, many of whom shared the prejudices of their southern compatriots. Their primary political tactic was to introduce legislation in their states to prevent Blacks from voting: poll taxes, residency requirements, and complicated procedures to register. Southern legislatures adopted so-called Jim Crow laws, mandating segregated schools and public facilities. All of these measures were supported by the continuing threat of violence. The Ku Klux Klan, and other similar secret societies, among them, Knights of the White Camelia, and the White Brotherhood, took root throughout the south; they promoted White Supremacy through murder and intimidation. As W.E.B. DuBois observed, “the white laborer joined the white landholder and capitalist and beat the black laborer into subjection through secret organizations and the rise of a new doctrine of race hatred.”
In the end, Reconstruction failed to achieve its goals. Eric Foner views it as a source of inspiration. I do not and would revise the subtitle of his history of the period to read “America’s aborted second revolution.”
Note: The names “Jim Crow” and “Ku Klux Klan” are expressions of the malignant mentality and purpose of the opponents of reconstruction. Jim Crow was a fictional minstrel personality that represented Black men as proverbially stupid and clumsy; Ku Klux Klan is derived from the Greek word kuklos, which means “circle” — its purpose to reverse or subvert any just achievement of reconstruction by violence and intimidation.
Postscript: Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” and “A Short History of Reconstruction” are authoritative. W.E.B. DuBois’ “Black Reconstruction in America” is a classic; it sets the proper moral tone to understand Reconstruction. Finally, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow” is short and powerful. Consult your local bookshop.
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