Aug 8, 2015

Allen provided this review of Foner's latest book on the Reconstruction as requested at the last meeting

A Short History of Reconstruction
by Eric Foner
(Abridged from Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution)

I give this book my highest recommendation for consideration by the History Book Club.  I have not read the full version of Foner’s book, but have a copy and will read it at some point.  Not only is this a riveting account of one of our country’s most shameful periods, but it is highly relevant – even essential – to understanding the racial conflicts that are again arising in the United States today.  The roots of our current racial attitudes lie in the causes and outcome of the Civil War.  Many of those factors are still in play today, most significantly a lingering racism.  While the country has clearly made considerable progress in race relations in the past half century, including the election of a black president, racism is still a powerful force, which has been made obvious by racially-motivated animosity toward that same black president.

Reconstruction was a direct outgrowth of the Civil War-era emancipation movement and a drive to achieve full equality and citizenship for free blacks after slavery ended.  The effort had three phases:

1.  Presidential Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, which emphasized local rule in the former Confederacy, leniency toward former Confederates, and a reluctance to grant blacks full equality, which could lead to majority status for them and, thus, power over whites where blacks were a majority in the deep South.  Republican Reconstruction governments were largely made up of northern unionists (called “carpetbaggers”) and loyal southerners who had opposed the Confederacy, many of whom served in the Union Army (called “scalawags”), and free blacks, who were allowed to vote, hold public office, and serve on juries.  But, little enforcement of equal rights was undertaken and southern states were able to undo progressive Reconstruction measures and return blacks to a state that was called “slavery in all but name.”  Repressive measures included forced labor contracts, vagrancy laws that imprisoned anyone refusing to work, punishment for alleged violations of contracts, sharecropping that cheated black tenant farmers and, most crucially, inability of blacks to own land.  Preventing blacks from voting in areas where they were a large majority resulted in minority white governments, dominated by the old planters, that continued to subject blacks to unequal status.

2.  Radical Reconstruction replaced Presidential Reconstruction, which was overturned by the Radical Republican majority in Congress, which also unsuccessfully tried to impeach Johnson.  The new policy retained full civil and legal rights for blacks and placed progressive or radical Republicans in office in the southern states.  Blacks again held office, voted, and served on juries, but there was no real land reform that would have broken up plantations and permitted sales of smaller plots to black farmers, nor any federal funding to assist free blacks in purchasing land. Aside from racial motivations, some charged that this constituted confiscation of private property and was unacceptable.  Because the former plantations were never broken up, and no real land reform adopted, blacks were denied a crucial avenue to economic progress and equality.  The author identifies this as, perhaps, the most important issue in Reconstruction and a key reason why it ultimately failed.

Although free blacks were granted civil and legal equality under both forms of Reconstruction, there was reluctance among whites, even radicals, to grant social equality to them.  Whites, especially in the South, but also some free blacks did not believe it was wise or prudent to push full integration.  Blacks placed a higher priority on their economic advancement, particularly land ownership, and emphasized the need for education, regardless of whether it took place in integrated or segregated schools.  They were happy to see more black teachers and other professionals working in the South, even if it was under segregated conditions.  What was not foreseen was the eventual deterioration of such an arrangement into separate and distinctly unequal facilities, including schools, as well as the denigration of separate public accommodations, including transportation facilities, hotels, restaurants, theaters, an even drinking fountains.

3.  The end of Reconstruction.  Although the collapse of Reconstruction resulted from several factors, the strongest force opposing it was racism, both North and South.  The Republican party never came close to enjoying a majority of white support in the South, even in the upcountry areas, such as eastern Tennessee, where many whites had remained loyal to the union and served in the Union army.  In the deep south, where free blacks were a majority, whites fought to roll back civil rights laws that effectively put blacks in control of state and local governments.  Even among northern Republicans, there was reluctance to accept blacks as equals.  Eventually, internal factionalism among Republicans, as well as Democrats and even among black elites, led to new political alignments and coalitions that saw a decline in concern for the freed blacks, who relied heavily on federal intervention to enforce civil rights laws.  Within a decade of Reconstruction’s enthusiastic and optimistic beginning, its goals were largely abandoned.

Economic depression after the Civil War played a role in preventing the government from achieving its initial Reconstruction goals.  Ideally, many Republicans and even former Confederates wanted to reform the South into a more industrial region, reduce the size of plantations and redistribute land in smaller plots to free blacks and poor whites.  White yeoman farmers living in the upcountry, where plantations were not practical, owned few, if any, slaves, did not support the Confederacy, and long resented the planters, who were an elite ruling class prior to the Civil War.  Large plantation owners were a small minority of southern whites, yet they controlled government and used it to the detriment of poorer whites.  Taxes on small farmers were typically higher than those paid by large plantation owners, for example. However, economic depression following the war brought sharply lower prices for cotton and a severe lack of credit.  Reconstruction governments ran high deficits in trying to generate programs for the poor and free blacks and, eventually, corruption hindered the program as well.

Redistribution of land was crucial to free blacks who felt they were entitled to plantation land due to centuries of having worked it in slavery, for no reward, while enriching their white masters and all who profited from the products that resulted from their crops.  Cotton, for example, didn't only make planters rich, but also manufacturers of textiles.  Blacks were applying the Lockean principle that a person who mixed his labor with the soil achieved ownership of it.   Denying blacks land ownership deprived them of one of the most important means of achieving economic equality.

The Republican Party, which had championed Reconstruction and black equality, became increasingly tied to big industry, which sought to limit the rights of workers (black and white) to organize, strike, or demand an equal role with capital.  Gradually, industry, especially the railroads, controlled government policy through massive corruption influence peddling.  Federal troops who were stationed in the South to enforce Reconstruction civil rights laws where removed and used instead to break strikes in the north.  A new, harsh class system emerged that restricted worker rights and ended efforts to advance blacks.  In the South, a lack of federal involvement or commitment led to new state governments that instituted laws that restricted or eliminated black voting rights, labor bargaining power, access to public accommodations, and returned them to a labor system not far removed from slavery.  Although these “Redeemer” governments all but eliminated public spending on education or much of anything else, it did expand the prison system and instituted repressive laws that placed thousands of blacks and poor whites in prison for the most minor violations.  The old vagrancy laws incarcerated anyone refusing work, even if it was offered at low wages or on a corrupt sharecropping basis that routinely cheated the sharecropper.  The high prison population provided a free work force for industries when prisoners were forced to work for them without pay.

During Reconstruction, whites resorted to violence, through the Ku Klux Klan and later more openly, to intimidate blacks and Republican Reconstruction officials.  Many were murdered and black neighborhoods were burned down in retaliation for blacks attempting to vote or campaign.  Republican officials were assassinated, beaten, and driven from the South.  Although federal forces put a stop to much of this for a time, within a few years the government reduced or eliminated enforcement and withdrew from the South, leaving the way clear for white supremacists to take power, curtail or eliminate black voting and other rights, and effectively end Reconstruction.  Republicans abandoned Reconstruction partly because they feared losing the South to the Democrats and thought that they could minimize the damage by accommodating white southern racial attitudes.

The failure of Reconstruction ushered in a century of Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement and second-class citizenship for blacks.  Nonetheless, the author does point to some progress for blacks during the period, particularly the strengthening of the black social community, churches and schools.  Memories of the brief period when they were treated equally also inspired free blacks to hope that things could again improve for them, although it would take another century of that to happen.

The book touches on women’s issues during the period, pointing out the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to include women as part of the new liberalization and egalitarian movement.  Their efforts were frustrated as little attention was paid to their demands or to the contributions and achievements of women in the United States.

The author sees genuine weaknesses in Reconstruction, but clearly believes that, despite many factors playing a role in the policy and its failure, the overriding element that doomed Reconstruction was racism, both North and South.  White supremacy in the South took violent, brutal form, but it existed more benignly in the North as well.  By the mid 1870s, many Americans harbored openly racist views and few regarded blacks as equals or capable of ever becoming equal.  Many spoke openly about an inherent inferiority in the black race that doomed them to a permanent place of inferiority.


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