The Reconstruction period is comparatively ignored, when judged by how much interest there is in other periods in American History like the Civil War upon which massive amounts of books have been and continue to be written. The Reconstruction was the struggle of the American Republic to once again re-integrate the South. A vicious war was fought in which hundreds of thousands were killed in battle and many more wounded as well. The North was vindictive and wanted to punish the South for the rebellion. The South wanted to return to the pre-war economic and political system. They agreed to relieve the Black man from involuntary servitude. They concurred with President Johnson (1865-1868) that reunion should be simple. The Southerner should once again proclaim allegiance to the Constitution and concede the destruction of institution of slavery. And all would be good. The economic system would remain same as it was just without involuntary servitude and the Southerner would begin to govern as he saw fit. The states largely sovereign and retaining a measure of autonomy, leaving the Federal government the powers delimited in the Constitution.
Thus soon after the surrender in the Spring of 1865, the Southerner setup governments, proclaimed allegiance to the Federal government and legislated laws designed to consign the black to the plantation system: the plantation system that was the back bone of the economy. These laws were called the Black Codes. The Southerner was content that the Freedman had been granted right to own property, inherit, sit on a jury. The idea that the Freedman was a social equal was abhorrent to him, something unthinkable. The idea that you would invite the Freedman into your house to have social intercourse or worse yet the Freedman could consort with his daughter, would put the Southerner into apoplexy. Northern attitudes were not all that more different, it must be noted.
The Black codes, instituted just after the Civil War, included vagrancy laws for blacks who couldn’t demonstrate they were employed, whereby they would be consigned to convict leasing then they might find themselves back on the plantation. These laws required that Blacks sign Annual labor contracts and present them to authorities, at the risk of vagrancy. A special tax was levied on Blacks, left unpaid it placed the black in a legal state of vagrancy. Incidentally, Mississippi, Kentucky and Delaware first rejected the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. In Mississippi blacks were restricted to being only able to rent land within the city. The significance of these laws was to consign the Freedman back to a state of involuntary servitude.
Once the North was apprised of the Southern disposition towards the Freedman, it immediately saw these actions as a betrayal of a bloody, terrible Civil War, where hundreds of thousands died. The Southerner continued a pre-War understanding, claiming sovereignty of the states; meaning the Federal government should have little purview over the political compact of any particular state. In response the North enacted the 14th Amendment guaranteeing Civil Rights to the citizens of each state, the 15th Amendment granting voting rights to Blacks without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude. The Freedman’s Bureau, hated by the White Southerner, was extended in 1866, as well. This provided protection, aid and education among other things to the Freedman. The White Southerner argued it fostered idleness and shiftlessness and fomented an overly aggressive Negro.
The Southerner saw the largely illiterate Freedman as in no condition to exercise the suffrage nor to lead politically. They were largely correct, but the backward state of the Freedman was due to the Southerner keeping them in a state of ignorance, poverty and servitude that was slavery. It could be surmised that a cultured black slave was not the most advantageous thing to be in Ante-Bellum South.
The Republican governments were universally corrupt. Practicing jobbery, selling off favors, funding large bond issues to benefit political allies, meant to be paid off by the White disenfranchised taxpayer. Taxes largely assessed on land rose dramatically in multiples. Large debt and deficits were run up by these states. In the Ante-Bellum political system the Planters kept taxation on land minimal. Funding Public schools was deemed an expensive burden. Once the Republicans began to govern Public Schools were established, although Whites refused to be educated with the Black, deemed their brutish, social inferiors. The White Southerner was soured with Republican rule for a century; even the Pro-Union Whigs went over to the Conservative/Democrats. The White Southerner was convinced that the Radical reform of suffrage to Blacks was a contrivance to insure Republican rule over the nation.
The White Southern Confederate sympathizer was disenfranchised, under the Iron Clad oath. The Iron Clad Oath insisted the voter had never given help or granted assistance to the Rebellion, the Confederacy, which would encompass virtually all White males in the South. This was far harsher standard than the 14th Amendment which excluded the political and military leadership of the Confederacy.
The Federal military, at one point in time after the Civil War composed of enlisted Black regiments, gave a measure of protection to the Freedman, from the unremitting hostility of the White. The militarized White supporter of the Confederacy had faced death and injury in the Civil War, then came home to live in a country in which the Black could lord over them. There were some 100,000 Black soldiers in the South shortly after the war. In South Carolina these Black regiments demonstrated their predominance on occasion, marching down Main Street driving the White citizens off the side walk. These would infuriate the White Southerner, the White Southerner fully militarized that had fought the North in an exhausting war for four years until conquered in a campaign of total war. Hostility was such these Black regiments were disbanded eventually.
The pace and depth of the attempt at Reconstruction varied for each state. However it all finished the same with Blacks disenfranchised. The White southerner struck back violently at first after the Civil War, then more sophisticated political methods were employed not to encounter the wrath of the North. The Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia wrecked terror on the Black population for a brief period in the late 1860s. The Black population no longer created havoc. Later in South Carolina in 1870’s and elsewhere the Southerner organized himself in armed political groups wearing Red Shirts. They would show up at Republican rallies, largely Black and insist equal time. Later in the Century rabid racism was used in a strange concoction to rally an all-White Populism in the late Nineteenth Century. The Black soil conservatives (Democrats), heir of Plantation political sensibilities, used Black votes either paid for or fraudulently obtained to secure political hegemony. In response by excluding Blacks a block of White votes was formed that allowed the Progressives to gain power at the turn of the next century. See the Strange Case of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward for the interesting story how the South became segregated. Woodrow Wilson, sympathetic to Southern Progressives, a friend of Thomas Dixon who inspired Birth of a Nation, waged a campaign of segregation in the Federal government once he became President. Wilson went to John Hopkins University with his friend, Thomas Dixon, author of Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan. It’s odd how academics rate his Presidency so high.
Of all the tragedies of the Southern race relations was the obliviousness of the fact in a significant way the American Black is a cousin to the White Southerner. Your cousin has 25% of the genes you do. Geneticists estimate the Afro-American is something like 30% Caucasian. Blacks today when they take the now popular DNA tests discover much to their shock they might be 50% or more European. In Ante-Bellum South there really had been a large of measure racial admixture, subsequently deemed so abhorrent to the White. The Supreme Court in 1967 finally struck down the anti-miscegenation laws of State of Virginia. This of course was an ironic joke based on the ample mixing of races in the Ante-Bellum South. The Southern Overseer callously used his position of authority to extract sexual favors. In other cases female chattel might became a recipient of the Plantation owner’s attentions, frustrated with the mother of his children who refused to once again risk the perils of child birth. The Southerner should have known the closeness of relation to his Black servant, but treated the Black as nearly a sub-species. The new Freedman, who was left ignorant and infantile, was hardly in position to run a state; but that was due to the condition in which they were subjected in Ante-Bellum South for generations; left in a condition of ignorance and poverty.
The depth of the notions of racial superiority can be weighed by the following quote:
The Delaware legislature resolved in 1866, “The immutable laws of God have affixed upon the brow of the white races the ineffaceable stamp of superiority, and that all attempts to elevate the negro to a social or political equality of the white man is futile and subversive of the ends and aims of the which the American Government was established.”
I suspect the newly disseminated ideas of Darwin (Origin of the Species, 1859) had a significant impact on this type of thinking, as well. The same kind of thinking that could lead an entire German political party several decades later to surmise an Eastern European Slav was racially inferior; someone, whose physical characteristics appeared virtually identical to the German individual across the Polish border.
Southerners complaints of the Freedman were plentiful. There was enough report by the White Southerner of mis-behavior of the Freedman to grant credence to it being widespread. The Freedman left the Plantation for a life of freedom and largely undisciplined. The Freedman was not the submissive Step-n-fetch-it portrayed in early 20th Century cinema; he was loath to take instruction. But previously on the Ante-Bellum plantation the Black slave was brutalized into submission and the fruits of his labor stolen from him and was excluded from any profitable independent opportunities. If you wanted to dis-incentivize someone against industry and entrepreneurial activities, this is the system. Release from that system tended toward idleness, lawlessness, criminality and mischief. Thievery from such things as vegetable gardens and livestock were common. There were mysterious fires as well that burned down house and barn.
One attempt to recover order was the establishment of the Klu Klux Klan that did so much to terrorize the Freedman. The economy was in ruin from war and the loss of the free labor of millions of Blacks. The White Southern, impoverished and disenfranchised saw their all too violent activities as justifiable attempt to restore order and suppress the power of the Freedmen and their Freedman Bureau and Union and Loyal Leagues. The terror restored order but also enlisted a response from the North in the enactment of the Enforcement acts 1870 to 1871. The Enforcement acts authorized the use of the Army to combat these para-legal groups. Military Districts were set up in authority above the state governments. The KKK was suppressed, as a result.
The racial violence in the post-Civil War is shocking. The KKK is well known but actually operated only for a short while; it was never centralized and quickly became infested with criminal elements detached from the original intentions at least as described by the good Southerner. Overt expressions of it were suppressed by the Federal military in the early 1870’s. The KKK aside, there were out breaks of violence and additional violent political movements in the Reconstruction period.
The riots in Memphis in May, 1866 and New Orleans in July saw dozens of Freedmen killed and driven away. In Louisiana some 1,081, virtually all, Blacks were killed between April and November 1868 in Louisiana in political violence. Later in the 1875-1876 Red Shirts acted as a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party in Mississippi and South Carolina. They broke up Republican meetings, disrupted their organizing, and intimidated black voters at the polls.
During Reconstruction 1867-1877 there were several Radical administrations of course, that had a large number of Black representatives in the Legislatures, supported by the Federal Military districts that might incorporate disenfranchisement of White Southerner under the Iron Clad oaths. Plus there was a great deal of attempts at black voter suppression that required Federal intervention to counter act them. National politics ultimately intervened to take the focus off the plight of the Black. The sabotage of the Supreme Court insured that Blacks in America would remain a race apart and denied opportunity.
Republicans were insistent on the suffrage for Blacks. Ultimately the Republicans didn’t deliver on a significant improvement in the economic situation of the Freedman. The idea of 40 acres and a mule was still born, despite Pennsylvania Senator Thaddeus Stevens’s support. Even the suffrage was taken away eventually.
An astonishingly huge 200,000,000 acres were given to the rail roads. 1862 Homestead Act eventually gave away some 270,000,000 acres. 70,000 Plantation owners were said to have owned over 300,000,000 acres in the South. Yet, nothing was granted to the Freedman, left destitute and dependent on the Plantation for work. Nonetheless, the idea that land could be simply confiscated was a violation of property rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In contrast Radical Senator Thaddeus Stevens deemed the South a conquered province, not rebellious States that had NO right to succeed. Confiscation of the Planters, initiators of the Rebellion, was right and proper. Yet if a State couldn’t succeed then how could it lose its status as one, others retorted. Land grants to Blacks were left a fantasy.
Great blame must be laid on the Supreme Court, much revered in today’s society as a champion of social progress, for the crippling of the Civil Rights Legislation passed in the Reconstruction period. In 1876 Supreme Court pontificated in U.S vs. Cruishank that the Federal Enforcement Acts met to protect the Freedman were void. This was in response to the Easter Sunday April 13, 1873 Colfax, Louisiana massacre, where over a hundred Blacks were murdered as they convened in the Colfax Court house. Arrests of the perpetrators were made under these same Enforcement Acts. The convictions were annulled under this ruling.
Later in 1883 the provisions of the 1875 Civil Rights legislation, banning discrimination in public venues like hotels and restaurants, were deemed Unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled from its Olympian wisdom that The 14th Amendment pertained only to the actions of the States NOT to individuals within the States, thus opening the way to legalized segregation.
A democratic system in which in most cases Whites were in the majority didn’t induce a situation in which great social renovations could be allowed that would advantage the minority Black. Neither would a government of limits and laws allow for social revolution. Sadly, today we have a system that places the inner city Black in a state of dependency; schools failing and families in disarray and drugs and crime rampant. I can only wonder if a Radical plan of land distribution had been attempted and absent the Supreme Courts gutting of the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Civil Rights Laws, the racial divisions and social division could have been avoided. But it likely would have taken a military regime decades to accomplish it against virulent opposition of the Southern White.