The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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Joseph R. Stromberg - 12/03/10

Interpretations of Reconstruction have changed dramatically. The Dunning School, dominant in the early twentieth century, sympathized with white Southerners and saw Reconstruction as a period of organized looting by “carpetbaggers,” “scalawags,” and freedmen. The Redeemers, who fought back via electoral efforts and irregular violence, were thus the heroes. After World War II, the “revisionist” or “neo-abolitionist” school reversed these judgments and portrayed Reconstruction as a necessary but tragically postponed social revolution.

The theory on which Abraham Lincoln conducted the war obscured some important questions, and his government had to invent a basis for reincorporating the South. When the hoped-for Southern Unionist masses failed to materialize, Lincoln based new “loyal” state governments on 10 percent of the population. This policy continued under President Andrew Johnson.

Southern civil governments created on the Lincoln-Johnson plan held elections in 1866. On the official theory of the war, they had every right to participate in the Union. The Thirteenth Amendment had settled the matter of slavery; but emancipation had actually increased Southern representation in the House—with blacks now counted as whole persons—and Republicans were appalled to see their old enemies arriving to help govern the Union. Furthermore, planters seemed to be establishing quasi-slavery via Black Codes, with draconian restrictions on labor mobility meant to insure a speedy return to agricultural production. These laws struck Republicans as a deliberate affront.

Thus, outraged Republicans determined to reconstruct the South properly through social revolution imposed by military rule and local collaborators. Whatever it did for former slaves, the program would guarantee permanent Republican ascendancy through control of Southern state governments and congressional seats. Wartime northern Congresses had enacted a program of American mercantilism with high tariffs, business subsidies, and a national banking system, and hardly wished to see these measures tampered with by unrepentant Democrats.

The Radical Republicans’ new program pitted Congress against Johnson, a product of the plain folk of Tennessee. Almost unseated through impeachment, Johnson was reduced to utter ineffectiveness. Radicals asserted that the Southern states had committed political suicide by seceding. Under this novel theory, Congress enacted the Reconstruction Act of 1866, cutting the South into five military districts. With most white males disenfranchised and male freedmen voting, new state constitutions would be drawn up, new legislatures would ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and Congress would “readmit” the delinquents into the Union. These governments rested on a coalition of so-called “carpetbaggers” (northern fortune-seekers and idealists), “scalawags” (white Southern collaborators), and freedmen.

Revisionists downplay Republican corruption and stress the Radicals’ egalitarian idealism. There were, however, serious limits to Republicans’ social radicalism. On the revisionists’ own showing, Republicans mostly succeeded in issuing railroad bonds and selling them to one another. The Fourteenth Amendment made the 1866 Civil Rights Act constitutional, thereby protecting nationally the basic rights of former slaves. The clause allowing Congress to reduce the representation of any state violating the amendment reflects the Republicans’ keen interest in controlling Southern elections.

Southern resistance and sabotage stopped Reconstruction short. Where the Dunning School glossed over the methods used, revisionists have denounced them as atrocities. In any case, state by state Redeemers took power from their enemies. Their governments were cheaper. Northern politicians weighed their options and, to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election, effectively ended Reconstruction.

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