Echoes of Reconstruction’s Demise

Rowan McGarry-Williams (PO ’21)

It is comforting to think of progress as linear and inevitable, with the present a constant process of improvement over the past. However, the truth of history is that it is full of contingencies and reversals, fits and starts. In the United States, the clearest example of history’s impartiality towards progress is that of Reconstruction’s demise in the late 1800s. Reconstruction may seem like distant past, but its events both echo and inform those of today.

In 1865, leaders were suddenly confronted with the world the Civil War wrought: a vastly expanded federal government, a prostrate and ruined South, and, most dramatically, the emancipation of millions of enslaved people. The freedmen quickly became a political force, organizing schools, churches, and voter leagues only a few years removed from enslavement. For a brief period, some elected officials committed themselves to building on this world. Radical Republicans in Congress passed the watershed Civil Rights Act of 1866, created the Freedmen’s Bureau, and added three crucial amendments to the Constitution. For the first time, African Americans could expect to receive some form of protection and institutional support from the federal government.

This progressive energy was not to last. By 1877, “home rule” had been restored to the South and the ensuing decades saw a gradual chipping away at the rights of the freedmen before the eventual decline into the Jim Crow era. Reconstruction crumbled under an alliance of revanchist white supremacists, a staunchly conservative Supreme Court, and moderate elites who overlooked or even tacitly endorsed the rollback of egalitarianism.

This alliance appears to be experiencing a resurgence in modern times. The current President rose to political prominence by questioning the Americanness of the first black president and promising to roll back his legislative agenda. The Roberts Court has repeatedly sided with corporate interests while striking down efforts to integrate schools and enforce voting rights. Moderate Republicans have largely capitulated to the whims of racism and demagoguery. Some Democrats have even chosen to advocate compromise and civility when doing so means sacrificing their principles and constituents.

The allure of compromise was strong in the Reconstruction era as well. For good reason: the Union would not survive without reconciliation between North and South. In Race and Reunion, historian David Blight outlines the resulting “reconciliationist narrative” of the Civil War, which emphasized unity and a forgiving treatment of the former Confederacy. This was a moderate approach, one that sought a middle ground between the blatant racism of many Southern Democrats and the more radical visions of figures like Frederick Douglass and Thaddeus Stevens. Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune and a prominent reconciliationist, urged leniency towards the South but advocated for black male suffrage across the country, for instance.

But often, this vision of reconciliation came at the expense of African Americans. As Reconstruction wore on, figures like Greeley began to tire of the era’s upheaval and turbulence. For such men, the extension of suffrage to black men under the 15th Amendment represented the culmination of Reconstruction’s aims. The notion of Southern whites as an oppressed group suffering under Northern occupation gained increasing currency among this group. In 1872, Greeley launched a campaign for President under the banner of the “Liberal Republican” movement. He railed against the perceived excesses of President Ulysses Grant, himself no radical, and rallied his countrymen to “clasp hands across the bloody chasm” of America’s sectional divides. Though Greeley lost, his campaign represented the “final collapse,” as Blight puts it, of the coalition that had pushed for radical Republicanism. Ultimately, then, the reconciliationist vision of moderate elites gave cover to the white supremacists. If the emancipatory agenda of vigilance, idealism, and equality had won out, perhaps the South—and indeed the North—could have been forever transformed by Reconstruction. Instead, the acquiescence of many Northern whites paved the way for Jim Crow in the South and a racial caste system nationwide.

The rollback of Reconstruction also took place in the judicial branch. In a series of cases between 1873 and the turn of the century, the Court stripped the federal government of the power to protect the rights of black Americans, privileged whites and corporations in 14th Amendment litigation, and sanctioned private discrimination on the basis of race. In the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, the Court left all but a select few “national” rights, such as access to navigable waters and peaceful assembly, up to the discretion of the states—thus greatly increasing the ability of individual states to pass discriminatory laws. A decade later, the Supreme Court bundled a series of cases from across the country that came to be known as the Civil Rights Cases. In its decision, the Court found the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional because it punished discrimination by individuals and private corporations rather than only government bodies This demolition of the 14th Amendment would soon make way for Plessy v. Ferguson and enshrine “separate but equal” into law.

But, as historian Eric Foner argues in The Second Founding, these decisions ignored the realities of racism as well as the intentions of the lawmakers who had passed the amendments in the first place. The Radical Republicans who had authored much of the Reconstruction legislation envisioned a dramatic increase in the federal government’s power and its commitment to black Americans. The final section of each Reconstruction Amendment, for instance, noted that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” This, according to the amendments’ framers, was meant to indicate the responsibility of Congress to continue building upon and legislating on the issues of equality that animated the Reconstruction era. These lawmakers could not have—and explicitly did not—foresee the eventual destruction of their vision. 

Reconstruction echoes into the 21st century not only because of the revival of a coalition of white supremacists, moderate elites, and conservative courts, but because the United States continues to grapple with the questions that defined the period—who gets to vote, the relationship between federal and state governments, the merit of reparations, the causes and effects of racial inequality. In many cases, the conditions of these debates can be traced back to the fall of Reconstruction.

Following the Civil War, perhaps the foremost political issue in the South was that of land. After the defeat of the Confederacy, Northern Republicans desired to spread their ideology of “free soil, free labor, and free men” to the South. A free labor market was incompatible with the entire structure of the existing Southern economy—“to the plantation planters,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, “a wage contract was economic heresy and social revolution.” Thus, Republican ideals meant little without land redistribution. In January of 1865, General William Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 marked the first effort towards such redistribution. The order “set apart” land in the South for newly freed African Americans so that “each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground.” However, by the end of the year, the former owners of the reserved land petitioned President Andrew Johnson for its return. Johnson obliged, forcing the approximately 40,000 black people residing on the land either to leave or to work in peonage for the returning planters.

Momentum for redistribution stalled. As a result, black workers in the former slave states remained largely under the yoke of the planter class. The failure to realize a structural overhaul of the Southern economy in the Reconstruction period has striking implications for politics today. Some of these implications are broad—the profound segregation and vast racial inequality that continue to characterize the United States are attributable, to a great degree, to the triumph of oligarchy and white supremacy over the vision of the Radical Republicans. Yet these implications can be remarkably specific as well. For example, historians have found that “counties with high shares of enslaved people just before the Civil War are places where whites today are more conservative, more opposed to affirmative action, [and] more likely to agree with statements that indicate racial resentment.” Similarly, “blacks who reside in southern counties that experienced a relatively higher number of historical lynchings have lower voter registration rates today.” 

Thus, the history of Reconstruction is not so distant as it may seem. Moreover, because the period so strongly informs politics today, it can serve as a guide to those who hope to contextualize modern events and identify strategies for resistance. The threat posed by the current governing coalition becomes increasingly clear when considered alongside the devastating effects of Reconstruction’s fall. Economic gains and progress on civil rights must not be taken for granted.


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