A review of Southern Reconstruction (Yardley PA: Westholme, 2017) by Philip Leigh
Today, when partisans of America’s two corrupt political parties throw simpleminded “history lessons” at one other, Philip Leigh has written something quite remarkable: a sober and measured account of Reconstruction. This is all the more noteworthy since Reconstruction has been a sacred cow for five or more decades. The current story is a utopian one about a tragically “unfinished” social democratic “revolution,” which strongly resembles the old Stalinist account by James S. Allen in Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy, 1865–1876 (1937).
As long ago as 1961, historian William Appleman Williams told us that the Gilded Age in the North and Reconstruction in South needed to be fitted into a single historical framework (Contours of American History, 312-313). Leigh’s book is an outstanding example of just how to do that. His first example involves Amos Akerman of New Hampshire, a former Confederate quartermaster, who as U.S. Attorney General prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan from November 1870 to December 1871 Akerman’s great mistake was to irritate Union Pacific Railroad moguls, which led President Ulysses S. Grant to demand his resignation. Here a definite pattern emerged: it seems the administration was more committed to its friends’ and cronies’ commercial gains than it was to freedmen’s rights. In a similar spirit in 1894, federal officials redeployed some anti-Klan legal tools of 1871 against labor unions, much as the Fourteenth Amendment did far more, for several decades, for corporations (as legal “persons”) than for African Americans.
Foundations of Change
In Chapter I, Leigh makes it clear that there was much more on the federal table than concern for the freedmen of the Southern and Border states. As he puts it, “The Civil War transformed our entire country, not merely the South.” Central to the Lincoln administration’s concerns was the Republican Party’s ambitious and expansive Hamiltonian-Whig program of economic development. Among the chief beneficiaries were heavily subsidized railroads, which received colossal amounts of land, government loans, and outright grants of money. Leigh comments that “demagoguery, corruption, and state-assisted capital formation” set the stage for the Gilded Age: the reign of politically connected Robber Barons. The Republicans’ national banking system artfully combined gold, fractional reserves, and inflationary Greenbacks, so that well-placed operators could buy federal bonds with paper dollars and later collect their interest in gold, in effect getting paid twice over.
Chapter 2 sets out the initial phase of Reconstruction, revealing another central goal: permanent Republican Party dominance. Lincoln wanted easy reconstruction, with Confederate states “readmitted” to the union with governments resting on as few as 10% of the white electorate (a rather Cromwellian number), provided they were loyal to the union. Republican factions contended for control of occupied states, setting themselves up for the postwar future. The supposed government-in-exile of Virginia “legalized” the creation of West Virginia.
The Wade-Davis Bill (July 1864) signaled that Lincoln would face a fight with his own party’s Congressional radicals. Conferring with Confederate emissaries at Hampton Roads, Va. In February 1865, Lincoln spoke softly and hinted at compensated emancipation. His minimal demands were restoration of the union and the end of slavery. In general, Leigh adds, Lincoln envisioned only limited Black suffrage, showed little interest in “full racial equality,” and still spoke of overseas colonization of freedmen. For Lincoln, the point was to reunite the Old Whigs of North and South around economic development schemes. (Here Leigh agrees with historian Ludwell Johnson.)
Chapter 3 surveys the economic situation of the South. Wartime destruction and confiscations had disrupted economic life, and with a Black population of 40%, the post-slavery transition to wage labor would be difficult. The War had destroyed two-thirds of Southern railroads and two-thirds of the South’s livestock. There was widespread poverty, even starvation. The value of non-slave property was half what it was in 1860. Wartime cotton plunder by federal agents and postwar lawlessness complicated matters and only in 1879 did the cotton harvest finally equal that of 1860. Radical regimes used property taxation to force further confiscations.
In Chapter 4, Leigh recounts the ordeal of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Starting out as a Tennessee “mechanic” working with his hands, he was scorned by planters and professional men and became a radical Jacksonian Democrat. As an integral nationalist, he became a War Democrat in 1861 and was Lincoln’s running mate in 1864. As president, he continued Lincoln’s “easy” Reconstruction policy.
Reconstruction was a tricky balancing act. Northern States wanted no former slaves moving in. Best they should stay in the South and vote Republican, securing electoral votes and control of Congress for that Party. Paradoxically, emancipation had overthrown the Constitution’s “three fifths” clause and Southern states would now have more seats in the U.S. House, and Radical Republicans wanted them. A Black voting bloc was therefore essential, with as many ex-Confederates as necessary excluded from voting. Congressional Radicals soon hammered out a Fourteenth Amendment and made its “ratification” a precondition of “readmission” of states still occupied. Johnson complained that if such measures had been the plan all along, the South had been right to secede! As tensions mounted, the Radicals found reasons to impeach him.
Chapter 5 describes the governing style of the Reconstruction regimes. Their progressive constitutions contained useful reforms but also took over local government. Led by Northern “carpet baggers” and local “scalawags,” these regimes levied high taxes (eight times the pre-war burden) and yet produced enormous waste, debt, and corruption. They borrowed and spent on infrastructure, railroad schemes, and subsidies. Their borrowing reached $300 million by 1874. Georgia’s debt went from $1,000,000 to $18,000,000 in 1870.
Chapter 6 carries forward the theme that Northerners were mainly committed to economic development. Leigh discusses railroading, the Credit Mobilier scandal, fun and games with watered stock, and other frauds. As these follies accumulated, President Grant increasingly favored plutocratic interests. Leigh notes that the North was treating the South “as an internal colony.” One example was the railroads’ freight-rate differential, which worked like an anti-Southern tariff; the issue persisted down to 1940. (Cf. C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1951, 312-315.)
Chapter 7 treats the near disappearance of American political and business ethics. President Grant’s cronies set the example. Bureaucratic scandals included the Whisky Ring, bribe-taking Interior Secretary Columbus Delano, and federal officials profiting on trading with Indian tribes. Former House Speaker James G. Blaine was caught in dodgy railroad deals. In this hothouse atmosphere, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk tried to corner the gold market and Congress gave itself a generous raise. Given all this, the contested (or stolen) presidential election of 1876 seems perfectly normal. America was effectively a banana republic.
Chapter 8 looks at the long-term impact of Civil War and Reconstruction policies, including federal debt (bonds) redeemed in gold, high tariffs, and the special cotton tax which brought in $68 million from the impoverished South before expiring in 1868. Growing from 25% to 40% of the federal budget, Union Army pensions were an ever-expanding handout which bought many votes, justified high tariffs and partially compensated their victims, if they had fought for the Union. This net South-to-North wealth transfer fostered trusts. The devilish details of federal banking law made credit less available in the South.
In Chapter 9, Leigh concludes that in the famous Sea Island free labor experiment in Union-occupied parts of South Carolina, conditions “varied little from slavery.” There, New England overseers expected twelve-hour days from their workers and the freedmen were not happy. Free labor contracts at New Orleans had similar results, as Northern speculators came down to plant cotton. Somewhat resembling these federal experiments in spirit, the much-abused Southern Black Codes sought to prevent vagrancy and organize free labor. Preaching “forty acres and a mule,” Union Leaguers increased the tension.
In war’s aftermath, cash-short Southern employers couldn’t pay wages and provided advances instead. Given regional capital shortfalls, sharecropping filled the gap. Later, between 1870 and 1940, white sharecroppers outnumbered Blacks. Soil erosion ensued (whence “human erosion,” as historian A.B. Moore says). These “tenant farmers” were little more than nomadic migrant laborers, forced by the banking system into growing one-crop — cotton – without contour plowing or crop rotations. Meat and food had to come from the North! Leigh writes: “Only the region’s (largely Northern) financiers, landlords, and professional classes gained.”
Chapter 10 finds that Northern business soon tired of political and social reconstruction. In the election of 1872, federal forces could still hold Southern electoral votes for Grant. The Panic of 1873 reversed party fortunes. Soon so-called Redeemers were in power except in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. New state constitutions cut back on spending and debt. Some states adopted the vicious convict lease system. Black voters were left in place, for the moment.
Chapter 11 informs us that by the 1890s commodity gluts and deflation (in two senses) had left Southern farmers deep in debt. Currency was scarce (federal banking policy again) and radicalized farmers created the Populist movement, with white and black farmers cooperating in its early phase. Conservative Democrats (heirs to the Southern Whigs) played the race card against Populists. Real disfranchisement of Black voters began around 1890, continuing until 1910. White yeomen farmers wanted black voters eliminated as a pliable tool of the wealthy. Meanwhile, the Philippine War suggested that America as such stood for white supremacy.
Crushed or co-opted by Democrats, the Populists faded away, and New England textile mills moved South. Demagogues like South Carolina’s Ben Tillman gained power. Tillman was pro-yeoman, against Black suffrage, but also against lynching. (Compare Governor Vardaman of Mississippi a little later.)
In Chapter 12, Leigh writes that, absent slavery, Southern states had begun to adopt legal segregation, a Northern import. In Leigh’s view, Union League ruffians played an important role in the carpetbag militias, alienating Southern Whites. (Leigh notes that not much is written on Union League violence.) Leigh surveys the Klan, the KKK Act of 1871, habeas corpus issues, and martial law. Segregation and disfranchisement followed a populist vs. conservative fault line in the 1890s. Lynching rose from about 1882 and a repressive Jim Crow order took form.
Chapter 13 sums up the New Deal Report on the Economic Conditions in the South (1938) which focused on poverty, pellagra, hookworm, one-crop agriculture, and very low incomes. Local taxes were regressive, falling on the poor. Absentee ownership of industries and resources was typical. (I will just add that in 1942 A.B. Moore wanted “another abolition movement… to free both Negroes and whites in the South from the yoke of economic oppression.”) Loss of population to Northern states followed. The Southern diaspora -– both black and white — had begun.
Leigh’s book is notable for its broadness of themes and its adept handling of difficult political-economic issues like the political tradeoff between high tariffs and Union Army pensions, and issues arising from a banking system weirdly combining gold, paper money, and credit so as to favor bankers, lenders, and speculators while penalizing everyone else.
Along the way, he has sorted out some of the pitched battles of Reconstruction in terms of Radical Republican factionalism and other factors. These include an inter-radical “war” in Arkansas (62) and the Memphis riots of 1866 (162-163).
Leigh transcends the Dunning School historians without accepting the current leftist reading of Reconstruction. In concentrating on race and little else, the fashionable account neglects the political means to wealth, the attractions of power, and the disastrous effects of actually existing Reconstruction on most Southerners, black and white, as part of the overall settlement agreed to (finally) by the political classes of North and South.
Throughout, Leigh shows a very good sense of the political and economic logic of concrete situations. In just under 200 pages Leigh provides us with a more reliable reading of Reconstruction than the reigning textbook with its 600 pages.
 The resemblance between James Allen’s and Eric Foner’s accounts of Reconstruction is underscored by Foner’s forward to International Publishers’ recent reprint of Allen’s book. See James Allen, Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy, 1865-1876 (New York: International Publishers, 2021 ), 13-14.