2019 marks the 150th anniversary of U.S. Grant’s inauguration as President of the United States. It also has sparked a renewed interest in Reconstruction, particularly the notion that America failed to capitalize on an “unfinished revolution” as the communist historian Eric Foner describes the period.
This general description of the 1860s has been used by both radical leftists like Foner and neoconservative historians and pundits, meaning that the postbellum period in America has received an establishment consensus. If only America had followed the Radical Republican agenda in 1868, the United States would have been a better, more tolerant place.
Take for example an upcoming PBS documentary produced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. based on his forthcoming book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. The tone of both the documentary and book are clear: Reconstruction was a missed opportunity for a radical restructuring of American society with freedmen being the central actors in a great struggle for “true citizenship” as Adam Gopnik argued in a recent piece in The New Yorker.
Gates’s collection of characters includes former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and of course Eric Foner. It will undoubtedly be hailed as a seminal moment in American film making, a truly objective and tragic view of a violent and repressive period, and both leftist and neoconservative politicians and talking heads will praise Gates for his courage in denouncing Southern racism and violence and for championing equal justice. The Republican Party, after all, has carried on a concerted effort in recent years to attach the modern GOP to the radicals of the 1860s. It was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who rode as Klansmen and authored Jim Crow legislation. Neoconservatives like Dinesh D’Souza and Bill O’Reilly are, in essence, attempting to out social justice the social justice warriors. Even their tepid response to the toppling of Confederate monuments has shown that they are receptive to the Foner narrative on Reconstruction, meaning they agree that Southerners were traitors who deserved punishment, and the South would have been better off if former Confederates were permanently disfranchised and prohibited from holding political office.
That is the Grand Old Party line from 1869. But is this true? In short, not really.
Certainly, it is easy to sympathize with former slaves clinging to new found political power and general rights of citizenship, to recoil at the racial violence of the Reconstruction period. But this is only part of the story. No one has ever bothered to ask Gates or Foner if they were to be disfranchised and governed by a newly created and at times foreign ruling class because of a crime (treason) no one in the South ever faced trial for if they would simply concede and capitulate. This is what was asked of the vast majority of white Southerners in the 1860s and 1870s. They deserved it is not a valid rebuttal. The Anglo-American tradition rests on the rule of law, and while blacks were being abused by extra-legal and unjust means (lynching, mock-trails, and terrorism), white Southerners faced illegal, unjust, and unconstitutional property confiscation, the suspension of habeas corpus, and disfranchisement. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it is the modern “American Way” to pick a sympathetic winner and believe the loser earned the punishment.
And this was an era of violence. Not only did the Klan and other paramilitary organization ride at night to intimidate and at times kill black political leaders and their white Republican allies, but black militias, the Union League (a militant arm of the Southern Republican Party), and the United States Army did their share of killing and plundering. In a logical world divorced from the emotivism and guilt that marks modern identity politics, a rational person could understand how this type of political and social climate would produce two armed camps, one fighting to maintain newly granted liberties, the other determined to regain the same. It’s almost as if the Republican Party created this dysfunctional climate, was “shocked” by the results, and then asked for absolution for any complicity in the violence. Neo-Puritanism can never be held accountable.
It only got worse. As Lincoln said when asked by Alexander H. Stephens what would would happen to the freedmen, they could “root, hog, or die” for all Lincoln cared. But they had to vote Republican. The first African-American elected to the United States Senate, Hiram Rhodes Revels, eventually sniffed this out and in a scathing letter denounced the Republican Party as a collection of dishonest politicians only interested in gaining and maintaining power. Black Southerners were useful pawns in a longstanding game for the spoils of political victory.
Clearly the South alone did not create this mess. As C. Vann Woodward pointed out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the South did not invent Jim Crow legislation. Northern States dominated by the Republican Party can be pegged for that. “Free [white] Soil, Free [white] Labor, Free [white] Men!” as the Republican slogan went in the 1850s. The social transformation eventually extended to every leftist driven “ism” that plagues the modern era, and the Republican Party eventually led the chorus for unlimited immigration in the 1860s and 1870s.
Reconstruction governments at both the federal and State level were known for their corruption and mismanagement. That corruption led to several major scandals, the abuse of the American Indian Tribes–“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”–and the establishment of American imperialism. If you don’t have Southerners to abuse, focus on the Indian tribes (they can’t vote, either), and if your egalitarian goals fail in the South, help your “little brown brothers” in the Philippines. As a McKinley campaign poster emphasized in 1900, the United States flag had only been planted on foreign soil for “hummanity’s sake.” That boilerplate material originated during Reconstruction. Gates won’t have much to say about that, I’m sure.
The Republican Party of the 1860s finally had the reins of power, and they used it to codify their version of the American empire. Big banks, big business, high tariffs, an aggressive foreign policy, and a newly established North American economic colony (the South) propped up the Republican nationalist vision. Alexander Hamilton once opined that corruption made the British Constitution the best in the world. Had he lived to the 1860s, he could have said the same thing about the United States model.
William T. Sherman insisted during the War that the Southern people had to be wiped out in order to gain a total victory in the War. “War is hell,” but so was Reconstruction. It used be called a tragic era, a time of lawlessness, depraved and selfish political acts, and the finest example of American political corruption. All of that has been sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. If, as Gopnik suggests, Southerners should have been treated as Nazis following World War II, then that opens the door to the modern movement to exterminate any vestige of traditional American culture by any means necessary, from Washington to Lee and everyone that admires either man or the traditional South. After all, even the “founding racists” were problematic.
Sadly, the Gates/Gopnik perspective on Reconstruction is now ascendant thanks in large part to Foner’s neo-leftist revisionism. Fortunately, there is a counterweight. My new Reconstruction and Recreation course at McClanahan Academy puts the entire period in perspective, from the political and economic restructuring of society to the social, diplomatic, and military transformation of the American Empire, this course provides a fresh perspective on the new America created after Appomattox in 1865. Foner would not like this course, and neither would his sycophants or the establishment historical profession.