Sunday, September 06, 2015

On reading Eric Foner's "Short History of Reconstruction"

the slave went free, stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. W. E. B. Dubois
I just finished reading A Short History of Reconstruction, Updated Edition by Eric Foner. Foner is arguably the most important historian focusing on 19th century America. His book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes. It is still in print, and remains perhaps the most important book on the period. His more recent book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.

The Business of the USA in the 19th Century

Thomas Jefferson saw the destiny of the United States of America to be that of empire, spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It would be a republic, dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Jefferson thought it would take 100 generations to populate that shining empire. Inventions such as the steamboat, the railroad, and the telegraph -- together with mass immigration from Europe -- made it possible to do so in a century. I see the completion of Jefferson's dream as the business of America in the 19th century.

The Louisiana Purchase, the war with Mexico, and expeditions to the Northwest had added the land Jefferson envisioned to the USA by the mid 19th century. The nation was attracting immigrants in huge numbers. It had started as an exporter of agricultural commodities, but was developing industry to become a world leader in manufacturing in the 19th century . The USA was increasingly not only technologically competitive with Europe but a leader in innovation. The nations business in the 19th century would include developing industrial technology and industry to match a world class infrastructure.

It would also be to settle the land that it claimed, and to build cities that would come to house an increasing portion of its population.

Foner focuses on the period 1863 to 1877 in this history, but I think the Civil War and dozen years after its conclusion is best understood in terms of the overall empire building of the United States, especially that of the 19th century.

What Did The Civil War Settle?

Before the war, people used the phrase "the United States are"; after the war, they use the phrase "the United States is". The war established that, as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union stated, the union is perpetual. Sovereignty is in the United States of America, not in the several states of which it is composed. While some governmental tasks are reserved for the states, and indeed for local government, the federal government is paramount. During the Civil War, the central government of the Union grew greatly, assuming stature and power never before needed. The secessionist states, defeated soundly in battle, were thus proven to have no right to secede. The question remained, how would the institutions of government be remade following the war so as to best accomplish the nation's business.

President Lincoln clearly stated at the beginning of the Civil War that the purpose of the North was to preserve the Union. The USA stood as a beacon among nations, but it was not yet clear that "any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Yet Lincoln realized during the war that emancipating the slaves in the states in rebellion would be necessary to winning the war. Doing so would greatly reduce the economic capacity of the Confederacy, would prevent European imperial powers from aiding the Confederates, and would add many tens of thousands of black troops to the Union forces. When four million slaves were emancipated by proclamation, the Civil War became about slavery for the North as well as the South. The 13th amendment to the Constitution eliminating slavery from the USA would necessarily follow Union victory.

After the War


Foner makes it abundantly clear that after the war there was no consensus as to what was to be done, many parties competing for power, influence and resources, and a great deal of corruption and people seeking to get a piece of the pie for themselves. This seems to have been true in the north and the south.

Carpetbaggers from the north initially flocked to the south, some in search of opportunities to do good and others in search of opportunities to make money. Scalawags -- southerners who had supported the Union during the war -- were suddenly favored by the new northern masters after having had a bad time during the Confederacy.

It seems to me that the two major concerns in the South were to develop institutions appropriate to the newly freed slaves and to develop new institutions for agriculture -- the ownership of land and the supply of labor to work the land. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who held the land before the Civil War wound up owning the land after 1877 -- at least the large plantations growing cotton and other field crops.

The north had many concerns: reintegrating the rebel states into the Union, facilitating the adjustment of the emancipated slaves and giving them citizenship rights, building infrastructure, settling the west, continuing to build industry, drawing immigrants, developing the institutions of government and more. For a few years after the war, Radical Republicans in the Congress emphasized Reconstruction in the south. However, speculation in railroad stock resulted in an unsustainable financial bubble, and when it burst the economy entered the Panic of 1973. That in turn brought farmers and workers of  the north into open conflict with the north's investors and merchants. Northern attention turned away from helping former slaves and reforming the governance of the southern states. (This inability to stick with a program of cultural change for the decades needed to complete its work seems familiar today.)

Soon after the end of the Civil War, the freedmen were reunited with families and enabled to go to the churches of their choice; these changes were to remain after the collapse of radical Reconstruction. Freedmen were also allowed to form community associations, and would continue to do so, although white violence (unchecked by federal troops) would eventually reduce this right in practice. Confiscated and abandoned lands initially were taken by the federal government, and freedmen families were allowed to homestead on these lands; later however, when the north lost interest in Reconstruction, the homesteads were revoked and the lands redistributed to white owners. Also, initially freedmen were enfranchised, many voted, and some were elected to public office; after northern interest petered out, a campaign of violence essentially removed the franchise from the southern blacks, and few were able to remain in office.

The Reconstruction resulted initially in more vigorous government in the southern states, providing schools, prisons and other governmental services. These were in turn paid for by taxes on property, that is land. The white population found itself paying more to government run by carpetbaggers and scalawags to pay for services that often went to blacks. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs consolidated white southern opposition to the Reconstruction as it was being carried out.

While blacks were originally thought likely to participate in a free labor market for agricultural jobs, ultimately plantation agriculture was run on a sharecropping basis, much to the advantage of the white land owners and to the disadvantage of the black sharecroppers. Bad crops and/or low prices spelled trouble for the small farmers in the South. There was even a wide spread system in which blacks were arrested and convicted on minor charges, and then rented out to white plantation owners or business owners as "chain gangs" of unpaid workers -- the money paid going to the local government (or to graft).

While the north's economy grew during the latter part of the 19th century, the south's economy was more stagnant and the economic gap between the two grew. The south, firmly in the political grip of the white affluent class, became more and more conservative. It could be depended upon to support the Democratic party, and to support conservative causes.

The Legacy

The failure of reconstruction left the nation with a new legacy of racism in which the freedmen were blamed for the failure of Reconstruction, and blacks were left in the minds of many as an inferior race. Racism of course had always been common in both north and south.

Southerners were able to construct a version of the Civil War and Reconstruction that survived for decades, and in my opinion did harm to the nation. The film, The Birth of a Nation, which showed the Ku Klux Klan riding to rescue fair white maidens from evil black men, was premiered in the White House and went on to great audience success in the early 20th century. For generations the south lagged economically, yet played a major role in support of conservative ideology in national politics.

The nation might have learned how very hard cultural change can be, and how very long it takes. The nation might also have learned that the road to chaos is often paved with initial good intentions. Such knowledge might have been very helpful in the aftermath of later wars. Unfortunately, the lesson seemed not to have been learned.

Reading the Book

This is a beautifully written book, a pleasure to read. Some of the latter chapters read like essays by a gifted essayist. Rather than include extensive footnotes, author Foner provides extensive suggestions for further reading for each chapter of the book.

Were the author not so credible a historian, it would be tempting to reject his arguments as inadequately supported. As it is, someone seeking more detail should read his long book on the Reconstruction in its latest edition; that book has the detail. while this book is primarily a summary of the authors analysis and conclusions.

This is a wonderful book

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