The long reconstruction

Heather Cox Richardson
West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War

This is a continuation and extension of Professor Richardson’s argument that political and social change in the middle of the 19th century was driven by conflict over ideas about individuals and their proper relationship with government. In this volume, the argument is strengthened and extended with the addition of the West. The frontier and (especially) the mythical cowboy become icons and emblems of Americanism, that echo in events as recent as the 2004 presidential election. The book begins and ends, in fact, with a discussion of the “red and blue states” and G. W. Bush, who “promised to be a cowboy president.” (1, 348) The question is still with us, she says. During the middle-19th century, “American individualists came to depend on government support while denying it to others.” (2) Today, we hear “antigovernment rhetoric from the South and western plains, regions that receive far more in federal aid than they pay in taxes.” (3) Richardson sees in this a continuous, developing tradition of defining the middle class as “true Americans” and privileging them alone with access to government intervention; combined with a national myth that “idealized the rural West as the opposite of the urban Northeast.” (5)

One of the most interesting elements of Richardson’s argument in
West From Appomattox is that she finds the origins of this middle class ideology in both the North and the South. From the Union, she draws on a tradition of “Lockean individuals” and “republican government based on the votes of economically independent” property owners. (10) From the Confederacy, the culture of “Planters who modeled themselves on European aristocrats.” (11) But unlike Foner’s formulation of the free labor ideal, neither tradition is completely open. Northern republicanism is predicated on “independence,” and nineteenth century Americans considered wage labor a “dependent” social relationship. As a result, Richardson concludes, “From the North, Americans had taken the idea of equal opportunity; from the South, they had taken the idea that not all men could rise. From the racial and industrial troubles of the 1870s, they had taken the idea that those unable to rise and those at the top of society must not be permitted to harness the government to their own interests...From the strikes and the business consolidation of the 1880s, they had taken the belief that the federal government must be used to protect American individualism.” (338) While they claimed to be protecting the rights of individuals, “mainstream Americans had come to believe that many would fail, that this was their own fault, and that they should be isolated from power before they destroyed society.” (300) So it was only a very particular set of individuals they wanted to protect. They were in, so bar the gates. The big, difficult-to-explain problem in this story is the middle class’s apparent inability to recognize the insane hypocrisy of their position.

Richardson carefully balances the middle against both the bottom and the top as she analyzes this ideology, but were the results really balanced on the ground? How significant was the middle class’s attack on trusts and the very rich, compared to its abandonment of southern blacks, condemnation of striking workers, and denunciation of rural Populists? On the one hand, a few millionaires had to reorganize the way they controlled their industrial empires; while on the other, black men were lynched, workers were shot and forced to accept starvation wages and absurd working conditions, and farmers were pushed to the political margins, where they found it impossible to organize effectively against rapidly consolidating markets and the railroads. So is it fair to say that the middle class really occupied the middle ground? Or is it possible to see them as patsies for the elite, making occasional rhetorical forays against the rich but really, very effectively, taking the poor out of the social equation?

In addition to the overwhelmingly negative results of this middle class ideology on the class below them, which I think suggest that the middle class were always (perhaps unwittingly) on the side of the rich, there’s also the way these traditions manifest themselves today. First, as Richardson says, in the anti-big-government rhetoric of Southern and Western red states, which regularly receive much more
from government than they pay to it. But what if the people who are paying aren’t the people who are benefiting?

Much of the "federal money" going back into western states probably doesn't easily trickle down to the rural main street economy (even if airbases and ICBM silos aren't included).  So the average westerner paying his federal taxes could easily (and honestly) feel he was financing lazy eastern welfare moms.  Even if he doesn't know whether federal or state taxes are paying their benefits, he's pretty sure they aren't paying their way like he is. Which means, he's paying their way.  Population disparities probably throw salt on the wound.  While urbanites are unhappy that sparsely populated states still have their two Senators, Joe-the-rancher in Wyoming (pop. 544,270) hears about "welfare mothers" in Massachusetts (pop. 6,593,587), and goes ballistic.  There are roughly 50,000 female-headed single-parent households getting "welfare" in MA.  There can't be more than about 100,000 families in all of WY.  And what about the criminals?  There are more inmates in California and Texas alone than the whole Wyoming population!

But even more suspicious, in my opinion, is the overwhelming tendency of middle class spokespeople to attack “special interests,” even when the majority of government intervention (and economic gain) is clearly directed elsewhere. I experienced the effects of this yesterday, when I walked into the local Kung Fu dojo to watch my kids’ class. Two of the other Dads were griping about the administration. The latest news, which they were talking about, was Obama’s offer of $50 billion in what they called “aid to the Unions.” Michele Malkin has called the infrastructure program they referred to, “the Mother of All Big Dig Boondoggles,” and this sentiment or something like it seemed to be present in their comments. “Don’t these Union guys realize,” one of the Dads asked, “that Obama’s just giving them back
their own money?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But even so, isn’t that better than giving it to Goldman Sachs and AIG?”

“Well, they should never have done that either,” they responded. And I agree. But isn’t it a little strange, how much easier it is to find sensible, working people bashing Unions and small social programs and calling for tax relief, while nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer money is still pretty much unaccounted for, in the hands of some of America’s biggest and richest corporations? Is this because it’s easier to visualize a “Union guy” than a credit-default-swap arbitrageur? A “Union guy,” after all, is almost the same as the rest of us (oh, wait, I’m in the UAW!) -- except that he’s one of those “special interests” that are always trying to get something for nothing from the government. Is it because these guys are being practical and choosing their battles -- and they’ve concluded that the fight against the big corporations is hopeless? Are we reduced to fighting over the crumbs these giants have left behind? Is this the culmination of the rhetorical tradition Richardson identifies in
West from Appomattox? Underneath it all, isn’t the effect of all this rhetoric that it divides and confuses, and thus conquers, the people who should be standing together against the real special interests, like Goldman Sachs and AIG?

Death of Reconstruction

Heather Cox Richardson
The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901

Richardson expands on the racism/politics argument of Foner and others, saying that Northerners, “seeing ex-slaves as abstract figures in a free labor society...ignored the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and economic dislocation in the postwar black experience.” (241) Moderate Republicans couldn’t understand why blacks were not satisfied with the “free labor” social ideology that whites had associated with abolition from the earliest, pre-war, Free Soil days. They completely missed the point, ironically demonstrated by affluent blacks, that many more ex-slaves might have embraced this ideology, if only they had been allowed to actually participate. But when most “Southern African-Americans could not overcome the overwhelming obstacles in their path to economic security,” and asked the government to intervene on their behalf, “Northerners saw this as a rejection of free labor ideals, accused them of being deficient workers, and willingly read them out of American society.”

The story is really punctuated for me by two phenomena: the black exodus of 1879 and the wholesale lynching of black men in the late 1880s and 1890s. I’ll probably try to dig deeper into both of these events, as I read on. The Exodusters seem to answer an obvious question I repeatedly had while reading Foner: was it possible to leave the South? And if so, wouldn’t that have been
my response both to having been enslaved there, and then to the Black Codes, the Klan, etc.? Seems like that would have been the first thing to do, if there were any places that were even remotely welcoming. And on the lynching side, I think that could have used a little more graphic coverage. I think Professor Richardson said something once in a class about being asked to tone that down when the book was in production -- but I think it should have been starker and maybe a little less comfortable for the reader, to really make the point that Northern Republicans who were outraged about the “spoils system” of political appointments, were somehow able to ignore vigilante murders of lower-class black men (and, in 1891, of 11 Italian Americans). The fact that affluent blacks also excused this behavior is interesting, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. The race issue might even hide a more general shift in the Republican party, as the middle class turned its back on workers of all types. This is mentioned briefly in the context of the Homestead and Pullman strikes, and President Hays’s redeployment of the newly professionalized national guard against workers (instead of recalcitrant Southerners). But I think it could be an even bigger point, for me. The Republicans were consolidating a class-based party. It’s interesting that William Graham Sumner’s 1875 social-Darwinist tract pretty much marked the end of the Republicans’ insistence on economic and social harmony. Sumner “reminded readers that human history was ‘one long story of attempts by certain persons and classes to obtain control of the power of the State, so as to win earthly gratifications at the expense of others.’” (191)

It’s also interesting that this “social, economic, and political suppression...coincided with the birth of the Progressive movement, which demanded that the American government redress the excesses of the nation’s new industrial society,” (244) but also established the authority of elite, urban, middle class professionals to identify society’s problems and manage the remediation. The “logical connection between disenfranchisement and the Progressive movement” was not only the ability to “ameliorate the abuses of the industrialism without fearing the triumph of socialism,” but also to harness a huge, new government machine to the needs of the “better classes” rather than the lower. They demonized the people they couldn’t or wouldn’t help, took control of activist government, and put it to work for themselves.

The combination of idealism, ideology and rationalization still isn’t quite clear to me. I suspect that a lot of the time, high-sounding rhetoric is a cover for motives that people would prefer to keep hidden. But that doesn’t mean some of these politicians didn’t believe these ideals they knew moved the masses, at least some of the time. The question, in
Death of Reconstruction, is what was the process that took ideals and made them into party slogans? Who was pulling the strings in the Republican party, how did that change over time, and what were the consequences for workers (black and white) and the country at large? And how did some of these free soil, free labor ideals manage to migrate to the other side, and become the slogans of the other party just a few decades later? I need to go back through this again, because it seems like elements of these competing ideas (blacks as “good” free laborers or “bad” loafers, two types of workers, etc.) are present all along, and it’s more a question of which one happens to be on top at any given time.

The sources Richardson uses are primarily large, mainstream newspapers and
Harper’s Weekly, which a contemporary called “one of the most powerful organs of popular opinion” and sold over 100,000 copies a week. (xii) She says the perspective these sources offer mirrors that of contemporaries (especially rural ones), giving us “the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a Reconstruction era American and observe distant events the same way a literate nineteenth-century Northerner would have.” This is an interesting claim, since I’ve been wondering how widely distributed and uniform the news and opinion reaching rural Americans was? Was there an appreciable change in content after the telegraphic wire services began broadcasting? Did local editors cease offering their opinions? Did local readers feel more connection to distant events than they had a decade earlier?


Eric Foner
Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Foner’s task in this book is to retell the story of Reconstruction, and take it back from a “fraternity of professional historians,” who rewrote history, to the profession’s “everlasting shame.” (609) He begins with a historiography that includes a short description of the story Burgess and Dunning told their Columbia University students:

When the Civil War ended, the white South genuinely accepted the reality of military defeat, stood ready to do justice to the emancipated slaves, and desired above all a quick reintegration into the fabric of national life. Before his death, Abraham Lincoln had embarked on a course of sectional reconciliation, and during Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67) his successor, Andrew Johnson, attempted to carry out Lincoln’s magnanimous policies. Johnson’s efforts were opposed and eventually thwarted by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Motivated by an irrational hatred of Southern ‘rebels’ and the desire to consolidate their party’s national ascendency, the Radicals in 1867 swept aside the Southern governments Johnson had established and fastened black suffrage upon the defeated South. There followed the sordid period of Congressional or Radical Reconstruction (1867-77), an era of corruption presided over by unscrupulous ‘carpetbaggers’ from the North, unprincipled Southern white ‘scalawags,‘ and ignorant freedmen. After much needless suffering, the South’s white community banded together to overthrow these governments and restore ‘home rule‘ (a euphemism for white supremacy). All told, Reconstruction was the darkest page in the saga of American history. (xix-xx)

Foner notes that WEB DuBois published
Black Reconstruction in 1935, but it was largely ignored. (xxi)

Frederick Douglass said of Lincoln, “He treated me as a man...he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins.” (6) Foner (like the Dunning School, actually) avoids attacking Lincoln, but he does point out that the president’s main motivation, even for emancipation, was winning the war and preserving the Union.

Foner characterizes rural, upcountry southern whites as essentially pre-commercial, in the sense used by historians like Steven Hahn (whom he cites, 15). Many of these rural regions “like East Tennessee and western North Carolina...would embrace the Republican party after the Civil War and remain strongholds well into the twentieth century.” (18) But while the southern economy was wiped out by the war, the North experienced “a time of unprecedented prosperity.” Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson told Congress in 1867 that during the war years “the loyal states have accumulated more capital, have added more to their wealth, than during any previous seven years in the history of the country.” (
I wonder what the context was, and what else he said? 40th Congress, 2d Session, 246, 18) “Many farmers, as agricultural machinery magnate Cyrus McCormick complained, took advantage of inflation to liquidate mortgages an other debts; they ‘pursued [their creditors] in triumph and paid them without mercy.’ McCormick, however, also knew how to take advantage of the war, borrowing large sums in order to hoard raw materials, and buying up farmland and urban real estate with as small a down payment as possible. By 1865 he was Chicago’s largest landlord.” (cf Rasmussen, “The Civil War: A Catalyst of Agricultural Revolution,” Ruggles, “Economic Basis of the Greenback Movement in Iowa and Wisconsin,” Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick, 19)

“Perhaps 1 million northerners,” Foner says, “ended up owning shares in a national debt that by war’s end amounted to over $2 billion. But most bonds were held by wealthy individuals and financial institutions, who reaped the windfall from interest paid in gold at a time when depreciating paper money was employed for all other transactions.” (22) He goes on to say that “a tax of 10 cents on each dollar effectively ended the printing of money by by state-chartered banks.”
This couldn’t have ended without some protest from upstate New Yorkers... “The minimum capital requirement of $50,000 and a proviso barring national banks from holding mortgages on land restricted these institutions to large cities.” Again, this legislation couldn’t have passed uncontested. There’s a story here... And finally, “The federal budget, amounting to $63 million in 1860, rose to well over $1 billion by 1865.” (23) And these are the Republicans, the champions of free labor who want to keep the government small...

cf Merck,
Economic History of Wisconsin During the Civil War Decade, 1916

In a section called “The Meaning of Freedom,” Foner says “freedom meant more than simply receiving wages. Freedmen wished to take control of the conditions under which they labored, free themselves from subordination to white authority, and carve out the greatest measure of economic autonomy.” (103)
This is the rub -- see Richardson. The freedmen were seen as setting themselves against not the former slaveholders (on whom people like Stevens saw they had a legitimate and possibly enforceable claim), but against white workers with whom they should have been standing in solidarity. They were led to this by...who? Seems like either naivete or a classic divide-and-conquer play. Of course, as Foner says, it was not easy for the blacks to fit themselves into a free labor version of the cotton South, when “regulators...are riding about whipping, maiming, and killing all negroes who do not obey the orders of their former masters, just as if slavery existed.” (Nashfield Press and Times, quoted in Hartford Courant, 2-6-1867, 121)

What was Andrew Johnson doing in the Republican party? “Some 15,000 Southerners, the majority barred from the general amnesty because of their wealth, filed applications for individual pardons. At first, the President granted pardons cautiously, but by September they were being issued wholesale, sometimes hundreds in a single day. By 1866, over 7,000 Southerners excluded from amnesty under the $20,000 clause had received individual pardons.” (191)
Hard to not see this (and support for it) as class solidarity across party and sectional lines.

Stevens “knew that a landed aristocracy and a landless class were alike dangerous in the republic, and by a single act of justice he would abolish both.” (quoting Kelley’s posthumous remarks, 40th Cong 3d session 133-4, 236)

“Appropriate out of the vast amount of the surplus lands of the wealthy, a comfortable home for the helpless and dependent black man whose arduous labor for the last two hundred years justly entitles him to such inheritance.” (petition by J. Robert and ten others to John Sherman, 5-1-1867, 302)

“Once Grant had been nominated, Congress moved to consolidate the party’s position for the fall campaign, readmitting seven Southern states to the Union.” (338)
So Foner agrees with Dunning that it comes down to political gamesmanship -- he just sees a different set of villains.

Foner isn’t too sympathetic to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s frustration, and criticizes her “racist and elitist arguments for rejecting the enfranchisement of black males while women of culture and wealth remained excluded.” (448)

cf the change in the North, reflected in
The Education of Henry Adams, 237-8.

“Banker Jay Cooke, the ‘financier of the Civil War’ and leading individual contributor to Grant’s presidential campaign, not only had the Republican party in his debt, but a remarkable number of its leading officials as well.” (467)
So what was the process that led from the (supposedly) idealistic formation of the party to this rampant corruption an spoilsmanship? Or were the seeds of this corruption there at the beginning?

cf Charles Francis Adams, Jr. & Henry Adams,
Chapters of the Erie and other essays, 1-96: “the Erie battle seemed most of all to demonstrate that ‘our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control.” (468)

cf. Miller,
Railroads and the Granger Laws, 1971; Unger, The Greenback Era, 1964

After the failure of Jay Cooke’s bank in 1873 caused a panic and depression, “
The Nation linked the Northern poor and Southern freedmen as members of a dangerous new ‘proletariat’ as different ‘from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.’” (519) But I wonder how much easier was it to demonize all these dangerous outsiders when most of these Northern poor were not anglos?

Foner says “1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful national state protecting the fundamental rights of American citizens.” (582) He goes on to say, “Yet the government was not rendered impotent in all matters,” citing the ongoing campaign against Native Americans. The real point seems to be, that the government became much more focused in its activism, and increasingly only used it in the service of corporations and imperial expansionism. As a result of the “Great Strike” of 1877, when state volunteer militias had “proved unwilling or unable to suppress the uprising,” Charles Eliot Norton demanded they be “‘essentially remodeled’ so as to provide an ‘efficient force for the protection of life and property and the maintenance of order.‘ In the aftermath of 1877, cities retrained and expanded their police forces, while the...National Guard were professionalized and equipped with more modern weapons. In the next quarter century, the Guard would be used in industrial disputes over 100 times.” (585-6) President Hays withdrew troops from the South, and deployed them against striking workers. This was the core of the change: government power was no longer to be used to protect the citizens, but to protect the wealthy from the citizens.