Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Eric Foner, 1988

Eric Foner is an American Political Historian at Columbia University, best known for his work in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. His doctoral advisor was Richard Hofstadter, for whom he wrote a thesis that became the 1970 book
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. The idea of free soil and free labor is the centerpiece of Foner’s interpretation of US History.

Foner’s task in this book, which won the 1989 Bancroft Prize, was to retell the story of Reconstruction that took it back from a  “fraternity of professional historians,” who had rewritten history, to the profession’s “everlasting shame.” He began with a historiography that included a short description of the story John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning had 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. 

Foner noted that W.E.B. Du Bois published
Black Reconstruction in 1935, but it was largely ignored. Foner characterized rural, upcountry southern whites as essentially pre-commercial, in the sense used by historians like Steven Hahn (whom he cited).  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.” 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 of the remark was, and what else he said?). “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.”

“Perhaps 1 million northerners,” Foner said, “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.” He went 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, I imagine. Foner observed, “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 definitely a story hidden here in the complexities of banking history.vAnd finally, “The federal budget, amounting to $63 million in 1860, rose to well over $1 billion by 1865.” And the people who accomplished this were the Republicans, now the champions of free labor who want to keep the government small. It pays to remember that the Republican Party began as a coalition of Abolitionists and Whigs.

In a section called “The Meaning of Freedom,” Foner said “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.” This is the rub. The freedmen were perceived as setting themselves against not the former slaveholders (on whom people like Thaddeus 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 a combination of naivete or a classic divide-and-conquer play. Of course, as Foner said, it was not easy for the blacks to fit themselves into a free labor version of the cotton South, when “regulators [were] riding about whipping, maiming, and killing all negroes who do not obey the orders of their former masters, just as if slavery existed” (from the Nashfield
Press and Times, quoted in the Hartford Courant). 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.” But Foner (like the Dunning School, actually) avoided attacking Lincoln, but he did point out that the president’s main motivation, even for emancipation, was winning the war and preserving the Union.

What was Andrew Johnson’s plan? Foner said, “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.” It’s hard to not see this (and political support for it) as class solidarity across party and sectional lines. Thaddeus 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.” J. Robert and ten others petitioned John Sherman in 1867 to “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.”

Foner continued, “Once Ulysses S. [[Grant]] had been nominated, Congress moved to consolidate the party’s position for the fall campaign, readmitting seven Southern states to the Union.” It seems he agreed with Dunning that it came down to political gamesmanship -- he just saw a different set of villains. Foner also wasn’t too sympathetic to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s frustration, and criticized her “racist and elitist arguments for rejecting the enfranchisement of black males while women of culture and wealth remained excluded.”

Later, “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.” So what was the process that led so rapidly from the (supposedly) idealistic formation of the party to this rampant corruption an spoilsmanship? Was it the chaos of war, or were the seeds of this corruption there at the beginning? 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.’” But I wonder how much easier was it to demonize all these dangerous outsiders when an increasing number of these Northern poor were not anglos?

Foner said “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.” He continued, “Yet the government was not rendered impotent in all matters,” citing the ongoing campaign of genocide 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 the militias 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.” President Rutherford B. Hayes 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.