The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901
Heather Cox Richardson, 2001

This was Heather Cox Richardson’s second book, following
The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War, which had been based on her dissertation. In this second pass at what would become her most explored period and themes, Richardson expanded on the racism/politics arguments of Eric 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.” 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 capitalist 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 was 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 seemed to answer an obvious question I had 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 at all that were even remotely welcoming. And on the lynching side, I think the text could have used a little more graphic coverage. I think Richardson said something once in a class I had with her, 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 there was something wrong with Northern Republicans who were outraged about the “spoils system” of political appointments but were somehow able to ignore vigilante murders of lower-class black men. The claim 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. Richardson mentioned this briefly in the context of the Homestead and Pullman strikes, and President Hayes’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’.” Ronald Reagan echoed those sentiments a century later.

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,” but also established the authority of elite, urban, middle class professionals to identify society’s problems and manage their 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 as in much of Richardson’s other writing, 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? 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 driving the messaging at any given time.

The sources Richardson used were primarily large, mainstream newspapers and
Harper’s Weekly, which a contemporary called “one of the most powerful organs of popular opinion” and which sold over 100,000 copies a week. She claimed the perspective these sources offered mirrored 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? Would it be useful to search a little wider for other voices that might not have been represented in these mainstream media?