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Birth of a Nation

Retreat From Reconstruction, 1869-1879

by William Gillette
Louisiana State University Press, 436 pp., $29.50

Reconstruction and Redemption in the South

edited by Otto H. Olsen
Louisiana State University Press, 250 pp., $17.50

Consider, for example, the number and variety of theories that the friends and acquaintances of one alienated couple can generate to explain why two people failed to patch up their quarrels and reunite in peace. To multiply that by the numbers involved in the failure of reconciliation between North and South is to suggest some idea of the multiplicity and complexity of theories explaining what happened to reconstruction. Except that in the latter instance the explainers are professionals who call themselves historians, and some of them have devoted whole careers and no end of ingenuity to their theories of explanation.

The theories have come in waves that tend to crest in thirty-year cycles and conform in each cycle to a dominant model. In the 1900s the model was that of a betrayed South (in the female role) shamefully humiliated and brutally ravaged in helpless defeat by vindictive zealots and radical fanatics of the North who used ignorant black freedmen to stage “a carnival of corruption.” In the 1930s the South retained the part of the hapless female, but the melodrama took a conspiratorial turn that deprived the northern radicals of their initiative as male aggressors. They were transformed into tools and puppets, and their reforms were pictured as a propaganda front for economic and political forces that were using reconstruction to convert an agrarian order of the past into an industrial discipline of the future.

Then the 1960s arrived in a fury, tore up the 1930s script, and reversed the roles completely. Radicals were assigned benevolent, philanthropic parts. They were seen as missionaries of civilization ennobled by humanitarian purpose, and innocent of political or economic guile. Their achievements were loaded with praise. The South, on the other hand, was now the aggressor and villainous marplot. The new script had hardly got on the road, however, before the thirty-year cycle was foreshortened by an abortive revision that cast the radicals themselves as marplots. As recast, the radicals were really conservatives in disguise, paralyzed by timidity, committed to compromise, fearful of using force, and not nearly radical enough. Their failures rather than their successes were emphasized. The white South was still villain, but the freedman was both victim and hero of another lost cause. That, however, is not the end of the story of revision.

The term “reconstruction” has saddled us from the start with a misnomer. Perhaps even more of a misnomer than “civil war,” the term “reconstruction” originated before, not after, the war. It then referred to the Union rather than to the South and was entirely consistent with the aims of its originators. Their purposes were to patch over the sectional quarrel with compromises, “reconstruct” the Union with concessions acceptable to both sides, and thus avoid war or stop it in an early stage. To use the same term, suggesting restoration and continuity, to describe what was required or what happened after an all-out total war that took on revolutionary aims on the Union side in the fighting, was to court confusion. It was also to invite false hopes and expectations on the losing side, and to keep even more open the opportunity for endless revision and reinterpretation of “reconstruction” history. But we are still stuck with the term, and no end of revisionary activity is yet in sight.

The shortcomings of previous interpretations, in the opinion of Professor William Gillette of Rutgers, are in part explained by their emphasis on the 1860s and the administration of Andrew Johnson, and their neglect of the 1870s and the Grant administration. He is surely right about the relative neglect of the latter period. His Retreat From Reconstruction concentrates on that era, when the Republican party, up to 1875, had control of both houses of Congress and the White House. He is primarily concerned with reconstruction as a national policy rather than with its course in the southern states, with presidential and congressional purposes and performance, and with the declining support for reconstruction in both North and South. Conceding to reconstruction some achievements of value, he does not enquire into social or economic results, but addresses “the flaws and failures of reconstruction” chiefly in political terms.

While he does not overlook or minimize the better known story of southern resistance, fraud, and terror, Gillette believes that the fate of reconstruction depended heavily and ultimately on the popular support it got in the North. An earlier book of his on the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment1 describes that amendment as a failure rather than a triumph of radical idealism. He sees its primary purpose as the enfranchisement of blacks in northern and border states, where they held the balance of power between parties, and only secondarily in the South. Enforcement of the right to vote in the South against the terror of the Klan is described in the present book as badly planned, inadequately executed, and feebly supported:

With election enforcement often characterized by pious platitudes and undercut by penny-pinching; governed by episodic expedients and often overseen by mediocre administrators; lacking central control and local coordination; plagued by delay and undermined by premature suspension and pardoning; beset by an unwieldy, inefficient court system and ravaged by an understaffed, underfinanced prosecution…the law of enforcement was no law at all.

Republican regimes in the South varied greatly from state to state. Most were weak and unstable, but a few were relatively strong and sturdy. Their administrations ranged from the well managed and benevolent to the incompetent and corrupt. Each had to be treated separately but with a sensitivity to timing, a regard for consistency, and a conception of each as part of a whole. President Grant lacked what it took in these respects. He never seemed able to get his policies together. He intervened too much, too little, or too late.

Grant brought to the numerous crises neither enduring resolve nor settled purpose but instead demonstrated temporary expedients. What Grant’s ad hoc approach produced was only half a policy—a piecemeal and patchwork policy—which included means without ultimate ends in view and occasionally ends without sufficient means. There were also times when Grant should have been pliant but was rigid, though more frequently he was pliant when he should have been firm.

He rarely acted on principle and his actions were full of incongruities. On one matter he was fairly consistent with party policy: “the entire southern wing had always been treated as a subservient appendage to be controlled and used in the interest of maintaining the power of the national party.”

The main theme of this book is “retreat,” and that is a theme applicable chiefly in the North. In the South of the supposedly vanquished and helpless whites, the appropriate word is “advance”—aggressive, determined, and ruthless advance of racial oppression and white supremacy. By 1874 reactionary white intransigence and defiance of reconstruction laws had become more serious and menacing than they were under the Klan. Unmasked and better organized, the forces of intimidation acted with cool calculation, with direct political purpose, and more effectively than ever.

The elections of 1874 are presented as a referendum on reconstruction and civil rights for blacks and the results as a stunning repudiation. The Republican Party suffered a defeat that was the worst upset in national politics since 1854, taking a beating in many traditionally safe northern districts. A Republican majority of 110 was transformed into a Democratic majority of sixty in the House of Representatives. Gillette calls it a “very damaging counterrevolution in the North.” The key to the repudiation, he suggests, is that “most white Americans believed unquestioningly in white supremacy,” and in “a government and a society run by and for the benefit of the whites.” In increasing numbers they viewed the white supremacy insurgents of the South as fighting their battle and turned against reconstruction and the freedmen.

It was a cruel paradox that at a time when the very right of black citizens to live was mocked by murderous savagery a civil rights bill should have become a national issue that “marked the end of reconstruction.” Considering the numerous weaknesses of the civil rights bill of 1875, the omissions, revisions, and evasions it embodied, the author may be justified in pronouncing it “a travesty” which, despite its pretensions, “turned out to be the most meaningless piece of postwar legislation.” He does seem too harsh on some of the Republicans, however, in calling their efforts “empty ritualism,” and pronouncing the law “the bankruptcy of legislative sentimentalism and reconstruction rhetoric, which demeaned noble ideals and undercut vital interests.” By defeating the enforcement bill after passing the weakened Civil Rights Act of 1875, however, the party signaled its capitulation and its withdrawal from reconstruction and earned the opprobrium it got. For the freedmen, Frederick Douglass wrote: “What does it all amount to, if the black man, after having been made free by the letter of your law, is unable to exercise that freedom, and, having been freed from the slave-holder’s lash, he is to be subject to the slaveholder’s shot-gun?”

In view of these developments and the collapse of Republican governments in all but three southern states, Gillette holds that reconstruction was all over by 1875 and that the Compromise of 1877 was “no more than the sensational drum roll of the finale.” To be sure, the spirit and conviction behind reconstruction, what there was of it, had all but drained out of the party by 1875. But the power to enforce the law and use troops in the South to party advantage was still there. In the final analysis it was the presence of troops that assured Republican victory in the disputed presidential election of 1876. As Gillette himself writes, it was President Hayes’s withdrawal of the troops in 1877, in partial fulfillment of the compromise, that marked “the end of reconstruction.” He calls that “an irreversible step.” Actually, it was eventually reversed, but not until the racial crisis of Little Rock in 1957. Eighty years set a record for durability among the sectional compromises of American history. This compromise set no records in justice and statesmanship, but justice and statesmanship rarely make much history anyway.

After a review of the failed southern policies of President Hayes, which “confused conciliation with capitulation,” Professor Gillette looks back for a retrospective view of the epoch. It is clear that he assumes that reconstruction never had much of a chance as a fulfillment of justice and egalitarian ideals. He spells out some of the reasons: the bureaucracy was too small and ineffectual; the army too scattered and fragmented, the government too hog-tied by constitutional inhibitions, and so forth. True enough, but the same combination of handicaps and more did not keep the Union from winning the war. To recall Kenneth Stampp’s theory of why the South lost the war2—maybe the North did not really want to win the peace. Or did not want justice and equality enough. Of course there were plenty of other reasons.

American racism has been mentioned: how the freedmen were metamorphosed from “noble citizens” into an “ignoble race,” how “the question of what the whites ought to do for the blacks changed to what the whites ought to do with the blacks,” how “reconstruction was sometimes paternal, but almost never brotherly.” Then there was the arrested development of the radicals, the timidity of the moderates, the rascality of the conservatives, and the racial and regional polarities within the Republican Party: the North always came first. And always there were the intangible assets of audacity and morale—assets that favored one side in winning the war, the other in the struggle over the peace. Whatever accounted for them, they were perhaps the decisive assets in both contests.

Retreat From Reconstruction is on the whole a worthy effort, a book that will have to be reckoned with in the continuing argument over the subject. It is rather strident in assigning blame and a bit sweeping in assessing the causes of things. The author has trouble keeping both narrative and analysis going smoothly together and in keeping track of simultaneous happenings in the South, the North, and in Washington. He has little time for ambiguities, but he does have an eye for paradox—not only the paradox of the South losing the war and winning the peace, but also of being rewarded for it by more congressional seats and electoral votes for newly created black citizens it often prevented from voting.

A less ambitious but significant work, Reconstruction and Redemption in the South, according to its editor, Otto H. Olsen, is “intended to provide an up-to-date assessment of the politics of this obscure era by reviewing the rise and fall of reconstruction Republicanism in six selected states.” Each state is treated by a specialist on the subject, and the states are selected to represent all varieties of the reconstruction experience, from Virginia, which never had a radical regime, to Louisiana, which had the longest. Professor Olsen, who covers North Carolina, is the author of a book rehabilitating the reputation of the carpetbagger in that state.3 The contributions vary in quality and point of view but generally agree that reconstruction was a failure and differ on the degree of it and the reasons for it.

The reassessments of Republican regimes in these states discourage any very hopeful expectations. The Florida regime is described as “radical neither in concept nor intent.” the Republican governors of that state are said to have “differed little in their racial and economic ideas from their native white Conservative-Democratic opponents.” In Alabama the two parties “were in many respects far more alike than different, and neither party had a corner on vice or virtue.” The new order in Mississippi was “radical only in its implications,” and in Virginia it was conservative from the start. Republican leadership of North Carolina, overwhelmingly native, “appeased its critics” and was “characterized by timidity, blundering, and uncertainty.” The new order in Louisiana, “where Radical Republicans had the best chance of achieving their objectives,” proved in the end to be “an abject failure.”

Judged by the criterion of service rendered to the ex-slaves, nearly all Republican regimes get low marks and some of them were flat failures. “Dominant Republicans catered little to the blacks” in Florida and “were not particularly sympathetic” to their cause. White Alabama Republicans exhibited an “inability to master their racial prejudices” or to “go beyond half-a-loaf gestures to blacks.” Black citizens of Virginia “did not figure significantly in white Republican councils.” We are told that “white Radical Republicans in Louisiana believed about as much in white supremacy as their Conservative opponents,” and that “Reconstruction not only did not succeed in improving the economic condition of black people, or poor people generally, in Louisiana, but that it left many of them in worse economic condition than had been the case under the slave regime.” In all these states, it should be remembered, it was the blacks who supplied the great majority of votes for the Republican governments.

Looking back on reconstruction as pictured in such works, Americans of the late twentieth century are understandably appalled. It seems to many of them that their forebears might have done better by the professed ideals of equality and justice—especially on the heels of a victorious war and the terrible sacrifice of lives it took to vindicate those ideals. What might have been done! Anything to avert another century of oppression! It is the theme of a thousand fantasies. Outraged by the timidity and pusillanimity of nineteenth-century radicals, twentieth-century dreamers have seized their pens and dashed off arm-chair edicts authorizing revolutionary terror in the South, mass executions, or more heroically the liquidation of an enemy class. Or, less bloodily, another dreamer would banish all planters and surviving Confederates to the American Siberia of Alaska, providentially acquired by sale from Russia in 1867. (Which reminds us that the contemporaneous Czar of All the Russias was rather firmer about the liberation of the serfs—and also that U. S. Grant was not the Czar of any Russias.)

To spell out all the possible consequences of such heroic alternatives to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments would be to multiply fantasies beyond reasonable limits. But just assume that our retrospective revolutionaries did (with as little bloodshed as feasible—say at most several thousand) eliminate the last unregenerate lord of the lash and the last bed-sheeted Kluxer and racist nightrider and lyncher of the South—what then? Well, to be sure, they would still have to cope with that Congress, its committees, and its deplorable Yankee constituencies, not to mention racist presidents, judges, and army officers and not to forget those pusillanimous “radicals.” Of course, Congresses can be purged by force and so can courts and committees. Spineless radicals can be galvanized by stern discipline. Presidents can be impeached and armies can be given their orders. The real difficulty is with those huge constituencies. Outright “copperheads” might be clapped into concentration camps on charges of treason and forgotten. A bit of selective revolutionary terror in those eight or nine northern states that voted down black suffrage before 1869—not more than a few executions per congressional district—might be salutary. But that still leaves thousands upon thousands of enfranchised white racists at large in most districts. Would the Alaskan camps, already packed with Confederates, accommodate more than a fraction of them?

An even more sobering question remains: how many blacks (not to mention revolutionaries) would be likely to survive the bloodiest white backlash in nonhistory? That question alone should dampen arm-chair blood lusts and suggest the countermanding of the more heroic edicts. Anyway, such fantasies would have been the history of some other people, not ours. Our own history is embarrassing enough to live with, but we had best live with the real rather than an imaginary version—provided the historians can ever determine what the “real” version is.

  1. 1

    William Gillette, The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (John Hopkins University Press, 1965).

  2. 2

    Kenneth M. Stampp, The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 246-289. Reviewed in The New York Review, September 25.

  3. 3

    Otto H. Olsen, Carpetbagger’s Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgee (John Hopkins University Press, 1965).

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