• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Birth of a Nation

Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

by Eric Foner
Louisiana State University Press, 142 pp., $14.95

The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890

by Steven Hahn
Oxford University Press, 340 pp., $29.95

White Land, Black Labor: Caste and Class in Late Nineteenth-Century Georgia

by Charles L. Flynn Jr.
Louisiana State University Press, 196 pp., $20.00

During the 1960s and 1970s, historians of the American South concentrated on the institution of slavery. Debates on the economic performance of the plantation, the relations between masters and slaves, and the results of slave efforts to create a culture and community of their own were vigorous and sharply defined. At times these scholarly disputes were noticed by the press, and authors of ambitious, interpretative books on slavery even appeared on TV talk shows to defend their views. During the past few years the slavery debates have subsided although they have not been fully resolved. But much was learned, and a consensus developed on one crucial point: the Afro-American slaves were now recognized as historical actors in their own right and not simply as the hapless victims of forces beyond their control.

With the great slavery controversy only temporarily exhausted and awaiting new perspectives that cannot yet be foreseen, the emphasis in work on southern history has moved ahead to the postwar era, to Reconstruction and the “New South.” The study of this turbulent period had somewhat stagnated during the boom in slavery history, and it is clearly ripe for reinterpretation. Furthermore, some of the postwar studies carry over from the studies of slavery.

The Reconstruction era itself (1865–1877) was, until very recently, dominated by a group of scholars known as “revisionists.” What they were revising was the older view that northern policies to reconstruct the South were ill-conceived and crassly motivated, and led to extremely corrupt governments composed of white opportunities (“carpetbaggers” and “scalawags”) who rode to power on the votes of ignorant blacks who should never have been enfranchised in the first place. The revisionists performed a necessary and valuable service by showing that proponents of “Radical Reconstruction” were at least partly inspired by a desire for racial justice, which anticipated the civil rights movement of recent times; they also deflated exaggerated views of the venality and incompetence of the southern Republicans—white and black—who presided over the “Radical” regimes. Besides pointing out the good intentions and positive achievements of the freedmen and their allies, they exposed the vicious racism and violent tactics of the “redeemers”—southern whites who opposed and eventually overthrew the Reconstruction regimes.

The problem with the revisionists, however, was that they were locked into a debate over issues that were essentially moral and ideological in character. Their defense of black rights and equality against the racist scholarship of the first half of the twentieth century was laudable; but once this message had gotten across, they demonstrated little capacity to shed new light on the complex process of how a slave society was transformed into something quite different.

The essential character of the “New South”—the more enduring order that emerged out of the wreckage of Reconstruction—was fixed for more than a quarter of a century by one of the most remarkable works ever produced by an American historian. C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South1 described the triumph of promoters of industrial capitalism over the South’s agrarian, antibourgeois traditions in the period after 1877 and exposed the oppression and exploitation of the masses—both black and white—by this new elite and its backers in the northern business community. Like the revisionist historians of Reconstruction, Woodward’s sensibilities were liberal and humanitarian, but he probed more deeply into the underlying sources of southern injustice and was less apt to substitute moralizing for analysis and explanation. Consequently, he raised questions about power relationships and the ideologies sanctioning them that continue to be central for “New South” historians.

The recent surge of interest in the postwar South reflects a desire to go beyond Woodward by taking a fresh view of some of the issues involving race, class, and power that he dealt with more than three decades ago. There is also a growing sense that the division between the years of Reconstruction and the New South is an artificial one and that many important themes can be effectively addressed only over a span running from the Civil War up to at least the 1890s.

The comparision of southern slavery with black servitude in other New World societies was an important aspect of the slavery debate. Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom adds a fresh perspective to Reconstruction by treating “emancipation and its legacy” in a similarly comparative way. He starts by skillfully surveying how emancipation worked in other nineteenth-century plantation societies and establishes the broad similarity of the struggles that ensued for control of land and labor. Looking mainly at Haiti and the British West Indies, he describes the conflict between those seeking to restore plantation production under a new labor system and the mass of ex-slaves, who defined freedom as relief from plantation discipline and the achievement of self-sufficiency through small-scale cultivation. His work demonstrates the proposition, acknowledged by economists as well as historians, that the agrarian lower classes invariably prefer even the most marginal and unremunerative forms of peasant proprietorship to working for wages on large estates. This seemingly universal propensity was heightened in the case of emancipated slaves, who identified supervised gang labor with their previous condition of servitude.

Planters, the European governments responsible for West Indian emancipation, and even an independent black regime in Haiti—all set out to restore staple production through a plantation system. They made vigorous efforts to prevent an independent black peasantry from emerging. Their success depended in part on geography or topography. Jamaican freedmen were able to flee to a mountainous hinterland unsuited for sugar plantations, and many were able to avoid returning to the plantations by squatting in the uplands and producing food crops for subsistence and sale in local markets. On flat Barbados, however, where most of the land was owned and controlled by white planters, the freedmen had no choice but to work for low wages on plantations.

But Foner is not a geographical determinist. What gave the pro-plantation forces the upper hand, everywhere except in Haiti, was their monopoly of political power. They could tax the peasants’ holdings or deny their communities necessary public services in order to pry them loose from the land, as was done in British Guiana, for example. If all else failed, they could substitute a plantation work force of indentured Asians for freed blacks, thus limiting black opportunities and giving rise to the multiracial societies of Trinidad, Guyana, and Surinam. The result was the continuation of a coercive plantation system, with the freedmen reduced to economic dependency, powerlessness, and poverty. Foner shows how the European colonists in South and East Africa conducted a similar war on the agrarian prosperity and self-sufficiency of “subject races”; during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they thwarted the rise of an indigenous peasantry by denying Africans access to productive agricultural land.

When he shifts his attention to emancipation in the United States, Foner finds similar tendencies—but only up to a point. Immediately after the war, when southern whites controlled the reconstituted state governments called into being by President Andrew Johnson, “black codes” were passed that gave the freedmen no choice but to sign contracts to work on white-owned plantations under conditions reminiscent of slavery. But to the Republican-dominated Congress and to northern public opinion such measures smacked of a restoration of the old order in the South and a denial of the principle of “free labor” which was central to the Union cause in the Civil War. Consequently, Congress took control of Reconstruction away from the president and passed a series of laws and constitutional amendments (the fourteenth and fifteenth) designed to guarantee basic citizenship rights to the freedmen, including eventually the right to vote.

Enfranchisement of ex-slaves on the basis of universal manhood suffrage was a unique and radical aspect of American emancipation. It did not address the imbalance of economic power created by a white monopoly on land—proposals to confiscate and redistribute plantation acreage were defeated in Congress. But it did provide blacks with a basis for political participation and the exercise of power that led to a “remarkable political and social mobilization of the black community.” In the ensuing struggle over the terms and conditions of labor, blacks were not entirely powerless, particularly during the period when state and local politicians were dependent on their votes. In a case study of strikes on the rice plantations along the Combahee and Ashepoo rivers in South Carolina in 1876 and 1877, Foner shows how black influence on the local political authorities enabled the strikers to achieve some success.

As white Democrats returned to power in state and local governments during the 1870s, blacks lost most of their political leverage and eventually suffered almost total disfranchisement. But Foner argues convincingly that Reconstruction left an enduring legacy that put American blacks in a better position than those in most other societies in which slaves were emancipated. Constitutional obstacles to overt racial discrimination, coupled with the unwillingness of blacks to surrender what the nation had solemnly affirmed were their legitimate rights, meant that “the doors of opportunity…could never again be completely closed.” Oppressive as it turned out to be, the sharecropping system that replaced gang labor on southern plantations allowed a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that enjoyed by contract or indentured labor on Caribbean plantations or in South African mines. While it was difficult for blacks to own land, this was not forbidden as it was in the “white areas” of African colonies. (South Africa even outlawed black sharecropping as opening too many opportunities for “kaffirs.”) Foner’s argument comes down to the claim that things would have been a lot worse for southern blacks had congressional Reconstruction not overthrown the black codes of 1865–1866 and precluded their ever being reenacted in their original form.

Foner’s interpretation puts him on the side of the “optimists” in a major debate that is emerging among historians of Reconstruction. The “pessimists,” who have dominated recent scholarship, tend to view the entire effort to plant interracial democracy in the South after the Civil War as an abject failure, doomed to defeat from the beginning by such factors as the ulterior motives of northern Republicans, the accommodationism of leading black politicians, and the indomitable resistance of southern whites to racial equality. Foner does not glorify white Republicans and prominent black politicians; nor does he deny the strength of white resistance to the new order. But he wants to emphasize the resilience and resourcefulness of the freedmen, who made the most of their opportunities and created a world for themselves that was far short of what they wanted and deserved but substantially better than would have been the case had they not fought for the right to shape their own destinies.

The freedmen were striving for the kind of economic independence and relative security that had been enjoyed by the white yeoman class of the Old South. These non-slaveholding backcountry farmers, who generally owned their land but produced mainly for their own needs and local trade rather than for distant markets, have been neglected by historians concentrating on planters and plantations. Yet they made up most of the white population of the South, greatly outnumbering the substantial slaveholders who produced most of the cotton and other staples for export.

  1. 1

    C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (Louisiana State University Press, 1951).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print