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Three Reconstructions

The story of civil rights in the twentieth century has the shape of a great wave climbing a beach. A low swell, moving slowly, gains momentum. At a certain point it surges to a mighty crest that crashes with a roar. A wash of water flows onward, but the force is gone. The wave is receding. This is the pattern of modern racial reform: quiet, gradual improvement in the 1920s and 1930s; accelerating power after World War II; a dangerous, breathtaking climax in the 1960s; an aftermath of persistence and retreat.

At the crest of the wave in 1965, C. Vann Woodward called attention to similarities between what was happening at that moment and the dazzling enactment of racial reforms and civil rights exactly one hundred years earlier during the reconstruction of the defeated Southern states. Woodward called the events occurring around him a “Second Reconstruction.” He feared it might collapse as the first one had. But he hoped that this time the far greater power of African-Americans would save the cause of racial justice from compromise, appeasement, and failure.1

Now, more than three decades later, Woodward’s Second Reconstruction has completed the full cycle of the first. We have a longer time span before us, so we can extend Woodward’s comparative perspective both forward and backward. From the vantage point of today, the accomplishments of the reconstruction that followed the Civil War seem more than merely “rhetorical.” Our present knowledge of what African-Americans learned and did during this time, the so-called “Tragic Era,” redeems it from the dismissive judgment that historians used to pronounce.2

Similarly, a great advance in historical knowledge of the era of the American Revolution has shown that the “first” reconstruction of American race relations took place then, not in the 1860s, if we define “reconstruction” as a broad postwar program for reforming the social order. Moreover, this early cycle of racial reform anticipated the pattern its successors have followed: slowly rising discontent; liberation and euphoria; breakdown and retreat. Might an examination of these resemblances yield some clue to possibilities for a fourth reconstruction? I believe they do.

Each of the three cycles that punctuate the history of black-white relations in America received a powerful impetus from a major, victorious war. In each case war expanded the choices that black people could make. Responding to offers of liberation and protection, slaves escaped to British armies during the Revolution. During the Civil War they found an undeclared freedom behind Union lines in such numbers that people called them “contrabands”—that is, confiscated rebel property. During World War II the descendants of the slaves escaped northward from the rural South in a huge migration that opened new opportunities in factories, labor unions, and politics. Simultaneously well over a million black men and women served throughout the strictly segregated armed forces, half of them overseas. Many, hoping for recognition of their loyalty, regarded the war as an opportunity to demonstrate it. In the long run, however, the immediate gains that accrued within a national struggle against an external enemy were less significant than the great upsurge of national idealism and racial hope that each war released.

By crystallizing a distinctive national ideology, the American Revolution established the enduring dynamics of racial reform. Whether an American ideology was more a cause or a result of the Revolution, the conflict welded together an extraordinarily durable set of ideas that came to define a national purpose. One founding principle declared that the United States exists to secure the equal, unalienable rights that individuals derive from nature. Another enshrined a broadly Christian ethic of dedication to the common good. A third offered an embracing faith in human progress, with America in the lead.3 In the absence of a homogeneous ethnic identity, this compound of secular and religious ideas—this amalgam of liberty, nationality, and faith—was the strongest bond of unity in the new nation.

Although flatly incompatible in all respects with slavery, what Gunnar Myrdal has called the American Creed was often construed as a future promise rather than an immediate requirement. For most Americans it was more a conception of capacities than a claim of achievements. But advances could not be altogether postponed. The revolutionary impulse, with its appeal to human rights as well as American rights, inspired an antislavery movement abroad and at home. Never before had so many pulpits rung with condemnations of slaveholding. Nowhere earlier had blacks petitioned for their freedom on grounds of natural rights.4

Why did the Civil War and World War II tap and reinforce the same strain of nationalist idealism? Surely because both conflicts lent themselves to definition in the same terms. The Civil War was understood as a struggle to preserve a union based on freedom; World War II engaged Americans in resisting a new form of slavery. In all three wars did special interests manipulate patriotism for their own ends? Of course. Did intolerance of minorities produce racial barbarities and hysterical witch hunts? Unquestionably. But that does not negate the altruistic inducement each major war held out to Americans to locate themselves within and carry forward the Spirit of ‘76.

In no case did war originate the impulse it popularized. Each postwar reconstruction was continuous with a gradual, pre-war buildup of moral disquiet over the state of race relations. Decades might pass before the fervent nationalism of a great war energized a longstanding moral concern, which had deeply troubled only a small minority of whites. In wartime the people as a whole were called to uphold the principles that had given the nation its identity. Through an outpouring of national idealism, a moral issue could then receive political expression.

For half a century before the American Revolution individual Christians who were sensitive to the humanitarian tendencies of the eighteenth century had disavowed the buying and selling of human beings. Not until 1758, however, did the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting denounce Quakers who bought or sold Negroes. Then another seventeen years passed before Philadelphians, on the eve of the American Revolution, formed the first antislavery society in the Western world. 5

Similarly, in the nineteenth century a fragmented movement for abolishing or narrowly circumscribing slavery made headway slowly, against fierce resistance, throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Not until 1848, with the formation of the Free Soil Party, did an antislavery coalition capture 10 percent of the popular vote. In the 1850s, however, an impending breakup of the Union connected the cause of liberty with the more immediately compelling issue of national survival.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was no less indebted to pre-war antecedents. The power and confidence it radiated after World War II would not have existed without a slow accumulation of guilt and protest from the late 1920s through the 1930s, followed by an all-out global war that idealized American democracy. From a revulsion against Southern lynchings in the late Twenties through the diffuse egalitarianism of the New Deal years, public opinion prepared the way for a communalizing experience of national dedication and sacrifice. If religion played a smaller part than in the earlier wars, a transfigured liberalism, celebrating the cohesion of a multi-ethnic people, amply took its place.6

Before examining these three encounters more closely, we cannot overlook a fourth great war, which fails completely to fit the general pattern. World War I—the Great Crusade, as ironic historians used to call it—made race relations worse rather than better. In this case, however, the exception helps to clarify the pattern of racial progress. American participation in World War I was relatively brief, just nineteen months in all, with only five months of intensive combat. Far more significant than the lighter burden that World War I imposed, however, was the absence of a significant pre-war growth of racial reform.

Instead of the troubled national conscience that Gunnar Myrdal observed in 1944, nearly all white Americans from the 1890s to the 1920s displayed a colossal insensitivity to the hostility and abuse that racial or pseudo-racial minorities suffered in the most advanced and highly industrialized nations of the world. Fears of impurity, pollution, corruption, and depravity coalesced. In this extravagantly racist milieu Americans could try to address economic injustice (not altogether successfully as it turned out), but they were blind to racial oppression. When World War I ended, an unprecedented explosion of racial and ethnic strife ensued. There was much talk of “reconstruction,” but only among black people did it mean a reform of race relations. Among whites “reconstruction” suggested problems of “economic serfdom” or of “discipline and orderly living” or of “spiritual regeneration.”7

By crushing the hopes it had raised for a new dawn of peace and freedom, World War I diverted historians from a longer linkage in American history between major wars and advances in democracy. A dichotomy between war and democracy has seemed additionally plausible because the nation’s small wars, such as the Mexican and Spanish-American wars, were sometimes racially regressive in their glorification of white supremacy. Moreover, little concrete improvement in race relations took place during the big wars. Each cycle of racial reform began in a long preparatory phase before the war started and climaxed in a mighty surge after it ended.

In each of the three cases reviewed here, war’s immediate exigencies obscured progress in race relations. The months and years of combat allowed little latitude for altering social, political, or military institutions. While raising aspirations and giving demands for change a national hearing, the wars deferred the tasks of racial reform to the postwar years. That is when the big breakthroughs in race relations have occurred.

The liberating aftermath of the American Revolution was relatively modest. It simply put limits on the spread of slavery, but the limits were not inconsequential. The federal government checked the advance of slavery into the West; the states rolled it back in the Northeast. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which developed from an earlier proposal by Thomas Jefferson, laid down conditions for forming states north of the Ohio River. A proviso prohibiting slavery throughout the entire territory was the first national legislation that set boundaries on the expansion of slavery. Meanwhile, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, every Northern state by 1804 had adopted plans for the gradual emancipation of its slaves. Two years later, federal legislation completed a similar process that banned the African slave trade from all American ports.

During the same years, antislavery sentiment persuaded state legislatures in the South to loosen existing restrictions on manumission. Especially in the Upper South numerous slave owners freed their slaves voluntarily. In doing so they quickened a yearning for freedom among those who were left behind. Accordingly, manumission inspired a larger flight from the slave states. Nationally, the free black population rose from a mere handful, probably fewer than 5,000 in 1780, to 186,00 in 1810, most of whom gathered in the larger towns and cities of the mid-Atlantic region. Their communities produced such institutions as fraternities, churches, and mutual aid societies, through which freed people could manage their own affairs. The creation of autonomous black congregations from the 1780s onward, sometimes within existing denominations and sometimes entirely independently, was an important step in the building of self-sustaining African-American communities.8

  1. 1

    C. Vann Woodward, “From the First Reconstruction to the Second,” Harper’s Magazine 230 (April 1965), pp. 127-133.

  2. 2

    Woodward, “From the First Reconstruction to the Second,” p. 133; Eric Foner, “Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” in The New American History, Eric Foner, editor (Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 83-89. The phrase comes from the title of Claude G. Bowers’s influential book The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln (Houghton Mifflin, 1929).

  3. 3

    Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (University of North Carolina Press, 1969), pp. 91-124; Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (University of Chicago Press, 1968); Ruth H. Bloch, “Religion, Literary Sentimentalism, and Popular Revolutionary Ideology,” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, editors, Religion in a Revolutionary Age (University Press of Virginia, 1994), pp. 308-330.

  4. 4

    David Brion Davis, “American Slavery and the American Revolution,” in Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, editors, Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution (University Press of Virginia, 1983), pp. 276-277.

  5. 5

    David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966), pp. 306-332, and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 213-254.

  6. 6

    Gary Gerstle, “The Working Class Goes to War,” in Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch, editors, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II (University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 105-127, and in the same volume Alan Brinkley, “World War II and American Liberalism,” pp. 313-330. See also Gerstle’s “The Protean Character of American Liberalism,” American Historical Review 99 (October 1994), pp. 1043-1074.

  7. 7

    David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 245-250. For useful suggestions on the pre-war milieu see Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 1984) and Kenneth L. Kusmer’s unpublished paper, “Xenophobia, Violence and Social Change in the United States and Germany, 1830-1945” (German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C., 1995).

  8. 8

    Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 3-17; Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America 1800-1850 (University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 174-215; Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (Random House, 1974), pp. 20-50.

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