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Three Reconstructions

This early freedom movement was cautious and circumspect. It merely nibbled at the edges of slavery. Its Civil War counterpart was dramatic, impetuous, and visionary. Even more than during the Revolution, the main body of American Protestants in the North was convinced that their cause was holy. In “the glory of the coming of the Lord,” Julia Ward Howe wrote, she could see Him “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” He was leading the Union armies to a final conquest of sin and bondage.9 In large parts of the North the moral issue of slavery, intermixed with divine will and national destiny, was so intensely felt and so widely the subject of agitation during the war that racial reform for once leaped ahead before hostilities ended. Northern black spokesmen such as Frederick Douglass were able to press for immediate emancipation while pointing proudly to the very large proportion of black males who were serving in the Union armies. Then Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made inevitable the complete termination of slavery by means of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). In states and cities influenced by Southern mores Jim Crow laws were reduced or repealed.10

Breathtaking advances in race relations came almost immediately after the Civil War ended, in contrast to a slower climax of reform following the Revolution and World War II. Millions of African-Americans were now free to choose their own work and residence, subject only to the constraints of a general impoverishment. Their exuberant political meetings and those of their Northern allies resounded with invocations of the Declaration of Independence.

Within months, white Southerners set out to restore a racial oligarchy, bulwarked by the notorious “Black Codes” that were close to slavery. Crying treason, the radical leadership of the Republican Party reacted by pushing beyond mere abolition. Public outrage demanded strong federal protection of freedmen’s rights, and the Radicals were ready to supply it. Nothing less could ensure a “new birth of freedom” that would justify the enormous sacrifices of the war. This was the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.

But preserving civil rights would require a further extension of federal power, specifically to guarantee sympathetic local and state governments. In the face of insurrectionary resistance by whites in the South and widespread disapproval in the North, Congress imposed temporary military rule in the South, created genuinely interracial governments there, and secured ratification in 1870 of a fifteenth amendment granting full voting rights to black males in North and South alike. Nowhere else in the Western world was the transition from slavery to full citizenship so swift and unmediated.11

It was the task of the Third Reconstruction, during the post-World War II years, to reestablish the full panoply of political and civil rights gained in the Second Reconstruction but lost or weakened in a great reversal toward the end of the nineteenth century, when Southern legislatures and hysterical white mobs legalized and deepened the subordination of blacks. Beyond the restoration of first-class citizenship, the Third Reconstruction aimed at a wider goal. It sought an equality of social respect and economic opportunity for all Americans. It reached the first goal, but only part of the second.

Instead, the Third Reconstruction encountered the same cyclical changes that earlier surges of racial reform had undergone. After a slow pre-war rise, the latent energy of black discontent accumulated during the war years. Once victory was won, President Harry Truman made civil rights a major national issue. His stunning order in 1948, banning discrimination throughout the armed forces of the United States, effectively launched the postwar phase of the civil rights movement. From encampments and naval bases it spread to public schools, voting booths, playing fields, theaters, restaurants, public transportation, and eventually private business. It was a revolution that reached a climax from 1963 to 1968, then passed into a lingering demise. An understanding of that last phase should tell us a good deal about the vulnerabilities of progress in America.

In all three reconstructions the shift from commitment to retrogression was so variously diffused as to suggest a simple waning of idealistic nationalism and moral fervor. At the very beginning of the nineteenth century the antislavery societies that had sprung up after the Revolution showed signs of enfeeblement. As the Revolution receded into the past, its broad enthusiasm for human rights dwindled into a narrower preoccupation with the right to property. Simultaneously, the migration of freed people to a few urban centers created dense neighborhoods and congested alleys where blacks were no longer under the close observation of their employers. Fears of unrest palsied reformers—especially after the turn of the century, when atrocities and racial uprisings on French islands in the Caribbean aroused lurid suspicions of black conspiracies on the American mainland. After 1800 slave codes in the South were tightened, while traditional constraints on free blacks—on their right to vote, for example, and to live where they pleased—revived. A hedge of restrictive, discriminatory legislation rose around the black communities of the North and the vast slave population of the South. Manumission was severely restricted; migration was closely controlled. 12

The sharpening of fear and discrimination at the beginning of the nineteenth century suggests a loss of cohesiveness, a loosening of national idealism, that was more dramatically evident in the waning of the Second and Third Reconstructions. There too a fear of blacks, with accompanying deterioration of communication with them and concern for them, marked the end of racial reform.

From 1865 to 1867, and again exactly one hundred years later, a nationalizing euphoria and commitment seemed to sweep all obstacles aside. During those triumphant years bitterly racist resistance in the South only intensified the will and strength of reformers to carry through what they called “the equal rights revolution.” In 1868 white Southern resistance to the revolution continued unabated. In 1968 or thereabouts it was broken. Nevertheless, in the late Sixties of both centuries many were tiring of strife. Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency with the slogan “Let us have peace.” Taking office one hundred years later, a more combative Richard Nixon aimed in the same direction. By the Seventies public interest in great moral issues was declining.13 Liberal nationalism was running out of steam. In the midst of turmoil, locally rooted racism proved—in the short run at least—more tenacious than an inclusive, democratic spirit.

When national idealism was already on the defensive, a second factor dealt a further setback to all three reconstructions. In each case an already flagging movement for racial reform ended when the economic environment turned decisively unfavorable. This brings into sight once again the significance of the postwar moment. From the eighteenth century to the twentieth, the big advances in race relations have been borne on a flood of postwar prosperity. Twenty years after the adoption of the Constitution, twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and thirty years after World War II, a long postwar boom faltered and in some parts of the economy collapsed. Each of these eras of prosperity and progress had opened space in people’s lives for altruism; each had sustained a glowing vision of the nation’s future. When the boom subsided, self-interest crowded to the fore, perhaps as much among blacks as whites. Indifference at the top of the social scale and bare-knuckled antagonism down below again widened the racial chasm.

In the First Reconstruction Congress’s prohibition of the African slave trade in 1808 was the last antislavery legislation of any note. A year earlier the Jeffersonian embargo, prohibiting commerce with any foreign nation, interrupted the great economic boom that followed the Revolution. A period of instability turned in 1819 into a sharp, lingering depression. In eastern cities the resulting downward pressure on the already meager wages of African-Americans aroused intense hostility in the white working class. Also, during this era of economic uncertainties new ideas of irreducible inequality between races largely superseded the revolutionary generation’s confidence in universal natural rights.14

The Second Reconstruction terminated in a similar way. In the 1850s, and especially in the years immediately following the Civil War, the North and West enjoyed impressive economic growth with rising levels of real wages. The depression that began in 1873, however, created deep distress in the cities and reduced many farmers to tenancy. Contemporaries regarded it as the most severe depression in American history. Politicians turned their attention from moral issues to economic remedies and nostrums such as currency reforms, tariffs, and strike-breaking. The Democratic Party—the party of white supremacy—recovered from the obloquy it had suffered during the war and postwar years.15 A century later, in 1973, the parties had reversed their positions, but the sequence of events was familiar.

The parallels between the three periods of racial reform are plain to see. In all three cases dissatisfaction with the status quo had grown slowly among morally engaged minorities before intersecting with a major challenge to the nation. At that point a great surge of national idealism, abounding prosperity, a common enemy, and, it must now be added, a spirit of collaboration between whites and blacks brought the most dramatic advances of equality in American history.

So much for parallels. There is also a striking difference in the three episodes beyond their obvious contrasts of scale and aspiration. Although the First Reconstruction demonstrated a yearning for freedom among the slaves, a black elite that could play active roles in shaping events hardly existed. Moreover, virtually no whites could as yet imagine a harmonious interracial society. Black participation in making change was therefore neither expected nor sought. The First Reconstruction was in some measure for African-Americans but not by them.

The Second Reconstruction brought them more fully into the historical process. William Lloyd Garrison and other nineteenth-century abolitionists had welcomed blacks as coequal disturbers of the peace. Their eager involvement in the antislavery movement and in contests over the suffrage in Northern states dramatized the meaning of freedom. Their participation in Southern public life beginning in 1867 was essential, extensive, and moderately progressive. They were junior partners in Reconstruction governments, heavily obligated to white allies and not always ready for the responsibilities they held; but altogether they were men of varied abilities and backgrounds who gave ample proof that hundreds of former slaves could handle the business of government.16

The Third Reconstruction presents a major contrast in leadership. Now the initiative for and direction of change in the ascending phases were primarily in the hands of African-Americans. The First Reconstruction had been the work of a governing elite of whites. The Second reflected and contributed to the democratization of American society in the mid-nineteenth century. Although it too was led by a white elite, its execution depended on broad approval in public opinion (both white and black) and on active support from the newly enfranchised black masses. In the Third Reconstruction, blacks predominated. They made the important decisions. They also bore the heaviest burdens. Yet the participation, validation, and power of whites remained indispensable.

How critical, then, was close, active collaboration between the races in the making of the Third Reconstruction? Earlier American history yields no precise comparison. But the trend it presents is suggestive, and the evidence of interracial cooperation in racial reform from the 1930s to the 1960s leaves little room for doubt that the Third Reconstruction was heavily dependent on a partnership between blacks and an influential segment of the white population. I find inescapable, therefore, the conclusion that the division that opened in the civil rights movement in 1965 with the rise of black power—and the anti-white legacy it left—was a significantly contributing cause of the movement’s decline.

As we look forward to the preconditions for a fourth reconstruction in the twenty-first century, history seems to tell us that a restoration of cooperation and trust between leaders on the two sides will have to rank high. Each will need to risk unpopularity while holding firmly to a popular following. On both sides the leaders must have a flexible, loosely bounded identity, undefensive and therefore willing to incorporate something of the “other” who is different from oneself. The great example, surely, must be Martin Luther King, Jr., who was able to stand firm against the massed power of Southern white society without demonizing whites or losing his vision of an interracial future. But something also should be said of Harry Truman’s willingness to gamble his presidency in 1948 on the possibility that new black voters in a few Northern states could (as they did) save him from a racist backlash in the impending election.

These qualities will not be available unless the leaders of both white and nonwhite groups participate in some larger identity, some greater loyalty, that connects them without threatening their separate qualities and needs. Their wider solidarity will have to draw on the liberal nationalism that was created in a Christianized Enlightenment and in the twentieth century renamed the American Creed. That is what has driven each of the advances toward racial equality thus far.

To recapture that spirit, will the country have to wait for another major war? What might serve as a moral equivalent? Since history is unlikely to repeat itself in quite the same way, these troubling questions may not have to be faced. Some pundits tell us that racial differences are gradually losing depth and intensity as a miscegenated heterogeneity of style and appearance spreads through American life. 17 In the quarter century since the breakdown of the civil rights movement, the reaction against it has been much shallower than the reaction against its predecessors. On the whole, the black middle class retains the great gains it made, and in all kinds of settings acceptance is coming more easily. These tendencies owe much to the globalizing of communications, travel, and migration since World War II. More and more, Americans seem to realize that no boundaries are impermeable and no people can remain entirely outside their ken.

Still, a nation cannot rely on global forces to solve its problems. In the best as well as the worst possible futures America’s own history will come into play. I suggest that the prospect before us may look less bleak if our past appears less dismal. The fashionable cynicism of our time stigmatizes the entire record of American race relations. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century is generally regarded as a “tragic failure,” and so too its predecessors.18 In truth, none of them was a failure; they were simply incomplete. For many black people, each surge reached some objectives, and the advances were never entirely lost in the reversals that followed.

After the First Reconstruction some blacks in the North retained the right to vote, and some in the South preserved a substantial personal status. After the Second Reconstruction there were greater gains. Personal servitude was never reimposed, nor was the ability to move or migrate denied. Robert Wiebe has pointed out that African-American rights in Northern states expanded slowly in the late nineteenth century, and that the notorious segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal” represented a concession to black demands for decent treatment. Moreover, blacks helped themselves. In spite of the odds against them, by 1910 more than half of Southern blacks had learned to read and write.19

When the Third Reconstruction created a cornucopia of opportunities, along with bitter disappointments, it was repeating on an upward gradient the experience of its predecessors. Historians have been unable to see these events together, related within a long-term pattern, because their attention has been riveted on failure and defeat, with scant allowance for success and victory. Since the vaulting expectations of the 1960s collapsed, a “culture of defeat” has poisoned attitudes toward national projects among academics, much of the black middle class, and even the public at large.20 The American Creed lives on, but only one of its three pillars—the idea of human freedom—remains essentially unchallenged. Cynicism has ravaged belief in an inclusive national community and in its reach toward a better world. Until schools and churches and other opinion makers repair the damage to national identity and to faith in human possibility, how can race relations rise much above the level of rancorous bargaining among unequal interest groups? It is time for Americans to make richer use of their deeply divided but nonetheless inspiring heritage.

  1. 9

    James H. Moorhead, American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860-1869 (Yale University Press, 1978); Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 91-98.

  2. 10

    Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper and Row, 1988), pp. xxiv-28.

  3. 11

    Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 255-279, 446-459; Larry Kincaid, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward,” in Gary Nash and Richard Weiss, editors, The Great Fear: Race in the Mind of America (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), p. 54. See also William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction 1869-1879 (Louisiana State University Press, 1979), pp. ix-55.

  4. 12

    Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 342-426; Berlin, Slaves without Masters, pp. 79-107.

  5. 13

    Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 281-288, 320-321, 449, 484-510.

  6. 14

    Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 172-183, 212- 279; Stuart Bruchey, Enterprise: The Dynamic Economy of a Free People (Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 144-147, 161.

  7. 15

    Robert Kelley, The Cultural Pattern in American Politics: The First Century (Knopf, 1979), pp. 228-255; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 523-527. On contemporary views of depressions see Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy 1860-1897 (Quadrangle Books, 1967), p. 7.

  8. 16

    Howard N. Rabinowitz, editor, Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (University of Illinois Press, 1982); Eric Foner, “The Tocsin of Freedom”: The Black Leadership of Radical Reconstruction (Gettysburg College, 1992).

  9. 17

    Stanley Crouch, “Race Is Over,” The New York Times Magazine, September 29, 1996, pp. 170-171. See also, in a more scholarly vein, Gary B. Nash’s important essay, “The Hidden History of Mestizo America,” Journal of American History 82 (December 1995), pp. 941-962.

  10. 18

    Tom Wicker, Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America (William Morrow, 1996).

  11. 19

    Robert Wiebe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 103, 126-130; Bruchey, Enterprise, p. 279; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 587- 597, 612.

  12. 20

    Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusionment of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). On the persistence of the “American Dream” among lower-class blacks see Jennifer L. Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (Princeton University Press, 1995).

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