Sunday, April 26, 2015

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2015, April 26: Historical transitions in Reconstruction

Every year, I wonder if I'm going to be able to come up with stuff to post every day for a month on the Civil War. Even though it's never happened yet, and people are writing stuff all the time about the Civil War to which I can refer.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's end, so if anything, it's even easier than usual. The New York Times has a Disunion blog, which features substantial posts like Gregaory Downs' The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox 04/11/2015. The theme of the column is that severing the memory of the Civil War from that of Reconstruction and its overthrow is problematic. He's referring specifically to the image of the surrender at Appomattox as the effective end of the war. As Downs notes, that's misleading even in the narrow sense, since "fighting continue[d] in pockets for weeks."

Grant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.

To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.

And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.
This is also a reminder not to make too drastic a distinction between Reconstruction and Redemption. Militant and violent white resistance occurred during Reconstruction, and pockets of democracy and maintenance of elements of African-American rights during Redemption.

But for that matter, even segregation at its worst did not mean the complete disfranchisement of every single black voter in every former Confederate state.

But none of that should become an excuse for rejecting important distinctions in describing historical developments. Reconstruction was an important democratic moment, in both its "Presidential" and "Congressional" versions, the latter also known as Radical Reconstruction. There was a turning point usefully dated to 1876 in which antidemocratic former Confederates went on the offense, with both "nonviolent" coercion and murderous Klan-style terrorism, and effectively suppressed African-American suffrage.

And sometime around 1890, the new system of segregation and white supremacy was well enough established that Jim Crow laws forcing various forms of public performances of racial division proliferated in the South, a condition that endured well into the 1960s.

Downs describes the new white narrative on the Civil War that became dominant for decades this way:

After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.

Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).
While it's true that Northern whites, including the Supreme Court, didn't keep faith with African-American citizens and pro-democracy whites in the former Confederacy, that wasn't all that was going on in American politics.

John Roy Lynch (1847-1939)

Former Reconstruction African-American Congressman John Lynch, who I discussed in the previous post in this series, reminded readers of the Journal of Negro History that economics affected politics, too (Communications 16:1 Jan 1931). Writing about the decline in popularity of the Grant Administration, he writes:

But the one thing that caused a revulsion in popular sentiment was the disastrous financial panic of 1873. It was one of the worst financial panics with which the country had ever been afflicted. Beginning with the failure of J. Cook & Co. in Washington, bank failures were universal throughout the country, which resulted in thousands of people being reduced to poverty. Of course, the party in power gets the credit for prosperity, when we have it, and is blamed for whatever disaster may overtake the country whether it be merited or not. Consequently in the state and congressional elections of 1874 the whole country went as overwhelmingly democratic as it had gone republican two years prior. The democratic party not only carried the national house of representatives, but elected more than two thirds of the members of that body and came very near wiping out the large republican majority in the senate. [my emphasis]
Lynch goes on to describe the practical result in the South:

The probabilities are that the reconstruction policy of the government had very little, if any thing, to do with bringing about this result. The voters simply regarded reconstruction as having been settled and that they could give their attention to other matters; hence, those who voted the republican ticket in 1872 and the democratic ticket in 1874 did so, not as an endorsement of what the democratic party stood for, but as a protest against and a vote of dissatisfaction with, what had transpired under the Grant administration. But let the reasons be what they may, southern democrats accepted the result of that election as a national condemnation and repudiation of the congressional plan of reconstruction and an endorsement by the nation of the declaration contained in the national democratic platform of 1868, which declared the reconstruction acts of congress to be unconstitutional, revolutionary and void. [my emphasis]

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