Monday, April 27, 2015

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2015, April 27: A veteran of Reconstruction defends it from Lost Cause dogma (1)

Reconstruction-era Congress John Roy Lynch (1847-1939), who I've discussed in the last two days' posts, is an example of someone who kept a more realistic, democratic understanding of Reconstruction alive when the Lost Cause version was predominant in professional history and popular culture.

In an essay appearing under the title Communications in its published form (The Journal of Negro History 16:1 Jan 1931; Lynch's communication itself is dated 07/17/1930), Lynch addressed distortions in a book by Claude Bowers called The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln (1929). He declares in the first paragraph that Bowers' book is "is a composition of errors, misstatements, misrepresentations, and false assertions." He sees Bowers as distorting by omission: "In spite of its extreme prolixity and verbosity the book is remarkable, more for what is concealed than for what is revealed - for what is unrecorded than for what is recorded."

Lynch challenged the Lost Cause narrative on several points. For instance, on Presidential Reconstruction, he writes:

President Andrew Johnson inaugurated a policy of reconstruction of his own, which did not meet with popular approval. He belonged to that group of public men who contended that the rebel states had never been legally out of the Union. His policy, therefore, was the oath of allegiance to the Union and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. No other conditions were deemed necessary to complete restoration. But it so transpired that the state governments which he thus brought into existence made the ratification of the thirteenth amendment practically worthless, for the "black laws" passed by the different legislatures practically re-established the institution of slavery. [my emphasis]
It was in the struggle with Johnson over Reconstruction policy that led to the Reconstruction Acts and what became known as Congressional Reconstruction or Radical Reconstruction: "Congressional leaders were confronted with the fact that it would be impossible to bring about restoration on any other basis than that proposed by President Johnson without conferring suffrage upon the colored man."

The elections of 1868, in which Ulysses Grant was elected President focused on the issue of Reconstruction:

The first test of strength [between supporters and opponents Congressional Reconstruction measures] took place in the state and congressional elections of 1866, when the republicans were successful. Still, hope of ultimate success on the part of the democrats was not abandoned. The crucial test was to take place in the presidential and congressional elections of 1868. The national democratic convention of that year, which nominated Seymour and Blair for president and vice president, incorporated in the party platform a clause which declared the reconstruction acts of congress to be unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void. The republican national convention which nominated Grant and Colfax for president and vice-president, warmly endorsed, and boldly sanctioned the reconstruction acts. This, then was the chief, and it may be said, the sole issue before the country at that time. The result was a victory for the republicans; and yet it was a sore disappointment for the leaders of that party, for the reason that the democrats carried the empire state of New York, and if the southern states, which in the meantime had been readmitted had been lost to the republicans, the hero of Appomattox [Grant] would have been defeated. In other words, it was the southern states that participated in that election that brought success to the republican party. In consequence of this fact southern democrats did not abandon hope of ultimate success in defeating, partially at least, the congressional plan of reconstruction, especially in view of the fact that they had the vigorous cooperation and support of the democratic party throughout the country.
This is significant. The country was faced with a clear choice. And because of the male suffrage that included black men being able to vote in the South, the Republicans won a solid mandate for Congressional Reconstruction.

Lynch also adds some interesting observations about Reconstruction-era Mississippi politics. He describes an African-American leader, also named Lynch but he does not comment on whether he was related to him:

In reading the paragraph above [from Bowers' book from which he had just quoted] the reader would necessarily infer that on the Alcorn ticket [the Republican ticket for Governor in 1868] there were two or more colored men, whereas in point of fact there was only one, in the person of the Rev. James Lynch, a Methodist preacher of marked ability and of superior intelligence, who was the candidate for the office of Secretary of State. As a pulpit orator and stump speaker it is not an exaggeration to say that James Lynch had few equals and no superiors. In fact, it can be truthfully said of him that he was the Henry Ward Beecher of the colored race. He was not only intelligent and well educated, but his command of the English language was such that he could hold a congregation or audience spellbound for at least two hours at a time with his powerful and convincing eloquence. Democratic orators would rather meet any man in joint debate than James Lynch, for the reason that Lynch would be sure to come out in triumph, and yet he typified, in a large measure, the colored men who were brought into political prominence under the administration of James L. Alcorn.
He also defends the Reconstruction governments of Mississippi against Lost Cause calumnies. He cites Bowers as indicating that most African-Americans elected to the legislature in 1868 "had to make their mark," by which he meant they were too illiterate to even sign their names. Lynch responds:

The assertion that most of the colored members had to make their mark is a cruel slander. They were not college graduates, it is true, but most of them were preachers and leaders of more than ordinary intelligence. In this connection it may not be out of place to call attention to the fact that nearly all of the democratic members of the legislature at that time came from what was known in the state as the Piney-woods or Cow Counties, inhabited chiefly by poor whites, many of whom were illiterate. The white people of wealth and intelligence lived in the wealth-producing counties, in which there were more colored than white people. Those were the counties that sent republicans to the legislature, while the Cow Counties, inhabited chiefly by plebians, or poor whites, were the counties that sent democrats to the legislature. These democrats did not represent the wealth and intelligence of the white people of the state. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the colored members were superior in every respect to most of the democrats who were then members of the legislature. At any rate a comparison would not be unfavorable to the colored members.
I grew up in the section of Mississippi known as the Piney Woods, so I got a smile out of reading that. But I was a little surprised that the area was a Democratic stronghold right after the Civil War. The slaveowning counties were more heavily along the Mississippi River shore and the Delta in the northwest part of the state. The Piney Woods are in the south-central and south-eastern section of Mississippi. There were plantations with slaves there, but not that many. Western Mississippi was less enthusiastic for secession - there was a vote - than the eastern section of the state where slaveowners were more dominant.

Also, the Free State of Jones, the county where a band of pro-Union Southern white guerrilla fighters were based, is smack in the middle of the Piney Woods. The Free State of Jones is coming to your local theater next year, with Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight and Keri Russel of The Americans as Serena Knight, Knight's first wife.

I'm curious to look more closely at the voting patterns there during Reconstruction. One factor to keep in mind is that "pro-Union" did not translate into "tolerant toward blacks." Most African-Americans in Mississippi prior to the war were slaves. And, as historian has pointed out in some detail, since black people were identified with slavery, hostility toward slavery was often combined with hostility to the presence of black people, slave or free.

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