Monday, April 11, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2016, April 11: Reconstruction outside the Lost Cause tradition

An accurate and democratic history of Reconstruction took second place in the dominant versions of American historical memory - including respectable scholarship - to the Lost Cause ideology for decades.

But a real historical version was preserved, not least by African-American scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote about Reconstruction and its Benefits in the (thoroughly respectable) American Historical Review 15:4 (July 1910):

There is danger to-day that between the intense feeling of the South and the conciliatory spirit of the North grave injustice will be done the negro American in the history of Reconstruction. Those who see in negro suffrage the cause of the main evils of Reconstruction must remember that if there had not been a single freedman left in the South after the war the problems of Reconstruction would still have been grave. Property in slaves to the extent of perhaps two thousand million dollars had suddenly disappeared. One thousand five hundred more millions, representing the Confederate war debt, had largely disappeared. Large amounts of real estate and other property had been destroyed, industry had been disorganized, 250,000 men had been killed and many more maimed. With this went the moral effect of an unsuccessful war with all its letting down of social standards and quickening of hatred and discouragement-a situation which would make it difficult under any circumstances to reconstruct a new government and a new civilization. Add to all this the presence of four million freedmen and the situation is further complicated. But this complication is very largely a matter of well-known historical causes. Any human being " doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to make anything his own, and to toil that another may reap the fruits ",2 is bound, on sudden emancipation, to loom like a great dread on the horizon.
He explains the reason that protecting the freedom of the newly liberated slaves depended on active intervention on their behalf by the federal government. Under Andrew Johnson's Presidency, the federal government was restrained in fulfilling that duty. And that wasn't a good thing:

In Tennessee alone was any action attempted that even suggested possible negro suffrage in the future, and that failed. In all other states the "Black Codes" adopted were certainly not reassuring to friends of freedom. To be sure it was not a time to look for calm, cool, thoughtful action on the part of the white South. Their economic condition was pitiable, their fear of negro freedom genuine; yet it was reasonable to expect from them something less than repression and utter reaction toward slavery. To some extent this expectation was fulfilled: the abolition of slavery was recognized and the civil rights of owning property and appearing as a witness in cases in which he was a party were generally granted the negro; yet with these went in many cases harsh and unbearable regulations which largely neutralized the concessions and certainly gave ground for the assumption that once free the South would virtually re-enslave the negro. The colored people themselves naturally feared this and protested as in Mississippi "against the reactionary policy prevailing. and expressing the fear that the Legislature will pass such proscriptive laws as will drive the freedmen from the State, or practically re-enslave them".

The Codes spoke for themselves. They have often been reprinted and quoted. No open-minded sttudent can read them without being convinced that they meant nothing more nor less than slavery in daily toil."
Looking at that record, Du Bois makes this judgment:

All things considered, it seems probable that if the South had been permitted to have its way in 1865 the harshness of negro slavery would have been mitigated so as to make slave-trading difficult, and to make it possible for a negro to hold property and appear in some cases in court; but that in most other respects the blacks would have remained in slavery.

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