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January/ February 2013 Deconstructing Reconstruction

The tumultuous decade that followed the Civil War failed to enshrine black voting and civil rights, and instead paved the way for more than a century of entrenched racial injustice.

By Nicholas Lemann

Children in elementary school often come home with the idea that the purpose of the Civil War was to end slavery—but if that were true, then why did it take Abraham Lincoln so long to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and why was it less than universally popular in the Union states? If you see the movie Lincoln, you get a much fuller picture of the contingency of emancipation, and of the difficulty of passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery completely—but why didn’t Lincoln and the Congress think to address at the same time the obvious question of what status the freed slaves would have after that? After Lincoln’s assassination, Congress and the state governments settled that matter by passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave the former slaves full civil rights and voting rights—but why was it necessary for exactly the same rights to be reenacted, after enormous struggle, nearly a century later, during the civil rights era?

The answers to all these questions are essentially the same: for most of American history, white America has been highly ambivalent, or worse, about the idea of full legal equality for black Americans. Emancipation itself was a forced move, an obvious consequence of the war only in retrospect; it happened because in war zones in the Confederate states, slaves left their plantation homes and appeared at Union army encampments (they were known at the time as “contraband”), and somebody had to decide what to do about them; sending them back to their owners would be both morally suspect and a form of material aid to the enemy. There has always been a debate about what kind of Reconstruction regime Lincoln would have instituted after the war, had he lived; his racial impulses were generous, but he was not an abolitionist until he actually abolished slavery. Reconstruction—the tumultuous decade or so that followed the Civil War—was an enormous shaping force in American history, and not just in the area of race relations. It’s worth recounting in basic outline, because it’s a far less familiar story than that of the Civil War itself, but far more relevant today.

The word “Reconstruction” is somewhat misleading in the American case, because it implies that the main challenge was managing the tension between punishing the South for seceding and getting it back on its feet economically and politically. In this instance the more pressing question was what the lives of the millions of freed slaves in the South would be like. Would they be able to vote? To hold office? To own property? To sue white people? Would government undertake an active, expensive effort to educate them and put them on the way to economic self-sufficiency? Merely to say that former slaves were now free turned out to resolve remarkably little.

In the period just after the Civil War, Lincoln’s vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, was impeached for moving too slowly on these matters, and for being too lenient with the South. Then the fiercely antislavery “radical Republicans” took power, rammed through the Fourteenth (civil rights) and Fifteenth (voting rights) Amendments, maintained the presence of federal troops in the South to enforce those laws, and ran a proto-War on Poverty through a new federal agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was meant to help the freed slaves. Just as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment were enormously controversial, in the North as well as the South, so too, only more so, were these “radical Reconstruction” measures.

The freed slaves never got “forty acres and a mule,” a land-reform idea that has resonated through the years but wasn’t enacted (see “Rumors of Land”), but they did get the basics of citizenship—most importantly, the right to vote. One of the most amazing achievements in the history of black America was the creation, in just a few years, of an elaborate political machinery—Republican, of course—that produced far higher (in fact, pretty close to 100 percent) voter turnout among freed slaves in the South than the United States as a whole has now. One result of this was that the South elected dozens of black officials to national office, and another was that state and local governments delivered, at least to some extent, what the freed slaves wanted, notably education at all levels.

None of this was especially popular in the North, and it was wildly unpopular in the white South. Most of the rest of America chose to understand black political empowerment in the South in terms that are still familiar in conservative discourse today: excessive taxation, corruption, and a power imbalance between federal and state government. These arguments were more presentable than simply saying that black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and they built sympathy for the white South among high-minded reformists in the North who were horrified by the big-city political machines that immigrants had created in their own backyard. Good-government reformers hated the idea of uneducated people taking over the democratic machinery and using it to distribute power and patronage, rather than in more high-minded ways. Liberal northeastern publications like the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Weekly were reliably hostile to Reconstruction, and their readers feasted on a steady diet of horror stories about swaggering corrupt black legislators, out-of-control black-on-white violence, and the bankruptcies of state and local government.

The Ku Klux Klan, which began in the immediate aftermath of the war and was suppressed by federal troops, soon morphed into an archipelago of secret organizations all over the South that were more explicitly devoted to political terror. These organizations—with names like White Line, Red Shirts, and White League—had shadowy ties to the more respectable Democratic Party. Their essential technique was to detect an incipient “Negro riot” and then take arms to repel it. There never actually were any Negro riots; they were either pure rumor and fantasy that grew from a rich soil of white fear of black violence (usually entailing the incipient despoliation of white womanhood) or another name for Republican Party political activity, at a time when politics was conducted out of doors and with high-spirited mass participation. The white militia always won the battle, if it was a battle, and nearly all the violence associated with these incidents was suffered by black people. In the aggregate, many more black Americans died from white terrorist activities during Reconstruction than from many decades of lynchings. Their effect was to nullify, through violence, the Fifteenth Amendment, by turning black political activity and voting into something that required taking one’s life into one’s hands.

Nicholas Lemann a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker.