- Historic Sites
The New View Of Reconstruction
Whatever you were taught or thought you knew about the post-Civil War era is probably wrong in the light of recent study
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
AN UNDERSTANDING OF this fundamental conflict over the relation between government and society helps explain the pervasive complaints concerning corruption and “extravagance” during Radical Reconstruction. Corruption there was aplenty; tax rates did rise sharply. More significant than the rate of taxation, however, was the change in its incidence. For the first time, planters and white farmers had to pay a significant portion of their income to the government, while propertyless blacks often escaped scot-free. Several states, moreover, enacted heavy taxes on uncultivated land to discourage land speculation and force land onto the market, benefiting, it was hoped, the freedmen.
As time passed, complaints about the “extravagance” and corruption of Southern governments found a sympathetic audience among influential Northerners. The Democratic charge that universal suffrage in the South was responsible for high taxes and governmental extravagance coincided with a rising conviction among the urban middle classes of the North that city government had to be taken out of the hands of the immigrant poor and returned to the “best men”—the educated, professional, financially independent citizens unable to exert much political influence at a time of mass parties and machine politics. Increasingly the “respectable” middle classes began to retreat from the very notion of universal suffrage. The poor were no longer perceived as honest producers, the backbone of the social order; now they became the “dangerous classes,” the “mob.” As the historian Francis Parkman put it, too much power rested with “masses of imported ignorance and hereditary ineptitude.” To Parkman the Irish of the Northern cities and the blacks of the South were equally incapable of utilizing the ballot: “Witness the municipal corruptions of New York, and the monstrosities of negro rule in South Carolina.” Such attitudes helped to justify Northern inaction as, one by one, the Reconstruction regimes of the South were overthrown by political violence.
IN THE END, THEN , neither the abolition of slavery nor Reconstruction succeeded in resolving the debate over the meaning of freedom in American life. Twenty years before the American Civil War, writing about the prospect of abolition in France’s colonies, Alexis de Tocqueville had written, “If the Negroes have the right to become free, the [planters] have the incontestable right not to be ruined by the Negroes’ freedom.” And in the United States, as in nearly every plantation society that experienced the end of slavery, a rigid social and political dichotomy between former master and former slave, an ideology of racism, and a dependent labor force with limited economic opportunities all survived abolition. Unless one means by freedom the simple fact of not being a slave, emancipation thrust blacks into a kind of no-man’s land, a partial freedom that made a mockery of the American ideal of equal citizenship.
Yet by the same token the ultimate outcome underscores the uniqueness of Reconstruction itself. Alone among the societies that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, the United States, for a moment, offered the freedmen a measure of political control over their own destinies. However brief its sway, Reconstruction allowed scope for a remarkable political and social mobilization of the black community. It opened doors of opportunity that could never be completely closed. Reconstruction transformed the lives of Southern blacks in ways unmeasurable by statistics and unreachable by law. It raised their expectations and aspirations, redefined their status in relation to the larger society, and allowed space for the creation of institutions that enabled them to survive the repression that followed. And it established constitutional principles of civil and political equality that, while flagrantly violated after Redemption, planted the seeds of future struggle.
Certainly, in terms of the sense of possibility with which it opened, Reconstruction failed. But as Du Bois observed, it was a “splendid failure.” For its animating vision—a society in which social advancement would be open to all on the basis of individual merit, not inherited caste distinctions—is as old as America itself and remains relevant to a nation still grappling with the unresolved legacy of emancipation.