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Reconstruction

June 2024
2min read


Eric Foner’s revision of the history of Reconstruction in the South in the October/November 1983 issue is not a new view but only a return to the position historians took for a number of years after the Civil War.

I cannot believe Reconstruction was anything but a mistake. It was understandable but still unfortunate. One must hate in order to kill, and therefore war causes hatred. A person’s emotions are not taken off at the conclusion of war like a football player takes off his uniform at the conclusion of the game.

I do not agree that Lincoln had no policy as to how he would handle Reconstruction. He expressed a policy that contemplated normal government, certainly not the creation of military districts with martial law lasting eleven years in some states. The bullet that killed Lincoln and put Thaddeus Stevens in charge was the most tragic fired in all American history.

I do not blame the blacks for anything that happened. They were manipulated by others. Some carpetbag officials returned to the North after Reconstruction very rich men. I have no quarrel with giving black people the vote immediately after the war even though, through no fault of their own, they were completely illiterate.

However, was it wise to disenfranchise all the educated people in the South at the same time the completely uneducated were given the vote?

Was it wise to divide the South into military districts and rule for many years under martial law?

Was it wise to seek to impeach the President for no greater crime than trying to test an unconstitutional law? That law was later held unconstitutional by a 7 to 2 decision of the Supreme Court. Success in that effort would have destroyed the power of the Presidency and completely altered our form of government.

Was it right to steal the election of 1876 and count Hayes in as President by fraud?

Johnson was trying to carry out Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation with the South. If Johnson was wrong, Lincoln was wrong. If Lincoln was right, Johnson was right.

No matter how well intended, those who directed Reconstruction did great harm to the very people they were trying to help. White primaries, poll taxes, et cetera, came about largely because of unfounded fears caused by the Reconstruction experience. Bad feelings between the sections took a hundred years to die out. I believe those feelings were caused not so much by the war as by what followed.

No nation’s history is without mistakes. The greatest mistake of our history was slavery. Probably the next greatest mistake was discrimination against our black citizens for a century after slavery was abolished. Reconstruction, in my opinion, caused a backlash that contributed to discrimination and ranks third among our tragic mistakes.


Eric Foner replies: I have no desire to repeat the argument of my essay on Reconstruction, but Mr. Patton’s letter does contain a number of historical errors that ought to be corrected. Military rule and martial law lasted for only a brief period during Reconstruction—in no state did they continue for “eleven years.” Thaddeus Stevens was never “in charge” of Reconstruction—more moderate Republicans determined policy throughout the period. “All the educated people in the South” were not disfranchised. The Fourteenth Amendment barred certain Confederates from holding office, and a few Southern states prohibited some “rebels” from voting, but these restrictions were soon lifted and never extended to a large proportion of white Southerners. And there is no question that had a fair election been held in 1876 (that is, had blacks not been subject to violent intimidation to prevent them from voting), Hayes would have won comfortably.

Implicit in the letter, however, is an even more fundamental misconception. It is that Reconstruction poisoned the harmonious relations that otherwise would have existed between Southern whites and blacks, and led to the imposition of “white primaries, poll taxes, et cetera.” The fact is that in 1865 and 1866, when Andrew Johnson restored Southern whites to unchallenged political power, a vast array of discriminatory legislation was enacted, designed to exclude blacks from political and civil rights and place them, economically, in a situation not all that different from slavery. These “Black Codes” were adopted well before the advent of Radical Reconstruction; they can hardly be attributed to a backlash against it.

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