Monday, January 16, 2006

Reconstruction as a Template for American Society

Eric Foner, Columbia University history professor and a leading left-wing historian, has a new book out about the U.S. Reconstruction period. Andrew O'Hehir reviews it for Salon.

Foner's field of special expertise is what might be called without exaggeration the crucible of American freedom: the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves and the ambiguous, myth-shrouded period that followed known as Reconstruction. He never puts it this directly, either in this new, somewhat compressed popular history or in his 1988 magnum opus, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877," but he sees Reconstruction, with all its contradictions and unrealized possibilities, as the key to all of American history.

Reconstruction was a noble experiment in biracial democracy that ultimately failed because of corruption and mismanagement. So goes the revised traditional view of the period, at least in the more racially enlightened telling. The white Southern view of Reconstruction, of course, was that it was a perhaps well-intentioned but disastrous departure from the natural system of white rule, which was doomed to failure because "negroes" were inherently inept and unable to govern themselves.

Foner's view differs from both of the above, according to O'Hehir. He acknowledges the corruption and mismanagement, but the deeper, more fundamental reason for Reconstruction's failure is that, far from being an expression of America's deepest values and ideals, which slavery had perverted, Reconstruction actually departed both from American values, as the Founders had articulated them, and from the way American lives had been lived from the country's start. Reconstruction ultimately could not stand because it contradicted everything Americans (white Americans, of course) understood to be true and believed was right about their country. Furthermore, Foner sees the same forces that undid Reconstruction at work in American society today.

Five years ago, we heard a great deal about the the disputed presidential election of 1876, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner despite receiving 250,000 fewer votes than Democrat Samuel Tilden. As part of the final compromise that put Hayes in the White House, Tilden extracted a promise that federal troops would be withdrawn from the South and full local autonomy reestablished. In practice, this meant that political control of the region rapidly reverted to white Democrats, and more specifically to the same tiny class of wealthy white landowners who had dominated the South before the Civil War. In some areas, blacks continued to vote, and black Republicans continued to hold office, as late as the 1890s. But Reconstruction was over, and a long, dark period in American history was just beginning.

What lay ahead were the Jim Crow segregation laws, the rise of widespread lynching and the reborn "homegrown terrorism" of the Klan, often acting as a de facto arm of local government. For African-Americans, the age of freedom promised after emancipation was delayed for almost a century, until the "second Reconstruction" of the civil rights movement.

By the dawn of the 20th century, disenfranchising blacks and defunding black schools and other government services was official policy throughout the South. Laws mandating poll taxes, literacy requirements and other hurdles never mentioned race (and so were held not to violate the 15th Amendment), but their expressed aim was to "reduce the colored vote to insignificance," as a Charleston, S.C., newspaper put it. Louisiana's 1890 Constitution, for example, reduced the number of black registered voters from 130,000 to around 1,000 (and also disenfranchised about 80,000 poor whites).

Many of the "Redeemer" Democratic state governments of the late 1870s and after sound strikingly like today's Republicans, at least on fiscal issues. They took office promising massive cuts in taxes and spending, which served the dual role of helping rich planters and merchants retain their fortunes and denying education, healthcare and other services to the blacks and poor whites who had most likely voted Republican. Reconstruction schools had generally been segregated, but South Carolina, for example, had expended the same amount per student regardless of race. By 1895, white students were receiving three times the per-capita resources as blacks, a trend that would worsen dramatically in years to come.

By the time Du Bois published his prophetic book "Black Reconstruction in America" in 1935, white historians almost unanimously regarded Reconstruction as a disastrous and illegitimate experiment, concocted by wild-eyed Northern radicals and carried out by incompetent Southern blacks. If certain things about the Jim Crow era were regrettable (the argument went), white rule was nonetheless necessary, largely because of the innate "negro incapacity" to overcome childish ignorance or lustful passions. Foner cites Columbia professor John W. Burgess, one of the founders of American political science, who explained that blacks "were a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, and has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind."

Needless to say, today's academic world is much closer to Foner than to Burgess. Ever since Kenneth M. Stampp's 1967 "The Era of Reconstruction" began to rehabilitate the radical Republican perspective, historians have quibbled over the details rather than the bigger picture. Reconstruction is portrayed as a noble experiment, perhaps naive or poorly executed, that challenged the nation to live up to its purported ideals. Disagreements exist over the roles played by Lincoln and Grant, or whether the radical approach of Northerners like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens -- who wanted the Southern aristocracy broken up and dispossessed -- was preferable to the more conciliatory and legalistic strategies of moderate Republicans North and South.

But Foner is arguably less concerned with his colleagues' views than with the currents of folk memory and public opinion -- which he says keep alive the negative stereotypes of Reconstruction -- and with the way the period permanently altered Americans' notions of freedom. African-Americans understood that concept, he argues, in a way that had been shaped by the experience of slavery and the forceful rhetoric of underground preachers who drew heavily on the biblical story of Exodus. Freedom was to be more an existential condition than a statutory one, a liberation of mind, body and spirit that would right the wrongs perpetrated upon an entire race across three centuries of bondage and torment.

Out of this understanding grew the call for "40 acres and a mule" envisioned under Gen. William T. Sherman's famous Field Order 15, the demand for slave reparations after the Civil War (a movement that remains alive today), and the vision of what is now known as affirmative action. Foner clearly believes that all these were morally justified, and that the American South would be an unimaginably different place today if the freed slaves had indeed been granted land ownership along with the means to work it. In that sense, he understands Reconstruction as a tragic missed opportunity to create real racial justice.

Beyond that, Foner rejects the now-standard progressive narrative of American history, in which emancipation and Reconstruction mark "the logical fulfillment of a vision originally articulated by the founding fathers." Indeed, as he says, the original Constitution never mentions the concept of equality, and "limiting the privileges of citizenship to white men had long been intrinsic to the practice of American democracy." Reconstruction, he continues, was "less a fulfillment of the Revolution's principles than a radical repudiation of the nation's actual practice of the previous seven decades."

American political culture of the 19th century, Foner writes, rested on federalism, limited government, local autonomy and deeply rooted ideas about the superiority of whites to blacks and men to women. These were the political values so dramatically reasserted when the Redeemers came to power after 1877, and it's not unfair to suggest that, however they may have been rhetorically modulated in recent years, they remain the values of the white Christian Southern majority today.

During the protracted battle with Congress that led to his impeachment, Andrew Johnson protested that the Reconstruction ideals that blacks were entitled to civil equality, and that the federal government had the power to define and protect citizens' rights, violated "all our experience as a people." Foner thinks he was right. Americans have never resolved the conflict between these radically opposed visions of freedom: the egalitarian model of republican citizenship on one hand, the hierarchical model of localized independence and self-government on the other. Based on the political landscape we see around us, 130 years after the end of Reconstruction, we never will.

Bleak, but it has the ring of truth.

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