The Question of Inevitability III: Reconstruction

For many years Reconstruction historiography was the story of lost opportunity.  Yes, there was the rather predictable retelling of scholarly and semischolarly understandings of the conflict from the beginning of the twentieth century, usually starting with a recapitulation of the Dunning School (I suspect that I am one of the few historians of my generation or younger who has actually read William A. Dunning’s own writings), passing through the revisionism of the 1960s, and then into something called postrevisionism; at the same time historians went from politically-grounded studies of policy and law at the federal and state level to other perspectives.  Yes, there was always the telling of the evolution of the image of the stereotype of the carpetbagger, the scalawag, and the freedpeople; the switching of white and black hats between Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans; the eternal “what if Lincoln had lived?” query; and so on.  Somewhat concealed by all this drama was the development of a richer picture of postwar politics at the state and national level, with a renewed awareness of the role of terrorism as well as the part played by politics and race in the North.

Behind all this was a series of counterfactual questions, each designed to suggest that Reconstruction need not have turned out the way it did.  These basically become questions about federal policy and policymakers.  Few people actually ponder what might have happened if the assumptions of Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner about a prolonged federal supervision of the Southern states came to pass, in part because we now have a better understanding of the role that the Radicals played (and did not play) in framing Reconstruction policy.  Rather, the questions boil down to two issues: what if Lincoln had lived? what if the political revolution wrought by emancipation had been accompanied by an economic revolution involving the confiscation of plantation holdings and the redistribution of that land among the former slaves?

We don’t know what would have happened had Lincoln lived.  That may seem obvious to observe, but the fact of the matter is that at war’s end Lincoln’s own thoughts were turning toward framing a policy appropriate for postwar circumstances (it is underappreciated by many scholars that Lincoln’s wartime approach to reconstruction was just that–a wartime approach, shaped at least as much by the necessity of defeating the Confederacy as by any plan of establishing the foundation for a postwar reconstruction).  Most people who speculate on what might have happened had Lincoln lived tend to project their own sense of the matter upon the sixteenth president.  Surely Lincoln would have opposed the resurgence of terrorism in the postwar South, but he would have enjoyed a better relationship with a Republican-controlled Congress than did his successor, with the result that the dynamics of the legislative process would have been quite different.  If one sees Republican legislation in 1866 and 1867 as partly a reaction to the policies of President Andrew Johnson, then one would have to assume that such legislation would have been different with Lincoln as president.  How different remains a matter for discussion, but in the end it’s all speculation.

The other powerful counterfactual has to do with the confiscation and redistribution of plantation landholdings.  This would have stripped large landholders of their economic power while empowering newly-freed blacks, establishing a far more solid basis for a lasting reconstruction with blacks in a better position.  Maybe.  After all, one does not become a successful farmer simply because one owns land.  Absent seeds, tools, and other farming necessities, mere possession of land could have gone only so far (which is why the cry was for forty acres and a mule, not just forty acres).  Moreover, possession of the land does not guarantee the marketing of produce necessary to go beyond subsistence farming.  Given the lack of capital in the South, that could have been a challenge.  Nor is it clear that whites would have played a role in that marketing as middlemen or consumers.  There are different forms of economic coercion, after all.  Given the adverse farming conditions that existed for a few years after slavery, many of these farms might have soon fallen by the wayside.  Finally, the possession of land in itself would not have protected the freedpeople from violence and terrorism.  It’s one thing to argue that land ownership was necessary: it’s another to claim that it was sufficient.

Considering these two counterfactuals reminds us of the most important reason Reconstruction turned out as it did: President Andrew Johnson.  As lamentable as most people find Lincoln’s passing, what made it so important was the identity of his successor.  Johnson had no interest in the welfare of the freedpeople; he considered Reconstruction to be no more that the restoration of white-dominated civil government, setting aside a few high-ranking former Confederates.  He never took a stand against terrorism, because he was sympathetic with its goals.  His pardon and amnesty policy, along with his successful veto of the first postwar Freedmen’s Bureau bill in February 1866, terminated whatever real chance there was for confiscation and redistribution.  His everpresent threat of a veto forced Republicans to steer a more moderate course to obtain veto-proof majorities in support of legislative initiatives; his obstruction of the execution of the laws and the implementation of legislation meant that congressional Republicans spend a great deal of energy in seeking to tie his hands instead of considering what they wanted to do concerning emancipation and reconstruction.  By the time Ulysses S. Grant took over as president, the die was cast: whatever the Republicans had wanted to do, four years of battling had foreclosed certain alternatives and left Grant in a very difficult position with only a few options going forward.

Historians have argued about Reconstruction policy for decades, pointing fingers at all sorts of reasons as to why it failed (I prefer to bypass that particular approach, because the question is always “failed for whom?”).  However, even with all that hindsight, they have been unable to construct a plausible historical alternative that secures both sectional reconciliation and racial justice/equality.  The problem is simple.  Whatever Lincoln may have done had he lived, it is extremely doubtful that he would have proceeded as did his successor; it is how his successor proceeded that makes his death such a turning point.  With Johnson in the White House, confiscation and redistribution simply don’t happen: don’t even waste your time pondering that counterfactual, as so many people do.

The general outlines of the course of Reconstruction were established on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 AM, with the death of Abraham Lincoln. The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth proved fatal for many people, and his act remains the most important political assassination in American history, which should give pause to those hoping to cast the assassination and its aftermath in some sort of dramatic, adventuresome, and romantic glow.  The failure of a Booth co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, to fulfill his assignment to kill Andrew Johnson proved just as critical to what followed, because it ensured who would replace Lincoln as president.

11 thoughts on “The Question of Inevitability III: Reconstruction

  1. James F. Epperson March 9, 2011 / 6:09 am

    I think the biggest problem Reconstruction faced was a lack of precedent on how to proceed. The more I think about it, the “state suicide” theory or reversion to territorial status might have been a good first step, to establish the legal niceties. But the kind of social welfare program that would have been necessary to make a success of Reconstruction was just not going to fly in the 1860s and 1870s. Sorry to be a pessimist.

    • Allen Gathman March 9, 2011 / 8:30 am

      You don’t think that the Freedmen’s Bureau, along with the various charitable efforts funded by Northern abolitionist groups, could have provided the basis for those social welfare programs? After all, it was a time of rapid political change, and the Republicans had been successful in instituting some rather progressive measures — the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act, for instance. Why couldn’t they have built on those successes?

  2. Chuck Brown March 9, 2011 / 10:49 am

    If Atzerodt had murdered Johnson, Lafayette Foster would have become president. He could have become president in the event of Johnson’s death until March 1867. I wonder how things would have turned with a President Foster overseeing the executive branch?

  3. Bob Huddleston March 9, 2011 / 11:08 am

    Without Johnson’s opposition to black rights combined with the refusal of the Southern leadership to admit they lost, there would have been no 14th or 15th Amendments. Think about the implications of that: with citizenship and voting rights set by the states, no African-American would be able to vote or run for president.

    • Stephen Graham March 9, 2011 / 11:10 pm

      Don’t forget the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which, among other things, established citizenship along the lines of the 14th Amendment. Challenges to it might still have resulted in the passage of a 14th Amendment in similar form, though perhaps without the punitive aspects of it.

  4. Lyle Smith March 9, 2011 / 12:30 pm

    I have a feeling that a harsher Reconstruction would have extended the Civil War in a way… the violence would have been more extreme. The Federal response would have to had been seriously draconian to first do such a thing, and then make sure it was executed properly and for good. Could the Federal government even afford to carry such a program out for good number of years?

    It’s easy to blame Andrew Johnson, but I’m not sure the white people of the North had the will to seriously reconstruct the South. Lincoln didn’t seem like he wanted to go down that road either. I might be mistaken about what Lincoln would have done though.

    • MarkD March 9, 2011 / 11:31 pm

      I think this is highly dubious in light of the fact that vigilante groups including the KKK drove Republicans of both races out by terrorism. Evidence is that all it took to prevent that was to station troops in the area. Just their very presence showed the will to enforce the law, and provide a safe place for those on the receiving end of vigiliantism. Without troops present it was a sign that the authorities were not going to enforce the law. *Lack* of law enforcement leads to lawlessness and more violence, not presence. We see this in all areas of public life in all societies. We see this in cities all the time, and when the police stand back and do nothing in the face of lawlessness, violence results. How was Reconstruction so different? And though violence could always be more extreme, it seems like you are discounting the extreme violence there was. I read these fair and scholarly accounts of the visits in the night and I can feel the terror. It was horrific.

      • MarkD March 9, 2011 / 11:48 pm

        Put more succinctly, “reconstruction” is a grandiose word that hides a lot. It makes is sound like some utopian project. Enforcing the the laws on the books, namely the right to vote sounds a little more manageable. Was that feasible? Yes it was, though as Brooks points out hardly after Johnson got through. Black suffrage was the key to it all, and everyone knew it. The South didn’t need to be “reconstructed” any more than required to allow Blacks to vote. Though this was radical enough for the South, was it unreasonable to force Southerners to accept the right of Blacks to vote, and could they have accepted it if they had to? That is the question. That they’d claim they couldn’t if they didn’t have to is obvious. Basic psychology will tell you they’d claim that.

  5. Daniel Weinfeld March 9, 2011 / 3:25 pm

    As far as the land redistribution conterfactual, we do have the limited experience of the Southern Homestead Act. Michael Lanza’s book shows that the SHA was pretty much a failure for a number of reasons, including the poor quality of the federal lands and the lack of finances and equipment available to freedmen to start up and maintain farming on any level greater than susbsistence. Even if the fertile plantation lands had been distributed, there would have had to be simultaenous revolutions reform in local banking and judicial systems. Otherwise, I have no doubt that whites would have continued to collude with merchants, supported by local magistrates, to defraud most freedmen of profitable lands or to eventually force them into indebtedness and bankrupcty.

  6. MarkD March 9, 2011 / 8:20 pm

    >> Even if the fertile plantation lands had been distributed, there would have had to be simultaenous revolutions reform in local banking and judicial systems. Otherwise, I have no doubt that whites would have continued to collude with merchants, supported by local magistrates, to defraud most freedmen of profitable lands or to eventually force them into indebtedness and bankrupcty.

    Sure, but doesn’t all that depend on Black disenfranchisement? Isn’t that why it mattered?

    I think Brooks is so very dead on in his analysis. In my view, though “securing both sectional reconciliation and racial justice/equality” was not going to happen, there is no justification for those whose “pessimism” makes disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and the horrific lynchings of the 90’s some unavoidable outcome. It didn’t have to turn out the way it did. Brook’s gives the blow-by-blow as to how a better outcome of any sort was torpedoed.

  7. MarkD March 9, 2011 / 8:23 pm

    “Brook’s”? My heavens, I need an editor. Nah, what I really need is a beer. Well it doesn’t help that I can’t see part of what I’m typing in the comments window on cwcrossroads for some reason. Maybe a browser issue.

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