The Sunday Question: Republicans and Reconstruction

Not too long ago, I posed the following question about Republican policymakers and Reconstruction: “Why did Republicans prove unable to preserve and protect what they had established”

A poster who has contributed to this group, seeing this question elsewhere, preferred “unwilling” to “unable.”

What do you think?  Which do you prefer, and why?

One note: I think we should be careful to define what we mean by “unwilling” and “unable,” because one could say that in the 1870s Republicans chose not to do certain things because they were sure it was political suicide and ultimately counterproductive (that is, vigorous Republican action would lead to a Democratic backlash, with the Democrats triumphing at the polls).  This was a consideration in 1875, for example.  I would argue that not acting in those cases really can’t be measured as a question of will, because the results would have been counterproductive.  However, others may embrace futile gestures as signs of commitment and will.

I also reject another underlying assumption: that if Republicans simply pursued a rigorous Reconstruction with commitment, they would have prevailed.  I don’t see that as a sure thing, and I see it as a way to allow white southerners off the hook.  For those people who think white southerners should never be held accountable for their behavior, focusing on Republican responsibility seems to be the way to go.  Of course, once Republican retreat from Reconstruction left southern whites to their own devices, we know what happened.