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.

6 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Republicans and Reconstruction

  1. Don Stewart July 17, 2011 / 9:06 am

    Thanks for this post. It does appear that the Republicans faced such a fragile situation to implement Reconstruction policies. The key problem seems to have been how to approach former Confederates and somehow bring them back into the fold in a deliberate manner.

    I think the Reconstruction years are filled with so many “what if” moments that it makes my head spin. As much as Civil War historians have asked “what if” over certain key battles or over the fateful deaths of certain key generals, I would love to see a similar amount of attention to the many possible “what ifs” during Reconstruction. It was a time of so much promise but also so much corruption and turmoil. Imagining Reconstruction with Lincoln finishing his second term is quite tempting, and Lincoln himself would have been so much more effective than Johnson.

    Probably the best contemporary “what if” that I encountered recently was during the wake of the Great KKK Trials of 1871-2. After seeing the federal courts in Columbia, SC, clogged with suspects and so little justice for victims of Klan violence, Grant’s US Attorney General penned a private letter in which he wondered if Klan violence should have instead been treated as an act of war and not a series of criminal cases. Of course, if Grant did approach the Klan as an outright rebellion no different than the way Lincoln viewed secessionists in 1860-1, how might that have changed later events? Was considering Klan violence to be an act of war even considered by Grant? Did he have enough political capital to hold suspected Klansmen as prisoners of war for an indefinite period of time? Would this count as the nation’s first “war on terror”? Would South Carolina at least have a longer period of “occupation” than what actually happened?

  2. TF Smith July 17, 2011 / 12:18 pm

    I think you have to take each of Grant’s terms in turn; could Grant, politically, been able to react to the White League/Red Shirt campaigns in his second term as he was against the Klan in the first? Calling the Colfax massacre an insurrection presumably could have been a casus belli.

    The RA was pretty small by the 1870s and stretched all over the west; could Grant have asked for volunteers? Would 75,000 volunteers, plus 25,000 regulars, have been enough? What happens on the Plains, in the meantime?

  3. Ray O'Hara July 17, 2011 / 3:38 pm

    The public support in the North was lacking, what can politicians do if the target pushes back and no one backs them up?
    , the Union was preserved, slavery was finished and the average “Yankee” was satisfied with that and with letting the South sort out it’s own social order as long as it didn’t intrude on them, So after a long war the Northerners had their fill of the South and though they might read the news stories with distaste and a slight sense of superiority no one was really motivated enough to write their Congressman and complain.

    Memorials in the North always say “to preserve the union” never “to free the slaves”.

  4. Dan Weinfeld July 18, 2011 / 1:27 pm

    I prefer “unable.” Black “gains” were entirely dependant on the Republican Party. I think later in Reconstruction some black leaders rued being to closely tied to just one party, but there was no possible non-partisan vehicle for promoting black civil and political rights. It was only a matter of time before white Democrats – maintaining control over Southern economic resources, wealth and often local courts – reorganized themselves and seized political control. I don’t think whites leaders saw the struggle for political control as cyclical – part of the normal rise and decline of poliitical parties – but instead perceived a sort of apocalyptical struggle for the preservation of their status (and implicitly white supremacy).
    I think that with the “black codes” of 1865-66, white Southern leadership showed its hand for its vision of a post-Emancipation society, and with the gradual imposition of Jim Crow a generation later, pretty much got its wish (minus public corporal punishment ).
    Republicans in the short term, stemmed the Democratic tide in areas with balanced population or black majorities through military occupation, but would the public have supported the expense and effort of sending troops to every contested polling place in the South for generations? I don’t see how Republicans could withstand an organized, determined, and economically privileged opponent in the long run, particularly when on a local level, Republicans were divided themselves.
    I’m not sure how to address this from a top-down approach. Could the Civil Rights Act have been written or enforced differently? It’s probably not realitic, unfortunately, to expect federal and judicial power in the 1860-70s to commit to black civil and political rights simliarly to the 1950 and 60s.
    In short: Reconstruction’s gains could only have been sustained in the long run if white Southern leadership had been willing to accommodate black economic development (some land redistribution anyone?) and to agree that black civil and political rights were a non-partisan issue. Facing this bulwark of opposition, Republicans were “unable” to preserve the gains of Reconstruction

  5. MarkD July 20, 2011 / 12:36 pm

    >> 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 . . .

    I agree, but it seems to me that the possibility of success is dismissed to quickly by the Conf Romantic view, and even just the “realist” types now, however sympathetic they may be to the cause.

    I think a good case can be made about a “broken windows policy” or any other number of modern examples. It seems to me just having troops in the area made the violent groups run like scared rabbits. I think Grant was right in telling JR Young that they should have just occupied the South longer term. I think just the presence of troops in the area says “We’re serious about enforcing the law,” as far as voting and no large groups of organized violence. I think there is evidence that troops in the area even investigating organized violence, let alone doing anything about it, had a powerful influence and effect. I don’t think they have to do onerous and intrusive things. Leaving was tantamount to removing cops from a tough area. Everyone knows what will happen. They criminals will start small and escalate if that goes ok. I think stationing troops might well have accomplished these modest goals and gave the Freedmen and Republicans a decent shot at survival.

    But I definitely put it down to “unable.” We all know the Republicans had their own problems with black *social* equality, but I think had they really known how determined the South would be (or get) in undermining the effects of the war that they would have considered planning to station troops longer term. I could be entirely wrong here. In any case, if my “broken window” view has any currency at all, I think at bottom the problem was that many, certainly even Grant, were too optimistic that the issue was settled to the Southerners. He said the matter was settled “by the highest tribunal.” But nothing is settled that can be avoided. I think Sherman knew better and said so. He apparently knew the Southern mind on that better than most, perhaps in part because he sympathized with the racism, or just that his time in the South gave him a greater familiarity with the mindset. Grant and others were projecting onto Southerners what they would do in their circumstances. Namely, respect the law. They didn’t understand the Southern mind, nor the psychology of defeat. That hardly means they were unwilling to do it, but just that by the time they knew what they’d planned wouldn’t work the time was past to make the case to the Northern public that troops would have to be raised that could stay for some time. I think that is possible, but we’ll never know.

  6. MarkD July 20, 2011 / 12:42 pm

    One other example, the public transportation industry did not want segregated cars, if for no other reason than their own self-interest. But they had to cave in the end because there was no one they could appeal to. Allies are picked off one by one with no authorities to appeal to, however imperfect or effective. You don’t enforce the law, and people make up their own laws. Same as it ever was.

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