The Continuing What-Ifs of Reconstruction

Note: Not too long ago I finished a manuscript that will appear in next March’s Journal of the Civil War Era. It addresses particular counterfactual queries concerning the course of Reconstruction and the policy pursued by Republicans. I have long been interested in Reconstruction policy, especially at the national level, as my 1998 book, The Reconstruction Presidents, suggests, although those readers who peruse the pages of The Political Education of Henry Adams (1996) will find it also addresses Reconstruction from the perspective of one of its critics. Thus what follows is in response to recent discussions, but it also reflects a far longer interest that has its most recent expression in the above-mentioned manuscript.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Reconstruction history to me is the degree to which some historians speculate about the what-ifs of Reconstruction in their eagerness to believe that what happened was not largely preordained if not inevitable. Then again, historians also don’t like to consider that something’s inevitable: whether a certain outcome to a historical process was inevitable sits along the same spectrum as speculating about what-ifs, for it’s useless to ponder “what if …” if something was inevitable. Moreover, the what-ifs we choose to explore reveal a lot about what we would “like” to have happened, and all too often one’s tale grounded in considerations of the counterfactual conforms closely to one’s personal fantasy about what ought to have happened.

Thus it was with a mixture of interest, curiosity, and frustration that I read Annette Gordon-Reed’s recent ruminations about Reconstruction in The Atlantic. I might have remained silent, save for a knowing smile about that which will come out under my own name before too long, except that Kevin Levin decided to chime in with his observations. That sparked me to offer my own perspective.

I find Gordon-Reed’s essay problematic and somewhat predictable. Nearly every scholar of Reconstruction feels obligated to remind us about the impact of “the Dunning school” (namely Professor William A. Dunning of Columbia University, his graduate students, and perhaps a few people guilty by association) and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as fashioning in the public imagination a portrayal of Reconstruction as a failure that never should have been attempted, at least in terms of defining the freedom and promoting the equality of African Americans. Republicans, whether Radical, scalawag, or carpetbagger, were almost all corrupt; the freed blacks were ignorant and unruly; white southerners suffered; and the restoration of home rule was promoted by gallant white southerners wearing white masks or red shirts. Oh, there were people who contested this tale, from Albion Tourgee and John R. Lynch to W. E. B. DuBois, author of the much-cited (and, like the works of the Dunning school, little-read) Black Reconstruction in America, 1865-1880 (1935), but they were in a distinct minority at the time. Gordon-Reed recapitulates that ritualistic recitation about as well as anyone does in a fairly concise manner. That Eric Foner, whose masterful Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) builds on DuBois’s work in important ways, teaches at the same Columbia University where Dunning once held sway, is an irony even C. Vann Woodward could appreciate.

So far, so good. Gordon-Reed then offers this rather common observation:

It was tragic that by the 1870s, white northerners, tired of dealing with the South’s racial problems and ready to move on, effectively abandoned Southern blacks to the mercies of people who had not long before thought of and treated them as chattel. Blacks’ status as outside of—or somehow “alien” to—the American republic continued, and continues today. That blacks have had to “fight” for the rights of citizenship, after the Fourteenth Amendment purportedly made them citizens, reveals the disconnect.

There is much to like in this observation, but the opening sentence offers room for disagreement. Like many other people (including people with whom Gordon-Reed would not find herself at home with when it comes to understandings of Reconstruction), Gordon-Reed speaks of “white northerners” as if they were a block of people. They were not. First, a good number of white northerners had never supported (the Republican version of) Reconstruction. They tended to vote Democratic. Moreover, while majority of northern white Republicans continued to support Reconstruction as Republicans envisioned it, a growing minority did not, and during the 1870s many of those people joined with minority Democrats to pose a real threat to continuing Republican hegemony in the North. The Republicans realized this as early as the election of 1868. After all, while a majority of white northerners (including a good number of Democrats) supported a war for reunion, fewer supported a war that aimed at the destruction of slavery, and fewer still (indeed, a minority) supported black political equality, as the struggle to secure black suffrage in the North before the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment suggested. Even fewer supported equality across the board. One reason Republican spokesmen increasingly turned to waving the bloody shirt in the 1870s was that they realized that justice for the freedmen was not a winning issue at the polls, while reminding people to vote as they shot (a practice also followed in the former Confederacy, where the blood on the shirts was that of the freedmen) could return a Republican majority.

Of course, white southerners were not a block, either: otherwise there would have been no scalawags.

(If the links above suggest that we’ve been here before, you’re correct. But a reminder never hurts.)

Gordon-Reed then turns explicitly to the world of the counterfactual:

In the end, the opportunities for blacks, the South, and the country as a whole that were lost because of the resistance to and abandonment of Reconstruction stand as one of the great tragedies of American history. The subject naturally provokes a series of “what ifs.” What if plans for land reform had been effectuated during that time? Doing so would have helped the freedmen to become landowners, a status recognized since the country’s origins as a foundation for personal independence. But black independence was exactly what white southerners didn’t want. They preferred to bring things back as close to slavery as possible, ensnaring former enslaved people and their progeny in a system of share cropping and debt peonage that stymied the growth of black economic wealth for generations.

What if blacks’ voting rights had not been cut off through official shenanigans and outright violence? What different political course might the South have taken? Support for public education and public works would likely have been much stronger if blacks had been active in the electorate. This, in turn, might have brought more sustained economic development, infrastructural improvements, and a higher standard of living to all in the region.

Promising “what-ifs,” to be sure. One can dream. But one must also deal with historical reality. So long as Andrew Johnson (a white southerner with Democratic roots) resided in the White House, large-scale land confiscation and redistribution simply wasn’t going to happen in the American South. By the time Johnson left the presidency, that opportunity was long gone. And yes, had black voting rights been respected and protected, things would have been different. If anything, this reminds us of the role played by white supremacist terrorist violence in overthrowing Reconstruction as well as the difficulties the Grant administration faced in defending it (not that Grant or members of his administration were entirely free of blame for the outcome). But this “what-if” comes without a clear notion of how to achieve it. Could such violence have been prevented? How? Could it have been defeated? How? What would it have taken in either case, and are those contemplated counterfactual measures based upon reasonable assumptions that were historically attainable?

And, finally, there is this “what-if”:

What if American historians during the aftermath of Reconstruction had not been white supremacists? A different type of society, and a different type of education about that society, would have given young blacks and whites an opportunity to learn another narrative about black people’s place in America.

Agreed. But note that, despite the efforts of historians, white and black, to question and counter the master narrative in a struggle that has lasted over a half century (or even longer, if one dates this effort as starting with DuBois’s book), we still see the pernicious impact of a narrative framed around white supremacist assumptions that still prevails in certain minds. How do historians address that … and will their efforts matter?

With some people, those efforts might well make a difference. With others … well, you know we’ll hear the whining about left liberal Marxist communists activist academics wrapped up in political correctness and all the rest of that claptrap characteristic of certain closed minds and loud mouths. We’ll even hear from some of the chattering classes that it’s useless or counterproductive to challenge that claptrap: blaming the critic, so to speak.

In short, it’s one thing to bemoan the impact of a certain school of historical understanding and to regret that it ever held sway (although I’d say that many people who do so haven’t read the very books they assail, which is nothing new). It’s quite another to offer a plan of action for today’s scholars.

As Gordon-Reed observes:

There is little reason to doubt that if the United States had started the process of rewriting the script on race relations during the late 19th century, instead of delaying it to the 1950s and 1960s, many problems that have their origins in the country’s troubled racial history might be closer to resolution.

Perhaps. But I’d observe that we often blame the past for the problems of the present as a way to sidestep the question of what we today can do to enhance understanding, counter harmful interpretations, and set forth a new understanding of what happened and why during Reconstruction. Some people are already engaged in that effort. More should be.

It isn’t a question of what if. It’s a question of what now.

24 thoughts on “The Continuing What-Ifs of Reconstruction

  1. Michael Stone November 2, 2015 / 4:49 am

    It’s all very well moaning about Andrew Johnson, but without him would Reconstruction even have got as far as it did?

    Had a more mainstream Republican been President, he would most likely have just ordered the military governors to enrol as voters anyone who could read a section of the US Constitution, or who had served in the Union Army. That would almost certainly have satisfied enough Republicans in Congress to get the South readmitted. So the Blacks probably end up with less rather than more.

    As for confiscating land, I just don’t know where this fantasy comes from. For Pete’s sake, the “Radical” Congress took two years to reluctantly grasp the nettle of giving all Blacks the vote, let alone confiscating property for their benefit. Where are the votes for such a policy supposed to be found?

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 2, 2015 / 9:03 am

      Crediting Johnson for the progress of Reconstruction is akin to crediting Dan Sickles for Day 2 at Gettysburg. The military governors with the powers you describe were not appointed until 1867 as part of legislation framed to undo Johnson’s work, so your counterfactual needs more work.

      Once Johnson’s pardon policy went into effect, confiscation and redistribution was dead. Had it not been dead, I believe the discussion would have been more interesting, although I would also express doubts about how much would have happened. One of the qualities of certain counterfactual speculations is that it is about how the proposer wants people to act, not whether they would have complied with the proposer’s wishes.

      • Michael Stone November 2, 2015 / 9:15 am

        I was speaking loosely. Whether they were formally called “military governors” or not, the army would have been the only government in the occupied South until some kind of civil government was elected – and the army would have been the only power in a position to supervise the elections.

        As for confiscation, I can’t see that it was ever alive in the first place. It took the supposedly “Radical” Congress until 1867 to resign itself to bringing in Black suffrage, so they are hardly likely to ok confiscation – whoever is President.

        Incidentally, I understand that large amounts of land were forfeited anyway – for tax default etc. I suppose Freedmen could have been settled on that had anyone been interested in doing it, but afaik none was. .

      • Andrew snow November 14, 2015 / 3:08 pm

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  2. OhioGuy November 2, 2015 / 2:24 pm

    A counterfactual that I think trumps all the others is what would have happened if John Wilkes Booth had been unsuccessful in his assassination attempt. If Lincoln had lived, what would his reconstruction policy have been? I know he gave some hints as the war appeared to be headed toward an inevitable Union victory, but I don’t think we can read too much into that. I think we have to look more to his general philosophy and leadership style. My fantasy is that he would have given a Richmond address in 1866 that would have been even more galvanizing than the Gettysburg address. It would have started both a healing process and bolstered the right of African Americans. It would have been full of carrots and sticks to the various segments of southern society. Likewise, Lincoln would have acted decisively to put down the guerilla tactics of the KKK, if they had emerged as happened in the real history of the time. That would have been much more effective than having to wait until the Grant administration to start to deal with this menace. OK, enough already, but that’s my favorite counterfactual. And, yes, it reveals more about what I’d like to have happen than any real insights into what might have actually happened, but since no one knows for sure, I can make it up as I like! 😉

  3. Ned B November 2, 2015 / 7:27 pm

    It does sort of annoy me that Gordon-Reed, and seems to me many others, feel that the tragedy is in the behavior of white northerners (“It was tragic that by the 1870s, white northerners, tired of dealing ….”) instead of seeing the tragedy in the behavior of white southerners.

    • Michael Stone November 2, 2015 / 10:29 pm

      Well, the behaviour of white Southerners was pretty much a given. They had not considered Blacks entitled to any civil or political rights before the War, and there was no particular reason why the War should alter that view. After all, maybe half the population in the North agreed with them.

      So Black rights would be pursued just as long as the North thought it worth pursuing. And once it was clear that the former Rebs had accepted reunion and were no longer a danger to the country, there was no real reason to pursue it, as no Northern interest was at stake.

      • Brooks D. Simpson November 2, 2015 / 11:33 pm

        Except that to talk of “the North” is to engage in a rather serious distortion of historical reality that hampers understanding.

      • Ned B November 3, 2015 / 12:30 am

        “Well, the behaviour of white Southerners was pretty much a given.”

        If so, I would say that is the real tragedy.

  4. Michael Stone November 4, 2015 / 1:30 am

    “Except that to talk of “the North” is to engage in a rather serious distortion of historical reality that hampers understanding.”

    Well, we have to have some term to describe the entity which fought the Civil War and whose senators and representatives passed the Reconstruction Acts.

    I suppose “The Union” would serve for the war years, bit it won’t really do post-Appomattox, as it then once again meant the whole country.

    “If so, I would say that is the real tragedy.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Had they been halfway rational in 1861, they’d never have seceded, so there’d have been no war and 600,000+ young Americans would have been allowed to go on living. Then, of course, this whole reconstruction business would never have arisen.

    That said, though, I can’t really see the point of criticising them for insisting on white supremacy, a state of affairs which to them seemed only natural (as indeed it did to many in the North). One might as well reproach the Pope for being a Catholic.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 4, 2015 / 7:21 am

      So we should accept white southerners as they were, but criticize white northerners for not being different?

      I have made the point before about the need to understand divisions among white northerners as essential to comprehending what happened. To simply speak of “the North” as if it were a unified monolith does damage to historical reality.

    • Al Mackey November 6, 2015 / 12:14 pm

      “Well, we have to have some term to describe the entity which fought the Civil War and whose senators and representatives passed the Reconstruction Acts.”

      The United States.

      • Michael Stone November 6, 2015 / 12:53 pm

        Same problem as with “the Union”. Since only half of the United States was represented in Congress at the time, we need a term to describe that half. Most commentators and historians call it “the North” and that seems to me as reasonable a term as any.

        • Al Mackey November 6, 2015 / 5:46 pm

          More than half of the United States were represented in the Congress. It seems to me it was called the United States Congress. so United States seems to be an accurate term. That was the entity that passed the Reconstruction Acts. The United States Army, Navy, and Marine Corps fought the Civil War, so again United States seems to be an accurate term for that entity. Washington, DC also wasn’t represented in Congress, but we didn’t need any special terms due to that. All the states were still part of the United States. There were some who didn’t have their representatives seated. It seems rather unreasonable to me to consider the southern states of Tennessee, Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, West Virginia, and Missouri, all of which were represented in Congress, to be part of the North.

          • OhioGuy November 6, 2015 / 8:58 pm

            I think this nomenclature problem stems from Confedrate schizophrenia. During the war they were self-proclaimed rebels. After the war the Lost Cause myth makers spent a generation or more trying to claim they weren’t rebels but were Southern Freedom Fighters in something called “the War Between the States.” This implied a war between equally sovereign states and not a rebellion against the legally constituted national government. In this warped view they hadn’t fought the United States but a coalition of sovereign northern states. In actual fact, they had engaged in an armed insurrection against the United States government.

        • Jimmy Dick November 6, 2015 / 7:16 pm

          How is eleven half of thirty-four?

          Back to the main conversation. Reconstruction has to be one of the most misunderstood periods of the nation’s history. It is part and parcel of the Lost Cause myth. While we are seeing part of that myth die a rather belated death complete with the death rattles and gurgling sound of heritage types, the myths that permeate Reconstruction linger on.

          I really hope that historians advance the historical knowledge of the country as we move through the 150th anniversary of this period of time.

          • Mark Snell November 10, 2015 / 11:09 am

            Actually, there were 36 states when the war ended.

  5. Michael Stone November 4, 2015 / 7:51 am

    I don’t criticise white northerners particularly. They behaved reasonably from their point of view.

  6. Joshism November 7, 2015 / 8:40 pm

    Other than maybe Lincoln not being assassinated (and even that it is a big maybe) I have trouble imagining a realistic scenario where the majority of post-war white Southerners accept that black people deserve the right to vote and some semblance of legal equality. Equally troubling is substantial support, even with Lincoln, for a system of land redistribution that would provide independence to former slaves and thus avoid sharecropper peonage.

    My personal belief is that, at minimum, 50% of every plantation should be divided equally among surviving slaves from that plantation. For areas like the Sea Islands where total confiscation had already occurred as a wartime measure it should remain in place. But that is a 21st century view that would be a nigh-impossible sell to 95% of whites (North or South) in 1865, regardless of whether Lincoln was dead or alive.

    The bottom line is that nothing about the Civil War, not even the service of the USCT, seemed to convince the majority of white Northerners or a meaningful minority of white Southerners to really change their views about race. Not in our history nor in any What If that I have ever heard. Some things could change that could make the situation better – Hampton and Forrest don’t survive the war, Johnson’s behavior is somehow different, the Grant administration is less corrupt, the Supreme Court rules differently on Plessy vs Ferguson. But how would the fundamental racial attitudes have been any different? Even without Dunning or Griffith I don’t think it really speeds up the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s; I think that took widespread TV coverage to shock the nation.

    • Nancy November 7, 2015 / 10:52 pm

      How is corruption in Grant’s administration related to the tragic disappointment of Reconstruction? This “corruption” was not related to Reconstruction policy, I don’t think. It was more about individual kick-backs and other financial crimes that did not touch race relations. Or am I missing something, or misinterpreting something? I really want to know.

      • Joshism November 9, 2015 / 5:59 pm

        I think the corruption in the Grant administration indirectly harmed Reconstruction. It helped weaken the Republicans and strengthen the Democrats, leading to Hayes-Tilden and the Compromise of 1877. If Grant’s administration was fairly clean then maybe he’s willing to go for a 3rd term in 1876. Even he doesn’t, Hayes-Tilden isn’t a close enough election to be contested and Reconstruction continues for at least another 4 years, maybe more.

        Was the corruption in the Grand administration linked in the public’s mind to the corruption – real or alleged – occurring in the South during Reconstruction? I don’t know enough about Reconstruction to say. Maybe someone else does?

    • Michael Stone November 8, 2015 / 8:08 am

      It also took at least three other things.

      1) The Cold War. This put the US in competition with the Soviets for the support of ex-colonies in Africa and Asia, all non-white in population. The Southern racial setup was a massive handicap in this race. Something had to be done – and something was.

      2) The mechanisation of Southern agriculture post-WW2 knocked away the system’s economic basis. All that black (and indeed white) now redundant.

      3) Since the great depression, the South increasingly relied on Federal programmes of one sort or another. States Rights had been a reality as long as states could pay their own way, but post-WW2 it became increasingly fictitious. Southern governors could grandstand in schoolhouse doors, but they could no more effectively defy Washington than a sulky child could defy the parents who paid his pocket money.

      In short, the second half of the 20C was a completely different world from a century earlier.

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