Douglas Egerton’s “The Wars of Reconstruction” has received some very strong reviews, so when I saw he was speaking today at the National Archives, I wanted to make sure that I heard him. I was not disappointed in the substance of his remarks, although his speaking style (very fast and somewhat muffled) did make it hard to pick up everything he said. In fact, I really felt for the poor woman tasked with translating his words into ASL for the non-hearing portion of the audience. I am not sure how she kept up.
Egerton’s thesis is a bit different from what you might have read about the post-Civil War Reconstruction period growing up. He does not find it to have been chaotic in concept, adopted as punishment of the South, or misguided. In fact, he finds it to have been one of America’s most progressive eras, destroyed (his term is “murdered” by white southerners, with the indifference of the remainder of the country, and the far from benevolent neglect of the federal government, thanks to President Andrew Johnson, about whom he has not a kind word to say. Had Lincoln kept his first term vice president, Hamilton Hamlin, as his second term vice president, or just about anyone else other than Johnson, Egerton thinks that Reconstruction and the period that followed could have been very different. It was Johnson’s attitude towards the South (“you can do anything you want; we won’t stop you”) that enabled the old white aristocracy to pick up where they left off before the war began, only without the benefit of actual slavery.
Well before the Civil War began, there was an organized national movement to expand the rights of African Americans, including free African Americans, led by Frederick Douglass and others. Conventions were held to adopt programs, first at Syracuse in the early 1850s and then elsewhere. For even where African Americans were not enslaved, they were largely not permitted to cast votes. They were not citizens – as clearly stated in the Dred Scott decision. The program developed by the Syracuse convention would have created suffrage for blacks (men only, of course), the right of equal pay, and the right for blacks to advance to becoming officers in the military.
As the Civil War wound down, it was clear that there would be restrictions put on the voting rights of newly freed slaves, and on African America war veterans from the North who had decided to stay in the South, and in response, three amendments (13th, 14th, 15th) were added to the Constitution. The 13th amendment outlawed slavery, the 14th amendment granted citizenship to all born or naturalized in the country, and set the due process and equal opportunity standards followed until today. The 15th amendment specifically provided that voting rights could not be restricted on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. As Egerton pointed out, the amendment did not prohibit restrictions on other grounds (as he put it, you could adopt poll taxes or literacy tests, you could keep women from voting, or if you wanted to not let anyone with brown hair or anyone named Dave in the ballot booth).
The African American activists, and their white co-activists and supporters, took the campaign to gain equal rights for freed slaves very seriously. It was not surprising, he points out, that African Americans were elected to, or appointed to, the Senate or the House of Representatives, particularly in those states, such as South Carolina, where blacks were by far the majority of the population. It is not true, he said, Hollywood to the contrary, that these African Americans were ignorant former field slaves. Some had been born free, some had been freed, all apparently had the ability to write and read, at a time when the majority of southern blacks (and southern whites!) were illiterate.
At any rate, it was the death of Lincoln and the accession of Johnson that gave the southern whites free reign not only to restrict the vote (and to restrict other progressive ideas, such as universal, free, unsegregated schools). Johnson, aided by the loose wording of the 15th Amendment, gave rise to Jim Crow that set back progress in this country until the passage of the Civil Rights Act 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
This, of course, is the briefest of brief outlines, but it is a powerful thesis, one that runs against the concept of Northern vengeance that many of us learned in school. I am sure that this book is worth reading. Perhaps I will get to it.