Accomplices to Tyranny: The North & Reconstruction

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I look at another aspect of what happened in the post-Civil War United States, that of the responsibility of many leaders and citizens in the North for the failure of Reconstruction and the return of “White Man’s Rule” to the South, with its impact on Southern African Americans that in cases still linger today. Like today, people faced with economic difficulties sought out scapegoats and and it was easy for Northern whites, many of who were willing to concede “freedom” to blacks were still deeply racist, and for many, economic considerations trumped justice as the North tried to move away from Reconstruction and on to new conquests, including joining European powers in attempts to gain overseas colonies and territories.

It is all too easy to simply blame Southern whites for what happened during Reconstruction and in the “Redeemed South” of the post-Reconstruction era. However, without the willing cooperation of Northern politicians, businessmen, media with their Southern counterparts, coupled with an ambivalent Northern population Reconstruction might have worked.

This is yet another portion of my ever growing Civil War and Gettysburg text, and it is important too many people today are willing to sacrifice justice for their own prosperity.

Have a thoughtful night

Peace

Padre Steve+

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As Southern extremists turned the Federal effort at Reconstruction into a violent quagmire that seemed to have no end, many Northerners increasingly turned against the effort and against Blacks themselves. Like so many victorious peoples they did not have the political or moral capacity to remain committed to a cause for which so many had sacrificed and they began to abandon the effort after two short years of congressionally mandated Radical Reconstruction.

Likewise, the men who had so nobly began the effort to enfranchise African Americans failed to understand the social and political reality of the South. To the average Southerner of the era “political equality automatically led to social equality, which in turn automatically led to race-mixing. It was inevitable and unthinkable. To a people brought up to believe that Negroes were genetically inferior – after all, that was why they were slaves – the mere hint of “mongrelization” was appalling.” [1] This was something that most Northerners, even those committed to the political equality of African Americans could not comprehend, and the ignorance of this fact would be a major reason for the collapse of Northern political and social support for Reconstruction.

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most effective leaders of the Radical Republicans died in 1868 in despair that the rights of blacks were being rolled back even as legislation was passed supporting them. A few weeks before his death Stevens told a friend “My life has been a failure…I see little hope for the republic.” [2] The old firebrand asked “to be buried in a segregated cemetery for African American paupers so that “I might illustrate in death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of man before his creator.” [3] Others including Senator Ben Wade, were not returned to office while others including Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase and Charles Summer all died during Grant’s administration.

While Grant attempted to smash the Ku Klux Klan by military means, both his administration and Congress were of little help. He faced increased opposition from economic conservative Republicans who had little interest in the rights of African Americans and who gave little support to those fighting for equal rights for blacks. The situation was further complicated by the “financial panic which hit the stock market in 1873 produced an economic downturn that soon worsened into a depression, which continued for the rest of the decade.” [4] The result was that Republicans lost their majorities in the House and in many states, even in the North.

It was clear that “1870 Radical Republicanism as a coherent political movement was rapidly disintegrating” [5] and during the early 1870s many of the antislavery activists had left the Republican party either to death or defection, many “no longer felt at home in a party that catered to big business and lacked the resolve to protect black rights.” [6]

In 1872, some former radical Republicans revolted against Grant and the corruption in the Republican Party. Calling themselves “Liberal Republicans” they supported the candidacy of Horace Greeley uniting with Democrats to call for an end to Reconstruction. For many this was not so much because they no longer supported the rights of African Americans, but because for them, like so many, “economic concerns now trumped race relations…. Henry Adams, who shared the views of his father, Charles Francis Adams, remarked that “the day is at hand when corporations far greater than [the] Erie [Railroad]…will ultimately succeed in directing the government itself.” [7] The numbers of Federal troops in the South continued to be reduced to the point where they could offer little or no support to state militia.

The combination of all of these factors, political, racial, economic, and judicial doomed Grant’s continued efforts at Reconstruction by executive means. Despite the hard fought battle to provide all the rights of citizenship and the vote to African Americans racism remained heavily intrenched in all regions of the country. In the North and the South the economic crisis of 1873 caused people to look for scapegoats, and blacks were an easy target. With economics easily trumping the cause of justice “racism increasingly asserted its hold on northern thought and behavior.” [8] The Northern press and politicians, including former abolitionists increasingly took the side of Southerners, condemning Freedmen as lazy and slothful usurpers of white civilization.

Likewise the growing problem of labor unrest in the North brought about by the economic depression made “many white northerners more sympathetic to white southern complaints about Reconstruction. Racial and class prejudices reinforced one another, as increasing numbers of middle-class northerners identified what they considered the illegitimate demands of workers and farmers in their own society with the alleged misconduct of the former slaves in the South.” [9]

The depression hit Freedmen in the South with a vengeance and unable to pay their bills and mortgages many lost everything and were at the mercy of their former white masters. Those still working for Reconstruction in the South were increasingly marginalized, stigmatized and victimized by a systemized campaign of propaganda which labeled them Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who were had gained power through the votes of blacks and who were profiting by looting Southern Whites. In the end Southern intransigence wore out the political will of Northerners to carry on, even that of strongest supporters of emancipation and equality.

Violence now became a means to further politics in the South and carried out in broad daylight and “intended to demoralize black voters and fatally undermine the Republican Party…. They paraded at regular intervals through African American sections of small towns in the rural black majority areas, intimidating the residents and inciting racial confrontations.” [10] These armed bands were highly successful, if they were successful in provoking a racial incident they would then fan out throughout the area to find blacks in order to beat up and kill, hundreds of blacks were killed by them. During the elections of 1876 the White Liners, Red Shirts, White League and others would be seen in threatening positions near Republican rallies and on Election Day swarmed the polls to keep blacks and Republicans out, even seizing ballot boxes either destroying them or counting the votes for Democrats. The strategy employed was to use “Lawless and utterly undemocratic means…to secure the desired outcome, which was to win a lawful, democratic election.” [11] The pressure was too much for most Republicans in the South, and many who did not leave the South “crossed over to the Democratic fold; only a few stood by the helpless mass of Negroes….” [12]

The elected governor of Mississippi, Republican General Adelbert Ames, who was one of the most able and honest of all the Northerners to hold elected office in the South wrote in 1875 about the power of the paramilitary groups, “The “white liners” have gained their point – they have, by killing and wounding, so intimidated the poor Negroes that they can in all human probability prevail over them at the election. I shall try at once to get troops form the general government. Of course it will be a difficult thing to do.” [13] Ames requested Federal troops “to restore peace and supervise the coming elections” [14] but did not get them. Grant’s Attorney general wrote “The whole public are tired out with these autumnal outbreaks in the South…and the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government….Preserve the peace by the forces in your own state….” [15] Ames, who had been a strong proponent of emancipation and black suffrage understood that he was being abandoned and in order to prevent more bloodshed gave up the fight. Sadly, he like Grant realized that most of the country “had never been for Negro civil rights in the first place. Freedom, yes; but that didn’t mean all the privileges of citizenship.” [16] He negotiated a deal with Democrats which resulted in blacks being forced form the polls and the Democrats returning to power in the state. When he left the state, the discouraged veteran of so many battles including Gettysburg wrote, “A revolution has taken place – by force of arms – and a race disenfranchised – they are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.” [17]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.11

[2] Ibid. Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln p.233

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.504

[4] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.458

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.170

[6] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[7] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.192

[9] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.191

[10] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South pp.459-460

[11] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.461

[12] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.15

[13] Ames, Adelbert Governor Adelbert Ames deplores Violence in Mississippi, September 1875 in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.434

[14] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.17

[15] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 190

[16] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.17

[17] Watson, Bruce Freedom Summer: The Savage Summer of 1964 that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy Viking Press, the Penguin Group New York and London 2010 p.41

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1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

One response to “Accomplices to Tyranny: The North & Reconstruction

  1. Pingback: Shades of Confederate Gray | Padre Steve's World...Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate

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