MOOC | “Black Reconstruction” | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1865-1890 | 3.5.1


>>Last week, we saw how after the great battle between Andrew Johnson and Congress, what we call Radical Reconstruction, Congressional Reconstruction, is enacted by the Congress, and new governments are to be put into place in the South based on — with some little exceptions — universal manhood suffrage, black suffrage, white suffrage, etc., for men. So this is a radical departure in Southern and American history, a very radical departure. Certainly for the South, it’s — suddenly the Republican Party, which had not existed in the South before the Civil War, Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in most Southern states in 1860, suddenly the Republican Party is going to come to power in all of the Southern states, for various periods of time. We will see what they do when they get into power. So this week, we’re going to try to look at the Republicans in power, and all the challenges, it’s an enormous challenge, of creating a political party out of nothing; creating a new structure of government, basically; new state constitutions; new functions for state governments; how they deal with local issues; how they deal with national issues. It’s a gigantic challenge to everybody. And of course, as I’ve said a number of times, these governments came to be seen in the sort of historical retrospect as the sort of worst government. In fact, James Bryce, very influential (I mentioned him) British writer who came to the U.S. in the 1880s, wrote in the American Commonwealth, these Reconstruction governments were the worst governments the civilized world has ever known. That’s quite an extreme statement, right? But what Bryce said, and this was picked up by many people (by historians, as we’ve seen, by people all around the world, as I mentioned) the problem was that the quote unquote “natural leaders” of Southern society, (i.e., well-to-do white people) were evicted from political power and replaced by this trio of carpetbaggers, scalawags and African Americans. The governments, therefore, spent money wildly, corruption was rife, and nothing whatsoever was accomplished by them. But the most outrageous thing of all, according to Bryce and many who came after him, was the advent of African-American officeholding. Black men — for the first time in American history in any significant numbers, there may have been a handful in the North here and there in abolitionist communities before the war, justices of the peace or something — but the first time in American history in significant numbers and in positions of actual power, you had African-American men taking office. This was the most horrible aspect, according to the old view. And we saw, a couple of weeks ago, the little clip from “Birth of a Nation” with the scene supposedly in the South Carolina legislature of the black members of the legislature: ignorant, you know, just uncivilized in every way, mostly interested in attacking white women, etc. Now this view has been overturned by historians in the past, you know, 30, 40, 50 years. But there’s still a lot to be learned about who these people were, actually. Once you sweep away, you know, the mythology, who were they? And also, what did these governments actually try to do? How close did they come to succeeding? How and why were they eventually overthrown? So today, I want to talk about this sort of three — the Republican Party in the South is based on these three groups. African Americans, who are by far the largest voting bloc in Southern Republicanism; and then these carpetbaggers, people from the North; and scalawags, i.e., white Southern Republicans. As I’ve said before, carpetbagger and scalawag are not descriptive terms, they’re terms of abuse. But nonetheless, they’re sort of inescapable. There just doesn’t seem to be anything to replace them with, so I’m going to use those terms as descriptive (Northerners in the South, white Southern Republicans, etc.). Now of course, the African-American population in the Southern states varied enormously, from over 50%, 60% in South Carolina, to maybe 25%, 30% in some of the other — in North Carolina, Tennessee, places like that. But several states had a majority, or almost a majority, of black population: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia. In other words, the Deep South, the plantation belt South. So theoretically, you could win office just with the black vote, if all these African-American men came out to vote. But nobody thought that that was a stable way of having, you know, long-term government, just making a pure racial line. But nonetheless, blacks represented a majority of the electorate in some states, and certainly of the Republican vote everywhere. That said, if you look at it that way, blacks were actually considerably underrepresented in political office. The notion of quote unquote “black supremacy,” which was one of the charges of the old view of Reconstruction, is really quite inaccurate in most states. Only in Louisiana and South Carolina did the state constitutional conventions have a black majority. Here is an image — this is the black members of the Louisiana state constitutional convention of 1868. Every state had a constitutional convention. This placard or broadside, which was widely distributed, in the center is Oliver Dunn, who was elected lieutenant governor of [Louisiana] in 1868, and all these delegates to the constitutional convention. What’s unusual about this is that you actually see pictures of these people. You actually see what they looked like, because most of them are completely lost to history, really, in most ways. There were two black members of the U.S. Senate in Reconstruction, but there was 65 senators elected, so it’s hardly a majority. There were something like 14 African Americans elected to Congress, out of about 200 congressmen in that period. There were black lieutenant governors in a couple of states. So in other words, the notion of black supremacy is not quite right. On the other hand, there is — this is how a lot of whites experienced Reconstruction, because on the local level, you did have a significant officeholding experience of black people of local positions, which were actually very important: justice of the peace, sheriff, school board officials, tax assessors. And the places where those people were elected tended to be the counties with the largest black majorities. What are those counties? Those are the plantation counties, right? The richest counties in the South were the ones with the largest black population and, therefore, the largest black power, if you want to put it that way, on the local level. And so suddenly you have the — and that’s also where the richest white people lived. Now, many of them had lost enormously during the war. But remember, they held onto their land, by and large, even though their wealth was considerably reduced. All the wealth in slaves was gone, any money they had patriotically donated to the Confederacy was gone. But nonetheless, they were still the richest people in the South, and suddenly, their localities are being ruled or governed by former slaves and former free Negroes. So this was quite a shock to — in those areas. So who were these black officials? James K. Green, a black political leader in Alabama, said to a Senate investigating committee, he said, at the end of the Civil War, “I…was entirely ignorant; I knew nothing more than to obey my master; and there were thousands of us in the same attitude… but the tocsin of freedom sounded…” This is a phrase I like, the tocsin. Tocsin. The bell, like a fire bell. Not T-O-X-I-N, T-O-C-S-I-N. I wanted to use that for a book once, but they said, tocsin? It sounds like it’s a poisonous thing, you know. You can’t use that. The tocsin, the bell, the kind of alert, you know, “of freedom sounded and knocked at the door and we walked out like free men and…shouldered the responsibilities.” I think that’s a pretty good statement of what happened. People walked out and shouldered the responsibilities.

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