Still Waiting for Reconstruction

I’ve had a copy of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 for at least 20 years,  maybe 30, without starting to read it. Written by Eric Foner, it’s the standard history of the period after the Civil War during which the government theoretically tried to heal the South and integrate former slaves into the southern economy. I’ve never tried reading it because the failure of Reconstruction is too depressing. After fighting a terrible civil war, America had a chance to make significant progress and blew it.

Being a fan of Ulysses S. Grant, however, I’m reading Ron Chernow’s long biography of Grant and have finally reached the post-Civil War years. It looks like rough going ahead:

As the year progressed, Grant was drawn ever more deeply into the debate on Reconstruction. In early March 1865, the federal government had assumed responsibility for aiding freed slaves through the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Since it was set up as a War Department agency, drawing funds and staff from it, Grant was directly involved in its operations. The bureau’s mandate was to feed, clothe, and educate former slaves, providing them with medical supplies and legal protection and relocating them on more than 850,000 acres of land the federal government came to control during the war. . . .

Because southern slaves had inhabited a rural culture, the pivotal issue for their future was whether they could receive land from the federal government. With a plot of land, they had a chance for an independent life; if condemned to remain landless, they would be thrown back into servitude to the same plantation barons who had owned them. On August 16, [President Andrew] Johnson issued an order that allowed southern whites to recapture land confiscated from them during the war—a move that made him heroic to whites while dealing a crushing blow to black hopes. It forced freedmen to abandon the forty-acre plots they had started to work, turning the men into powerless sharecroppers, bound to land owned by whites. Within weeks, a white delegation from the former Confederacy rushed to the White House to express “sincere respect” for Johnson’s desire “to sustain Southern rights in the Union.”

By the end of 1865, so-called Black Codes began to forge a new caste system in the South, a segregated world where freed slaves worked as indentured servants, subject to arrest if they left jobs before their annual contracts expired. It was a cruel new form of bondage, establishing the foundations of the Jim Crow system that later ruled southern race relations. In South Carolina, blacks were confined by law to their plantations, forced to work from sunup to sundown. In Florida, blacks who showed “disrespect” to their bosses or rode in public conveyances reserved for whites could be whipped and pilloried. In Mississippi, it became a criminal offense for blacks to hunt or fish, heightening their dependence upon white employers. Thus, within six months of the end of the Civil War, there arose a broadly based retreat from many of the ideals that had motivated the northern war effort, reestablishing the status quo ante and white supremacy in the old Confederacy.

During the summer of 1865, President Johnson sent Carl Schurz, the Prussian-born journalist and Union general, to the South to report on the progress of Reconstruction. His forty-six-page report didn’t present the rosy view of a reconciled South that Johnson preferred. Instead he painted the white South as angry and defiant, still insisting that secession had been legitimate. His portrayal of freed blacks described them as languishing in wretched conditions of poverty, reinforced by Black Codes that trapped them in a new subservience.


Now here we are, more than 150 years later. Republicans have switched places with the Democrats and become the guarantors of white supremacy in the South. There are stories like “Georgia Republicans Are Going All-In on Voter Suppression” and “Why the Georgia [Republican Party’s] Voting Rollbacks Would Hit Black People Hard”. Why bother reading about Reconstruction when some of the same crap is happening now?