Blame the Federal Government For Reconstruction

This past week The Washington Post added its name to a growing list of individuals and institutions who would like to see President Obama designate a federal monument to Reconstruction. Most believe that it should be located in Beaufort, South Carolina. The area in and around Beaufort is an ideal setting in which to teach this neglected and misunderstood period of American history following the Civil War.

Most people who learn about Reconstruction, however, will do so by reading a book. There are a number of very good books available by Eric Foner, Mark Summers, Douglas Egerton, Charles Lane, and Philip Dray, to name just a few. .

Philip Leigh would like to add his name to the list. Consider Leigh’s forthcoming book, Southern Reconstruction, which will be released this spring by Westholme Publishing. Here is the jacket description:

The Reconstruction Era the years immediately following the Civil War when Congress directed the reintegration of the former Confederate states into the Union remains, as Eric Foner suggested, America’s unfinished revolution. But Reconstruction is more than a story of racial injustice; it has left a complex legacy involving both whites and blacks, Southerners and Northerners, that is reflected today by the fact that the overwhelming number of states with the highest rates of poverty were part of the former Confederacy. In Southern Reconstruction, Philip Leigh examines the legislation enacted during and immediately after the Civil War, and the administrations of presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, to broaden our understanding of Reconstruction. With the exception of the Emancipation Proclamation, most histories of Reconstruction fail to explain adequately how other Civil War polices affected the South after the Civil War. Among them were the Confiscation Acts (1861), Morrill Tariff (1861), Pacific Railroad Acts (1862 1866), Homestead Act (1862), Legal Tender Act (1862), National Banking Acts (1863, 1864), and Veterans Pensions Acts (1862 1865). These laws transformed America s banking system, built a railroad web, and inflated government spending with vote-getting pensions for veterans a sum that reached a staggering 40 percent of the federal budget in 1893. Civil War era legislation also created a dubious alliance between banks and government, sparked corruption, trapped Southern farmers both black and white in endless annual peonage cycles, and failed to provide lands for freedmen. While Reconstruction was intended to return the South to the Union, it could not be effective with the crippling wartime legislation and ensuing federal policies that disfranchised many whites, fostered racial animosity, abetted Southern poverty, and lined the pockets of wealthy or politically well-connected business leaders.

What do you make of this?

Leigh’s author description on his Amazon page includes references to his previous books published by Westholme and that he is a former contributor to the New York Times Disunion column, which ran during the sesquicentennial. What it does not include is that Leigh also writes for the Abbeville Institute, which is considered by some to be the intellectual arm of the neo-Confederate movement.

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20 comments… add one
  • James Lewis Jan 11, 2017

    Isn’t the argument that the expansion of the market economy into the post Civil War South had adverse effects on white yeomen farmers and black freedmen pretty consistent with the work of Steven Hahn and others?

  • M.D. Blough Jan 12, 2017

    Obviously, by this reckoning, the actions of Southern white supremacist state governments in the years after the end of Reconstruction had absolutely NOTHING to do with any poverty within them.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

      Right. It seems to set up a confusing counterfactual that race relations would have been peaceful had it not been for a corrupt/exploitative federal government. Now where have I heard that one before? 🙂

  • James Lewis Jan 12, 2017

    I’m sorry, I’m confused. He says, “But Reconstruction is MORE than a story of racial injustice; it has left a complex legacy involving both whites and blacks” He seems to acknowledge the racial injustice of the period? Furthermore, does anyone really doubt that economic scarcity “fosters” (to use his word) racial tensions?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

      Here is a lengthy essay by Leigh that elaborates on the themes of the book’s jacket description.

      I agree that the story of Reconstruction extends beyond race, but that is different from attempting to understand the challenges that poor blacks and whites faced apart from the issue of race entirely. The federal government’s policies were far from the only factors that shaped the lives of white and black southerners during Reconstruction and through the Jim Crow Era.

      • M.D. Blough Jan 12, 2017

        Even though it is an antebellum speech, I believe that the “mudsill” portion of US Senator James Hammond (D-SC) sets forth how, both before and after the War of the Rebellion, the white ruling class used white supremacy and fomenting racial animosity against Blacks to keep poorer whites tied to them and unable to (1) recognize their own exploitation by the ruling class. and (2) make common cause with their neighbors who were black upon making that recognition. http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Freedmen/Manuscripts/cottonisking.html.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

          It’s a wonderful example of the point that I was trying to make. The notion of economic exploitation makes little sense apart from the central organizing principle of the postwar South: white supremacy. I assume this helps to explain the limited success of the Populist Movement as well as the brief period of Readjuster control in Virginia between 1879 and 1883.

          • M.D. Blough Jan 12, 2017

            What I find fascinating about that speech is not just the colossal hubris of it, especially in the King Cotton portion which foreshadows the crucial secessionist error of taking British support for granted, but how, in the mudsill portion, Hammond doesn’t even try to sugar-coat how the ruling class is using white supremacy to assure the loyalty of the poorer whites.

      • James Lewis Jan 12, 2017

        Thanks for the link. It is illuminating as to how he misses race in his calculus. I tried to suspend skepticism as I started the essay, but it is clear that he misses the powerful leverage of race in shaping the region’s politics after the war.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

          His failure to mention even something as routine as the Black Codes as influencing Republican policy early on is disturbing. He creates a number of straw men arguments in his characterization of how recent historians understand the postwar history of the Republican Party.

      • James Lewis Jan 12, 2017

        Thanks for passing along the essay. It really does shed more light on his motives. The above description of the work does not do justice as to how much this work seeks to remove the story of racism from Reconstruction.

        He says that he is working to advance the historiography of Reconstruction, but it’s notable how much he draws from older (I’d saw outdated) accounts of Reconstruction. He cites Beale, Bowers and Coulter. Oddly enough he cites a book called the “Politicos” that was published in 1938, but he cites as being published in 2008. (A reprint?)

        Thanks again for the essay

        • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

          Leigh provide a bibliography for Virginia Tech’s “Essential Civil War Curriculum” and it reflects the same shortcomings of the essay’s brief bib. He seems to be completely unaware of the recent historiography of Reconstruction.

  • ken Noe Jan 12, 2017

    When was that cover photo taken? I first thought 1930s, but somehow it looks more recent still.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

      I was wondering the same thing, Ken.

  • James Lewis Jan 12, 2017

    Wow, if this essay is any way indicative of the book, the scholarship of the work will be extremely lacking. My favorites from the essay:

    Did you know that Reconstruction may be indirectly responsible for the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany?

    How unfair was it that Northern soldiers got pensions whereas Confederate soldiers only received pensions from their states? It’s not as if the Confederate cause involved in… treason or anything….

    His understanding of political alignment/southern politics is lacking. He seems to assume (or hope that the reader will assume) that what some southern politics promoted represented the opinion of the South’s entire Democratic Party. He completely ignores that what led to the Populist insurgency in the South despite racism of southern yeomanry was the failure of the Democratic Party to respond to the concerns of small farmers! He makes the subtreasury proposal, the central proposal of the Farmer’s Alliance/Populist Party, a Democratic proposal!

    He repeatedly condemns the tariff without addressing what may have been one of the most revealing political episodes in the Gilded Age. In the last 1880s, New Hampshire Senator Henry Blair proposed utilizing tariff profits to launch a massive program of funding local education in areas that needed it, but Southern Democrats revolted against the plan because it would have involved northern intervention in the South and might have challenged the system of white supremacy.

    Truly a problematic essay. Hopefully his book corrects many of these problems.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

      Truly a problematic essay. Hopefully his book corrects many of these problems.

      I seriously doubt it. I would love to know, who, if anyone, reviewed the manuscript for Westholme.

  • bob ruth Jan 12, 2017

    Kevin:

    As you indicated in the last paragraph of your original post, Leigh is tied closely to the Lost Cause movement. One of the movement’s more recent mantras is that the South’s post-Civil War poverty is the fault of the North. What these historically faulty arguments forget is that the average white Southern yeoman was poverty-stricken in the antebellum era, too.

    The pre-Civil War South had more millionaires (i.e slave masters) than any other region of the nation.But while many plantation (i.e. slave concentration camp) owners were fabulously wealthy, the average white Southerner was poor.

    In addition, public education was unheard of in the antebellum South, so most Southern yeomen were barely literate. In addition, restrictive voting regulations kept tens of thousands of average white Southerners from voting. The only thing the average white person had going for him/her in the antebellum South was that at least he/she weren’t at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Black slaves, of course, occupied that unfortunate position.

    Granted, the South’s economy and infrastructure were ruined by the war. But who was at fault for that? The South, of course. Secession forced the North to send troops into the South and devastate the region. That’s usually what happens to the losers of a war. But Leigh and his fellow Lost Causers apparently believe otherwise.

    Leigh and his like-minded Lost Causers also repeatedly criticize Northern Republicans for denying ex-Confederate soldiers and elected officials the right to vote and hold office. Are you kidding? These ex-solders, or at least their generals and political leaders, are lucky they weren’t tried for treason. The Southern slave-holding elite started a war that cost billions of dollars and at least 650,000 lives. Yet, after the war, virtually no one – except the commander of the Andersonville POW camp – was convicted of a crime. Jefferson Davis spent a few years in prison but was never brought to trial for treason.

    No one else, including Nathan Forrest and other Confederate officers who allowed the slaughter of Union Negro troops as they attempted to surrender, were brought up on criminal charges. As far as I’m concerned, the North was magnanimous – probably far too magnanimous – in its treatment of the South after the war. The result of the North’s go-easy policy on the South was more than 80 years of Jim Crow and continued brutality toward Afro-Americans.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2017

      There are so many problems to address. I love this paragraph from Leigh’s essay, which I linked to in another comment:

      Consequently, Republicans settled on two objectives. First was mandatory African-American suffrage in all former Confederate states. Republican politicians expected that such a mostly illiterate and inexperienced electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Republican interests out of gratitude for emancipation and black suffrage. Second was to disenfranchise the Southern white classes most likely to oppose Republican policies.

      That’s an incredibly simplistic and self-serving characterization of the Republican Party during Reconstruction. He links to a dated textbook by James Randall and David Donald. He should read Andy Slap’s The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans During the Civil War Era or Mark Summers’s new book, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction. Both books offer a richer explanation of what motivated Republican policy after the war and how it evolved.

  • Jon Jan 12, 2017

    Phil has been issuing a series of critiques and attacks on Foner’s Reconstruction lectures in his blogs and has linked them to several of the Civil War Facebook groups online. Phil has a nasty habit of attacking people personally when they don’t bow to his Lost Cause rhetoric. Several of us have been fighting him toe to toe, but the sheer amount of nonsense he is putting out is a bit overwhelming for people who don’t have an extensive background on the social, political, and economic background of the Civil War. The highlight of his attacks so far was him claiming that Foner called Confederates “wimps” (which neither Foner or the historian he quoted said anything of the such), which of course was a purely baiting post for anyone even remotely pro-Confederate to cry foul and join in the shouting down of Foner (cries of “Marxist” and “Liberal” and such usually being the rallying cry against him).

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