Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this: After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies. Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens. In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government. This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.
This is a very strange history documentary hosted by Matthew and Laurie Crouch. The show, including the over-the-top set is a cross between the 700 Club and Joel Osteen Ministries. Mrs. Crouch is clearly playing the Tammy Fay Baker role, who along with her husband sit and nod in agreement. Actually, she looks as if she is high as a kite. David Barton offers a rather unusual analysis of Reconstruction that I will get to in a moment. You can watch the entire series here – not that I recommend it.
Barton’s interpretation of Reconstruction basically comes down to pointing out that everything positive that happened relating to race relations and civil rights during Reconstruction and through the 1960s occurred because of the Republican Party. The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan, overturned legislation passed during Reconstruction, and resisted the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. There is a bit of truth in much of what Barton has to say about the importance of slavery, the role of black Republicans during Reconstruction as well as the role of the Democratic Party in overturning much of the post-war legislation. However, Barton seems to think that the Republican Party of the 1860s and 70s is the same Republican Party of today. According to Barton, the KKK was started by Democrats to “whack Republicans.” Of course, Barton makes no mention of why blacks throughout much of the South transitioned to the Democratic Party in the 1930s, the Dixiecrat movement in 1948 or the fact that the president who pushed both landmark pieces of civil rights legislation was a Democrat.
Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to historian, Vernon Burton:
At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)
Part of the problem is that our tendency to remember Appomattox as some kind of love fest or the beginning of reunion obscures the level of violence that continued into Reconstruction. Much of that violence was perpetrated against southern blacks to reinforce assumptions of white supremacy and prevent freed slaves from exercising newly-won civil rights. Such a view has grown steadily among academic historians since the 1960s and in recent years can be seen in a wave of more popular titles. The pervasiveness of this view can be seen in a recent History Channel documentary, titled, Aftershock: Beyond The Civil War. Based on only viewing the first episode it looks like this particular documentary is not so concerned with the complex political issues that dominated the period, but with the scale of violence that was used to terrorize blacks into submission. It suggests that perhaps the war did not end in 1865, but took on a different form in the years that followed.
I thought I might start a little series of posts from The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War by H.W. Crocker III. I would say that such passages are worth a good laugh, but then I step back and realize that these books sell incredibly well both here in the states and overseas.The Lost Cause lives.
Reconstruction: the bad
There had been no segregation in the antebellum South. Plantation slaves lived in cabins within feet of their owner’s house. City slaves lived in brick houses behind their owner’s house. While whites in the North often lived far away from black people, Southern whites lived and worked (and their children played) side by side and thought nothing of it. That changed after the war when the Radical Republicans sent armed regiments of black soldiers into the South as occupation troops and installed black politicians into local and state governments slots, while barring all former Confederates from holding office. (206-07)