Tag Archives: Reconstruction

Guest Post

One of this blog’s readers recently emailed some thoughts about the conference that Mark Grimsley is organizing at Ohio State.  Given that I am in the middle of a blog hiatus I thought that it would make for an excellent guest post.  The author agreed and re-worked the material for that purpose.  From the author: “I should say that this is more of a thought piece, not really intended as an airtight argument so much as a way of imagining a way that we could fit the history of the United States into a tidy paradigm of decolonization and postcolonialism.”  Comments are welcome and the author will respond.

To start with, let me say that the conference Mark Grimsley is organizing on the war for the South from 1865-1965 is a wonderful and refreshing change.  One of the major problems with history in general is how a war serves as a break in periodization.  The historian, of course, has to limit the scope of inquiry.  A war provides a clearly delineated start and finish. The convenience of this approach is immediately obvious: it makes intuitive sense.  Unfortunately, the start and the finish also limit the range of causes and effects that can be observed.  The periodization provides a discursive break that in some instances overemphasizes the impact and changes wrought by war.  In many instances a war only magnifies or accelerates trends already present.  Rather than looking at what comes before a war and what results from the war, it may be beneficial to look at a sort of trans-war period.  All this of course is to say: the way the question is asked dictates how it is answered.  By raising a different question, Professor Grimsely is in effect giving us new and different answers.

Reading Professor Grimsley’s posts and articles relating to the conference, I noticed that the conference will look at the South after the Civil War as being in an extended insurgency or protracted war of decolonization.  What I present here are some thoughts on the United States fitting within a paradigm of decolonization.  While it is clear that the conference will be examining this issue from a military perspective, focusing more on the technical aspects of insurgency or low-level conflict, my analysis here is more along socio-political lines.  Finally, before I begin, let me define the terms I will be using.  I use “colonialism” to refer to direct political control of a territory (geographically separate) by another state, with the economic relationship strongly weighted to the benefit of the metropole. “Postcolonialism” refers to any point after direct political control ends but before autonomy is achieved.  I use “neocolonialism” to mean economic control of the territory, but not necessarily overt political control (though indirect control exercised through various political factions may; Colonialism and neocolonialism should be seen as gradients of a continuum, stretching from complete political control to autonomy.

The Civil War can be seen as the last in a series of the wars of the decolonization of the United States (this does imply that Reconstruction and Civil Rights are not a war of decolonization, which I will get to shortly). The first war of decolonization would be the French-Indian War, which was also the last in the series of Colonial Wars.  The French-Indian War eliminated the French as a serious threat to the British in North America. The level of involvement by the colonies was unprecedented.  More importantly, the influx of British troops fostered a sense of distinction and difference between the colonists and the metropolitan British (there is debate on this, but I find Fred Anderson’s work convincing in this regard). Combined with the series of imperial crises regarding taxation and defining the meaning of “colony” in the aftermath of the French-Indian War led to the American Revolution.  The American Revolution saw the creation of a national identity, and one is tempted to say, a national ideology (this is not to deny prior American anxieties of provincialism).  This ideology was one rooted in a firm belief in the benefits of capitalism and trade with a commitment to republican governance (though who was received a voice under republicanism was not clear).

Also worth noting at this point is how the American Revolution was extremely different from nearly every other war of decolonization.  First, British rule in America had not depended upon a single minority group (other than whites).  Typical of a colonial system is metropolitan rule through a class of subalterns, usually a traditionally marginalized minority.  Fearful of their status within the colony, they prove pliant and often willing collaborationists.  Before, during, and after the struggles for decolonization this minority group serves as a stand-in for the distant metropolitan authorities, receiving the approbation and ire of oppresses majority.  In the American colonies there was no single minority group that filled this role, and indeed there was no foreign ruling class.  The flexibility and upward mobility of capitalism firmly prevented the establishment of a hereditary ruling class.  The elite in America was not institutionalized, except broadly along the lines of race.  Second, there was no widespread critique of European liberalism, such as that presented by Marxism.  While Whigs and Tories might debate the path to achieve the most beneficial enactment of this, the overall goal was not questioned.

After the Revolution, America entered a protracted period of neocolonialism. The domestic political struggles, and foreign affairs centered on the best way to establish and ensure economic and political independence from European powers.  The Embargo Act, Quasi-War, and the War of 1812 can all be seen as struggles to complete the decolonization of America.  An indication of how deep these fears went is the persistent belief that all Indian disturbances were the result of British intrigue (not to mention the whole Citizen Genet affair and Aaron Burr’s intrigues along the Mississippi).  The War of 1812 seemed ended the threat of British reoccupation, but it still did not end the threat of neocolonialism.

Following the War of 1812, the domestic politics of the United States turned more towards economic expansion and establishing economic independence.  The South and the North did not disagree so much on the need for economic independence, but rather on the best way to achieve that economic independence.  Debates centered on slavery, and whether or not slave labor was a better path to development then free labor.  Because the two systems dictated differing economic policies on a national scale, they could not exist in the same country.  Yet the idea of what America should be was not so much in question as was the best way to get there (the Confederate Constitution was not radically different from the United States Constitution).  The rhetorical war escalates to insurgency in Bleeding Kansas then spreads to full-scale military conflict with the Civil

Looking at the South as postcolonial also helps explain why so many ardent defenders of the Old South became proponents of the New South.  The struggle of the South to modernize was not radically changed by the Civil War.  The white elite wanted to modernize and throw of the chains of
economic dependence (notwithstanding cotton is king).  The new work by Genovese, O’Brien, and Carmichael pretty definitively shows that many in the South were looking to create a capitalist society that was not economically dependent on exports.  The Civil War accelerated these trends but did not change the trajectory of the South.  The goals of these developers were the same after the war as they were before the war.  Why reconciliation was so easy was because the only underlying fissure between the North and the South was the labor system used to attempt decolonization (and then the economic choices suggested by the different labor systems).  That is, the project of the North and the South (decolonization) was the same, just that the means to the end were different.  Because there was no major ideological difference about the ends of the American project, there was no impetus for a cycle of reprisal violence among whites.  When the Civil War answered the question of means, it also sparked a war of decolonization by the African-American community.

What is crucial to note, is that for the most part, from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans did not want to overthrow the existing order.  Rather, they simply wanted to claim a place within it.  During Reconstruction, for the first time, African-Americans on a large scale were able to lay claim to being “American.”  White violence directed at blacks in America, before and after the Civil War, was aimed at ensuring their continued exclusion from the definition of “American.” Slavery was one form of this instutionalized violence.  The end of slavery did not end the violence, just changed the shape it took.

A war of decolonization aims to end colonial rule.  The colony aims to retrieve its ability to make political and economic choices.  Certainly this is what African-Americans wanted, but they also wanted to compel white Americans to recognize that blacks were African-Americans too.  The white counter-insurgents did not necessarily need to apply force in any consistent manner, but only needed to demonstrate that blacks were not considered American.  Whereas most struggles of decolonization aim to exclude the metropole (politically, culturally, and economically), the struggle of African-Americans was one of incorporation.

Some Thoughts About Teaching Reconstruction or Why Is History So Damn Depressing?

It happens every year in at least one of my classes and usually around the time of Reconstruction. One of my students comments or asks a question that reveals a deep frustration with American history and particularly the role of racism in it. And when the issue is raised everything stops in my class to discuss the issue. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that one of the main topics or themes covered in the course is the history of racism — in my opinion the most important issue that I can teach my students. The problem, of course, is the danger that you leave students with a sense that American history is one long tale of corruption and racial hatred.

Part of the problem is that most of my students have never seriously studied the history of racism. I teach in a predominantly white private school with very few black employees and the students are from fairly wealthy families in predominantly white neighborhoods. All of this lends itself to a certain level of defensiveness whenever the topic is raised. Some students no doubt feel threatened or believe they are being made to feel partly responsible for the past. It is difficult to make clear to the students that the goal is to understand how societies develop along racial lines so that we can more clearly address the nature of the problem. How did colonization, the cultivation of tobacco, the demand for rich land, and a labor force shape a slave nation by the middle of the 18th century? Throughout it all I try my best to make it clear that black slaves never surrendered some level of autonomy, but continually negotiated and took advantage of opportunities for self expression and autonomy. The point I am trying to make is that a close look at racism and slavery can be taught in a way that reflects the kind of story that most Americans relish in, which is the desire for freedom involving stories of individuals and groups and the lengths they are willing to go to achieve their ends.

Reconstruction is a perfect opportunity to make this point as clearly as possible to my students. Most of our time in class is spent analyzing how black and white Americans worked together to achieve certain political ends during the turbulent period following the Civil War. The story in and of itself includes all of the components that make for the quintessential American story. Yes, the story ends with the Redeemers back in power, but that did not end black political action – a point that C. Van Woodward reminded us over 50 years ago in Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 and one that I am still learning about as it relates to the Readjusters here in Virginia. The history should be taught not simply to reveal the hideousness of racism, but also as part of the exciting story of American freedom. The trick is to bring my students to the point where they see themselves in the slaves and the newly-freed blacks in the same way that many white Americans have traditionally identified with the Founding generation. In short, these are stories that can empower young people.

Teaching Reconstruction

This week I will be teaching Reconstruction. I am putting primary documents together, slides, and segments of movies, including Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind. We will analyze both how Americans have traditionally remembered the period and the actual history. It’s always a challenge teaching this section. My approach is to begin by laying out the challenges of Reconstruction for all parties involved and to make clear that the question of the status of the newly-freed slaves and the role of the federal government constituted an immediate problem and one that was not predicted only a few years earlier. I emphasize the steps that African Americans took to secure their freedom even as the Republican party gradually pulled back by the mid-1870′s. This approach is not intended to castigate white Americans for the eventual abandonment of Military Reconstruction, but to reveal the extent to which African Americans were able to engage in political action on the grassroots level and within individual state legislatures. That means on one level the story of Reconstruction becomes a heroic tale of black Americans striving to assert themselves in challenging the racial boundaries to which civil liberties applied.

We will end this section by reading through an article by either David Blight or Ed Ayers. Of course, Blight emphasizes the process by which white Americans shaped their history to the point where it minimized black political action during the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the other hand, given the conflict in Iraq we may read an article by Ed Ayers which explores our collective belief that we can export reconstruction to other parts of the world. I am leaning towards the Ayers article. Perhaps our amnesia regarding the deep-seated racial and political divisions after the Civil War is what allows this administration to shape its foreign policy in a vacuum. Our own experience at reconstruction was less than successful, which raises the question of why we should have any reason to believe that it can be accomplished in parts of the world where the divisions are even more deeply rooted.

Thinking About Reconstruction

One of my favorite classroom exercises takes place during our examination of Reconstruction. I divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to imagine that they are serving on a congressional committee in charge of Reconstruction policy. They must work together and answer the following questions: (1) What responsibilities did the federal government have in protecting the rights of the newly-freed slaves? (2) What steps should have been taken against former Confederates? (3) What was the role of the U.S. military in enforcing the specifics of the federal government’s policy? (4) What was the relation between the former Confederate states and the nation? Once each group arrives at a specific list of responsibilities the class debates the relative merits of each list in order to arrive at one final class policy. I enjoy watching the students think critically about these issues as it provides a window into the question of what might have been had certain conditions been different. Were the harsh realities of Jim Crow inevitable?

I just received the new issue of the journal Civil War History (December 2005). This issue includes essays which “enter the realm of ‘what if’ history by conjecturing a Reconstruction policy that could have produced by 1900 better economic conditions for the South and a racial situation that would not have degenerated into the abyss of violence called Jim Crow segregation.” The essays were originally presented at the 2004 meeting of the Social Science History Association. I’ve already read William Blair’s insightful essay on the role of the military during Reconstruction and its importance in protecting the rights of black southerners. Blair considers the possibilities of maintaining a stronger military presence in the South, but in the end concludes that this “was unthinkable for practical, economic, and political-ideological reasons.” I found most interesting the introductory essay by James L Huston who provides a list of reasons that historians have cited over the years to explain why Reconstruction did not prove to be more successful.

• Refusal of Congress to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites
• Inevitability of a capitalist economy to reduce African Americans to wage-earning subsistence
• Cultural gap existed between the market-driven individualism of white reformers and communitarian subsistence goals of the newly-freed slaves over the definition of “work.”
• Republicans were too moderate
• Republicans were limited by the ideals of monetary responsibility, laissez-faire government, states rights, and individualism
• Republicans were too racist to more completely support black Americans
• Republican Party was sufficiently weak in the South
• White Racism: white southerners were willing to engage in violence to maintain the antebellum racial hierarchy

I am considering having my students right a short counterfactual essay as a way to bring this group exercise to a close. Here is Huston on the heuristic value of the counterfactual exercise:

Teaching students the importance of context in human affairs is actually a more formidable task than many of us realize. Having students determine the historical forces at work in some period (the parameters of the problem, so to speak), a set of potential solutions, and then sort out what was realistically possible, is a powerful exercise. Moreover, it also provides students with an insight into basic principles of historical inquiry that they can then apply to the present in which they exist: understanding the context, constructing hypothetical solutions, and then testing the proposed solutions against their understanding of the forces and ideologies at work. (p. 363)