Civil War and Reconstruction: How slavery was ended

February 15, 2008

The conventional wisdom is that social change takes place gradually, thanks to the actions of far-sighted political leaders, acting on behalf of the masses of people. The end of chattel slavery in America tells a different story. To abolish this terrible crime, it took an immense Civil War--and the Reconstruction period in the South that followed the war was the setting for a dramatic struggle to assure the equality of former slaves. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains the history of the American unfinished revolution.

THE CIVIL War and the Reconstruction period that followed represented the conclusion to a revolutionary process begun by the American Revolution almost 100 years earlier.

In the 18th century, British subjects in America revolted against the monarchy and colonialism. At the heart of the American Revolution was the democratic right for at least some men to vote for their own representatives in government.

Despite the progressive ideals embodied in the American Revolution, however, it also suffered from an enormous contradiction--the preservation of slavery in the new United States. This contradiction rendered the American Revolution incomplete--unable to fulfill its stated promise that "all men are created equal."

The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 and the Reconstruction era that followed completed the revolution, smashing the 254-year-old system of slavery in the American South and transforming Southern society.

The postwar period known as Reconstruction represented a pitched battle to impose radical and multiracial democracy on the former Confederacy by constructing civil society on the ashes of the formerly agrarian society ruled by a small slave-owning oligarchy. Reconstruction lasted until 1877, when federal troops were pulled out of the Southern states.

What else to read

The classic history of the Reconstruction period is Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, written by the great historian and political theorist W.E.B. Du Bois. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote a feature review of Du Bois' classic for the International Socialist Review's "Classics of Marxism" sereis.

For a more recent, but no less brilliant, history, see Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.

Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery, by Rebecca Scott, contrasts the evolving constructions of race in Cuba and Louisiana and how it affected social and class relations in those two societies.

One of the best histories of the Civil War is James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson's book of essays Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution is also well worth reading.

UNTIL THE Civil War, slavery had flourished on U.S. soil for more than 250 years. While the holding of slaves in the American North waned in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the American South was a full-blown slave society. In two states, Georgia and South Carolina, slaves made up a majority of the population.

In total, by the start of Civil War, there were more than 4 million enslaved African Americans in the U.S.

Slave labor in tobacco, rice and cotton production created billions of dollars in profits, which ensured that slavery was not going to just whither away as an outdated economic system. Profits from slave labor enriched not just the slaveholders, but were a central cog in the global economy.

As Karl Marx wrote, "Without slavery, there would be no cotton, without cotton, there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry."

Moreover, the Southern slave population was the basis of the South's political domination of the American state. The notorious three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution allowed Southerners to count slaves toward congressional representation, giving Southern states disproportionate power. Nine of the first 12 American presidents were from Virginia or South Carolina.

But wealth and power were not equally distributed in Southern society. More than two-thirds of white Southerners did not own slaves. A very small part of the Southern aristocracy owned plantations with hundreds of slaves.

Despite the power of the slaveholding clique, there was a growing debate within the U.S. concerning slavery and its possible expansion beyond the South. In order for slavery to survive, the system needed to expand into the new Western states. These contentious debates began to lay the basis for a conflict between the North and South that eventually ended in the Civil War.

When Abraham Lincoln of the newly formed Republican Party was elected president in 1861, the South pre-empted any formal debate on the question of slavery by launching the secession crisis that provoked the Civil War.

This was the bloodiest war of the 19th century. In a span of four years, more than 650,000 people were killed.

The central issue was slavery. Two years into the war, Northern generals, led by Abraham Lincoln himself, tried to articulate a vague concept of "national unity" as the central issue. But it was not until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863--which only freed slaves in the seceded states of the Confederacy--that Union forces actually began to have some sustained successes.

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation preceded the voluntary service of more than 179,000 Black soldiers who enlisted to fight for freedom for themselves and every other slave, North and South. By the war's end, more than 40,000 Black soldiers had lost their lives to end the slave system in the South.

THE CIVIL War turned Southern society upside down in a way that is difficult to comprehend today. In one fell swoop, 4 million Black slaves were freed, and the majority of the elite in the South were physically, morally and economically destroyed.

The central questions governing the period that would follow the war were:

What would become of the emancipated slaves?

What kind of society would replace the old?

Who would control the land?

Who would control labor?

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, these were all open questions.

The central question for the planter class of the South was how long would it take for them to resume cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco production. Former slaves defiantly refused to do plantation work for their former owners. Those who did resume work in the fields did so upon their own terms, which included stopping work when they wanted to and taking days off.

The Southern elite, which still controlled the remnants of the Southern states, tried to answer this challenge by implementing so-called Black Codes--basically, an attempt to control the movement of former slaves and force them to work. Nebulous laws concerning vagrancy, loitering and unemployment forced former slaves to attach themselves to a job to avoid legal harassment. The aim was to return Blacks to something as close as possible to slavery.

If hundreds of thousands of men were killed to end slavery, how could the criminals who started the war get away with trying to re-impose slavery by another name? The most important factor in the initial response was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the political ascension of his Vice President Andrew Johnson.

Johnson could barely hide his sympathies with the deposed Confederacy. He was a Southerner from East Tennessee who began his career opposed to slavery because of the hardships it imposed on small white farmers--not because of any solidarity with the enslaved.

Johnson went out of his way to undo any politically progressive measures that aimed to raise the political, economic and social level of the freedmen. His most infamous act came when he reneged on Gen. Tecumseh Sherman's field order during the war that gave former slaves 40 acres of repossessed land in Georgia and South Carolina.

The counterrevolutionary activities of Johnson and the former Confederates threatening to regain power across the South prompted a coalition of former slaves, abolitionists and Radical Republicans to take action and create a radical reconstruction of the South.

Radical Reconstruction was predicated on the ability of Republicans to wrest political power from the slaveocracy in Southern state houses. To do this, the federal government divided the South into five military districts, called for new state constitutional conventions and demanded that each Southern state agree to and ratify the 14th Amendment, which declared the equality of former slaves before the law. Former officials of the Confederacy were barred from participating in the conventions that were to establish new laws across the South.

Radical Reconstruction furthered the transformation of Black life in the South. But it also fundamentally changed life for the vast majority of poor whites as well. The constitutional conventions offered both Blacks and poor whites the opportunity to vote for the first time in their lives.

With the freed slaves exercising their new political power, the Republican Party swept state elections throughout the South in 1867 and 1868, with 90 percent of eligible Black voters participating. But there were Black majorities in only two Southern states. Across the South, poor whites were also exercising their newfound rights in the hopes of forming a new society.

Just two years removed from slavery, Blacks were elected to state governments and Congress. All told, 600 Black Republicans joined state legislatures, 14 went to the U.S. House of Representatives, and 2 went to the U.S. Senate. Six African Americans became lieutenant governors, and thousands more held lesser offices, including judges and sheriffs.

Reconstruction actually created state governments across the South and endowed them with the responsibility to care for the poor and working classes. It was during Reconstruction that public schools and hospitals were created across the South for the first time in its history. The practice of imprisoning poor people for their debts was abolished.

In other words, Reconstruction helped to modernize the South, some 100 years after the process began in the North.

BUT THE more reforms that were created by Reconstruction, the more alarmed the Northern ruling class became. The antiracist radicals among the Republicans were pushing Reconstruction to the left, but the party also had a more conservative wing.

Republican conservatives were primarily interested in Reconstruction policy as a means to pry open the Southern market and create a Southern workforce. When Radical Republicans, spurred on by the hopes and wishes of freed slaves, openly discussed the possibility of massive land redistribution to emancipated slaves across the South, this was deemed as going too far.

Redistribution of land and resources in the South would inevitably invite discussion of redistribution in the North as well. Thus, conservative Republicans began to move further away from the Reconstruction project.

A debilitating economic depression took hold in 1873, creating enough of a diversion to move Reconstruction off the center stage of American politics. Politically, the Republicans were no longer committed to Reconstruction--and Radical Republicans found themselves a minority faction in a party itching to "move onto other issues" as soon as possible.

Former Confederates and other white racists in the South saw this is as their opportunity. Bands of white racists, including the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, began a campaign of terrorism and murder across the South. Black state governments were overthrown from Louisiana to South Carolina at gunpoint.

When Republicans in Mississippi called for federal troops to intervene and stop a massacre of Black voters, President Ulysses S. Grant famously said that the government "was tired" of intervening in the South.

In the presidential election of 1877, a compromise was struck between Democrats and Republicans--if the Republicans won, they would agree to immediately withdraw all federal troops from the South, officially ending the era of Reconstruction.

But the economic crisis that began in 1873 created enormous class tensions across the South and North. In the South, it meant that a "white coalition" was difficult to form because of the growing number of poor whites whose interests were separate from the white elite.

A populist movement that linked poor white farmers with poor Black sharecroppers and wage workers erupted across the South. This movement ultimately failed because of the extreme racist counterattack by an emergent Southern ruling class--but it showed the new potential for multiracial organizing that didn't exist before the end of slavery.

In response to the Populist movement, the new Southern governments sought to change the Radical Reconstruction state constitutions. Many poor and illiterate whites were excluded along with Blacks, because at the heart of the campaign for "white supremacy" was the assurance that white elites would rule the South.

Once the state governments were changed, often without ratification by the public, new Jim Crow laws were created to criminalize multiracial collaboration in any sphere--from working together to playing dominoes together.

It would take almost another 100 years to overthrow white supremacy in the South with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Despite the unfinished nature of Reconstruction, it is remains an important part of history.

It highlights the complexity of the creation of the racial order that would dominate politics in the South for 100 years after the Civil War. Many people think that after the Civil War, Jim Crow became the law of the land. On the contrary, Jim Crow laws came into existence almost 30 years after the Civil War as a counterrevolution against the attempt at multiracial democratic rule across the South.

The struggle for Reconstruction represented the best of ordinary Blacks and some poor whites in fighting to create a better world.

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