The Reconstruction era

April 20, 2012

Nancy MacLean tells the story of the post-Civil War era, when for a brief time, the federal government attempted to enforce political rights for freed Blacks.

HISTORY IS usually written by the victors, and the history of Reconstruction is no exception. But contrary to the racist fable told by films like Gone With the Wind and high school textbooks, Radical Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South was one of the greatest experiments in democracy the U.S. has ever seen.

Reconstruction was, above all else, a political struggle over the future role and status of the former and newly freed Black slaves in the South in the years following the North's victory in the Civil War.

The first phase of Reconstruction--the so-called Presidential Reconstruction of 1865 to 1867--was no reconstruction at all. Lincoln had always insisted that he opposed Black equality. Under Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, the former Confederate states were readmitted to the U.S., and their former leaders readmitted to Congress with scarcely any reservations at all.

The planter class kept its power and privileges under these arrangements and set out to control the freed slaves with both violence and "Black Codes," which in effect preserved the slave system.

The History of Black America

Radical Reconstruction, the second phase, was the reaction to this situation on the part of many groups whose interests and goals briefly brought them to support the program of the radical wing of the Republican Party. These included Blacks who demanded political equality; former abolitionists and Northern labor activists who feared that the Lincoln-Johnson plan merely restored slavery with a new face; and millions of Northern voters who saw, as one Southerner rightly put it, "The South has been conquered, but not subdued."

Perhaps most decisive, though, the Northern capitalists who had won control of the federal government during the Civil War now saw the Southern planters threatening their plans.

After the Civil War, just as at its outset, these capitalists cared no more for the newly freed Blacks of the South than they did for their own workers in the North. But by 1867, they realized that unless the political power of the planter class was broken, the U.S. could never develop into the industrial power they wanted it to be.

All these ultimately conflicting interests came together for a brief time in the period of Radical Reconstruction that lasted from 1867 to 1877. Although short-lived, it saw a number of profound changes in the South.

To fight the illiteracy imposed on Blacks by slavery, and despite the systematic terror directed at them by the planters in the newly created Ku Klux Klan, freedmen exercised their hard-won voting rights enthusiastically and with impressive results. According to estimates, around 2,000 African Americans held political office during this period, including members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Under the Radical Reconstruction governments elected by Southern Blacks and poor whites, the South for the first time democratized its state constitutions, created a system of free and universal public education, enacted penal reforms, extended greater rights to women, and built some public welfare institutions. These were democratic achievements without precedent in the South.

But there was one measure that failed to pass. This was the proposal to give each freedman "40 acres and a mule."

The failure of land reform and redistribution left the freedmen dependent on the unstable cross-class alliance in the North. And by the mid-1870s, the class conflict in the North and West had ripped apart this coalition. Faced with urban workers demanding the eight-hour day, farmers organizing against the bankers and railroad tycoons, and groups like the Molly Maguires fighting for workers in the mines, Northern capitalists quickly turned against Reconstruction.

They became more reactionary on all issues. Above all, they wanted to maintain social stability to preserve their own power and profits at any price.

NOW THAT wealthy Southerners shared their goals of economic development and social stability, Northern capitalists turned to them as their natural allies. Having never cared about Black rights, except as a means to other ends, they were more than happy to throw Blacks overboard once an alliance with Southern conservatives held more promise for achieving those ends.

These two sections of the American ruling class reunited and reconciled their differences in the Compromise of 1877, which withdrew federal troops from the South, and thus took away the last guarantee of Black rights. Within a few short years, through violence, intimidation and fraud, Southern conservatives had overthrown the Reconstruction governments and systematically dismantled their achievements.

The result was a disaster for Southern Blacks, for poor whites and for workers across the country. Unlike the economically dynamic system based around free farmers that could have come from land redistribution, sharecropping perpetuated the economic stagnation of the South that slavery had begun. And it required the repression of the working population, thus giving the South its deserved reputation as the most violent region of the nation.

Nor was the defeat of Reconstruction a disaster for Southern workers alone. Once back in power, the Dixiecrats joined with their Northern capitalist allies in both parties to block every reform measure that came before Congress, well into the 20th century. Child labor legislation, women's suffrage, income taxes on the rich, trade union rights and social welfare were all opposed. Even today, the South offers a haven for runaway shops from the North.

For socialists, the Reconstruction experience offers several lessons. One is that in order to be effective, serious political change must be accompanied by revolutionary social change. The failure to break the economic power of the planter class undermined all the reforms of Reconstruction.

Today, failure to break the economic power of the capitalist class--whether in Chile, Poland or the U.S.--will likewise defeat the struggle for socialism.

The most important lesson of Reconstruction, however, is that white workers need to fight for the interests of Black workers--not simply in the interest of justice, but also because they must do so in order to advance their own cause. A divided class is a defeated class, as the history of Reconstruction so tragically shows.

First published in the March 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.

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