All Commentary
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gaining a Nation, Losing the Republic: Reconstruction, 1863–1877

A dead president, carpetbaggers, scalawags, burning crosses, white hoods, an occupied South, Boss Tweed, Thomas Nast cartoons, the New York Democratic machine, and an imprisoned Jefferson Davis—all provide vivid images of the dozen years following the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s forces at Appomattox in April 1865. As every historian knows, often to his chagrin, these 12 years were tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic, especially in hindsight. The period of course is also a letdown after the tragedies and nobilities of the Civil War years. Whereas individuals had a clear purpose during the war—no matter what side they chose—political compromises and plunder defined Reconstruction.

A period of governmental corruption, monetary instability, gross expansion of political power, the solidification of public schooling, Anglo-Saxon racialist beliefs, manifest destiny, Indian Wars, and extreme violence, Reconstruction witnessed a giant leap toward a cohesive nation-state–far from the founding vision of a decentralized federal republic.

A mere two months before John Wilkes Booth assassinated him in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln met with his two top generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, on the steamship The River Queen, just outside of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Though Lincoln would call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in his second inaugural, delivered in early March of the same year, he offered his fullest plan and desires for what a reconstructed union might look like in a private conversation with Grant and Sherman. Lincoln assured them he wanted nothing more than

to get the deluded men of the rebel armies disarmed and back to their homes. . . . Let them once surrender and reach their homes, [and] they won’t take up arms again. . . . Let them all go, officers and all, I want submission and no more bloodshed. . . . I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.

While Lincoln had waged a terribly hard and total war, he also desired the softest peace possible. Indeed, if one takes Lincoln’s words on The River Queen at face value, the United States of 1865 would look very much like the United States of 1860, with one exception: Returning states would need to accept the emancipation of all slaves through the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. His architects of total war, Grant and Sherman, agreed completely with the President. Neither of Lincoln’s generals knew how much longer the war would last, they explained to him, but they believed the war was rapidly approaching an end with possibly only one or two major battles left. They had reached the endgame.

When Booth cut down Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, two months later, he changed the entire course of American history. Had Lincoln presided over the peace, one has no reason to doubt, he would have reconciled constitutional relations with, among, and between the former Confederate states, officers, and citizens as quickly as politically possible. The war, after all, had been viewed by almost all sides as a noble tragedy for the common good of the republic and for the vision (no matter how varied) of the American founding fathers. Men, for the most part, had chosen to fight, and they had chosen to fight again and again. Though a draft existed in the North, for example, after the summer of 1863, 94 percent of all Union soldiers had volunteered. As General Joshua Chamberlain, the classicist from Maine’s Bowdoin College, had astutely observed of the surrender ceremonies in April 1865: “Honor answering honor. . . [as men] of near blood born, made nearer by blood shed. . . . On our part not a sound or a trumpet more, nor roll of drum; nor a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glory, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breathholding.”

Just outside of Appomattox Court House, Robert E. Lee’s former Confederate forces, what remained of the Army of Northern Virginia, walked through two lines of Union soldiers. The Union soldiers saluted the defeated for hours on end that day. “Reluctantly, with agony of expression,” Chamberlain recorded, the Confederate soldiers “tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart holding colors, and lay them down; some frenziedly rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips with burning tears.”

Such a scene, of course, is a far cry from the militarization and politicization, the martial law and the intrusion of Leviathan that one normally associates with Reconstruction as it actually happened. Though President Jefferson Davis’s final executive order called for all Confederate States of America troops to divide into terrorist cells and launch attacks against civilians and urban areas, Lee countermanded the order through deed and word, telling the men to “be good citizens as they had been soldiers.”

With Lincoln’s death, though, the war became personal in a way that it had not been during the mass bloodshed of the previous four years. To many in the country, especially in the North, Lincoln’s death transformed him into a full-fledged American martyr, and his reputation exploded. The Radicals within the Republican party—Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, and Representative George Julian of Indiana, to name a few—manipulated this loss to their advantage more than any other group. These men  had despised and resented Lincoln as a spineless moderate, lacking a proper nationalist and vindictive streak.

The Radicals had attempted nothing less than a congressional coup against Lincoln in December 1862, openly desired a military dictatorship throughout much of the war, and proposed their own version of Reconstruction as early as 1863. Their vision of postwar America involved remaking the entirety of the South in their own image, with extensive punishment for all involved. Just as they had wanted Lincoln to wage an ever-increasingly hard war, they wanted a peace imposed by the sword. Lincoln’s death provided them with a symbol around which to rally northerners against their southern brethren. “Within eight hours of his murder Republican Congressmen in secret caucus agreed,” Lincoln biographer David Donald explained, “that ‘his death is a godsend to our cause.’” As the leader of the Radicals, Wade, stated, “[T]here will be no more trouble running the government.”

Wade and his fellow Radicals would have no small part in nationalizing the United States over the next dozen years. “The New England reformers thought they had struck down evil incarnate when they crushed the Sable Genius of the South; and their horror at the corruption and chaos of the Gilded Age was intensified proportionately as they discovered the extent of their own previous naiveté,” the cultural critic and historian Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind. “They had dreaded an era of Jefferson Davis; but now they were in an era” of the radicals and “of worse.” The true reformers “awoke to find their fellow-Republicans, the oligarchs of their party, intent upon concrete plunder.”

Not surprisingly, government grew dramatically during the four years of the Civil War. The Union printed greenbacks, founded the U.S. Secret Service to protect the fiat money (the second federal police force, the first having been set up after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), taxed incomes, promoted university education, built war factories and railroads, raised tariffs, declared—in some places—martial law and suspended freedoms of speech and habeas corpus, used troops to break labor strikes, and encouraged mobs to do what it believed it could not do openly.

In the South, President Jefferson Davis nullified the Confederate constitution almost from day one. Davis often ignored Congress and his own vice president, and he used the full power of his office to harass any political opposition. Most notably, through fraud Davis shut down the one opposition to develop, the classical-liberal Conservative Party of North Carolina. The Confederate States of America (CSA) taxed incomes, excess profits, and licenses, and raised tariffs on imports as well as exports. Because currency flowed only intermittently throughout the South, the CSA printed an outrageous amount of paper currency and established—to the horror of average southerners—the Tax-In-Kind men, empowered by the government to take whatever livestock, produce, and materiel they deemed necessary for the war effort. Unlike the North, the South conscripted throughout much of the war, set prices, and enforced loyalty oaths. The CSA, contrary to popular memory, also rigorously enforced its own laws against the several states making up the Confederacy.

With the collapse of the Confederate government, no confederate laws continued, of course. With the end of the war the Union repealed many, if not most, of its war measures. The legacy and symbolism of such martial laws, however, remained into the Progressive period and beyond: If Lincoln could centralize the Union and defeat the Confederacy and slavery, could we not also use the federal government to wage war against poor standards, poverty, immigrants, or whatever any Progressive might resent? Perhaps no figure better represents this than John Wesley Powell, a Union officer who lost his arm in the 1862 Battle of Shiloh and is often regarded as the father of American Progressives. Tellingly, through the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Ethnography, Powell crafted and promoted plans to remake the West (sometimes physically) through the powers of the federal government.

Believing the federal government under Lincoln had never gone far enough, the Radicals of Reconstruction expanded the scope and reach of the federal government as quickly as possible. Not only did the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution apply the Bill of Rights to the states, but it also repositioned virtually all federal law as superior to all state and local laws, thus attenuating even further the already difficult balance of federalism. Most Reconstruction laws began in the Radical-controlled congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction, dominated by Wade. Most important, through the impetus of the Joint Committee, Congress passed a series of haphazard laws establishing martial law over various districts of the South. The rule of law, such as it was, was enforced through military rather than civilian courts. Through a series of laws Congress provided extensive funding for public schooling and welfare (direct aid) for freed slaves, and it sometimes enforced the property rights of blacks.

None of this should suggest that somehow the Radicals were, as a whole, pro-black. As the Pulitzer prize-winning historian T. H. Williams once noted, the Radicals “loved the Negro less for himself than as an instrument with which they might fasten Republican political and economic control upon the South.” In reality the Radicals were little better in their promotion of rights, dignity, and liberties of blacks than had been the plantation owners of the previous generations.

Each group—white men of the North and South—desired to manipulate the black population for its own aggrandizement and profit.

As Robert Higgs has definitively shown in his path-breaking work, Competition and Coercion, American freedmen did exceedingly well in terms of culture, economics, and literacy in the 50 years after emancipation, but did so through their own efforts and despite significant government and societal obstacles: “Free from competitive counterpressures and strongly equipped to enforce compliance, public officials could discriminate pretty much as their pleasure or caprice might dictate. Under these circumstances it was a definite blessing for the blacks that the governments of the post-bellum South were still quite limited in the range of functions to which they attended. Such salvation as the black man found, he found in the private sector.”

Not surprisingly, given the abusive attitudes white Radicals held toward American blacks, corruption proved endemic to the entire Reconstruction effort. So much money flowed from Congress into the reconstructed South that manipulators and opportunists profited wherever and whenever possible, which was more often than not. The Reconstruction governments simply had no manpower or will to prevent the corruption. They often participated directly in the corruption, using it for political gain. The famous nineteenth-century Scottish observer of America, James Bryce, recorded his own thoughts on the period in The American Commonwealth: “Such a Saturnalia of robbery and jobbery has seldom been seen in any civilized country, and certainly never before under the forms of a free self-government.” He compared the American officials of Reconstruction to Roman provincial governors in the last days of the Republic:

Greed was unchecked and roguery unabashed. The methods of plunder were numerous. Every branch of administration became wasteful. Public contracts were jobbed, and the profits shared. Extravagant salaries were paid to legislators; extravagant charges allowed for all sorts of work done at the public cost. But perhaps the commonest form of robbery, and that conducted on the largest scale, was for the legislature to direct the issue of bonds in aid of a railroad or other public work, these bonds being then delivered to contractors who sold them, shared the proceeds with the governing ring, and omitted to execute the work. Much money was however taken in an even more direct fashion from the state treasury or from that of the local authority; and as not only the guardians of the public funds, but even, in many cases, the courts of law, were under the control of the thieves, discovery was difficult and redress unattainable. In this way the industrious and property-holding classes saw the burdens of the state increase, with no power of arresting the process.

While almost all white leftist historians have downplayed or ignored this corruption since the 1960s, they have done so at great peril to the dictates of honesty and truth.

As they had failed to do with Lincoln in the attempted congressional coup of December 1862, the Radicals tried to gain control of President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet with the Tenure of Office Act. When Johnson violated this law in February 1868, the House of Representatives impeached him on a strict party-line vote, 126-47. The failure of the Senate to support the House’s impeachment undercut the strength and confidence of the Radicals. Indeed, though Radical regimes remained in power until 1876, the Radicals never again wielded the same kind of power as they had in the second half of the 1860s.

In part the Radicals also failed because Ulysses S. Grant never accepted the fanatical premises on which Radicalism had developed. A moderate Republican at best, Grant resented the postwar bloodthirstiness of the Radicals, few of whom had ever seen battle. Despite this, Grant was a determined nationalist and, when he was not dealing with the corruption in his own administration, he was promoting “Americanness” wherever possible. This became most clear in his policy toward the American Indians.

U.S. government relations with the Indians had never been consistent. They had gravitated between vicious brutality (as had been the case under Andrew Jackson) and respect and protection of Indian property (such as under Franklin Pierce). After the Civil War, under the Johnson and Grant administrations, the U.S. government waged a fierce war against the Indians, confiscating their best property, relegating what remained of the tribes to the worst land. The greatest atrocity committed by the federal government against the Indians came just at the very end of Reconstruction. After a tragic misunderstanding, the military decided to round up, forcibly remove, and detain a sizable minority of the Nez Perce Indians, a tribe faithfully allied to America since 1805. When the Nez Perce understandably resisted, the government spared neither time nor expense to defeat them. As The Nation reported in 1877:

How far the Indian insurrection on the Pacific Slope is for the present suppressed is not decided, but it were well, while its lesson is fresh, to realize that the Nez-Perces are not to blame for the expensive and sanguinary campaign, unless being goaded into a brief madness by the direct and endless oppression of our Federal authorities be blameworthy. . . . [T]he neglect and bad faith of the general Government, continued for a quarter of a century, are apparent in the records of Congress. There was swindling, not in petty matters and by individuals, requiring detection and proof, but on a grand scale by the United States itself.

It would be difficult to find a more telling example of government corruption and abuse of power during this period than the directing of the military against a peaceful, allied people, farmers and ranchers who had been occupying the same land—the Palouse and Camas Prairies of the Pacific Northwest—for nearly 500 years.

Nation-building always and everywhere demands conformity and destruction of local and individual differences. To overcome such divisions, the builders must create a religious type of myth and fundamental symbols to rally the population and with which to defend the new nation with unrelenting force. The Reconstruction government did all of this without apology, and immigrants (especially Roman Catholics), blacks, and Indians suffered intensely. “Nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism,” E. L. Godkin, one of the great classical liberals of the day and the founder of The Nation, noted in hindsight in 1900. “We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors.” Americans, Godkin argued, had forsaken the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution. Further, he wrote, “The great party which boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and of citizenship now listens in silence to proclamations of White Supremacy.”

Men who had fought valiantly on the battlefields of the Civil War must have asked themselves what, if anything, it had all meant.

  • Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and teaches courses on the Civil War, the American West, and twentieth century Christian humanism. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.