Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Emancipation & Reconstruction

I wrote about emancipation back in May and hinted about the continuance of slavery like conditions in the South for many years after the 13th Amendment was passed. My focus in that post was on Lincoln’s move toward the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had to wait to issue his proclamation until the right time in the war. An angle on black freedom which deserves more attention is the Confederate move in the direction of emancipation. Bruce Levine has recently written a concise but important and searching book on Confederate Emancipation. Levine details but does not explore the similarities of what the Confederates wanted from emancipation and what actually happened in terms of black freedom following the failure of Reconstruction. The four major figures in terms of plans for Confederate emancipation who Levine discusses are General Patrick R. Cleburne, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis. These men rightly saw that what Lincoln and the Union proposed would be revolutionary for the Southern society they enjoyed. In reaction to this, Cleburne, Benjamin, Lee and Davis attempted a counterrevolution by trying to create a scheme for having both black freedom and black subjugation at the same time. It is worth quoting Levine’s description of the Confederate conception of the Southern future at length.

“They hoped to win black cooperation with an offer of freedom. But the freedom they expected to actually grant would be severely circumscribed. The former slaves would cease to be the property of individual masters. They would gain the legal rights to marry, to learn to read, to attend church, to own property, and to sign contracts. But they would receive no land at the point of emancipation. To survive, therefore, they would have to return to the white landowners and work for them. And to make certain that they did so and that they worked intensively, for long hours, and in return for only a bare subsistence, the Confederate government and the individual southern states and locales would (as Prof. Frederick A. Porcher put it) ‘make statutes for the regulation of labour.’ And the former slaves would be unable to block or change those or any other statutes because they would also lack any important political rights, including the rights to vote and hold office.” (p. 154).

As we take each of these things in turn, we should remember that Reconstruction spanned only the terms of Presidents Johnson and Grant, both of whom had no commitment to the more radical aspects of Lincoln’s vision of what America should be about. The only one of the Civil War Amendments which Andrew Johnson approved of was the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”, my emphasis). His opposition to the 14th and 15th Amendments, along with everything else which the Radical Republicans in Congress tried, got Johnson impeached and nearly removed from office. In the fall of 1865, Johnson revoked General Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 which confiscated land in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida along the Atlantic coast and had it set aside in 40 acre blocks for freedmen and their families. This order is the likely origin of the famous “40 acres and a mule” phrase. Lincoln had approved this move by Sherman in the spring of 1865. Johnson vetoed bills to renew and strengthen the Freedmen’s Bureau. He also vetoed the Civil Rights Act (1866), the First Reconstruction Act, the Second Reconstruction Act, and so on. Johnson not coincidentally had more of his vetoes overridden than any other President. In the Freedman’s Bureau veto Johnson states: “The Congress of the United States has never, heretofore, thought itself competent to establish asylums beyond the limits of the District of Columbia, except for the benefit of our disabled soldiers and sailors. It has never founded schools for any class of our own people, not even for the orphans of those who have fallen in the defence of the Union, but has left the care of their education to the much more competent and efficient control of the States, of communities, of private associations, and of individuals” (my emphasis). Recall the last line of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations” (my emphasis). Without invoking Lincoln directly, Johnson is rejecting the sweeping social changes implied in Lincoln’s words, and more importantly, in the bill the Congress had drawn up. Johnson, despite being the only Southern Senator to oppose secession, showed his alliance with the Confederate vision when it came to black political rights. Johnson said to an African American delegation which included Frederick Douglass that giving suffrage to blacks would lead to a race war ending in “the extermination of one or the other [race].” It can be seen from the above details that Johnson’s claim in the Freedmen’s Bureau veto that “I have, with Congress, the strongest desire to secure to the freedmen the full enjoyment of their freedom and their property and their entire independence and equality in making contracts for their labor” is shown to be hollow, which is exactly the lack of commitment the former Confederates needed to enact their program.

Johnson’s successor, US Grant, was not a racist and was willing to correct the “wrong” of blacks being denied their civil rights. After having said that in his Second Inaugural Address (1873) Grant continued, “Social equality is not a subject to be legislated upon, nor shall I ask that anything be done to advance the social status of the colored man, except to give him a fair chance to develop what there is good in him, give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and fare he will receive.” In other words, nothing was to be done about the labor conditions of the South. Most African Americans in the South had little choice but to return to work for their former masters under an exploitative situation which was similar to slavery. Grant also declared in this Address that all of the “States lately at war with the General Government are now happily rehabilitated” which meant the end of “Executive control” in those States. As soon as a State could be “redeemed” by Southern Democrats, the business of writing Jim Crow laws could begin. By the time Rutherford B. Hayes’ took office in 1877, Federal troops only remained in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida (3 of the States whose electoral votes were in dispute and also whose votes ultimately got Hayes elected). After the removal of these troops, Republican governments in all three states dissipated and Reconstruction ended unfinished.

This result, a failed Reconstruction, did not lead to “a new birth of freedom” as Lincoln had put it in his Gettysburg Address. The outright hostility or simple disinterest in the project of Reconstruction from Johnson and Grant and the acquiescence by Hayes on the end of Reconstruction have had a lasting impact on what Lincoln described as the “leading object” of government: “to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit to all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” It was not obscure figures who advocated emancipation within the Confederacy—it hardly needs to be said however that emancipation was not a popular position to take. Their vision for the South ought to have been clear to Johnson, Grant and Hayes. Though the Confederates did not win their independence or preserve chattel slavery, losing the Civil War and winning the battle over Reconstruction led to a white supremacist Southern home rule which lasted nearly a century. Although it is impossible to determine exactly what course of action Lincoln would have taken on Reconstruction had he lived, Lincoln’s successors distanced themselves from his views which would have aided the integration of the Republic.