Black Reconstruction


Henry Adams on Ulysses S. Grant

I present here a short gem from the good old days when politicians and other public figures knew how to sling some zingers like pros. These are the thoughts of Henry Adams, a writer and historian as well as the grandson and great-grandson (respectively) of presidents John Quincy Adams and John Adams (sixth and second President of the United States, respectively), on Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Civil War general and president, as recorded in his autobiography.

He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Reconstruction Under Lincoln

The greatest mark of the Reconstruction Era is perhaps its failure to effectively unite and rebuild the United States after the Civil War. If President Abraham Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term as president, the Reconstruction Era would have been smoother in its goal of reintegrating the South back into the Union but would have been the same as that under Andrew Johnson in its failure to fully account for, reckon with, and make amends for the evils of the past. In this failure, it would have created a similar situation to that which did occur in which oppression and disenfranchisement followed slavery and in which the real work of achieving equality and justice for all was slowed and delayed until a much later date.

As historian Eric Foner points out, “Lincoln did not … believe that Reconstruction entailed social and political changes beyond the abolition of slavery.”1 In this belief, Lincoln failed miserably to understand human nature and societies or ignored reality in favor of his own hopes and ideals. Whatever the reason for his belief, such a course of action would have been a recipe for disaster. To simply end the war and to end slavery without simultaneously working to eliminate the root and underlying causes behind why a clearly unjust institution like slavery was able to flourish in the American South in the first place, to attempt to balance the injustice by providing some form of monetary compensation and/or education as well as full citizenship rights to those who had suffered such an injustice, and to institute the proper laws and organizations for preventing future injustice is a remarkably great oversight on the part of someone remembered for their wisdom and thoughtfulness.

Lincoln had begun his first term as president expressing a desire to maintain the Union in peace at nearly any coast. His approach throughout the Civil War had indicated “a desire to achieve peace as expeditiously as possible.”2 Similarly, his approach to Reconstruction was largely one without any “fixed plan” aside from reattaching the South to the United States as quickly and easily as possible. For the most part, this did not mean fighting to procure social justice for former slaves nor, for that matter, any significant change in Southern culture, in which a deeply-entrenched and violently hateful racism inhered.

This unwillingness by Lincoln to “rock the boat” is reflected in Lincoln’s views concerning black voting rights. In modern liberal democracies and republicans like the United States full citizenship is reflected in one’s right to participate in one’s government by voting and having the right to run for political office. If one cannot participate in government, one is not a full citizen, in any meaningful sense, of a democracy. Lincoln’s rejection, then, of full political enfranchisement for freed slaves was a rejection of their full citizenship and, by implication, of their full personhood.3

Although Lincoln is often hailed as hero for having ended slavery in the United States and this heroic image and reputation leads many to believe the post-war years would have seen greater achievements and improvements, the truth seems rather to be that Reconstruction would not have taken place much differently under Lincoln than under Johnson. Lincoln’s policies before and during the Civil War reflect first and foremost a desire to restore the Union. No doubt his post-war policies would have reflected the same desire. Reconstruction under Lincoln, then, might have seen a smoother transition of the South into the Union than occurred under Johnson but would have seen a similar, if not grater, intentional ignorance of justice for former slaves.

1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 36.

2 Ibid., 73-4.

3 Ibid., 74.

The Failure of Reconstruction

Some have adopted extreme views of Reconstruction, even during Reconstruction itself, which have painted it as a vengeful punishment which the North inflicted on the South following the Civil War or, on the other hand, as a noble, even if perhaps misguided and obviously failed, attempt to reform the South along more egalitarian or even industrial lines. Others have conceded that Reconstruction is not accurately described by either of these extremes but was the best that could be done given the circumstances the nation found itself in. On the contrary, however, Reconstruction, when viewed in its totality, instead seems to be, like much else that results from the unique politics of the United States, a sort of compromise situation which satisfied almost nobody and disappointed nearly everybody. As a result, the legacy of Reconstruction is, like Reconstruction itself, a haphazard mix of positive and negative.

Although Southerners tended to view Reconstruction as an exercise in revenge on the part of the North, the reality is that there were very few punishments put on even the highest levels of Confederate leadership. For instance, although some Confederate leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, were jailed for a short period, none of the highest ranking or most important Confederate leaders nor average soldiers of the Confederate military were tried, convicted, or punished for treason, although there were voices in the North that wanted them to be. The worst punishment against those who had supported and worked within the Confederacy was to be barred from voting, but even this punishment was removed after only a few years.

Similarly, although many Northerners and some Southerners, especially the carpetbaggers who moved from the North and the scalawags, viewed Reconstruction as an attempt to reform the South along industrial and egalitarian lines, and although some historians have also painted Reconstruction this way, this is hardly an accurate portrayal of the full width and depth of Reconstruction. Rather than any attempt to fundamentally alter the Southern way of life, the larger part of Reconstruction was an attempt to reattach the South to the Union in as expeditious as a manner as possible. Particularly under President Johnson, this often meant conceding to Southern demands even against the interests of the greatest defenders of the Union, members of the Republican Party, and the newly freed blacks of the South.

Because of the haphazard nature of Reconstruction, in which concessions rather than the real interests of either side generally predominated and in which the interests of the weaker and less respected members of society, especially blacks, were often forgotten and rolled over, the legacy of Reconstruction is in large part one of division and necessary reform deferred. While the Union had the ability to integrate freed slaves and other blacks more fully into American society, giving them a place in the political, economic, and social fabric of the country, prejudices and personal political concerns prevented this from happening. Similarly, the Union could have sent a much stronger message to Southerners through adequately punishing former Confederate leadership and those who violated the civil rights of blacks following the war. Had the government done this and enforced the law properly, the entire era of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and segregation could have been prevented, as could many of the socio-economic ramifications of this era that continue to this day in the United States.

The Reconstruction failed to meet the needs of the nation at one of its most important junctures. In short, like much in American politics, the Reconstruction was largely a series of concessions and attempts at middle ground that in trying to please everyone satisfied no one. Had a stronger leader taken charge after the death of Abraham Lincoln and carried out a process of Reconstruction that met the needs of the United States at that time, many more years of hardship and conflict in the United States could have been prevented.