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The Legacy of the Failure of Reconstruction and the Continuation of Racism in the US
This was a presentation made at LaborFest on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln by CUNY Lecturer Carol Lang.
The Legacy of the Failure of Reconstruction and
the Continuation of Racism in the United States
By Carol Lang
The American Civil War had to be one of the most important transitional periods in the American economy. Divided into Northern free labor economy and into a Southern slave economy since its inception, the situation drastically shifted by the 1850s where the equilibrium which had existed until then was beginning to break down. The North and South both integrally involved in each other’s economy had been changing with the North becoming more restless to achieve hegemony, while the south was afraid of losing its place in the sun. The South hoping to move west with the USs newly gained territories after the Mexican American War, would not be allowed to do so by an aggressive economy in the North. Compromises were reached never really satisfying either of the parties. The South hoped to be able to give land to the poor farmers who had none in order to stave off rebellion. The plantocracy hoped to achieve land through the spoils of war. The North, hoping to move its industrialization westward could not allow the South hegemony. No longer could these two regions remain as equals. The slave owners understanding this dilemma chose a way out but did not ask the people’s permission – they seceded from the union. With the victory of the North the southern states became the junior partner to the victorious, more dominant economy. The United States’ economy took off. In fighting the Civil War, Lincoln, no radical himself, did little to change race relations in the US. It wasn’t until 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation was promulgated. Some have compared it to a bill of lading.
So as a disclaimer I’m offering an explanation about the inadequacy of this attempt to put something together. Given the enormity and the complexity of the topic there is no way to satisfactorily deal with such a complex issue in a pamphlet. The topic is too large for such a limited space so this is just a stab at looking at the complexity of the issue without getting to the bottom of it.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
What an astounding piece of non literature. Lincoln in his previous speeches mastered the art of flowery speechmaking and yet in the Emancipation Proclamation which will bestow freedom only on those slaves who happen to reside in the states that are in active rebellion as opposed to those states that have remained loyal to the union, this is the best that he could do. Lincoln also cautions “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”
So was the Emancipation Proclamation important in liberating the slaves or was it a byproduct of some other reason? As part of this essay I’d like to explore this question but this essay will also look at the relationship between slavery and capitalism and the nature of reconstruction and racism in the US today.
President Lincoln, a one-time corporate lawyer working for the railroads, had a moral dislike for slavery but his penchant for defense of capitalism trumped his own personal dislike for slavery. Thus “this plays out in his handling of cases related to slavery.”
According to Lynn Parramore,. “Though Lincoln was a lifelong opponent of slavery, he would represent the interests of slave owners, such as runaway recover, when he was paid to do so.” The Civil War had become not only an economic struggle between free labor and slave labor but it had become a political issue, that is which side was to be in charge of the nation’s political direction. After the war of independence the very shaky 13 states agreed to accept slavery as the economic strategy of the southern states although people such as Alexander Hamilton opposed it on both moral and economic grounds. In order to cohere as a nation the north essentially agreed to cede power to the south; i.e. moving the capital from NY to Washington DC where the southern states stood on much firmer ground. The two systems were so integrally enmeshed that capitalism, that is the exploitation of free labor, would not have developed to the extent that it had had it not been for slavery. Moreover, without the institution of slavery, neither northern capitalism nor international capital would have thrived to the extent that it did. Much of the North’s economy was built not only on the slave trade but it was built on shipping which was completely bound up with the slave trade. New York City’s economy was built on shipping and banking which made money off of the sale of cotton to Britain in order that British factories could continue to run. Both the Banks of NY and the Bank of Boston were established in 1784.To understand the cotton plantations you have to understand the world economy not just the national economy.
According to Douglas Harper “American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 100 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860. Nearly 40% of Britain’s exports were cotton textiles, 75% of the cotton that supplied Britain’s cotton mills came from the American South, and the labor that produced that cotton came from slaves.Cotton went from accounting for less than ¼ of all American exports in 1781 to more than 2/3 in 1836. “On the eve of the Revolution, the slave trade “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England.”
It wove itself into the entire regional economy of New England. The Massachusetts slave trade gave work to coopers, tanners, sailmakers, and ropemakers. Countless agents, insurers, lawyers, clerks, and scriveners handled the paperwork for slave merchants. Upper New England loggers, Grand Banks, fishermen, and livestock farmers provided the raw materials shipped to the West Indies on that leg of the slave trade. Colonial newspapers drew much of their income from advertisements of slaves for sale or hire. New England-made rum, trinkets, and bar iron were exchanged for slaves. When the British in 1763 proposed a tax on sugar and molasses, Massachusetts merchants pointed out that these were staples of the slave trade, and the loss of that would throw 5,000 seamen out of work in the colony and idle almost 700 ships. The connection between molasses and the slave trade was rum. Millions of gallons of cheap rum, manufactured in New England, went to Africa and bought black people. Tiny Rhode Island had more than 30 distilleries, 22 of them in Newport. In Massachusetts, 63 distilleries produced 2.7 million gallons of rum in 1774. Some was for local use: rum was ubiquitous in lumber camps and on fishing ships. But primarily rum was linked with the Negro trade, and immense quantities of the raw liquor were sent to Africa and exchanged for slaves. So important was rum on the Guinea Coast that by 1723 it had surpassed French and Holland brandy, English gin, trinkets and dry goods as a medium of barter.
Slaves costing the equivalent of £4 or £5 in rum or bar iron in West Africa were sold in the West Indies in 1746 for £30 to £80. New England thrift made the rum cheaply -- production cost was as low as 5½ pence a gallon -- and the same spirit of Yankee thrift discovered that the slave ships were most economical with only 3 feet 3 inches of vertical space to a deck and 13 inches of surface area per slave, the human cargo laid in carefully like spoons in a silverware case.
What was true for the American colonies was also true for Britain. In Capitalism and Slavery Eric Williams demonstrates the exponential rise of capitalist profits because of the institution of slavery. He writes:
The growth of Manchester was intimately associated with the growth of Liverpool, its outlet to the sea and the world market. The capital accumulated by Liverpool from the slave trade pursued into the hinterland to fertilize the energies of Manchester; Manchester goods for Africa were taken to the coast in the Liverpool slave vessels. Lancashire’s foreign market meant chiefly the West Indian plantations and Africa. The export trade was 14,000 in 1739; in 1759 it had increased nearly eight times; in 1779 it was 303,000. Up to 1770 one-third of this export went to the slave coast, one half to the American and West Indian colonies. It was this tremendous dependence on the triangular trade that made Manchester.
And so the merchants in the shipping industry counseled the government not to abolish slavery.
Another aspect of capitalist development in Britain was the direct investment in slaves. According to Edward E. Baptist’s article “Toxic Debt, Liar Loans and Securitized Human Beings The Panic of 1837” and the fate of slavery“By the 1830s, the cotton that enslaved people grew in the new states and territories taken from Native Americans in the early nineteenth century was the most widely traded commodity in the world. First Britain, and then the US and then the rest of Western Europe achieved sustained rates of economic growth never before seen in human history.”
Moreover, Baptist writes:
For everyone who drew profit in the system, enslaved human beings were the ultimate hedge. Cotton merchants, bankers, slave traders-everybody whose money the planter borrowed and could not pay until the time the cotton was sold at a high enough price to pay off his or her debts-all could expect that eventually enslaved people would either 1) make enough cotton to enable the planter to get clear or 2) be sold in order to generate the liquidity to pay off the debt. In 1824, Vincent Nolte, a freewheeling entrepreneur who almost corned the New Orleans cotton market more than once in the 1810s, lent $48,000 to Louisiana-based enslaver Alonzo Walsh. The terms? Walsh had to pay the money back in four years at a rate of about eight percent. To secure payment he committed to consigning his entire crop each year to Nolte to be sold in Liverpool. And, just in case, he provided collateral: “from 90 to 100 head of first rate slaves will be mortgaged.’ In 1824 those nearly five score people meant up to $80,000 on the New Orleans auction block-a form of property whose value fluctuated less than bales of cotton.
Therefore, slavery a necessity for the growth of capitalism had not become a moral issue of the nation except for the abolitionists and for the slaves who pushed continuously for its ending. Consequently, according to Lincoln in his argument with Horace Greeley about the abolition of slavery as an issue central to the Civil War, Lincoln argued:
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the National authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ If there be those who would save the Union unless they at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with that. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union with freeingany slave, I would do it; and if I could do it by feeing all the slaves, I would do it. And If I could do it be freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
This hideous position allowed Lincoln to call for the repatriating of Blacks who began to leave the plantations in 1861. While escaping slaves were moving toward the Union camps, “Major General Henry Halleck issued orders barring them from federal lines. It was not the army’s role, Halleck wrote, ‘to decide upon the relation of master to man.’ As far as he and Lincoln were concerned, slaves like stray cattle, were private property and were to be returned to their legal owners.” Thus the Civil War according to Lincoln had little or nothing to do with the moral question of keeping people in bondage; it had only to do with keeping the union together.
So why propose such a document as flawed as it was? The Proclamation was written in response to a variety of factors. For one, Britain which had enjoyed a free flow of cotton to its textile mills was no longer receiving cotton and so many of the mills were being shutdown causing tremendous unemployment among the factory workers. Britain decided to throw its lot in with the South in order to keep its industry going and Lincoln feared that with workers dying of starvation there would be little support in Britain against intervention. The workers, though, were more concerned with the plight of the enslaved people than was Lincoln. Karl Marx reports: “At the same moment that the haughty gentlemen of the ruling class were shouting for war between sips of gin, British workers were standing firm against the war with the United States.”
He writes in the Tribune in 1862 that
it ought never to be forgotten in the United States at least the working class of England, from the commencement to the determination of the difficulty, have never forsaken them. To them it was due that, despite the poisonous stimulants daily administered by a venal and reckless press, not one single public war meeting could be held in the United Kingdom during all the period that peace trembled in the balance.
And so it was the English working class which denied Palmerston (PM) the ability to intervene in the American Civil War. In the face of this tremendous “oversight” and embarrassment Lincoln reluctantly crafted the Emancipation Proclamation while British workers were starving for lack of raw materials. Moreover, the enslaved people were fleeing the plantations and attempted to offer themselves to the Federal troops in order to end the institution of slavery. Lincoln, by no means a radical Republican, understood the necessity of making strategic shifts in his thinking. He moved slowly and cautiously but did understand the need to move in a more radical direction. If capitalism was not only to survive and prosper economically it would have to be the victor over the more complicated system of slavery. Thus slavery would not be allowed to move westward as the slave owners hoped. Their intention, especially after the victory of the Americans in the Mexican – American war was to incorporate the southern states to the west into the slave economy in order to assure the poor whites that they too had a stake in the system and would thus be able to secure land for themselves. The northern manufacturers wished, on the other hand, to move their railroads and markets westward. The South would no longer be able to retain the upper hand. The bargain struck at the beginning of the American experiment would now be overturned. Lynn Parramore in AlterNet quotes:
There is no doubt about the deep involvement of railroads and allied business interests in the Lincoln candidacy from its earliest days. Nor is there any question that the lawyer who made a famous argument on behalf of the rights of railroads to build bridges anywhere won the nomination by garnering crucial support from iron manufacturers, coal mining interests, and other firms intent upon tariffs, land grants, and other national developmental measures.
The Civil War was thus a necessity if capitalism was to obtain dominance and there was to be cohesion around a united political perspective. The southern plantation system was either to be subjugated to northern priorities or eliminated altogether.
During the war the south experienced its own personal Civil War. David Williams in his book Bitterly Dividedexhaustingly demonstrates the profound hatred that the poor whites held for the slave owners. In fact, secession was not a debated event but a decision on the part of the rich slave owners who saw that the handwriting was on the wall for their economic priorities. Many of the poor whites starved while the rich owners bought themselves substitutes who fought in the war for them. What was at least as galling as the right to buy substitutes was the fact that the planters continued to plant cotton and tobacco and neglected planting food. Poor white farmers who were now shipped off to war, too poor to pay for their own substitutes, could not grow their own food and had often little to eat because the planters refused to grow food for fear of losing profits from their cash crops engendering even more hatred among the poor. By 1860, Williams notes:
slaveholders worried that although Abraham Lincoln was a direct threat only to slavery’s expansion, his election to the presidency might be encouragement to southern dissenters and resisters, making control all the more difficult. One planter asked nervously, ’If the poor whites realized that slavery kept them poor, would they not vote it down?’Some feared that there might soon be ‘an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men,’ another frankly admitted, ‘I mistrust our own people more than I fear all of the efforts of the Abolitionists, ’Such fears among slaveholders, though publicly unacknowledged were a major driving force behind the secession movement.
The slave owners’ worst fears were realized and poor whites began to run away and enlist in the union army. At least ¼ of the federal troops were poor southern whites. Union troops began to fill up with poor whites and Blacks who also filled the ranks. By 1863 food riots took place in the South disrupting the war for the slave owners even further. In combination with better weapons this circumstance was one of the most important factors in the South’s defeat. Desertions in many cases cost companies more than half their men.
So why with all of this anti-planter sentiment did the Southern plantocracy manage to undermine the gains that Blacks made because of the Civil War. The system that was ushered in, especially after the removal of the troops in 1877 from Louisiana and South Carolina, was one that nearly equaled the repression that had existed before the war. There had been many victories for Blacks during the period of reconstruction although none had been guaranteed. The Klan made its debut in 1866 intending on redeeming the South for the planters. Blacks had been elected to their state assemblies, had gone to school, managed to be reunited with their families who had been sold away to different owners but even with the passage of the 15th Amendment giving Black men the right to vote ultimately the violence of the Klan and the collaboration of the bourgeoisie with the planters in the south wrenched away all the gains that had been won by the newly freed people. The other element that went into this mix was the fact that the Northern white working class, although becoming more and more class conscious continued to hold on to their racist prejudices ultimately undermining what could have become a powerful working class challenge to the newly emboldened but fast becoming conservative Republican Party. WEB Du Bois sites in his book Black Reconstruction circumstances where white workers, rather than supporting Black workers by forging alliances abandoned their Black brethren. Du Bois writes:
The first Congress of the (white) National Labor Union meeting in 1866 addressed the issue of Black labor. The Union called for the organization of trade unions and 8 hour Leagues among Blacks, to prevent the employers from using them against white labor. In 1869 the NLU urged Black workers to organize separately ‘through this separate union.’ Negro labor would be restrained from competition and yet kept out of the white race union where power and discussion lay.
In yet another example of what has become the single most important question for the American working class, that is the race issue, Du Bois writes:
In NYC 8 hour day parade in 1871 8,000 marched behind the red flag bearing the slogan, “Workingmen of All Countries, Unite!” A company of Frenchmen carried a banner inscribed “Comite International” and were greeted with cries “Vive la Commune!”
but there was no attempt by the same workers to look south to create unity between Black and white workers.
By 1886 with the formation of the American Federation of Labor the racism displayed in the examples written above were codified in the very institution that was designed to protect labor. The American Federation of Labor formed Jim Crow unions which kept both Black and women workers out. The union was designed to organize craft workers who constituted the better off white male workers. The structure of the union fed into the racism of the more aristocratic workers.
Before Lincoln’s assassination and before the clear divisions arose within the Republican party that manifested itself more overtly after Lincoln’s death, Lincoln had strong-armed the Congress into passing the 13th amendment ending the bondage of enslaved people. No person could be made to be a slave because of the color of his/her skin. According to the amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”. The caveat except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…although noticed by some Radical Republicans, was left in the final version of the amendment opening the door for what had virtually become a mirror of the anti bellum south during the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th. Charles Sumner argues “unless I err, there is an implication from those words that men may be enslaved as a punishment of crimes whereof they shall have been duly convicted.” Sumner said the words, “do no good there, but they absolutely introduce a doubt.” Thus Lincoln left a loophole even in the most important amendment to the constitution for the reintroduction of slavery, not by design but unfortunately in fact. Both the South and the North took advantage of this during the period right after Reconstruction.
After Lincoln was killed Andrew Johnson became President. A son of the south, a relatively poor farmer with only 5 slaves, repeatedly stated his hatred for the planters although his hatred for Blacks became the more important issue. The struggle for hegemony within the Republican Party took the form of the more conservative elements around Johnson in opposition to the Radicals led by people such as Thaddeus Stevens and Chares Sumner. But for Du Bois “In NY and Boston men engaged in foreign commerce wanted speedy restoration of the South and a reduction in the tariff to increase the business.”. All southerners except for high-ranking Confederate army officers and government officials would be granted a full pardon. Lincoln guaranteed southerners that he would protect their private property, though not their slaves, if they took a loyalty oath. By 1864, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas had established fully functioning Unionist governments. Johnson while professing hatred for the planters allowed them back into the union with only a promise of loyalty. Over the period of his presidency he made it easier and easier for the planters to apply for re-admittance to the union. Pardons would be granted to those taking a loyalty oath.
No pardons would be available to high Confederate officials and persons owning property valued in excess of $20,000
A state needed to abolish slavery before being readmitted
A state was required to repeal its secession ordinance before being readmitted.
Most of the seceded states began compliance with the president’s program. Congress was not in session, so there was no immediate objection from that quarter. However, Congress reconvened in December and refused to seat the Southern representatives.
But many of the racist whites that did hold office previously came back into the union reshaping constitutions that would eventually deprive Blacks of their civil rights.
By the end of the Civil War US manufacturing had increased so much so that by the 1890s the US was Britain’s major competitor. By the 1880s New York had become the money capital of the United States.
“The Gilded Age saw the greatest period of economic growth in American history. Even with the panic of 1873, the economy recovered with the advent of hard money policies and industrialization. From 1869 to 1879, the US economy grew at a rate of 6.8%. The economy repeated this period of growth in the 1880s, in which the wealth of the nation grew at an annual rate of 3.8%, while the GDP was also doubled.” The North had achieved this most important success through its victory over the south – capitalist development had taken off. Railroads and land grants to fund the railroads exploded. Markets went westward sending capital westward but not southward.
Reconstruction and the subsequent period that followed must be viewed within the context of this fast paced industrial development. Both Presidential Reconstruction and the more Radical Reconstruction had to contend with this material reality although Johnson’s particular lack of concern for the freed people reflects his roots as a southern small time planter with a passionate hatred for Blacks. The actual decline of reconstruction and the movement to reinstate the planters came during the period of the decline of Radical Reconstruction.
Johnson’s lack of concern for extending protections to Blacks was not only due to racism, but the southern dislike of taxes and large federal budgets. Moreover, Johnson supported the idea of states’ rights. To support the Freedman’s Bureau which was designed to protect Blacks would have cost the federal government money, so at its peak there were no more than 900 agents in the entire South. There was so little concern for Blacks who were being systematically targeted by the Klan that Johnson did little to protect them. According to Eric Foner in his book A Short History of Reconstruction “the union army rapidly demobilized after the war, plummeting from 1 million on May 1, 1865 to 38,000, many of them stationed on the Indian frontier, by the fall of 1866.” Moreover, Black Codes, Vagrancy Laws and Literacy Tests were ushered in by 1865. In an article by Danny Weil inTruthout he writes:
“In 1865, following the Civil War, most southern states passed black codes that restricted the rights of newly-freed slaves, to deprive them of their liberty and to continue to allow these states to profit from their labor.” He goes on to write:
Negroes must make annual contracts for their labor in writing; if they should run away from their tasks, they forfeited their wages for the year. Whenever it was required of them they must present licenses…citing their places of residence and authorizing them to work. Fugitives from labor were to be arrested and carried back to their employers…It was made a misdemeanor, punishable with fine or imprisonment, to persuade a freedman to leave his employer, or to feed the runaway. Minors were to be apprenticed, if males until they were 21, if females until 18 years of age. Such corporal punishment as a father would administer to a child might be inflicted upon apprentices by their masters. Vagrants were to be fined heavily, and if they could not pay the sum, they were to be hired out to service until the claim was satisfied. Negroes might not carry knives or firearms unless they were licensed so to do. It was an offence (sic), to be punished by a fine of $50 and imprisonment for 30 days, to give or sell intoxicating liquors to a Negro. When Negroes could not pay the fines and costs after legal proceedings, they were to be hired at public outcry by the sheriff to the lowest bidder.
Military regulators forbade blacks to travel without passes nor were they allowed to be out on the street at night. Vagrants were rounded up to work on the land. Even payments were held to the end of the year allowing planters to get an interest free loan. According to Foner:
No less committed to the President’s program were influential Northerners who beloved the speedy revival of cotton production essential for the nation’s economic health.” Foner goes on to write: “
King Cotton may have been dethroned, but as the nation’s leading export it remained, as the New York Times put it, ‘a magnate of the very first rank.’ The trade in the ‘white gold’ was crucial to the wealthy merchants who dominated the economic life of Boston, Philadelphia, New York and other commercial centers, and to a wide range of businessmen and professionals such as lawyers, banks, insurance brokers, and ship-owners. Without a speedy revival of cotton production, they believed, Southerners could never repay their pre-war debts, New England textile factories would have to close and the nation would be unable to earn enough foreign exchange to resume specie payments and pay its overseas indebtedness.
And so the beginnings of an alliance between the northern bourgeois and the southern planters began to be forged. The majority of the northern Republicans were not radical. Not only did the Congress avoid building a national police force but the Civil Rights bill that passed in 1866 was directed primarily against public not private acts of discrimination and the states were given the responsibility for law enforcement. When the Radicals suggested that land be given to the freedmen “The Times” lambasted the Radicals for desiring ‘a war on property…to succeed the war on Slavery.” The Reconstruction Act passed in the 39th Congress (1865-67) allowed for the establishment of military rule as a temporary measure with the proviso that the states be readmitted to the union speedily. There were no provisions made for the freedmen.
Besides the tremendous desire to find ones family, Blacks defended their independent churches and established schools. For freedmen owning land was significant because it signaled economic independence as well. Circular 13 of the War Department allotted 40 acres to each freedman but this was eventually rescinded by Johnson. What land the freedmen did manage to acquire was taken from them (Circular 15) and given back to the planters. In fact, “Once growing crops had been harvested, virtually all the land in Bureau hands would revert to the former owners.” Economic independence for the freedman became merely a struggle over the right to vote, that is over the 15th amendment. Once the 15th Amendment was passed the government argued that there was now a level playing field politically changing the focus from economic security to political farce. Not only did the 15th amendment leave loopholes that opened the way for the political undermining of the vote itself but the Klan saw to it that the Freedman’s vote, through violence and intimidation, meant very little. The Freedman was left neither with land nor the vote. In many southern states the governors who were appointed were anti-bellum men ranging from mayors to judges and constables. The governors used patronage to attract the support of a portion of the South’s confederate leadership. Even the confederates who caused the Civil War such as Jefferson Davis and his Vice President Alexander Stephens did not suffer any real punishment because of their treasonous behavior. Jefferson Davis spent two years in federal prison but was never put on trial and Stephens served a brief imprisonment returning to Congress in 1873, ending his career as governor of Georgia. Any alternative to the white man’s rule was prohibited. Reconstruction had never been a straight road to freedom for the Freedmen. The Reconstruction Bill passed in Congress over the objections of the president and over his veto was one that attempted to protect the newly freed people with a national military force but that was only to be temporary and was a way of assuming speedy recognition of southerners who had not yet been allowed back into the union. The South had reinstated, through the help of Johnson many of the former corrupt southern confederates who had ruled in the anti bellum south. These men continued to make the rules that would govern all southerners and would have a devastating impact on the Freedmen. The Radicals attempted to address this but were for the most part ineffectual.
Unsatisfied with Johnson’s racial policies, that is his lack of protection for Blacks, Radical Republicans hoped to oust Johnson by impeaching him from office but when this proved more difficult than they expected Grant ran against Johnson. Their program was predicated upon the rights of Black people enjoying the same Civil Rights as whites. The Black Codes instituted by the Johnson administration would have to be repealed. This meant in a word that Blacks would not only have the right to vote but should enjoy all the other rights that were afforded to whites. That would then challenge the racist establishment and begin to redress the discriminatory acts of Presidential Reconstruction. The radical reformers did believe that equality of the races could only be achieved by suffrage. Blacks had obtained seats in their local legislatures; they had become judges and lawyers and had to some extent attained a degree of equality before the law. But this was short-lived and mostly an ineffective strategy because most of the Republican Party did not call for the redistribution of the planters land leaving the Freedmen with few economic resources. Believing that the Black vote was all but guaranteed to the Republicans the more moderate republicans focused on the white vote adding to a downward spiral of Black rights. In order to not alienate the more conservative layers of the Republican Party, Grant ran on a ticket of fiscal responsibility and stability for Southern investment. One of the most important prizes, that is land, eluded the Freedmen because the Republican Party was unwilling, given its mixture of radical and conservative elements, to press the issue.
Many Republicans looked to the south for investment as a way of moving the planters in a more bourgeois direction, away from their traditional economic ventures with the hope that investment of this kind would spur a more liberal relationship with Blacks. This policy was unsuccessful since little investment went into the south. Massive federal aid went to the rebuilding of damaged facilities and the expansion of public services but property taxes rose sharply and treasuries were depleted of their reserves. By 1880 1/3 of the white farmers in the cotton states were tenants renting either for cash or a share of the crop. Once an area dominated by yeomen farmers had now become a commercial economy peopled by merchants, farm laborers and commercially oriented farmers. Where Blacks had discovered their own power running local governments and moving into law enforcement this was beginning to wane since many Republicans hoped to make deals with Democrats and thereby hoped to appease white voters who might object to their new assertiveness. “Democrats” writes Foner called for a turn to rule by ‘intelligent property-holders’ “ which meant the exclusion of many poor whites from government as well as Blacks who should vote “for their social betters.” Blacks were beginning to be excluded from juries with a general inability to obtain justice. “Statutes made it a criminal offense to hire a laborer already under contract; they made a laborer’s lien on the crop inferior to that of the planter and the restricted hunting and fishing laws which so many Blacks in anti-bellum south depended on to survive.”
The Klan focused on extrajudicial measures to guarantee labor discipline. Blacks who disputed their share of the proceeds from the crops were whipped. While the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870 giving Black men the right to vote, there were no provisions in it to stop discrimination based on poll taxes, literacy exams, education, etc opening the door for flagrant acts of discrimination ultimately preventing blacks from voting in any meaningful manner until the voting Rights Act of 1965. From an Illinois newspaper’s sentiment of the Northern bourgeoisie we can glean that “material support had turned away from Blacks since the 15th Amendment passed Congress. “…the negro is now a voter and a citizen ‘let him hereafter take his chances in the battle of life.” Northern Republicans spent little time, money or effort in the south – not really trying to secure seats in the legislatures for republicans who might be sympathetic to Black issues. The South was considered a step child by the Northern Republicans. Most of the money that did go south went to the railroads.
Sven Beckert in his excellent book Monied Metropolisdiscusses bourgeois New Yorkers who called for ‘less government “. Federal involvement argues Beckert declined precipitously, forming the basis for the reassertion of the former slave owning elite.”
In his chapter the “Power of Capital” Beckert writes: Burying the conflicts that had given rise to the Civil War, northern economic elites and their junior partners in the South found common ground in the shared concern with property rights and the political power of lower-class citizens. Unsurprisingly, when Jim Crow and disenfranchisement swept through the South, bourgeois New Yorkers cared little. Instead they stressed the ‘nominal equality but…actual inferiority’ of African Americans, a notion that went well with the belief in their own social or even racial superiority. The southern elite thus gained a free hand in silencing expansive claims of citizenship rights, as well as demands for the redistribution of property.
The war inspired economic boom and manufacturing output quickly resumed its upward course. The railroad became a dominant feature of industrial development.
Between 1865 and 1873 35,000 miles of track were laid. Cities like Chicago began to grow extending its economic sway over agricultural hinterlands. The railroad made fortunes for some and acted as a nationalizing force, sharply reducing transportation costs and establishing a vast national market. As the railroads developed so went coal and iron products. Hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands were given to the railroads. The politicians made vast fortunes over the sale of these lands. The National Mineral Act of 1866 dispensed millions of acres of mineral rich public land to mining companies free of charge. Between 1862 (Presidential Reconstruction, my emphasis) and 1872 (Radical Reconstruction, my emphasis) the government awarded over 100 million acres of land and millions of dollars to support railroad construction mostly to finance the transcontinental lines.
And so while the American economy was expanding and even beginning to compete with Britain, the US bourgeoisie could no longer afford sentimental feelings regarding Black rights since sympathy for the Black race was getting in the way of creating a disciplined labor force; it was necessary to speed up cotton production especially to feed the textile mills of the North. Thus, even the characterizations of Blacks changed from loyal servants during the anti-bellum period to racist caricatures depicting Blacks as ignorant and disloyal. Middle class journalists and academicians turned against Blacks crystallizing a middle class and conservative bent. Fear of radical activity, that is strikes by workers, were seen as a dangerous development. The Union which offered vast tracks of land to people who lived in congested cities could no longer offer a way out of the class struggle. The U.S. was beginning to look like Europe with all of its social ills and its radical working class movements so feared by the American bourgeoisie. Along with the depression of 1873 the railroads failed. Jay Cooke and Co. one of the largest investment bankers was no longer able to invest in the Northern Pacific Railroad opening the way for many of the railroads to default on their loans sending tidal waves throughout the economy. Workers were unemployed and many were forced to suffer substantial wage loss. By 1876 ½ the railroads had defaulted on their bonds. Workers were now concentrated in factories, encouraging long and brutal strikes. Farmers suffered as well with the fall in prices because of high production rates. Capitalists were now facing class struggle and a threat to their collective property. Railroad strikes broke out in 1877 in Martinsville, W. Va over wage cuts prompting the governor to call in the federal troops which were used for the purpose of suppressing the strike. In fact the Louisville City Hall was converted into an arsenal where wealthy men were to receive arms supporting the local police. But although Grant sent in the troops to suppress the strike he did not use them to protect Blacks in the South when the Klan went on their rampages against Blacks who attempted to defend their rights. According to Foner in 1867: “The Nation, wrote “the removal of white prejudice against the Negro depends almost entirely on the Negro himself.” “Reconstruction, declared The Nation, seems to be morally more disastrous than rebellion. As an experiment in government it totally failed.”
As an example of this abandonment Horace Greely who initially debated with Lincoln over the question of Emancipation of the enslaved people publically in the New York Tribune changed his position in 1867 and provided part of the bond that freed Jefferson Davis from prison. Greeley, as many of his middle class contemporaries, decided that it would be necessary to find the best men to promote regional development and national reconciliation. War and Reconstruction should now be put behind the nation in order to promote national development. One way to do this would be to restore the right to hold office to the old Confederates who continued to be excluded under the 14th amendment. Greeley ran against Grant on the Democratic Party ticket solidarizing a relationship between the not so liberal north and the southern planters. The Republicans, sporting Grant on their ticket encouraged good, respectable government doing little to support the Republicans in the South. Democrats took over control of the House in 1875 portending serious problems for reconstruction. According to Foner: “with the call for home rule from magazines such as Scribners’s, Harpers’ and the Atlantic Monthly they began to express retrograde views on racial issues and pronounced black suffrage as a failure.”
The question of labor and capital was propelled to the fore and a new alliance between the Northern bourgeoisie and the southern planters was struck. The Republican Party growing more conservative began to protect corporations from local regulations relying on the 14th Amendment. In the case of the Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania - 125 U.S. 181 (1888), the Court clearly affirmed the doctrine, holding, "Under the designation of 'person' there is no doubt that a private corporation is included [in the Fourteenth Amendment]. Such corporations are merely associations of individuals united for a special purpose and permitted to do business under a particular name and have a succession of members without dissolution." New democratic constitutions put into effect reduced taxes, allowed the federal government to reduce salaries of state officials, cut property tax and discouraged local governments from making any financial obligations. The class relations in the south intensified with poor whites and blacks paying the bulk of the taxes while large property owners paid little. With a lack of funds states were left without schools and hospitals and all other kinds of social services that a state is required to provide for its people. Moreover, the state saw no responsibility in protecting Blacks from harm. Democrats rewrote statue books to guarantee control of the labor force. Vagrancy laws were passed and using the loophole in the 13th amendment, Blacks were arrested for minor offenses allowing the state government to lease them out in order to raise funds for the state coffers.
The 1873 Depression forced many planters to forfeit all or part of their land for nonpayment of taxes. The Republican government called for retrenchment and limited debt. Some Blacks such as Booker T Washington began to eschew politics pushing the idea of self help and the gaining of economic or technical skills over political rights.”The issues of white supremacy, low taxes and control of the Black labor force dominated the Democratic campaigns of the mid 1870s. Democrats solidified their hold on states already under their control and redeemed new ones. But as the White League terrorized Republicans both Black and White, the federal government made a last ditch effort to stem the tide of terror. In Boston a large body of respectable citizens gathered a Faneuil Hall to demand Sheridan’s removal of the troops and compared the White League with the founding fathers and defenders of republican freedom.” “The balance of power between the social classes had been transformed and a New York business journal at the end of 1877 reported ‘labor is under control for the first season since the war.”
Several key Supreme Court decisions were reached during this time. The one avenue by which Black people should have been guaranteed their safety from white mobs, that is through the Supreme Court was struck down in the U.S. v Cruikshank decision. In defense of a Republican victory in Colfax, Louisiana Blacks defended the state gubernatorial victory by surrounding the capital building when they were attacked by the Klan. At least 100 Freedmen were killed but the Supreme Court was forced to drop the case since in its ruling, it overturned the convictions against the white men, holding that the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of theFourteenth Amendment only applies to state action, not individual citizens. Simply put, had the Supreme Court argued that defense of Blacks should be a federal issue the rights of Blacks would have been guaranteed but that was not the argument that the Federal Government pursued. Rather, the Federal Government argued that the brutalization of blacks by private citizens was a state and not a Federal issue and therefore the Federal Government had no jurisdiction over the incident or any other incident that involved private citizens. White racists not only killed Blacks but undermined a fair election putting the Democrats in power even though Republicans had won the popular vote. The Court also ruled that the First Amendment right to assembly was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens. This ruling gave a green light to acts of terror since States’ rights trumped federal law. The other decision Plessey v Ferguson, not surprisingly led to a separate but equal ruling (1896). It upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of "separate but equal" that is, as long as a company or a state can make a case that there was no discrimination against Blacks, it was possible to separate the races without fear that this decision was violating the Civil Rights Act.
Violence at the polls kept Blacks from voting. Reconstruction was doomed without any fear of the federal government intervening, the reign of terror continued. South Carolina’s election was a fraud and although the majority of the votes went to the Republicans the Democrats, through terror and through ballot fixing won the day. The Tilden Hayes presidential election of 1876 ended with a compromise. Although it can be argued that Tilden won the majority of votes, the Electoral College went to Hayes with the promise that Hayes would pull out all remaining federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana. Victories went to the Democratic Party. The South was also promised federal investment in the railroads specifically the Texas and Pacific railroad. Reconstruction was effectively finished. An Abbeville newspaper commented at the end of February, “it matters little to us who rules Washington if South Carolina is allowed to have Hampton (Governor) and Home rule”
As a result of the failure of reconstruction between the Civil War and WWI, slavery, albeit by another name, was reintroduced in the south. After 1874 there was no sustained federal presence in the south; it became a crime to walk beside a railroad if you were black, loitering, spitting all became offenses. Stealing pigs was enhanced from a misdemeanor to a felony. Vagrancy statutes were enacted. One had to prove you were employed. The Convict leasing law went into effect. States rented slaves to industry to fill nearly empty treasuries. Blacks picked up for the slightest offenses worked in the mines in industrial centers in places such as Birmingham. Birmingham was the largest southern industrial center. Mines were owned by United States Steele Corporation. Convict leasing not only super-exploited Black labor but it undermined unions dragging down the wages of all the workers. By 1866 there were already 15,000 prisoners and that number rose quickly.
By 1890, 90% of prisoners were Black, with the number eventually reaching 19,000. Moreover, Blacks were constantly in debt to white employers. Peonage was illegal although Blacks were subjected to peonage laws.
In conclusion, because of the failure of Reconstruction to fulfill its stated promises; that is the guarantee of equality to Blacks the politics of the Nation turned swiftly to the right. Because the capitalists wished to continue to make profits, especially off the labor of Black workers the dream that Blacks would be able to achieve economic and political freedom would not be realized. The loss not only of rights, that is the right to land, to political equality, to control over ones family, etc. would not be realized because the Northern capitalists made their agreement with the Southern Planters to reign in labor. This basically meant the disciplining of the Black labor force so that, for instance, the textile mills could continue to run. Vagrancy laws, designed to offer free labor to build roads, or work in steel plants hurt the working class as a whole but even the sometimes important attempts at unity could not make a dent in the already distressed position that the working class found itself in as a result of its own racist policies. The time for action was during reconstruction, the US working class was either unwilling or unable to identify itself as part of an interracial group fighting on behalf of all workers. For years the Southern political agenda shaped the politics of not only of the Southern strategy but it shaped the politics of the federal government as well, meaning the liberal north. For many years it was illegal for tenant farmers to unionize because they resided in the South. The federal government (FDR) in a coalition with the old plantation owners abided by the request of their erstwhile partners. Overall, the politics of the US was and continues to be racist to the core. This too is a legacy of the Reconstruction period. As is hopefully made clear by this essay, not only is racism endemic to American society but there is no hope of extricating it under capitalism. The promises put forward by the bourgeois revolution can only be met under socialism. The capitalists will continue to pit workers against each other for the scarce jobs and resources that are doled out to those at the bottom. White workers must understand that they need to confront their own racism and that if it continues to exist they too, as is happening now, will lose their little bit of security that was only promised on a temporary basis.
Parramore, Lynn, Alternet.
Harper, Douglas “Slavery in North America”
Williams, Eric, Capitalism and Slavery, The University of North Carolina Press, 1944, pg. 68
(http://www.common-place.org Vol.10 no. 3 April 2010), pg. 4
Edward E. Baptist’s article: Toxic Debt, Liar Loans and Securitized Human Beings The Panic of 1837” and the fate of slavery
Ibid. pg. 9
Abraham Lincoln’s Reply to Horace Greeley (August 22, 1862)
Williams, David,Bitterly Divided, The South’s Inner Civil War, New Press, The; First Trade Paper Edition, 2008
Donny Schraffenberger, “Karl Marx and the American Civil War”, International Socialist Review, Issue 80
Parramore, Lynn. Alternet
Williams, D. Bitterly Divided, pg. 2
DuBois, WEB. Black Reconstruction, Millwood, N.Y. Kraus-Thomson Organization Ltd.,,  c1963, Pg.354, 356
Ibid. Pg. Noel Ignatiev, '"The American Blindspot': Reconstruction According to Eric Foner and W.E.B. Du Bois,"Labour/Le Travail, 31 (Spring 1993), 243-
Gary Freeman “How the Amendment to End Slavery Was Damaged by Racism,” Trouthout/op-ed)
Ibid, pg. 253
Wikipedia, Johnson’s Reconstruction Program
Michael Snyder,Economic Collapse Blog,August 9, 2013
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. Harper and Row, New York, 1988, pg. 67
Danny Weil. “Vagrancy Laws, Poll Taxes, Financialization and the School to Prison Pipeline in Mississippi”Truthout (Nov. 12, 2012)
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, pg 67.
Ibid. Pg. 100
Ibid. Pg. 97
Ibid. Pg. 72
Ibid. Pg. 182
Ibid. Pg. 184
Ibid. Pg. 194
Beckert, Sven. Monied Metropolis, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pg.301
Ibid. Pg. 300
Foner, E. Reconstruction, Pg.200
Ibid, Pg. 244
Foner. E Reconstruction
Ibid. Pg. 251
Wikipedia, US v. Cruikshank.
Wikipedia, Plessey v Furguson
Ibid, Pg. 244
The battle of Milliken's Bend showed that freed Black slaves could fight successfully as soldiers against the confederacy.