HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

Lecture 23

 - Black Reconstruction in the South: The Freedpeople and the Economics of Land and Labor


Professor Blight begins this lecture in Washington, where the passage of the first Reconstruction Act by Congressional Republicans radically altered the direction of Reconstruction. The Act invalidated the reconstituted Southern legislatures, establishing five military districts in the South and insisting upon black suffrage as a condition to readmission. The eventful year 1868 saw the impeachment of one president (Andrew Johnson) and the election of another (Ulysses S. Grant). Meanwhile, southern African Americans struggle to reap the promises of freedom in the face of economic disempowerment and a committed campaign of white supremacist violence.

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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

HIST 119 - Lecture 23 - Black Reconstruction in the South: The Freedpeople and the Economics of Land and Labor

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor David Blight: So what is the engine of history? I beg your attention. There’s a simple question for you, what is the engine of history? Don’t you like unanswerable questions? Is the engine of history politics, the inherent, natural, eternal quest of people to bend other people’s wills and take power? Or is the engine of history economics, the grinding, on-the-ground process by which people carve out livelihoods over against other people’s competition for the same livelihoods? It doesn’t seem to matter what history you study, or where you look, history always somehow comes around to this nexus, this collision, between forces of political power and forces of economics, and our job is always somehow to discern between them and how they mix. Now often, of course, the answer is that it’s all one and the same thing.

Listen to this passage by a freedman in the South named Bailey Wyatt. He got up and made a speech at a freedmen’s political meeting. This was actually an early Union League meeting, in 1866. It was about political organizing in the South. But know what Bailey gets up and says, as it was recorded. It was a meeting in Yorktown, Virginia. Bailey Wyatt, former slave, he’s sort of announcing the freed people’s grievances at a political gathering. He says: “We now as a people desires to be elevated, and we desires to do all we can to be educated, and we hope our friends will aid us all they can. I may state to all our friends and to all our enemies that we has a right to the land where we are located. Why? I’ll tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon. For that reason we have a divine right to the land. And then didn’t we clear the lands and raise the crops of corn and of cotton and of tobacco and of rice and of sugar and of everything? And then didn’t them large cities in the North grow up on the cotton and the sugars and the rice that we made? Yes, I appeal to the South and to the North, if I hasn’t spoken the words of the truth. I say they have grown rich, and my people are poor.” At a political rally, he makes an aggressive economic speech about the labor theory of value. He didn’t need to read to John Locke. He’d never readSecond Treatise on Government. He hadn’t had a political philosophy course, but he absolutely understood. He called it the divine right — the labor theory of value. If I labor to improve that land, it’s mine. In that, in the simplicity, in the agony and the beauty of Bailey Wyatt’s statement, you have a lot of what was at stake in Reconstruction, and you have a lot about what the political dilemma was, in delivering on Bailey Wyatt’s claim to a divine right to the land.

Chapter 2. Implications of the Four Reconstruction Acts [00:04:20]

All right, back to Washington, back to the politics, at least for a few minutes, and then I want to shift us south to this story of the on-the-ground economics of Reconstruction, especially this massive transformation of a slave labor economy into some kind of free labor economy that quickly evolves, of course — and you know this, at least the contours of it, from reading Foner — it evolves eventually, rather quickly, into a system of tenant farming and a system of sharecropping and a system ultimately of a kind of debt peonage. But in Washington, the political triumph of the Radical Republicans comes in that veto-proof Congress they produced in the fall elections of 1866. And in 1867 they passed the First Reconstruction Act, followed after that, in ‘67 and early ‘68, by three more Reconstruction Acts, simply called the Second, Third, and Fourth Reconstruction Acts. And it was this system by which the southern states, the ex-Confederate states, were actually readmitted to the Union. The great possibilities — Foner addresses over and over — in this experiment in racial democracy, this experiment in increasing democratic forms of government and institutions in the South, through the transplanting of the Republican Party into those ex-Confederate states, is rooted in this document.

Those are the five — I don’t know if you can read it in the back, can read that in the back? Yeah, all right, I love this machine, it makes me look good. But those are the five — I’m not going to, well, maybe I will. The first part of the First Reconstruction Act divided the South into five military districts. The Second said that each district would be commanded by a General, not below the rank of Brigadier-General, and an adequate military force. That part will never really come off, and it wasn’t even begun. The Third, the Commanding General would supervise — a General would supervise election of delegates to state conventions, and those new state conventions would write these new state constitutions for the Southern states. Note the process now. This is not Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan, and it sure as hell isn’t Andrew Johnson’s “that portion who are loyal” plan. All adult males, regardless of color, who were not disfranchised for participation in the war, were eligible to vote, and the constitutions had to provide for male Negro suffrage, in the South. You’ll note, the Republicans, as I’ve said before, are stepping clear of black suffrage in the North, and they’re going to do it again in the Fifteenth Amendment; we’ll come back to that Thursday. And finally, when a majority of the voters ratified a constitution, and when Congress approved it — the President has virtually no role in this, this is Congressional Reconstruction; when a state had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, no choice, the equal protection clause, the citizenship amendment — you must accept, then and only then, a state would be readmitted to the Union.

If you put it all in one large pill, it’s a very big pill for the ex-Confederate states to swallow, and at least politically, on the surface, it is exactly what they had to swallow in order to be readmitted to the Union. And between 1866 — actually Tennessee was readmitted before this act even passed, in a shifty, strange manner; it had to be readmitted again after that — but between ‘66 and 1870, the eleven former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union under the Radical Reconstruction Plan of the Congressional Republicans. Now, those three subsequent Reconstruction Acts are very important. And by the way, every one of these acts, including the renewal each year of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the renewal — I mean, the first Civil Rights Act — fifteen different bills developing a Reconstruction plan, passed by Congress, were all vetoed between 1866 and ‘68 by Andrew Johnson. I may have said this before, more vetoes by a president of the United States than all previous American presidents put together. You could call this a constitutional crisis; it was. You could call it a breakdown in federalism. You could call it whatever you want. But it’s government by veto and override of veto. Every time A.J. vetoed a Reconstruction Act, Congress, in its two-thirds majority, Republicans in both houses, overrode his veto. We’ve never had a government operate like this, with this many vetoes, an override of vetoes, in such a concentrated period of time. That’s how Reconstruction was actually put in place politically.

The Second Reconstruction Act gave details for how those military commanders were supposed to conduct their districts. The Third Reconstruction Act, passed summer of ‘67, set up what were called registration boards, which were empowered to deny voting rights to anyone they felt were not taking loyalty oaths in good faith; they’re still trying to enforce this loyalty oath. And the Fourth Reconstruction Act, not passed until spring of ‘68, simply said that a majority of votes cast would be sufficient to put a new constitution into effect, not a majority of those Southerners who had voted in 1860. You’ll note some erosion there, in the radicalism of the radical plan. There are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which is they were in the midst, at that point, of trying to impeach Andrew Johnson.

Chapter 3. The Impeachment Process for Andrew Johnson [00:10:49]

Now, I wish I had an entire lecture — well I do have an entire lecture — to give you on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, but I’m going to do it quickly, and I’d be more than happy in our review session in a couple of weeks, or any other time, to come back to it. It’s the first great model we have of the impeachment of a President, of course, in our history. We’ve had another one, since. We used to think it would never, ever, ever happen again after the Nixon debacle. Here I go, I’m straying into my tangent. Believe it or not I was — I’m giving away my age here — but I was a high school teacher the year Richard Nixon was almost impeached, and I had prepared for months to teach my students about impeachment, and then the SOB resigned. [Laughter] And it just took all the fun out of the early 1970s. [Laughter] But it was a great civics lesson. We got that civics lesson over again because of Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern, and because of what “is” or “was” or whatever the hell it was he said to the Grand Jury.

You need to know a couple of things though about the Constitution, if you don’t already know it. There actually are four, well five, provisions about impeachment in the Constitution. It’s the most awesome power in the Constitution, in some ways, and it isn’t wielded very often. The authority to impeach, of course, rests with the House of Representatives. It is the House of Representatives, through its judiciary committee, that investigates grounds for impeachment of a president or a cabinet official or a Supreme Court justice. It is the House of Representatives that then brings articles of impeachment, which in effect are like an indictment, although they are a political indictment and never intended to be a legal indictment. The third part of the Constitution, Article 1, Section 3, Clause 6, gives the U.S. Senate the power to sit as the jury, the judicial function of trying a person under impeachment charges. The House charges, the Senate judges. Only the Senate, in its collective vote, can determine guilt or innocence, and it takes — they kept this an awesome power and difficult to use — it takes a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate to impeach and remove a president or other official. And then comes the punishment clause, Article 1, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution: judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any other office of honor, trust, or profit, under the United States, but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment according to law. You could still be tried in a criminal court after you’re impeached, although we’ve never gotten that far. But the only power the Senate has is removal. And that is exactly what the Radical Republicans are trying to do to Andrew Johnson, and that he provokes them to do, over and over, in 1867 and early 1868. There is one other feature in the Constitution, and that is of course the President’s pardon power: the President shall have the power to pardon in all cases, except impeachment. Now, I don’t — you don’t remember Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. I do. Probably cost Gerald Ford election.

All right, in brief, what happened in the Johnson impeachment — and he was impeached, he simply wasn’t removed from office — is what you had is a process, through four and five different — depends on how you count them — stages in the political development of this crisis of authority and power over who’s going to run Reconstruction. Now there are numerous theories, historical interpretations, about why Johnson was finally impeached by the Republicans. It never would have happened if Andrew Johnson would’ve, in any way, just backed off and admitted that he was probably going to be a lame duck president. One theory is Johnson’s personal behavior, as an explanation for his impeachment. His personal habits were hardly fetching. His Swing Around the Circle in the fall of 1866 was an utter embarrassment to the presidency. His likening himself to Jesus; his constant ranting on the Radical Republicans as traitors, calling them Judas. He is called in the press a “presidential ass,” at various times during that tour. That’s one part of it, the sort of personal provocations of his style.

But a second explanation, that I think holds much more weight, is that Johnson and the Radical Republicans simply had fundamentally different constitutional conceptions of the meaning of the war and the meaning and the nature of Reconstruction policy. Johnson, you’ll remember, wanted a rapid, quick, presidential, executive Reconstruction, with virtually no alteration of the Constitution and utterly no changes in black civil and political rights. His fifteen vetoes and the overrides of those vetoes — in that process of veto and override, you really have the origins, the roots, the essence of why the Radicals finally decided the best thing in their political interest to do with Andrew Johnson was to remove him. A third theory is — and there’s something to this, although I don’t think it explains it all by any means — is what one historian has called the radical plot thesis, just sheer partisan politics, just sheer partisan hatreds. This guy was an old Jacksonian Democrat, he was a southern Democrat, as the president, and the Republicans not only wanted him out of the way of their Reconstruction plans, they wanted the Democratic Party ruined, if they could do it. Some of them did want that. Some of the leaders of the impeachment movement in the House — James Ashley, Benjamin Butler, George Boutwell and others — were sometimes referred to, even in their friendly press, as one Republican paper put it, “as baleful a trio of buzzards as ever perched in the House of Representatives.” And they were accused, as sometimes politicians are accused today, of a witch-hunt. They investigated everything about Johnson, his bank accounts, allegations that he had tried to betray Tennessee during the Civil War — which were nonsense — and even that he had somehow participated in the Booth conspiracy to kill Lincoln — utter nonsense.

The real explanation here, if there’s smoke — I mean if there’s fire, where the smoke comes from on this radical plot thesis against Johnson, is this idea that there were some Radical Republicans here who saw a big opening, not only to remake the South, to Yankeeize the South — and they are interested in doing that, and not always of bad motives; the South needed schools, desperately; it needed some kind of economic revival, desperately; it needed its harbors dredged desperately. It needed an activist government to do all of this. But there were some Radical Republicans who saw a chance here to rearrange constitutional powers, to use the feeling abroad against Andrew Johnson, to tip the balance of power toward the Congress, as never before, in the nature of the federal government. Removing Johnson would be removing an obstacle to congressional hegemony over the federal government. And now there’s some element here too, of the fact that you need to remember who actually would’ve replaced Andrew Johnson if he had been removed from office. There is no vice-president. He had been Lincoln’s vice-president. There is no vice-president. We didn’t have the amendment, which comes later, in the twentieth century, which allows a new president who takes over to appoint his vice-president. So in the absence of any vice-president, who would’ve become president? Come on, that’s a great trivia question, use this one out at the bar. No one will know it. Louder, I can’t hear you.

Students: Speaker of the House.

Professor David Blight: No. President Pro Tem of the Senate — bingo — who was Benjamin Wade, a Radical Republican from Ohio, and one of the leaders of the impeachment movement; a little unsavory. You’re organizing to impeach the president; oh by the way, I’ll be the next president. And fourth and last, but not least, what’s at stake in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson — and I’m going to spare you all the sordid, wonderful, tasty, lovely details of the corruption and skullduggery and scandal and payments that went on, in the final vote in the Senate, that moved seven Republicans over to acquittal and saved A.J.’s hide. I’m going to spare you all that wonderful, lovely, corruption. It’s really beautiful, awful, ugly stuff. Money, offices. If you read John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. We all love to love Jack Kennedy, and Ted Sorenson, who was his speech writer, was one of the greatest speech writers ever, and Ted Sorenson wrote that book, Profiles in Courage, then they put Jack Kennedy’s name on it. And one of his chapters is, of course, about Andrew Johnson being persecuted by the Radical Republicans in Reconstruction. Blah, God they got that wrong.

But last, but not least, Andrew Johnson was impeached and the Radicals kept going after him because A.J. wouldn’t quit; he kept provoking them, provoking them, provoking them and provoking them, and not just with words. They would appoint a General in one of the five districts in the South, he’d fire him. Congress would appoint a whole new series of Freedman’s Bureau agents for Texas, he’d fire them. You can’t run a government like that. He would veto the Freedmen’s Bureau, they’d override the Freedmen’s Bureau and they’d put the budget in place, and he’d say, “Just go and try to enforce it.” Now what do you do with a president, if you’re running the Congress and you’re trying to put a policy in place? But at the heart here was a struggle between a group of politicians capable of serious corruption in their own way, but nevertheless who were actually trying to defeat white supremacy. They were actually really trying to create some kind of black civil and political rights in the South. Sure, they wanted those blacks to be Republican voters; what else is new? But Andrew Johnson stood fast against them at every turn to try to preserve his own particular vision of white supremacy. Note just one passage. In his State of the Union Message, December 1867 — this is after three attempts; three investigations of him have already been done by the House Judiciary Committee, and the House Judiciary Committee has brought possible impeachment articles to a vote and yet voted it down because they didn’t quite have any smoking guns yet. And what does he do in his State of the Union, December 1867, among other things? He says: “In the progress of nations,” — I quote — “Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. Wherever they have been left to their own devices, they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.” And it got worse from there.

Stephens, Sumner, Wade and the host of the Republicans in Congress kept hearing this over and over and over, and finally they went after him. The House finally voted in February 1868, by a vote of about 140 to 50-something, to impeach him. The trouble was they actually — they wrote eleven articles of impeachment but in essence the first nine were all about the technical violation of two laws that Congress had passed that ultimately will be, and should have been, declared unconstitutional. They are called the Tenure of Office Act and the Command of the Army Act. The Tenure of Office Act was a law passed in essence saying the President of the United States could not fire members of his own cabinet [laughs]. The Commander of the Army, the Act said, the president of the United States as Commander-in-Chief, cannot issue orders to the armies without passing those orders through the General of the Army; which was the nineteenth century version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were literally trying to strip constitutional powers away from — not the presidency — but from Andrew Johnson. He violated the 
Tenure of Office Act, he violated the Command of the Army Act, he willfully did it, and that’s the grounds on which they actually impeached him and put him on trial.

Now, in the end he was acquitted, not just because of skullduggery, corruption, and payments; not entirely because of that at all. He was acquitted, in part, because it was the spring of 1868. The Republican Party was about to hold its nominating convention for the 1868 election, and they were about to nominate, everybody knew it, if they could just convince him to do it, Ulysses Grant as the next presidential candidate. Grant had been Johnson’s General of the Army and Johnson kept embarrassing Grant, over and over and over, until Grant resigned. And the Republicans were suddenly frightened politically in the spring of 1868, if they really removed Johnson and put Ben Wade in the presidency and just literally took over the government, that it might really hurt them at the polls, in the fall. And that Democratic Party was doing everything under the sun, including using the Ku Klux Klan to a tremendous extent, as we’ll see in the next two weeks, to revive itself and oppose the Republicans in election after election; and will they ever in that ‘68 election.

In the spring of ‘68 good old A.J. promised better behavior too. He said he’d cool it, he’d back off, he’d get out of the way, and he would never run again; which wasn’t quite true. He was acquitted, he served out his term. He went home to East Tennessee and did as old Andy Johnson always had, he got back on the stump and he got himself re-elected to the U.S. Senate. He will die in 1875. He’s buried in Greenville, Tennessee, to this day, and we’re told he was buried with a copy of the Constitution on his chest, held down by his hands. He used to say he stood on the Constitution; he’s buried with the Constitution I guess standing on him. Goodbye Andrew Johnson, it’s been so good to know you.

Chapter 4. The Election of Grant in 1868 and the Advent of the Ku Klux Klan [00:27:50]

Now, that fall the American people had a pivotal presidential election. I know we say that about all great elections, but let me give you the quick and dirty, on 1868. Foner covers this nicely. Grant was a war hero, of course. He was going to be now the candidate of harmony. We’ve had a lot of generals in our history run for president as candidates of harmony. When informed of his nomination, which was only a few weeks after the acquittal trial, in the Senate, of Andrew Johnson, when informed on May 20, 1868 of his — excuse me, in early June, 1868 of his nomination, he issued a public statement which read: “I shall have no policy of my own to interfere against the will of the people.” And I’m going to repeat that, you tell me what it means. “I shall have no policy of my own to interfere against the will of the people.” I will not take a stand, he said, in effect. He didn’t exactly mean that, but the slogan — and he ended that statement with the famous slogan that would become the slogan of his election campaign, “Let us have peace.” This splendidly ambiguous slogan, “Let us have peace.” And God knows the whole country’s yearning for peace, but what they would have in 1868 is by far the most racist, white supremacist election in American history, and by far, to that date, the most violent. Grant had committed to congressional control of Reconstruction and to the Reconstruction Acts. But the party platform in ‘68 now retrenched into being a political persuasion of order and stability and no longer of revolution and experiment. They would now be protectors of the status quo they had created, rather than the innovators and the experimenters.

They were now pilloried by their opponents, the Democrats, as radicals, as amalgamationists, as miscegenationists. Black suffrage, the right to vote for black men became the issue of the 1868 election. If you think the Democratic Party in the 1960s under LBJ, which passes the ‘64 and ‘65 Civil Rights Act, put itself on a course of near destruction in the South because of its liberal racial views — which it did — the Republicans of 1868 are now running as the party of the black man’s right to vote. Now they did say that they were going to leave the right to vote to the whims of the states, in the North, but in the South, in that Reconstruction Act, and by swallowing the Fourteenth Amendment, the black man’s right to vote was supposed to be sacrosanct. The Democratic Party had its convention in July of ‘68. It nominated Horatio Seymour of New York, its former governor. Now Seymour had, among other things — the Democrat’s candidate for president — the vice-presidential candidate gets worse — but the Democrat’s presidential candidate in ‘68, Seymour, had openly supported the draft rioters in 1863 in New York City, who were out slaughtering people in the streets. He was on record for having opposed the Civil War, for having been a Peace Democrat, a McClellan supporter, a man who would’ve sued for peace with the South, and he chose as his running mate Francis “Frank” Blair, for vice-president, from Missouri, who was not only an open white supremacist, but he declared that the Democrats would, if elected, announce the Reconstruction Acts null and void, they would repeal them, and they would return the South as immediately as possible to home rule. In other words, if the Democrats were elected in ‘68 they would crush the Reconstruction plans. And Blair, in his blustery ways, even threatened a second civil war; a little stupid there.

There were rhetoric and reality in ‘68, but what was at stake in ‘68 were the results of the Civil War. It was a memory-laden peace that was at stake. The Democrats wanted to take the Constitution backward. The New York Herald, a Democratic paper, asked, quote, “Was it the Constitution as it was or the Constitution as it is?” That’s Andrew Johnson’s slogan. Now I want to just give you an example or two of just how racist this campaign was in 1868. There were bloody shirts waving everywhere. “Your people killed my people.” “The blood on your hands is the blood of my son.” There were Southern bloody shirts, Northern bloody shirts, Democratic Party bloody shirts, Republican Party bloody shirts, and African-American bloody shirts; symbolically, and in some cases literally, people would hold them up. Here’s Blair, the vice-president, the attack dog, on the campaign trail. Republicans had oppressed the South, claimed Blair in one speech, by subjecting it to the rule of a, quote, “semi-barbarous race of blacks who are polygamist and destined to subject white women to their unbridled lust.” “Let White Men Rule America,” screamed a headline in a Louisville newspaper, arguing that Republicans preferred, quote, “native negroes to native whites.” And everywhere Democrats labeled the Republican Party as the party of, quote, “the amalgamation of the races, the monstrous negro equality doctrine,” and on and on it went. A Georgia Democrat, who got himself elected to the U.S. Senate, named Benjamin Hill, said the South was now under the rule of a foreign power, driven by hate and determined to dishonor an unarmed people. And in language understood across, you might say, all the white class lines in the South, he announced that if the Radicals controlled Reconstruction, southern whites would become America’s new slaves. They were, said Benjamin Hill, quote, “becoming the new negroes.” And on and on it went.

Now, the Republicans gave it back, not quite in kind, but they certainly waved their bloody shirts. Here’s Wendell Phillips, the old abolitionist in Boston, who said, quote, in this election, “We have just finished a war between two ideas. We sent our armies into South Carolina to carry our ideas. If we had no right to carry our ideas, we had no right to send our armies. If the Democrats” — no, he said, “If Seymour wins this election it is as if Lee triumphs at Appomattox.” And that makes it pretty clear. Or take this example of a kind of a black bloody shirt. This is Benjamin Tanner, the editor of The Christian Recorder, the largest circulation black newspaper in the United States. It was the weekly newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And he put it into a kind of little parable. And he says what’s at stake in the ‘68 election — this is very gendered of course — when you think about the power and significance of black male suffrage you know exactly what he’s aiming at. He says Negro manhood is what is at stake in ‘68. Here’s the way he put it. “Negro manhood says ‘I am an American citizen.’ Modern Democracy,” meaning the Democratic Party, “says ‘you are not.’ Negro manhood says ‘I demand all my rights, civil and political.’ Modern Democracy says ‘you have no rights, except what I choose to give you.’ Negro manhood says ‘I must build churches for myself and schoolhouses for my children.’ Modern Democracy says ‘if you do, I will burn them down.’ Negro manhood says ‘I will exercise the rights vouchsafed.’ Modern Democracy says ‘if you do I will mob and murder you.’” Now, you think our political campaigns get ugly. God, we are so tame, compared to this. As someone once said, politics, it’s just war by other means, and there’s never a time when that is more true than 1868.

The Ku Klux Klan came into its own in 1868. I’m going to lecture in full about violence and the Klan come next Thursday and next week. But 1868 was their first real coming out. There was a reign of terror in five or six southern states in this election, especially in Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee. All across the South, in ‘67 and especially that election year of ‘68, as blacks are beginning to evolve into this process of tenant farming and sharecropping, and trying somehow to eke out livings, they went to the polls in extraordinary numbers and risked their lives, and many of them died doing it. There were all kinds of auxiliaries of the Democratic Party that really were the Ku Klux Klan or its imitators. There were more than 200 political murders in the State of Arkansas alone, in this election. The death toll in Georgia was lower, but intimidation at the polls was very effective. In twenty-two Georgia counties, with a total of 9,300 black men listed on the voting rolls, Grant tallied only eighty-seven votes.

Student: Professor Blight, the students of Civil War have suffered long enough. Let my people go!

Professor David Blight: You’re free to leave. [Laughter] Nice hair. I hope he doesn’t have a gun. [Laughter] At least he could’ve sung the lyric. Seriously, has that guy left? And the suffering continues. [Laughter] In Louisiana, more than 1000 people died in political violence, in this one election year, almost all of them black, all between April and November 1868. In Louisiana, twenty-one parishes that had previously had a Republican vote in 1867, totaling some 28,000 black voters, only 501 black votes got cast. And these are just some examples of how intimidation worked. Grant carried all of the North in ‘68, except three states, if you count Oregon as a northern state. The only northern states that Seymour and the Democrats carried were New Jersey and New York. Seymour won three border states, Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky, and he won only two of the nine reconstructed, ex-Confederate states — eight, excuse me — that were already readmitted by 1868. Grant won in the electoral college 214 to 80.

The important thing is — two things — the Republicans sustained in the fall elections of 1868 a clear veto-proof Congress; two-thirds in the House and four-fifths in the Senate. And without the approximately half million African-American men who voted for Grant in those ex-Confederate states, Grant would never have been elected. It was the first time in American history when the black vote mattered, it counted; and so many of them voted in the face of threats to their lives. Now, on the ground in the South, in the midst of all this politics and violence, which we’ll hear more about in time, a new level of — did he say suffering? — went in place. There was a speech made by a former Confederate General at the American Cotton Planters Association meeting in late 1865; December ‘65 to be exact. And at that meeting — ironically it isn’t exactly clear what he intended — but at this meeting the former Confederate General, whose name was Robert Richardson, said, quote, “The emancipated slaves own nothing because nothing but freedom has been given to them.”

They own nothing because nothing but freedom was given to them. In the absence of slavery what did the freedmen — now think with me — what did the freedmen actually own? They owned their bodies and they owned their labor. The freed people, as a mass of people, at the end of the Civil War now — the jubilee has come but what do they actually have? They lacked physical capital — money, land, to some extent tools — and they lacked to a certain degree human capital, which means education, literacy, and certain kinds of skills. Now a lot of slaves came out of slavery, of course, with enormous skills. Blacks’ economic freedom though, like their political freedom, was largely at the mercy of the regime of white society, or of white supremacy itself, however it would survive. And the primary goal of white Southerners, from day one of Reconstruction, all the way through, was to try to sustain what they most needed, what whites most needed, which was a landless, dependent, agricultural labor force that would stay put. They wanted black people to remain, if not slaves in status, landless, dependent and stationary, as agricultural workers.

Put another way, American freedom for American slaves brought no freedom dues. If you learned about indentured servitude in the past, in the eighteenth century, in all the colonies there were always something called freedom dues. When an indenture ended, a former indentured servant got a suit of clothing, a piece of cash, and usually a piece of land. It didn’t happen. There were attempts at this; we’ll see more about this in the coming two weeks. There was the Freedmen’s Bureau efforts to redistribute land, to some extent. There was Thaddeus Stephens’ bill in 1867 which would’ve — it didn’t pass — but it would’ve called for forty acres and fifty dollars; there was no mention of a mule — forty acres and fifty dollars be given to each freedmen family by the federal government across the South; forty acres. It actually is sometimes referred to as the first reparations bill; didn’t pass. There was Frederick Douglass’s idea, a little bit later, of a national freedmen’s loan agency, a federal loan agency subsidized by the federal government, by taxpayer money, to which freedmen would apply for loans, perhaps three-year loans, five-year loans, low interest loans, to buy land. It’s the simplest idea in banking. Didn’t happen. What did happen was a fourth effort that became known as the Freedmen’s Bank. The Freedmen’s Bank was chartered in late 1865. It lasted eight, nine years. It died in 1874 with obligations to approximately 61,000 depositors, all former slaves, or virtually all former slaves, and the bank died on Frederick Douglass’s watch as its president, because it could not make good on its payments. It was a good idea, that really wasn’t tried. The Freedmen’s Bank, by the way, did have some Congressional support, it did have some federal subsidies, but never enough to make a go or make it work. Today we bail out Bear Stearns. In 1874, the federal government and the politics of 1874, as we’ll see, just let the Freedmen’s Bank die.

Chapter 5. The Second Reconstruction’s Impact on Freed Slaves and Conclusion [00:47:40]

Now, let me leave you with this. I have I think a minute or so. We’ve learned a great deal, I think, from the First and the Second Reconstructions in American history — if we can refer to the Civil Rights Movement as the Second Reconstruction — we’ve learned a great deal about how political liberty can be achieved: the right to vote, right to hold office, serve on a jury, engage in the political culture, in spite of the hostility and the violence and intimidation. We’ve learned a great deal about what can be achieved with political liberty, but we’ve also learned a lot about what is often not achieved in any kind of concomitant economic power. What happens now in the South is a rapid process from slave labor to a whole new set of economic arrangements in the contract realm. What blacks most wanted to get away from, to kill off if they could, was any old system of gang labor. They wanted control over the labor and lives of their women. They wanted out of gang labor. They wanted plots of land of their own. But they faced essentially these three great obstacles. And I’ll leave you with this. One is that they had inherited almost nothing from slavery with which to buy land. Two, they lived in an almost non-existent credit market. Long-term loans were simply not available anywhere; and show me a farmer anywhere, in a capitalist economy, who can survive without his bank loans. And three, they face an enormously hostile regime of white supremacy that does not believe black people should have economic independence.

And initially what we see happening is that tenant farming, and then working on halves, or thirds and then halves, and working in a sharecropping system, becomes a compromise. It becomes a compromise because paying wages to former slaves doesn’t work in an economy that is so cash poor. There’s no cash to pay anybody with. So blacks actually begin to embrace this idea of being a tenant farmer, because you get your own plot of land, you have some control over your own labor, you plant your seeds, you own your own tools, or you think you do. At the end of the crop season you’re going to share half of that crop with the owner of the land and then with the furnishing merchant, this new institution that evolves. But you get to keep half, and you can at least hope that in that half comes something like cash that you can keep. What it really is going to become, however, for most, not all, is a dead end, to some extent a dead end kind of debt peonage. What we do know is this: over the next twenty to thirty years, by about 1890 and certainly by 1900, about fifteen to percent percent of American freedmen, and their sons and daughters, will own their own land. It means about eight percent to eight-five percent did not. I’ll leave you there; and suffer on.

[end of transcript]

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