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

Lecture 24

 - Retreat from Reconstruction: The Grant Era and Paths to "Southern Redemption"


This lecture opens with a discussion of the myriad moments at which historians have declared an “end” to Reconstruction, before shifting to the myth and reality of “Carpetbag rule” in the Reconstruction South. Popularized by Lost Cause apologists and biased historians, this myth suggests that the southern governments of the Reconstruction era were dominated by unscrupulous and criminal Yankees who relied on the ignorant black vote to rob and despoil the innocent South. The reality, of course, diverges widely from this image. Among other accomplishments, the Radical state governments that came into existence after 1868 made important gains in African-American rights and public education. Professor Blight closes the lecture with the passage of the 15th Amendment, the waning radicalism of the Republican party after 1870, and the rise of white political terrorism across the South.

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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

HIST 119 - Lecture 24 - Retreat from Reconstruction: The Grant Era and Paths to "Southern Redemption"

Chapter 1. Introduction: Peace Among Whites? End of Reconstruction? [00:00:00]

Professor David Blight: Frederick Douglass gave a speech in 1875 that gives us a question that we might keep in mind right through the end of the course. Let’s call this “Douglass’s question.” It’s a speech he gives in 1875 in Washington, D.C. Note the year — it’s 1875, he’s anticipating — it’s the 4th of July — and he’s anticipating the coming year of the U.S. centennial of independence, and he knows it’s going to be a big national celebration; and it will be, and I’ll say something more on that next week. Philadelphia put on an extraordinary exhibition that nearly one-tenth of the American people visited. But Douglass is anticipating this national centennial, ten years after the Civil War, and he’s worried. He said, “The nation” — and I’m quoting him — “would lift to the sky its million voices in one grand centennial hosanna of peace and goodwill to all the white race, from gulf to lakes, and from sea to sea.” And as a black citizen, he dreaded the day, he said — listen to his words, it’s one of the most racialized speeches Douglass ever gave. He said he dreaded the day when, his words, “this great white race has renewed its vows of patriotism and flowed back into its accustomed channels.” He was proud, he said, to be an American, but he was worried. And then he ended with this question. “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”

What would peace among the whites bring? It’s a way of shaping an overall question, and Douglass did it for us, as to how and why Reconstruction ended up eroding, collapsing if you want, failing as some say — ending. Now one of the things we’re going to begin to examine today, and the rest of the course, is this question — sorry to keep putting the outline back up — but we are always, as historians, debating this question of ends. When did Reconstruction end? As we’ll see in a moment, many are going to claim it’s all over when they pass the Fifteenth Amendment. That’s what Horace Greeley said; that’s 1870. And then there are those who argue, “Reconstruction now it really ended in 1873,” and there are reasons you might argue that; the horrifying Colfax Massacre in Louisiana on Easter Sunday, April 14th, 1873, the largest domestic murder, collective mass murder in all of American history, until 9/11, and the following Supreme Court decision, based upon the investigation of that massacre; and I’m going to deal with Colfax next Tuesday. Some would argue that really shows us an end of Reconstruction. But all the southern states weren’t yet back under the control of the Democratic Party. So there are those who argue, “no, no, no, Reconstruction doesn’t really end until you have the full redemption by the Southern Democrats of their state governments,” which doesn’t occur until the disputed Election of 1876, and its compromise of 1877; and we’ll deal with that in a week in a half. But then there are plenty of others now who argue, no, no, no, Reconstruction never really ended in the nineteenth century. Heather Cox Richardson has a book out now about the story of Reconstruction and its issues moving west in the United States, throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. Steve Prince, one of your teaching assistants, has a chapter in his dissertation entitled The Ends of Reconstruction; he’s playing off that irony or that pun of when did it end, did it ever end? Sam Schaffer’s going to argue it didn’t end until 1912, in his dissertation. I’ve got another graduate student, Owen Williams, who’s writing a dissertation on the Reconstruction Supreme Court, and he’s arguing it absolutely ended in 1873. This is the sort of inside baseball that historians love to play. Name your date and then fight over it. We tell the world dates don’t matter, and we love to fight over them. I’m probably going to do what I usually do which is leave you with a good deal of ambiguity about that. In some ways Reconstruction has never ended.

Chapter 2. Freedmen’s Desires for Socioeconomic and Political Mobility [00:05:05]

Now, think with me for a moment though, back on the ground in the South about this question of the real lives of the freedmen, the transformations to new labor arrangements, this vexing, knotty, chaotic, in some ways terrible process, by which slave labor converted to free labor and ultimately into sharecropping as a system in which approximately eighty percent of all the freedmen found themselves essentially mired in, as early as the late 1860s and surely by the 1870s and throughout the rest of that century. One of the greatest memoirs we have — it’s an odd kind of memoir — but one of the greatest memoirs we have by a sharecropper — and I don’t know if you’ve ever read this book in a course, it gets widely taught, often in African-American history courses — is the autobiography of Nate Shaw called All God’s Dangers. His real name was Ned Cobb; name was changed, I guess to protect him, in the title. It’s an extraordinary series of hundreds of hours of interviews that Ted Rosengarten did with him some 25 years ago now. Ned Cobb lived a very, very long life, into the middle of the twentieth century, but he grew up a sharecropper.

And there are a thousand nuggets of wisdom, or the secrets from his past, as he often calls them, that Ned Cobb/Nate Shaw has to give us. There’s this honest section about how he never got an education, and how he resents that he never got an education, and how he resents actually that his father never even sought to help get him an education. “I didn’t never get out of the first reader. Got no education to speak of, and another hurt addition to that, weren’t no colored schools through here” — and this is central Alabama — “worth no count. You might find a school close to town somewhere that accommodated the colored, and if you did you were doin’ well,” said Ned. “My daddy, when he had the opportunity, never did send me to school long enough to learn to read. If he sent his children he’d have to supplement the teacher’s salary, but if he don’t send his children it don’t cost him nothin’, and there’s nothin’ said. None of my brothers and sisters, not one by name, got a good book learning, and all I can do, I can put down on paper some little old figures but I can’t add ‘em up.”

Now, Ned went on to be a land owner. One of the most moving passages in this book comes toward the end when he buys his first mule, when he puts his first stinking, smelly mule in his own stable. It’s like a religious experience. Smelling a mule is not exactly my idea of a religious experience, but it was to Ned. But he really is hard on his father. It’s an honest, honest illustration of how the sons and daughters of the freedmen — and Ned is the son of a former slave — were inheriting so little. I mentioned the other day that what the freedmen had was some human capital, their skills, their bodies, their labor, their dreams, their religion, their ideas, their self-worth, their dignity, but they had so little physical capital, they owned nothing, and they had no money, no credit, so few ways of getting any physical capital. He goes on and on and on. I won’t quote it but he continually refers to what he called his father’s “old slavery thoughts.” He complains about how his father never learned how to put up any money, never learned to save anything, and that he hadn’t learned it very well either. In fact, here’s what he says. He said, “My daddy was blindfolded, didn’t look to the future, just throwing” — I’m sorry for the direct language here — “just throwing his money in a dead hog’s ass and taking shit.” Sorry about that, on the video. But Ned Cobb’s directness is useful.

It’s in the face of those kinds of obstacles, we can tamely call them, but nevertheless thousands upon thousands of freedmen embraced an education and embraced the hope that literacy could bring. And let me focus on that, just briefly at least. Mired in this system of sharecropping, working on halves, giving half their crop to the landowner and half their crop they would keep and hopefully get cash, but then that cash had to be spent down at the furnishing merchant to get seeds and get tools and get food and clothing. Nevertheless, in the face of all of this, one of the things a freedman most wanted was this book learning that Ned Cobb never got. What we know about slave literacy and freedmen’s literacy is essentially this. At the end of the Civil War probably five percent, maybe seven percent to eight, of the American slaves were literate. By 1870 that had increased to perhaps twelve to fifteen percent, and that was due, of course, to the freedmen’s schools, to the Freedmen’s Bureau schools. There were tremendous accomplishments in these Freedmen’s Bureau schools. They created over 4000 of them, and there were some 9300 teachers at one time or another employed in Freedmen’s Bureau schools, up into the 1870s. They had at one point slightly more than a quarter million students in these schools, freedmen, young and old; sixty-eight, seventy-two year-old former slaves would sit down in the same room with eight year-olds and begin to try to read out of the same reader.

And there were in some ways nothing more threatening, to white Southerners — actually there were two things most threatening to white Southerners, around which this Southern counter-revolution will be forged. One was the black school, black literacy, education, the potential of mobility, and the education particularly of a black political leadership class. And then on the other hand, directly related, of course, was the creation of black politics itself. As we’ll see in a moment, one of the major targets of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and all the other groups that imitated these, were black schools. Dozens and dozens of black schools were burned to the ground by the Klan between 1868 and the middle of the 1870s.

I want to just read just one little example of what these schools meant to people. I love this little letter because of the assumption, let’s call it audacity of hope if you want — forgive the title. This comes from a black school principal whose name was P.B. Randolph. He’s running a Freedman’s school in New Orleans, in 1866. They named it for William Lloyd Garrison, it’s called the Garrison School. He has 373 pupils and he has seven teachers, five of them black, two of them white. And this was the revolution, the potential revolution of Reconstruction. And he writes this letter to himself, William Lloyd Garrison, asking for Garrison to help them get what they need. Just a small excerpt of it. “We are proud of our pupils and feel you will rejoice with us. We feel also that you will not take amiss if we ask a little assistance from Boston in the shape of apparatus to illustrate astronomy, a gyroscope and a microscope, a numerical frame, conic sections, cube root blocks, a magnet, and such other instruments as will enable us to fight this battle for our race against ignorance.” Send us the simplest implements to teach some science. There are thousands of those such letters all over the record. Literacy among blacks increased to over eighty percent by 1880 — I’m sorry, over twenty percent by 1880 — and probably twenty-five to thirty percent — these things are very difficult to measure — by the turn of the twentieth century. Now you need to know one other thing here. By the 1880s, 1890s, turn of the twentieth century, literacy rates among southern whites were not that much higher.

Now remember one thing above all else about these new economic, social arrangements taking hold from 1866 right on through the 1870s in the South. Sharecropping emerged — this is the argument — sharecropping emerged essentially as a kind of compromise result of a tug-of-war between two kinds of interests. Blacks wanted autonomy. They wanted out of gangs. They wanted their women out of the field. They wanted some control over their economic lives. White folks, the owners, land owners, wanted labor control, a stationary, dependent, poor labor force. Both sides end up embracing tenant farming, sharecropping, because it was such a desperately cash poor society. Land owners didn’t want to rent to blacks because they knew in the long run blacks wouldn’t get enough cash to pay the rent. Blacks realized quickly they couldn’t depend on cash because there wasn’t enough. They therefore themselves began to resist wages, because they’d get promised wages and then they wouldn’t get paid. So sharecropping, this system that ultimately becomes a Faustian bargain and a dead end and a kind of tragic no exit for the vast majority, was nevertheless something they actually negotiated and embraced themselves. Now —

Chapter 3. The Myth of the “Carpetbag Rule” [00:17:23]

Also on the ground, in the South, emerging, out of Radical Reconstruction, as the Southern states were put under the First Reconstruction Act and the subsequent Reconstruction Acts, what took place in the South was the creation of new state governments run by the Republican Party in every former Confederate state, at least at first. All the ex-Confederate states were readmitted to the Union between 1868 and 1870; Georgia was the last. But by 1870 all eleven ex-Confederate states are back in the Union. But they’re back in the Union, remember, under that Radical Reconstruction Plan. Now the story that set in about this, over the years, from the Lost Cause ideology of the late nineteenth century to the writings of the so-called Dunning School at the turn of the twentieth century and early twentieth century, based on the writings of William H. Dunning and his many, many students he trained at Columbia University, was this idea that what happened in the South now was essentially carpetbag rule, or rule by bayonet, or rule by blacks. Now in the history books we’ve come to call this, for decades, the myth of carpetbag rule, this idea that the South was colonized, taken over by Northerners who moved south, white Northerners who moved south, applying, appealing to, exploiting and manipulating the black vote to take over the South, to disfranchise and eliminate white Southerners from their own polity.

Now this much is true: In every former Confederate state the so-called radical constitutions did manage to create all sorts of new levels, if you like, of democracy, small-“d”. The number of elective offices increased. There was more direct election, more direct control for people than the South had ever seen. There were more people voting, more constituencies, and more people holding office, as we’ll see in a second. There was more home rule for local governments than they’d ever experienced before. These new radical constitutions, yes indeed, had eventually a fair degree of corruption. This was the age of spoils and the kinds of corruption going on in southern state governments was no different than the kinds of corruption going on in many other places in the country. But there were many social provisions in these new constitutions, as long as they lasted. And they lasted seven, eight and nine years, in some ex-Confederate states, and they only lasted two, three, and four years in others. For the first time there were social provisions. They not only did away with the Black Codes but they established a certain degree of equal civil rights. Some of these new state governments actually passed Civil Rights Acts. Many of the constitutions made it the state’s responsibility now to — for the first time in Southern history; and for that matter there wasn’t much of this in the North either — to provide for the sick, the insane, the disabled, the poverty stricken. And above all else they created public schools, the first public schools the South had ever seen. South Carolina had the first comprehensive school law of any southern state, passed in 1870. By 1871 they had thirty-two percent of people of school age attending some 1700 public schools, in South Carolina — blacks and whites. And by 1875 the South Carolina public school system, created by the Radical Republican regime, had fifty percent — this is still a rural society and a society ridden with problems of race and violence, as we’ll see — by 1875 they had fifty percent of the school age population of South Carolina in school, with over 3000 teachers paid by public tax money.

Now, the one thing, of course, that virtually no southern, Radical Republican, southern regime ever accomplished was much in the way of any kind of economic redistribution, of land redistribution. This is our classic problem of Reconstruction. How could you advance political liberty, the right to vote, to hold office, serve on juries, run legislatures, and yet why does economic liberty always, always, always lag behind? Now, there were some attempts, however. Let me give you just one little example. I don’t think Foner really even mentions this. Again, South Carolina, which had a black majority of its legislature for about five years during Reconstruction — this was political revolution, and you can see why white Southerners were organizing against it — but the South Carolina Legislature, run by blacks, by blacks and white Republicans, some of them native born Southerners, some of them from the North, created a South Carolina Land Commission. They created it in 1868. It actually is going to last all the way to 1890, on the books. It settled some 5000 South Carolina families, black and white, on land that the state purchased, or took over — confiscated — in effect, and then began to sell to its own citizens on long-term loans, at very reduced interest rates. Approximately $225,000 out of $802,000 eventually could not be accounted for. There was some fraud and corruption in this South Carolina Land Commission. About a quarter of the money that they actually distributed never was accounted for. But it’s extremely important to note here that at least an attempt was made. Here was at least the possibility of Radical Reconstruction. By 1876 that Land Commission in South Carolina — by ‘76 Republicans still barely controlled the South Carolina state government, they’re about to lose it that year — by 1876 about 14,000 families had participated, a total of about 70,000 people, about sixty percent black and forty percent white, in actually buying land. By 1884 more blacks were losing land in South Carolina, however, than were buying it. I’ll give you one last little number to show at least what the possibilities had been. In the Census of 1890 about 13,000 blacks in South Carolina owned a farm of some size, 4,000 of whom had purchased them through that Land Commission.

Now, we are always talking about the possibilities, the experiments of Reconstruction — “what if,” “what if,” “what if?” What if there’d been more enforcement? What if there’d been more military occupation? What if the Klan and its imitators had truly been crushed — altogether crushed? This kind of land commission is one example, among others, of the kinds of efforts that could have flourished. Now, in those state governments in the South, you had for the first time in American history, and in a kind of a explosion of political activity, you had black elected officials; approximately 200 African-Americans in the Southern states served in state legislatures, in state government and executive positions, and ultimately in the U.S. Congress. Sixteen African-Americans from ex-Confederate states were elected to the U.S. Congress, two to the U.S. Senate — Hiram Revels from Mississippi being the first black senator in American history. And how many times do you hear in our political culture today, “the first black since Reconstruction; the first this since Reconstruction; the first that — .” The first black governor since Reconstruction was Doug Wilder, in Virginia. The first this and the first that, since Reconstruction. It’s because there was this explosion of black political activity, for a short period of time, a decade really, until the lights went out. Of the 1000 delegates to Constitutional writing conventions, in 1868, ‘69, when these new state governments were created, of about the 1000 delegates that participated in writing those new Constitutions, 268 of them were black. About 680 African-Americans served in the lower houses of state governments during Reconstruction. Four presided as speakers of those houses. There were 112 African-Americans who served in State Senates during Reconstruction. There were at least 41 black sheriffs, somewhere in one of the eleven ex-Confederate states. There were five black mayors of Southern cities, for awhile. There were 145 blacks who served on city councils, and so on and so on.

Now this is the heart of the myth of carpetbag rule. The claim against these people, in the South at least, in the white South, was always they were not prepared, they were ignorant, all they did is sit around eating chicken bones and spitting into gold spittoons that they bought with public money. And if you’ve ever seen Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist epic of 1915, he plays out that scene at great length of the black politicians in state legislatures with their boots up on tables, literally chewing on chicken bones and spitting into spittoons and laughing and playing happy darkie, until the cows come home. Now there were corrupt black politicians and there were corrupt white politicians. I don’t really have time to go into all the great biographical stories of the Robert Smalls’ and the John Roy — the Robert Smalls’ of South Carolina and the John Roy Lynch’s of Mississippi, and so many others, many of whom were former slaves, although some of them had been free before the war, by their own purchase, by manumission, by other means. Some of them, only a small percentage, were northern-born blacks who moved south, like Hiram Revels, and eventually got himself elected to the Senate. By the way, just recently — well I guess it was about eight years ago — when the Republicans had control of the Senate they put up a portrait, for the first time, of Hiram Revels; our modern Republican Party wanted to claim him. He was a Republican; so were they, by name. But anyway there is now today a portrait of Hiram Revels. It took a century, more, to get it there, but he’s finally up in the U.S. Senate, his picture.

Chapter 4. The Lasting Influences of the Carpetbaggers [00:29:53]

Now the other side of this myth of carpetbag rule — and I want to be a little speedy about this, but it’s also very important — again, the story, the deep myth that set into American culture for generations is that all these Reconstruction governments really were a bunch of Yankees who came south, got themselves elected with black votes and ran these governments and oppressed white Southerners. So who were these carpetbaggers, so called? The term got into our language, and now today anybody who grows up in one state but somehow moves to another and tries to get elected, as Hilary Clinton did in New York, and there are plenty of other examples, is labeled a carpetbagger, at least for ten years or so, until she’s lived there long enough and gets reelected and I guess — I guess you got to get reelected before you’re no longer a carpetbagger. Well, many of these Northerners who went south were former Union soldiers. Most of them went before 1867 and ‘68, before these Radical Republican regimes were put in place. They went to become farmers. They went because the land was so cheap. And some of them went because they liked the climate. There were New Hampshirites who went to Mississippi because it was warm. Some carpetbaggers were industrialists and investors. They saw the South now as the place to invest. It obviously was. It was prostrate, and it needed money. Some were federal agents, Freedmen’s Bureau agents who stayed and lived there. Many were teachers, some who stayed and lived, if they survived and weren’t killed. Some were political opportunists and some were adventurers and n’er-do-wells.

And I’ll never forget, as long as I live, one of the best friends I have in the world is a Methodist minister in Chicago who grew up in Mississippi and East Texas, Gene Winkler, and a positively — he’s one of the best read human beings I’ve ever known. He reads more about the Civil War than I do. I used to actually ask him what I should be reading. His real job is being a minister but he spent most of his time reading. And he was one of the most politically radical people I’ve ever known. He was still trying to be a socialist during Reaganism. But one day I asked Gene, “Gene, why do you keep that picture of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in the corner of your office?” He said, “You know, I’m not exactly sure. It’s probably because carpetbaggers killed my great-granddaddy.” [Laughter] I don’t think he said god-damn carpetbaggers; he’s a good Methodist. “Carpetbaggers killed my great-granddaddy.” I said, “Oh, oh okay.” [Laughter] Like so many Southerners, he was a complicated mixture of memories and — well enough on Gene. I actually got the thrill some years ago to write an essay, epilogue to Fitz Brundage’s book of essays called Where These Memories Grow, about southern memory, and I opened the piece with that very story, and I was always worried about how Gene was going to interpret it. And he, thank God, liked it, I think. Anyway.

At no time did carpetbaggers ever make up anywhere near a majority of any southern legislature in the ex-Confederate states. Their goals tended to be financial, economic, and to some extent political. And then there’s this other kind of Southerner, the white indigenous Southerner, the native born white Southerner, known to history, of course, as Scalawags, who joined the Republican Party, who became part of these Reconstruction regimes, who said give up the past, give up the old cause, and they often became the object of the ire and the hatred and the violence of white vigilante groups, as readily as anyone else. Now what was a Scalawag? Let me tell you the ways. Hold on, sorry, forgive me, got it. So a Scalwag is, by the way, a runty little horse — that’s actually what it means if you look it up — it’s a runty little horse, a kind of useless little horse that doesn’t work very well for you, just gets in the way, stinks and smells and doesn’t pay his way. “Our Scalawag is the local leper of the community,” wrote a Tuscaloosa, Alabama newspaper editor in 1869. “Unlike the carpetbagger he is native, which is so much the worse. Once he was respected in his circle, his head was level, and he would look his neighbor in the face. Now, possessed of the itch of office and the sought room of radicalism, he is a mangy dog, slinking through the alleys, haunting the governor’s office, defiling with tobacco juice the steps of the capitol, stretching his lazy carcass in the sun on the square or the benches of the mayor’s court.” That’s relatively direct. Scalwags were considered, in other words, turncoats.

Now, they had a variety of social backgrounds. Some were sort of former nobodies but most of them were actually quite prominent people, like the wartime Confederate Governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown, who said “give up the cause,” and joined the Republican Party after the war. Perhaps most famous of all, James Longstreet, Lee’s second in command in the last two years of the war, Longstreet of Georgia, moved out to Louisiana after the war, embraced the Republican Party, said the war had settled something and Southerners had to face it. And he became a railroad president. And he even for awhile commanded U.S. troops in Louisiana who tried to kill off the Klan. There are many, many other examples. There’s James Settle of North Carolina. He’s one of my favorites. These were fascinating people, courageous people. Settle of North Carolina had been a member of the Confederate Congress. He’d been a big player in Confederate politics in North Carolina, but after the war he said this. “The war had brought a general breaking up,” he said, “of old ideas. Taking a new start in the world we are, if we are ever to have prosperity.” And then he concluded, “I tell you, Yankees and Yankee notions are just what we want in this country now. We want their capital to build factories and workshops and railroads. We want their intelligence, their energy and enterprise to operate factories and to teach us how to do it.” Settle nearly was killed for his views, his actions; his political actions in particular. There are many other examples. Amos T. Akerman in Georgia, among others — look up him in Foner if you like. Now I guess the only other thing I want to say about that is there were carpetbag governors. There were northern born Republicans who ended up governors of southern states, several of them. There were northern born members of southern state legislatures, some black, some white, and they became, in many instances, the most ready targets of what was to come. Now — there we are.

Chapter 5. The Passing of the 15th Amendment and Waning of Republican Radicalism [00:38:51]

Now, I don’t now how well you can see this painting, I’ll try to blow it up. It doesn’t have a date on it, unfortunately. I need to figure that out. It is entitled “Disfranchisement,” which is an interesting title. If you can see on the right, you can see about every kind of image of a bitter, angry, hate in the eyes, Southerner, some sitting on the cannon, others in Ku Klux Klan robes and masks, all of them, of course, looking at the lone black freedman, who on your first look almost looks like he’s holding a machete, but he’s not, he’s holding a voting roll. Now, the southern white counter-revolution, the move towards southern redemption, which simply means, of course, the southern Democratic Party taking back control of their states, between 1870 and 1876, is rooted in their hatred, their resentment of the rise of black political and economic independence.

Now, but first of all, go with me back to Washington, and then we’ll end, at least today, back on the ground in the South and try to understand where some of this violence is coming from. The Fifteenth Amendment passed Congress, the Fifteenth now, passed Congress in the spring, late spring, of 1869. It’s right after Ulysses S. Grant is inaugurated president. He’s elected in the fall, inaugurated in the spring. By 1868, eleven of the twenty-one northern states still denied the right to vote to blacks. You’ll remember, Republicans are stepping around this question of black suffrage in the North, but they want to plant it into the South. But the trick was, what kind of amendment would it be? This is the great Voting Rights Amendment. They went through three versions of the Fifteenth Amendment — look this up in Foner, make sure you understand it — they went through three versions in the debate in Congress as to what kind of voting rights amendment to put in the Constitution. The first version — and they went from most conservative to most radical — the first version forbade states the right to deny suffrage on grounds of race, color or previous condition of servitude; that’s all it said. That’s the most conservative version. The second version would’ve forbade states to impose literacy, property or nativity qualifications; in other words, that whole array of qualifications tests that will ultimately be used, all over the South, to prevent black folk from voting; and to some extent poor white folk. And then there was a third version which simply would’ve affirmed simply that all male citizens twenty-one years of age and older had the right to vote, period.

Now, they debated and debated but the one they passed, of course, was the first one, the most conservative, the one that made absolutely no mention of the possibility of qualifications tests. And so the Fifteenth Amendment has two kinds of impact, two great importances if you want. One is that it was passed at all, and it’s hugely important, but the other, of course, is it was a very conservative compromise amendment that left the door open to all kinds of machinations, over time, in states, at the local level, about qualifications to vote. It passed the House of Representatives in March, 1869. It finally was ratified by two-thirds of the state legislatures in the United States, a full year later, in the spring of 1870. And many people now looked at the situation in the country, a year into Grant’s presidency, the man, the Republican, who said, “Let us have peace.” You’ve got the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. You got the Fourteenth Amendment establishing citizenship rights and equal protection before the law; at least the beginnings of this fledgling thing called civil rights. You got the Reconstruction Acts in place. Southern states have all been brought back into the Union, by 1870 — only Georgia was still being sort of weirdly adjudicated, but it finally was brought back in, in 1870. And now comes the Voting Rights Act. And throughout the history of modern political philosophy and modern political history, the idea was that the vote was the essence of democracy. And so once you’ve given people the vote, on some level what else could you possibly do? Republicans themselves now say, to themselves, that they have established the principle — oh, would that they had — of guaranteed rights, and that they could go no further. One Republican wrote to another, after voting for this, he said, “This is,” quote, “the last great point that remains to be settled from the issues of the war.” And Horace Greeley famously, in his New York Herald Tribune, in April 1870, after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, said, quote, “Let us have done with Reconstruction” — it was the opening line under a big headline — “Let us have done with Reconstruction. The country is tired and sick of it. Let us have peace.” “It’s over, it’s done,” said official Republican Party people to themselves. And of course the white South, for two years already, through its rising and growing Democratic Party and its violent militant wings, is saying, “You bet Reconstruction is over. Let us show you the ways.”

Now, I’m actually going to save the violent story for an entire lecture on its own; the Klan, its many actions, examples, through the Colfax Massacre, at least, of 1873, for next Tuesday. But let me leave you with this. What happens now, what is already happening now, in the first Grant administration, by 1870, is what we might simply call — it’s the waning of Radicalism, it’s the waning of that civic vision, as Foner calls it in your book, of the Radical Republicans’ ideology. And what was that vision? Foner lays it all out for you. He said the Radical Republicans had an essential ideological vision. On the one hand it was Unionism. On the other hand it was rooted, to some extent, in trying to create racial equality, because the war had necessitated, it had forced it on them. They, therefore, were believers in this idea of guaranteed rights within the Constitution. And last but not least they were believers in positive activist central government. And you put those three or four principles together and you’ve got the package that was the civic vision of the Radical Republicans. But the problem is that vision is now going to crumble as fast, almost as fast, as it ever came into existence; in fact, it’s going to crumble faster than it ever came into existence. Oh I’ll leave you with this. It’s not just going to crumble because Republicans sort of give up the game, and it’s not going to just crumble because Thaddeus Stephens dies and Charles Sumner’s out of the way, and Radicals don’t really run this party under Grant anymore. It’s going to crumble because of the most widespread use of political violence in American history.

Chapter 6. The Growing White Supremacist Violence and Conclusion [00:48:07]

We’ll return to this question next Tuesday, but let me leave you with this. There is no African-American writer, and some white writers, worth their salt, from the 1870s and ’80s, right on through well into the twentieth century, who could ever avert their eyes from this story. This is a passage from James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. If you’ve ever read that wonderful 1912 novel, you’ll know it’s the story of a black man who’s passing for white, but because he’s passing in the South he gets to see things that people don’t know he’s seeing. And of course the book ends, as so many books did in this time, with a lynching. This is Ex-Colored man — he doesn’t have any other name — describing what he sees. “A railroad tie was sunk into the ground. The rope was removed and a chain brought and securely coiled around the victim and the stake. There he stood, a man only in form and stature. His eyes were full and vacant, indicating not a single ray of thought. Fuel was brought from everywhere; oil, the torch, the flames crouched for an instant as though to gather strength, then leaped up as high as the victim’s head. He squirmed, he writhed, he strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear. His eyes, bulging from their sockets, rolled from side to side, appealing in vain for help. I was fixed to the spot where I stood, powerless to take my eyes from what I did not want to see.” We have never wanted to see what really happened in the South, in the 1870s, but we’ll try. 

[end of transcript]

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