The years between 1865 and 1877 form the period in American history known as Reconstruction—reconstruction, in this case, meaning the rebuilding of the federal Union which had been disrupted by the attempt of eleven Southern states to secede from that Union in order to protect legalized slavery. It might have been a new era of “malice toward none, charity for all” in the wake of the Civil War’s destructiveness. Instead, Reconstruction is, in practical fact, the bad boy of American history—unwept, unhonored, mostly untaught, and only visible in public awareness as something vaguely awful. It suffers from an absence of the kind of battles-and-leaders material that makes the Civil War so colorful; and it dissipates into a confusing tale of lost opportunities, squalid victories, and embarrassing defeats.
We’re not even sure why we call it Reconstruction. After all, to re‑construct the Union carries the faint hint that at some point the original Union needed to be de-constructed and would be reassembled according to a newer plan than the one laid out in the Constitution—which is exactly what Abraham Lincoln thought he was opposing. Lincoln had always insisted that the Southern states never had the constitutional authority to withdraw from the Union in the first place, and therefore had never legally left the Union. No wonder Lincoln disliked the term Reconstruction and used it grudgingly, referring to it as “what is called reconstruction” or “a plan of reconstruction (as the phrase goes).” He preferred to speak of the “re-inauguration of the national authority” or the need to “re-inaugurate loyal state governments.”1
Popular culture has only made matters more confusing. Epic movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind frankly endorsed the bleakest view of Reconstruction, which also happened to be the view of embittered Lost Cause Southerners who believed that they had fought honorably and lost honorably, only to be treated to a dishonorable, oppressive, and incompetent peace. Reconstruction, said Confederate army veteran Leigh Robinson, was “not peace established in power, but captured in shame; not throned on high by willing witnesses, but pinned to the earth by imperial steel—the peace of the bayonet.”2
Of course, what Scarlett O’Hara and Leigh Robinson preferred was a reconstruction that repudiated slavery in name only and that allowed the former Confederacy to keep its 3.9 million African American ex-slaves as little better than economic peons, barred from any form of civil equality or participation. Still, as the war’s losers and sufferers, white Southerners could play the victim card. And play it they did to the point where Reconstruction, for decades, became little more than a story of how Jacobin-like Northern occupiers tried to fleece innocent Southerners of what little the war had left them. For three generations, from Appomattox to the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s, Lost Cause Southerners deplored what Comte called “the revolt of the individual against the species,” and apologized for terror as a necessary method for cleansing the South of a cold-hearted, cold-fisted capitalism. In its place, they would offer the solicitude of the Big House, the cotton patch, and the sharehold. The model of the Lost Causers was a servile state, springing obediently to command, and they strove to banish from it any real public spaces and, with it, any real civic courage. The world of the Old South was a world of oligarchy, and it had the deadly effect of making that kind of world seem perfectly workable, even attractive, in an American environment.
Obstacles to Reconstruction
And yet, as much as I deplore the misconstructions and neglect that are hung around Reconstruction’s neck, I also have to admit that I’m not all that surprised at them or their tenacity. The task of Reconstruction may have been, in terms of scale, the largest national overhaul between the ratification of the Constitution and the New Deal, and it faced some formidable obstacles on the path to success. In the formation of the Constitution and the construction of the New Deal, the architects of both had some general notion of what could be expected, or at least hoped for. In 1787, there had already been state legislatures and a national Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and there was definitely a practical sense of what hadn’t worked in the years since independence. The New Deal, meanwhile, had enjoyed the theoretical benefit of a generation of progressive thinkers and the example of the Wilson administration as a basis on which to erect its programs—not to mention the misery of an economic depression to form the riposte, if not the New Deal, then what? The same was not the case in Reconstruction, since the single biggest obstacle in its path was, in truth, that no one really knew what success in Reconstruction should look like. There were few precedents for reconstructing a republic which had been ravaged by civil war. Granted, the American Civil War was actually one of the shorter versions of a civil war, which are otherwise the most intractable of armed conflicts. It lasted only four years, from the secession of the first Southern states, through the great campaigns to reestablish federal control over the Mississippi Valley, the overland campaigns by the federal armies in Georgia and Virginia that wore down Southern resistance, to the final surrenders of Confederate forces in the spring of 1865. (By comparison, the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century lasted for eleven years, and didn’t reach a final resolution until the restoration of King Charles II seven years further; the Roman Republic endured two back-to-back civil wars in one century, one lasting sixteen years and the other seven). On those terms, we might have hoped that the comparatively swift conclusion of the Civil War would mean a swift Reconstruction as well.3
But the shortness of the war belied the long decades of growing hostility and alienation between the slave states and the free North, and growing paranoia in the slave states about a future that emancipated their slaves. The hatreds and resentments ran deep, and were entangled around questions of sectional culture and race, rather than politics (in the specific sense of regime type) or religion. In the absence of a convenient template that Americans in 1865 could borrow, Reconstruction would constantly stumble against long-buried hatreds of which the war years had revealed only parts.
There were theories of what might be done. But not more than theories. For instance, Reconstruction could have simply followed the law of conquest, which is to say that the federal government, having triumphed by brute force, was free to impose any settlement on the South it liked, from mass executions to ethnic cleansing. There was, however, no constitutional authority for such measures, nor much popular enthusiasm in the victorious North for these extreme solutions. At the end of a war fought to preserve the integrity and continuity of the Constitution, it would have seemed surpassingly strange to have then waved away every constitutional right to which the defeated were, by Lincoln’s definition, still entitled.
Or, if not the law of conquest, federal authorities might have reduced the Southern states to the constitutional status of territories, which would have put them under the direct supervision of Congress and the federal courts, and required them to go through the whole process of creating territorial legislatures, writing territorial constitutions, and finally petitioning Congress for admission as states. But territorialization would, in effect, have been a concession that the Southern states, by seceding, had indeed removed themselves from the Union, and could only rejoin it by starting over again as federal territories. Lincoln’s argument all along had been that, because secession was a constitutional impossibility, the Southern states had never legally left the Union and thus had never stopped being states. Making them stand outside the Union as territories would have been an admission that they really had left the Union in the first place, and that secession really was a constitutional option.
Yet another solution might have been to address the root cause of secession, which was the determination of the Southern white ruling class to perpetuate slavery. One very direct way of breaking their power would have been to confiscate their plantations and re-distribute the land to the freed slaves who, after all, had been the people who worked that land for 250 years. That had the advantage of fairness to the ex-slaves while stripping the old Southern elite of economic control.4 But the Constitution explicitly bars this kind of confiscation, through Article I’s strict prohibition of bills of attainder and the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The irony of the Civil War is that the same people who fomented it were, after the war, constitutionally protected in their right to continue owning the lands that had originally given them power.
At this point, it might be worth wondering whether federal authorities should have simply given up entirely on remaking the old Confederacy, and turned instead to resettling the freed slaves in the federally owned territories in the West. In 1862, Congress had opened much of the western territorial land to settlement through the Homestead Act; why not a second Homestead Act designed to give the freed slaves an entirely fresh start in our national life, away from the overlords who had once been their masters? The problem here is that there was no enthusiasm in Congress or in the North for such a mass resettlement—too many in Congress thought of the Homestead Act as affirmative action for white people, not blacks—and even less in the South, where the old Southern elite who had survived the war wanted the former slaves as a labor force, no longer perhaps as slaves, but as near to slavery as white state legislatures could make them through the Black Codes they passed in late 1865. Nor were the freedpeople themselves ready to subscribe to what amounted to deportation, since it smacked all too strongly of pre-war colonization schemes to Africa.
These four options—which turned out, for separate reasons, to be non-options—all contained structural, legal, or systemic problems; but even if they hadn’t, implementing any of them would assume that the Republican majority in Congress would have faced no serious opposition in doing so. That does not begin to account for the struggle of Northern Democrats to resist the implementation of anything beyond the most token measures of Reconstruction. Northern and Southern Democrats constituted a potent and mutually protective alliance in the decades before the Civil War, and Northern Democrats routinely linked arms with their Southern brethren to ensure that the executive and judicial branches were largely a Democratic fiefdom. “They flattered the lordly ambition of the aristocratic South,” complained the veteran politico, John Pendleton Kennedy, “courted its favor, obeyed its behests, and found a satisfactory compensation in being permitted to share in the spoils of the victory which their alliance enabled their patrons to win.”5
The emergence of an antislavery political party, the Republicans, in the mid-1850s, and the election of a Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, as president in 1860 brought defeat crashing down on Northern Democratic heads, and the secession of the Southern states reduced Democrats in Congress to a pitiful minority. But Northern Democrats showed impressive powers of recuperation, even during the war. Once the shooting stopped, Northern Democrats were delighted at the prospect of welcoming back their old Southern allies to the halls of Congress, where together they would prove to be an increasingly formidable bastion of resistance to Republican plans for Reconstruction. After the economic Panic of 1873, Democrats regained a majority in the House of Representatives, and retook the Senate in 1878, before finally electing a Democratic president in 1884. Long before that, the revival of Democratic political fortunes had rendered Reconstruction a dead letter.
It did not help matters that Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who stepped into Lincoln’s boots after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, was himself a Democrat. He had been added to the Republican ticket as Lincoln’s vice presidential candidate in an effort to woo Democratic votes in the 1864 election. No one had ever imagined that Johnson would actually become president. But he did, thanks to John Wilkes Booth’s fatal shot at Ford’s Theatre, and Johnson proceeded to oversee Reconstruction in just the fashion any Democrat might, including serial vetoes of Republican Reconstruction measures in Congress.
Under these conditions, the wonder is not that Reconstruction was managed badly, but that it happened at all.
The South’s Economy and Its Politics
And yet, Lincoln’s Republicans did have a game plan of sorts for Reconstruction, but it was a plan which did not look like what we might have expected. Much of modern American historians’ perspective on Reconstruction was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which is sometimes called the “Second Reconstruction.” The Civil Rights Movement was unambiguously a story about race—about mandating civil equality for white and black in voting, education, and public life through landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From that, most modern historians of the first Reconstruction (beginning with Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction and continuing through Eric Foner’s epic Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877) have assumed that it, too, should also be a story predominantly about race.
But it isn’t. The story of Republican Reconstruction after 1865 is also a story about economics, for in the eyes of Lincoln’s Republicans, the offenses of the slave South ran far deeper than either slavery or race. Eliminating slavery was easy enough (that was done through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified eight months after the end of the Civil War, in December 1865). What was not easy was persuading white Southerners to turn away economically from the neo-feudalism of plantation agriculture and to accept the freed slaves as equal participants in a new system of “free labor,” which would then open the path to solving the problems posed by race and politics.
From the moment in the 1820s when the Industrial Revolution successfully remade the world’s economy through the inexpensive manufacture of cotton textiles—and made Southern cotton a critical resource in that revolution—the slave states of the American Union had gradually begun marching to a different drummer than the one which had played at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. James Madison had dreaded the likelihood that slaveholding would work a kind of perversion in the life of the slaveholding states, and wrote that “in proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however, democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact. . . . All antient popular governments, were,” in reality, “aristocracies” because the “majority were slaves. . . . The Southern States of America, are on the same principle aristocracies.”6 Even as the Northern states one by one outlawed slavery and embraced ever-wider notions of democracy, slavery and its immense transatlantic profitability gradually converted the Southern states, economically and politically, into what Forrest Nabors has rightly called oligarchies. They still managed to present capitalist appearances; they could even tolerate a certain measure of urbanization and industrial development. But behind that façade, they could not accept the ideas key to bourgeois capitalist transformation because the result of that transformation would be an economic freedom that rendered slavery an impossibility as a form of labor.7
Instead, the Southern states came to resemble a hierarchical world reminiscent of the Middle Ages, or at least the Middle Ages as popularized in Romantic philosophy and popular culture, from Hegel to Sir Walter Scott, and characterized by “imperiousness of manner, impatience of contradiction or delay, ungovernable passion, contempt of labor.”8 This gradual shifting away from the directions set by the Founders can be seen in three telltale ways, moving from economics to culture to politics, through patterns of landownership, repression of education, and shrinking political participation.
On the eve of the Civil War, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania had a population of approximately three million people; the state of Louisiana had a population of about 708,000 (47 percent of whom were black slaves). In Pennsylvania, only seventy-six farms were larger than 500 acres; in fact, across the North, in 94 percent of counties in the free states, the median size of farms was between 20 and 99 acres. But in Louisiana, despite the smaller overall population, the average cotton planter owned 2,460 acres; indeed, across the slave South, the median farm size was 1,000 acres and more, so that we cease to speak of farms and begin to talk instead of plantations.9 Simply in terms of landownership, the South had become Downton Abbey.
Of course, the great solvent of oligarchy is education, since education is what would equip up-and-coming entrepreneurs to think their way around the stagnant grasp of the thousand-bale planters. In tiny Maine, with a population of 583,000 in 1859, there were 4,855 public schools; in Michigan, with a population of 511,000, there were 3,255 “common schools.” But in Louisiana, a rudimentary school system supported just 749 schools for a population of 587,000; in Georgia, with its 935,000 people, there was no public school system at all; in Mississippi, “there is no uniform common-school system for all the counties,” and what public money there was for education went to “all the larger towns.” In Virginia in 1853, “it may convey a just notion of the benighted condition of our State to say, that on the 1st of October last, there were thirty thousand poor children, over the age of five years, in one hundred and seven counties and towns, without any means of instruction whatever.”10
Nevertheless, in the South, legislatures dominated by slaveholders regularly voted against systems of public education, and not surprisingly, slave-owning and illiteracy went hand in hand. In 1850, illiteracy rates among whites in the slave states stood at 17.23 percent; in the free states, it was just 4.12 percent, and in New England, a minuscule 0.42 percent. This set a pattern congenial to the cotton oligarchs: if you cannot read, you cannot imagine; if you cannot write, you cannot invent. If you are a planter, that is a recipe for stability and no competition; if you are a slave or a poor white, that is a recipe for subservience.11
The most revealing aspect of the South’s slow, sclerotic descent into a new feudalism lies in its slowing pace of public political participation. In the presidential election year of 1852, approximately 69.6 percent of Americans cast votes for the presidency. In the Northern states, that percentage was always exceeded: in Pennsylvania, 72.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots; in Ohio and New York, the percentages rose to 80.6 percent and 84.7 percent, and even in frontier Michigan, 71.3 percent of those eligible voted. But in the South, voter participation shrank: in Louisiana, the numbers decline to 48.7 percent, and to 45.3 percent and 48.6 percent in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. Apart from Tennessee, voter participation in the South stood 15 percentage points lower than the national average—lower, in fact, by 20 percent than in the free states.12
Together, these shifts away from a bourgeois capitalist order made for a landscape which looked not like America but more like Calabria or Prussia, to the point where it seemed that the South had practically become a no-go area for both liberal economics and politics. “As to any liberty of opinion or real freedom here,” reported the London Times’s correspondent, William Howard Russell, in 1861, “the boldest Southerners would not dare to say a shadow of either exists.” In Mississippi, “itinerant preachers, clock pedlars, gamblers, and steam doctors” were lynched on suspicion of promoting slavery’s abolition. In 1849, Virginia made “speaking or writing” against slavery a statutory offense, punishable by a year in jail and a fine of $500. Southern postmasters routinely censored the mail passing through their offices to destroy abolitionist “propaganda.” Even in border-state Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay’s antislavery newspaper, the True American, was driven out of Lexington under the pretense of being “dangerous to the peace of our community,” but which Clay understood all too clearly as proof that “slavery and a free press could not live together.” “Under pretense of holding colored men in slavery,” said Harper’s Weekly in January 1864, “the real purpose of the aristocracy is . . . an immediate reorganization of society upon a strictly aristocratic basis. . . . Consequently, in its most important provision, the Constitution has been a dead letter in every slave State for more than thirty years.”13
It was to the breaking of this aristocracy that Lincoln’s Republicans hoped to steer Reconstruction, and the way to do it was to re-open the South to a middle-class economy and free labor. “I see national glory in the future such as the past has never seen,” exulted the perennial Washington insider, Benjamin Brown French, after the Union triumph at Gettysburg, and not only because slavery would be “forever abolished!” The way was now open for the South to be rebuilt by “Free labor & Free rule! No more Cotton lords, but plenty of Cotton Commons, and all the land pouring out its productions & becoming immensely rich,” with “Industry, Wealth, Happiness, Virtue, all marching hand in hand.” “The wilderness shall vanish,” predicted New York congressman Hamilton Ward, “the church and the school-house will appear, and light and knowledge will illumine her dark corners . . . the whole land will revive under the magic touch of free labor, and we shall arise from the ashes of the rebellion to a purer life and a higher destiny, illustrating the grand truth of man’s capacity for self-government.”14 In short, a long dose of Northern-style capitalism would make the South see green, and in the process, forget all about seeing black and white.
The Rebellion against Reconstruction
And at first, this seemed like it would work. New business start-ups were funded by Northern entrepreneurs (whom Southerners otherwise sneered at as “carpetbaggers”) who expected to create a new economic order in the South, built around the same small-scale industries and commercial export agriculture which characterized the New England village society, rather than reliance on a single, massive export commodity like cotton.15 Congress created a new environment for encouraging economic regime change through the four Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which superimposed an overlay of five Military Districts on the Southern states. The Black Codes would be swept away, and federal officers would register new black voters and exclude the former Confederate leadership.
By these means, the old Southern state governments would be replaced by new faces—former slaves or free Southern blacks, co-operative Southern Unionists (who were tagged as “scalawags” by their enemies) and Northern transplants. There would be a new pro-business direction to state policy, ambitious schemes of public schooling, and equal justice in the courts. A Freedmen’s Bureau, headed by the “Christian general,” Oliver Otis Howard, would act as an advisor to ex-slaves in creating their own farms and businesses. Between 1868 and 1870, ten of the ex-Confederate states acquired new state governments, some of them featuring the first black legislators ever elected in the South, and those new state governments were then restored to their old status in the Union and allowed to send representatives and senators to Washington—once again including the first black members of Congress.16
For the brief time that Congress took an active role in Reconstruction, a great deal of positive good was accomplished: public school systems were put in place where frequently there had been none at all; investments in infrastructure opened new markets; and four million African Americans entered free labor markets and led lives of public meaning as officers, postmasters, jurors, and above all, voters. But hopeful as this looked in planning, it greatly underestimated the willingness of Southern whites to use insurgency tactics to sabotage it. The South did not welcome Yankee capitalism: “Slavery, dying, cursed the soil with its fatal bequest, contempt for labor.” When in 1866, white paramilitary groups staged race riots in New Orleans and Memphis in order to murder and intimidate black voters, these paramilitaries—the Knights of the White Camellia, the League of Pale Faces, and most notoriously, the Ku Klux Klan, who wore the badge of feudalism by dressing like characters out of Ivanhoe—also took aim at the Northern investors whose entrepreneurship would provide the economic undergirding for Reconstruction.17 Leander Bigger, an Ohioan who moved to South Carolina as a Freedmen’s Bureau agent after service in the Union army, described the burning of a store he owned west of Manning, South Carolina, where the chief offense seemed to have been his willingness to extend credit to black farmers trying to set up on their own:
They ransacked the store. . . . All my dry goods—everything that was combustible—they took out into the square, and took a keg of powder that I kept in a concealed place . . . piled the goods over it, and set the pile on fire. The goods, being calicoes, muslins, and delains, burnt slowly. They carried us up to the fire, and the speaker (they gave all their orders by signals) ordered his men to mount. They mounted their horses, formed in line, and then the speaker came up to me and told me, “You must quit business. This is only a warning: the next time we will put you on the fire.” . . . He said he was from hell and represented the devil; that he would take me with him if I did not obey orders.18
Northern investors and entrepreneurs could not afford the costs of business startups and physical protection from the depredations of the Southern paramilitaries, nor did they have much hope that Southern judges or juries would convict the predators who burned their shops and farms. Gradually, they shut their doors and returned North, since, as Benjamin Butler explained:
No man will risk his capital where he does not believe he can get Justice before a Jury; where he does not believe that the community would look favorably upon his enterprise; and where he does believe every advantage will be taken from him and every wrong done him. And he now believes all that in the Southern States. . . . New England is dotted all over with men who have gone down to Virginia, and bought farms . . . and who have been absolutely driven out by their neighbors.19
The Southern Unionists proved even easier to intimidate. All too often, they actually clashed with the “carpetbaggers” for political power and would strike up alliances with ex-Confederates in a bid to establish their own political base. After all, public schools required taxes which fell heaviest on poor whites, and it became easy for the old cotton elites to persuade those whites that they were being cheated by corrupt politicians and to join insurgent movements to resist them; the infrastructure investments often failed, and when they failed, they were seized upon as evidence of the evils of Northern-style commerce; and of course those same elites shamelessly played the race card to whip up frenzies and riots against black officials and the hated carpetbaggers. At the same time, the freed people were frequently politically inexperienced and badly divided by factionalism within their own ranks; they, too, were wooed by ex‑Confederates, offering political alliances that succeeded in putting the old Southern elite back in power—whereupon the restored white leadership promptly forgot any promises it had made to the blacks.
From time to time, the federal government tried to reestablish order in the South, especially in 1871, when President Ulysses Grant invoked the powers given him by the Force Acts to suspend habeas corpus and prosecute the Ku Klux Klan into oblivion. But that kind of intervention depended on support from the federal courts and money from Congress to fund the military and judicial muscle needed to suppress the Klan and its white supremacist copycats, and through the 1870s, both of those supports collapsed. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions, beginning with the Slaughter-House Cases in 1873 and running through the Civil Rights Cases ten years later, which shrank the boundaries of federal jurisdiction over state laws. The year after the Slaughter-House Cases, the Panic of 1873 sent frightened voters to the polls to elect the first Democratic majority in the House of Representatives since the Civil War, and the new Democratic majority there would ensure that no further support for military or legal intervention in the South would be forthcoming.
With the threat of federal intervention removed, the old prewar oligarchy, recruiting impoverished whites with a racist them-or-us message, regained control of Southern state legislatures and governor’s offices, and gradually, between October 1869, and April 1877, the new Reconstruction state governments were overthrown. In 1876, the narrowest presidential contest in American history, between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democrat Samuel Tilden, installed Hayes in the White House only because he promised Southerners not to obstruct these overthrowings. This might have changed with the radical Republican James Garfield, who was elected president in 1880; but Garfield, like Lincoln, was assassinated, and thereafter all energy for more Reconstruction drained away for another seventy years.
Of course, the South paid a stiff price for Reconstruction’s overthrow, especially in economic terms, since the South’s embrace of racial serfdom doomed it to eight decades of economic backwardness, during which time it hardly seemed to be part of the same economy as the rest of the country. In 1880, per capita income in the South was $88 per annum, while in the rest of the nation, it stood at $175. From there, the numbers fell further behind: by 1900, Southern per capita income had risen to $102, but the rest of the nation had risen to $203. In other words, Southern per capita income in 1900 still stood at only half that of the rest of the nation. Its labor force remained rooted in the old prewar economy, with 67 percent of its laborers committed to agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining, much of it shipped north for processing rather than developed by domestic Southern industry. The Southern postal system was so feeble that letters mailed from New York in 1896 would take more than twice as long to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as to Detroit, Michigan, twice as long to get to Memphis as to Cincinnati.20
Southerners, wailed Lewis Harvie Blair in 1888, “leave undone all the things we ought to do”—things which “all the power of the United States Government cannot compel us” to do—and as a result, “we are . . . digging broad and deep graves in which to bury prosperity and all its untold advantages.”21 What the South got as its reward for turning its back on the rest of the nation was sharecropping, white supremacy, and Jim Crow—with which, unhappily, it appeared to be entirely content.
Lessons Not Learned
We have assumed, from time to time, that democracy and capitalism are the default desires of humanity—or, as Francis Fukuyama memorably put it in 1989, around the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the end of history.” But events since then have shown that democracy and capitalism are by no means inevitable; they can be derailed and destroyed, even by ideologies as antique and brittle as Islamic fundamentalism.
There is a perverse attraction in oligarchy, and democracies do not always show much stamina in resisting it. In the twenty-first century, the United States could be said to have slipped increasingly into oligarchy itself. Between 1948 and 2000, the gross domestic product of the United States grew at an average rate of 2.3 percent. Before 1980, the chief beneficiaries were the bottom 50 percent of income earners who saw their incomes double. After 1980, the percentage of low-income earners moving into the middle class dropped by 30.4 percent; in fact, a greater percentage fell out of the middle class and into the ranks of the “working poor.” It was, instead, households in the upper classes—the top fifth of income earners—who have seen a doubling of their own incomes. (Not surprisingly, these trends have been accompanied, as before, by the collapse of our educational systems and the decline in public political participation). We have, in effect, created our own modern oligarchy, in which the likelihood of intergenerational economic mobility fell from 92 percent of those born in the 1940s to just 50 percent for those born in the 1980s. Democracy possesses, even for us, no immunity from oligarchy.22
We might have done better, or at least found it easier, to have anticipated this in situations more nearly parallel to our own Reconstruction—in the direct aftermath of war in Iraq and Afghanistan—where we expected people to embrace democracy and capitalism, only to have them respond with insurgency and theocracy. Unhappily, we have shown the same fecklessness and impatience in reconstructing those regimes as that which ruined our own Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877. For that Reconstruction to have been a success, we should have found a way to redistribute ex-Confederate-owned land to freed people, disfranchised the old Southern ruling class, and (as Ulysses Grant finally concluded) established a military occupation regime of at least forty years (in other words, an occupation similar to that employed against Japan and Germany after World War II). But we did not: we had no lesson book to show us that this was the way, and a distaste for proceeding in that fashion, and the result was the payment of a high price. Before we embark on any similar projects in regime change, we should take a leaf from our own history book to learn how not to do a Reconstruction.
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 3 (Fall 2018): 210–26.
2 Leigh Robinson, The South before and at the Battle of the Wilderness (Richmond: Goode, 1878), 6.
3 David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 53–56; “The President’s Message,” North American Review 102 (January 1866): 260.
4 Thaddeus Stevens, “Speech to the Lancaster County Republican Convention, September 3, 1862, in Lancaster,” and “Speech on Conquered Provinces, April 4, 1863, to the Union League of Lancaster,” in Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, ed. B. W. Palmer, 2 vols. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 1:322, 393–94.
5 “Federal Administration Keeping up to the ‘Rebellion,’” Old Guard (August 1865): 374; Kennedy, “Letter VIII” (March 1864), in Mr. Ambrose’s Letters on the Rebellion (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1865), 147–48.
6 James Madison, “Notes for the National Gazette Essays,” in The Papers of James Madison, ed. R. A. Rutland and T.A. Mason, 17 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 14:157.
7 Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 179; Lincoln, “Fragment on Free Labor” (September 17, 1859), in Collected Works 3:462.
8 Robert Dale Owen, The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation and the Future of the African Race in the United States (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1864), 116–17.
9 Forrest A. Nabors, From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 247–49; James L. Huston, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 133.
10 The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge, for the Year 1859 (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1859), 227, 290, 296, 317; John R. Thompson, Education and Literature in Virginia: An Address Delivered before the Literary Societies, of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia, 18 June 1850 (Richmond: H. K. Ellyson, 1850), 14.
11 J. D. B. De Bow, ed., Statistical View of the United States: Embracing Its Territory, Population—White, Free Colored and Slave—Moral and Social Condition; Industry, Property and Revenue (Washington, D.C.: Beverly Tucker, 1854), 153.
12 The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge, for the Year 1858 (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1857), 214; “Popular Vote for President,” in The Tribune Almanac and Political Register for 1856 (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1857), 2; Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, ed. William Lerner (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975), 2:1072.
13 Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, Social, Political and Military (New York: James G. Gregory, 1861), 63; Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835,” Journal of Negro History 42 (January 1957): 51; Joseph Mayo, A Guide to Magistrates: With Practical Forms for the Discharge of Their Duties Out of Court (Richmond: A. Morris, 1860), 444; Clay, Appeal of Cassius M. Clay to Kentucky and the World (Boston: J. M. Macomber, 1845), 8, 14; “The Truth Confessed,” Harper’s Weekly (January 16, 1864).
14 French, diary entry for July 8, 1863, in 426; Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828–1870, eds. D. B. Cole and J. J. McDonough (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989), Ward, “President’s Message” (December 13, 1866), Congressional Globe, 39th Congress, 2nd session, 118.
15 Ted Tunnell, “Creating ‘The Propaganda of History’: Southern Editors and the Origins of ‘Carpetbagger and Scalawag,’” Journal of Southern History 72 (November 2006), 789–822; James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 234–35.
16 Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 252.
17 George William MacArthur Reynolds, “The Late Insurrection in Jamaica,” Atlantic Monthly 17 (April 1866): 480; Michael W. Fitzgerald, “Reconstruction Politics and the Politics of Reconstruction,” in Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States, ed. Thomas J. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 98.
18 Examination of Leander Bigger (July 15, 1871), in Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquiry into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, 13 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1:276.
19 “The Political Condition of South Carolina,” Atlantic Monthly 39 (February 1877): 186; Anne Sarah Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861–1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 214; Benjamin F. Butler to John C. Underwood (April 8, 1871), John C. Underwood Papers, Library of Congress.
20 Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 202–3; The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1896 (New York: The Press Publishing, 1896), 142; C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 107, 139.
21 Blair, The Prosperity of the South Dependent upon the Elevation of the Negro (Richmond: Everett Waddey, 1889), v.
22 Wallace C. Peterson, Silent Depression: The Fate of the American Dream (New York: Norton, 1994), 57, 63–64; “Trends in Family Wealth, 1989 to 2013,” Congressional Budget Office (August 16, 2016); R. Chetty, D. Grusky, M. Hell et al., “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working paper #22910 (Cambridge: NBER, 2016).