Reconstruction as It Should Have Been: An Exercise in Counterfactual History

By Huston, James L. | Civil War History, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Reconstruction as It Should Have Been: An Exercise in Counterfactual History


Huston, James L., Civil War History


All teachers of the Reconstruction period in U.S. history have to face "them" eventually, and there "they" sit mocking and taunting us. "They" are the Reconstruction program designed by Congress and the results of unification that by 1900 had produced Jim Crow segregation and abysmal Southern poverty instead of racial harmony and prosperity. "They" mock us partly for our belief in human agency and our faith that an alternative history existed, and "they" taunt us by daring to compose a plan of reconstruction that, on the one hand, would have fit the social, economic, political, and ideological trends of that day, and, on the other hand, would have produced a better long-term result--in other words, a demonstrable proof that, with all our knowledge and theories and time for reflection, historians today could have outdone the Republicans of the 1860s. And "they" smile back at us knowing that for once American historians have to confront the meaning of tragedy and accept a result from which there was no escape. The shadow of that realization has fallen upon scholars of the nineteenth century, for as Brooks Simpson has written, "Those historians who are critical of the performance of these four men [the Reconstruction presidents] for not achieving more for black Americans find it rather difficult to offer a historically viable alternative that improves markedly on what happened, even with the immense advantages offered by hindsight." (1)

While historians have not offered an alternative plan to that of the Republicans of 1867-68, they certainly have not been lax in detailing the program's faults. Historians have produced a lengthy list of the causes for Reconstruction's failures. Several explanations have dominated the literature, and perhaps the most consistent one has been the refusal of Congress to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites, thereby depriving ex-slaves an economic base for independence and inhibiting a coalition between blacks and poor whites that would have operated against a native white political backlash. (2) Others have claimed that nothing could have been accomplished anyway as the capitalist economy was going to doom the majority of African Americans to wage-earning subsistence of one kind or another. A version of that perspective holds that the free labor ideology was a drawback to a fair economic settlement for African Americans because the social mobility feature of the ideology made little sense for people without property, without contacts in the commercial world, and without meaningful opportunity. Moreover, on the question of "work," a cultural gap existed between the market-driven individualism of white reformers and the communitarian subsistence aspirations of the freed people. (3) Other historians have insisted that the original program of the Republicans was flawed in being too moderate: it required more time to operate and more political control than most Republicans were willing to consider. In this sense, Republicans were imprisoned by the existing ideals of monetary responsibility, laissez-faire government, states rights, and individualism. (4) The radical plan of Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and George Washington Julian, which called for territorialization of the old Confederate states (which was the elimination of Southern state sovereignty), restrictions on white voting, installation of congressionally appointed governors, and supervision of Southern activity for thirty years, all to be enforced by the U.S. Army, was never implemented. Instead, Congress opted for a Reconstruction policy that allowed immediate reunion once Southern states agreed to a few conditions of enfranchisement of black males, disfranchisement of some white males, and new state constitutions agreeing to nonpayment of the Confederate debt. Southern blacks were to rely upon their ability to vote to protect their rights and to advance economically. Politics, however, proved to be of questionable value as a means of obtaining freedom's full promise. …

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