A Marshall Plan for the South? the Failure of Republican and Democratic Ideology during Reconstruction

By Richardson, Heather Cox | Civil War History, December 2005 | Go to article overview

A Marshall Plan for the South? the Failure of Republican and Democratic Ideology during Reconstruction


Richardson, Heather Cox, Civil War History


I would like to shift the focus of our discussion and argue that the central problem of Reconstruction in the South was not race or labor, but a lack of capital. This could have been addressed if the national government had sponsored public works projects that funneled capital into the region--an early version of the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Europe after World War II. Significant government spending on public works projects would have prevented the South from spiraling into the impoverished and racially torn backwater it had become by the early twentieth century. Such a program would have been novel, but it could have been couched in terms that were completely in line with existing Republican rhetoric about national economic development. Exploring this option requires examining the political culture of Reconstruction, and reveals that such a plan was possible, but it was not adopted because white Americans North and South were limited by their worldviews.

Behind my argument is the understanding that issues of race and labor were exacerbated by the problems of poverty. Briefly, my understanding is that depressed property values, wartime destruction of personal property, and the lack of cash informed the way white Southerners perceived labor disputes, land ownership, and escalating taxes. (1) These perceptions, in turn, fueled white attacks on black voting and fed white racism. When freedmen refused to work for employers who could not pay them--or whose poverty made them skimp on wages--whites saw slackers. (2) When freedpeople left farms for towns and cities in search of rations and work, whites saw bandits and vagabonds. When freedpeople organized and squatted on lands or struck for better wages, whites saw class warfare. (3)

Poverty was also at the heart of Southern white opposition to black voting. Beginning in early 1867, when black Republican politicians began to talk of social services for freedmen, homestead grants for farmers, and even, occasionally, land confiscation, white opponents insisted that an economic war was at hand. They argued that poor black voters would put into power politicians who promised them expensive programs and benefits that would be paid for by taxing those who had property, that is, the whites. Propertied whites had no cash to pay taxes--or so they felt--and saw new taxes as a deliberate attempt to confiscate their property for redistribution to blacks. This economic conflict created a fight to control the government, and angry whites used guerrilla tactics to destroy the black voters and those white voters who also supported Republican governments. Those guerrillas organized as the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and so on, and murdered more than one thousand Republicans before the election of 1868. (4) The economic pressures of the postwar South provided the primary justification for black repression. Relieving the economic pressure of insufficient capital would have removed the keystone from the arguments of white supremacists.

So the problem to solve during Reconstruction was how to funnel capital to the South, enabling it to rebuild both physically and economically. Unfortunately, Northerners were not able to conceive of Southern problems this way because they were wedded to a free labor ideology based on the idea that a man's labor created value. They believed that simply erasing slavery and putting freedmen to work in the rich fields of the South would begin to produce cotton and get the South back on its economic feet quickly. Before the war, Southern cotton had monopolized the international market, and high prices made Southern planters the wealthiest people in the country. Northerners had utter faith in the power of cotton to bring in the capital to rebuild the South, and they continued to believe well into the late 1860s that it could do so as soon as the worms, the weather, and the workers started to cooperate with the planters. …

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