by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
At 9 p.m. last night I watched the first half of a fascinating PBS documentary program on Reconstruction, given the rather academic title Reconstruction: America After the Civil War for a political era that could almost be described as a second American Civil War, coming right after the first one — spanning the years 1865 to 1877 — and featuring some of the same combatants, including generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman and Phil Sheridan for the North and Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest for the South. The outcome, however, was profoundly different: the South, losers of the first U.S. Civil War, won the second one and were able, through sheer tenacity and resort to violence and terrorism, to revert the South’s African-American population to a state as close to slavery as possible without violating the Thirteenth Amendment.
Reconstruction was produced under the overall supervision of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American professor at Harvard and a distinguished academic who a few years ago felt the hot breath of white supremacy up close and personal when police in Boston arrested him for trying to enter his own house. They assumed he was a burglar because they couldn’t conceive of any African-American actually being affluent enough to own a house in that neighborhood. At the time Barack Obama was President and he invited Gates and the police that arrested him to the White House, where he brokered an apology. One suspects our current President would have had the white officers to the White House on their own and congratulated them on a job well done!
Interestingly, the show is structured into four episodes, of which only the first two (the ones shown back-to-back last night) deal with what most historians consider the actual Reconstruction period, 1865 to 1877. The first hour dealt with the presidency of Andrew Johnson, who had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as his running mate in 1864 on a so-called “National Union” ticket (those Republicans who still insist on calling their party the “Party of Lincoln” forget that in 1864 the Republican Party actually repudiated Lincoln and failed to renominate him, then couldn’t find a candidate willing to run against him), replacing Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first-term vice-president.
According to Gates’s narration here, two days before his assassination Lincoln gave a speech in which he advocated giving the vote to some African-Americans — mainly landowners and veterans of the Union Army — and John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd and, upon hearing that announcement, turned to the person standing next to him and said, “That’s the last public speech he’ll ever give.” Gates made it seem like Lincoln’s advocacy of at least some Black suffrage was what made Booth decide to kill him; in fact Booth was part of a conspiracy that involved at least seven other people and was an attempt by Southern bitter-enders to achieve by decapitating the Union government what they had failed to win on the battlefield.
An assassin entered the bedroom of Secretary of State William Seward and slashed his face open; Seward survived but the newspapers of the time reported the attack on Seward in the same articles in which they covered the Lincoln assassination and the reporters obviously understood the link between the two events. Andrew Johnson was spared only because his would-be assassin, George Adzerodt, got drunk and lost his nerve — ironic that Johnson, himself an alcoholic, was spared assassination because his designated killer was also fond of the bottle.
Gates points out in the program that Johnson, a poor-white Tennessean who had worked himself up (the show does not mention that Johnson grew up not knowing how to read or write: he learned those skills only as an adult, after he married a schoolteacher who taught him), hated both the rich white Southern planters who owned the slaves and the slaves themselves. The way Johnson set up Reconstruction, the Southern white aristocrats had to come to him and beg him for pardons personally, but once he had exacted his ritual humiliation against them he generally came through and restored their full civil and political rights. Frederick Douglass met Johnson early on in his presidency and noticed booze on his breath (the meeting took place at 11 a.m.); Johnson made enough racist statements that Douglass reported back on the meeting, “Whatever he is, Andrew Johnson is no friend of the Black man.”
Johnson had the advantage that he took power in April 1865 and the next session of the U.S. Congress didn’t start until that December; he decided to enact his own version of Reconstruction by executive order (sound familiar?). Oliver Howard, who had been put in charge of the Freedmen’s Bureau — the federal agency charged with responsibility for easing and ensuring the ex-slaves’ transition to freedom — wanted to break up the old Southern plantations and give 40-acre plots to former Black slaves on a three-year loan with the proviso that if the Black farmers did well enough to make enough money to pay the loan, they would own the land free and clear (the origin of the famous phrase “40 acres and a mule”).
Johnson countermanded the order and instead said that the federal government would restore the plantations to their former white owners, and he stood back as the white men of the South re-elected their old Confederate officials to the new “Union” state governments and enacted the so-called “Black Codes” by which every adult Black resident had to sign an employment contract to a white landowner or employer, and if they didn’t they would be arrested and fined, and their services would “belong” to any white person who paid their fine.
In December 1865 the U.S. Congress reconvened and, led by the so-called “Radical Republican” leaders Congressmember Thaddeus Stevens (who got mentioned in this program) and Senator Charles Sumner (who didn’t), started passing laws to clamp down on the attempts of white Southerners to force Blacks back into near-slave conditions. Their main weapon was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which they passed over Johnson’s veto and which they soon sought to protect against judicial review by inserting it into the U.S. Constitution as the Fourteenth Amendment.
As Gates pointed out, the three constitutional amendments passed just after the Civil War — the Thirteenth, which formally abolished slavery and “involuntary servitude”; the Fourteenth, which established birthright citizenship and barred state governments from denying their citizens the “equal protection” of the laws, or “due process” under law (terms that would launch seemingly endless judicial arguments over what they meant and how much they constrained states from acting against broadly defined groups of their citizens); and the Fifteenth, which said that states could not infringe on the right to vote on the basis of race — basically transformed the U.S. Constitution and made it at least potentially a tool for achieving racial equality.
The first hour of Reconstruction told the story of the Johnson Administration and its clashes with Congress over who should have authority over the Southern states — in particular whether they could automatically be readmitted to the U.S. or they had to go through a process and petition for readmission as states — as well as how deeply the federal government would intervene to protect the rights of Southern Blacks against the attacks of Southern whites.
It mentions Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and narrow escape (his conviction was defeated in the U.S. Senate by just one vote) just in passing, without explaining what the motivation for it was: at a time when the U.S. had no civil service system, government jobs were patronage appointments and the people holding them were routinely fired en masse when the White House changed parties. Andrew Johnson may have run for vice-president as the running mate of the Republican Lincoln, but once he was President he thought of himself as a Democrat (indeed, in 1868 he sought the Democratic, not the Republican, nomination to continue as President — and got exactly nowhere) and fired Republican officeholders en masse and replaced them with Democrats.
The Republicans who were subject to Johnson’s purges appealed to Congress to pass the Tenure of Office Act to put the brakes on Johnson firing them and replacing them with Democrats, and Johnson really ticked off the Congressional Republicans when he tried to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. A lot of Northerners thought Stanton had been the key player in the North’s victory in the Civil War; picked by Lincoln in 1862 to replace the corrupt Simon Cameron (to whom Lincoln had promised the job in exchange for enough convention delegates to win the 1860 nomination over the party establishment’s favorite, William Seward), Stanton had made sure the Union Army got the weapons and supplies Northern taxpayers were paying for, and many people attributed the victory to Stanton’s honest and effective management of the War Department.
The Stanton firing led directly to Johnson’s impeachment and near-removal from office, though the real conflict between Johnson and Congressional leaders (who won a veto-proof majority of over two-thirds in both houses in the 1866 midterms) was over the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. These acts essentially called for the division of the former Confederate states into five zones of occupation, each one under the command of a Union general, and essentially suspended local authority until new state governments could be constituted through elections in which all free men, Black as well as white, could vote. The Reconstruction Acts also required the states to petition the federal government for permission to rejoin the Union, and as a condition of doing so required them to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
Under the occupation, quite a number of African-American men won political office in the formerly secessionist South — and one of the most fascinating aspects of the Reconstruction program is that, though Gates’ narration doesn’t mention it, a lot of these people don’t look especially Black in their surviving photos. It seems likely some of them were the mixed-race children of white Southern planters and the Black women slaves they took as mistresses or simply raped. Aside from Louisiana, a former French colony in which the mixed-race Creoles were recognized as a distinct social class with lower standing and fewer privileges than the whites but higher standing and more privileges than the Blacks, in the rest of the South mixed-race children were considered Black (indeed, some of the most effective anti-slavery propaganda before the Civil War consisted of photos of white-looking mixed-race children which were distributed by abolitionist groups to get people angry that people who looked white were nonetheless being considered “Black” and kept in slavery).
Gates mentions several of the Black politicians who won office during the Reconstruction era, including Hiram Revels (R-Mississippi), the first African-American U.S. Senator, but the one he presents as his paradigmatic figure of Black advancement during Reconstruction is Robert Smalls. Robert Smalls escaped slavery on May 13, 1862, when he and a crew of fellow slaves commandeered a Confederate cotton steamer, sailed it to the Union blockade line and surrendered it. After the war Smalls got elected to the Mississippi state legislature and eventually to Congress, and he wrote a memoir that was one of Gates’s primary sources on the rise and fall of Black political power in the South during Reconstruction.
America looked well on its way to a peaceful resolution of the issues raised by the Civil War and an effective transition to a multi-racial society, but the white Southerners fought back with a mix of terrorism and propaganda. In 1865 white Southern bitter-enders formed the Ku Klux Klan, which Gates explains was an extension of the former white slave patrols, freelance vigilantes who had patrolled the South looking for fugitive slaves. The Klan and similar organizations like the Knights of the White Camellia launched a campaign of no-holds-barred terrorism to intimidate Black officials from taking office and rank-and-file Blacks from voting at all.
They also sought to steal the property of Blacks who had built up successful farms and businesses — one woman farmer depicted in the show said she was tied to a tree by a white mob whose leader said he would either rape her or kill her, her “choice” — and as the 1870’s continued they were largely successful in wearing down Northern resistance. The white Southerners, particular the landed aristocracy that had owned most of the slaves in the first place, not only fought a terror campaign against free Southern Blacks, especially Black landowners, business owners and politicians, they bolstered it with a two-pronged propaganda campaign.
One prong was aimed at poor Southern whites to make them identify their interests with those of the white planter class rather than poor Southern Blacks — not the first time nor the last time that lower-income whites have been induced by racist and prejudicial appeals to vote against their own economic interests (this was revived by the Republican Party, after the historical reversal of the 1960’s in which the two major political parties switched their positions on civil rights in general and African-American equality in particular, in the so-called “Southern Strategy” by which Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond neutralized the threat of George Wallace’s independent Presidential candidacy in 1968; originally intended just to stop Wallace from splitting the Right-wing vote in 1968, the appeals to racism at the heart of the “Southern Strategy” proved effective at winning Northern working-class whites as well, splitting the New Deal coalition and putting the Republican Party and the Right in general in ongoing control of American politics, with only minor and transitory interruptions, ever since).
The other prong was aimed at public opinion in the North. Part of this was a deliberate romanticization of the cause of the Confederacy — it became known as the “Lost Cause,” following the publication of a successful book of that title by Virginian author and journalist Edward Pollard in 1866 — which presented the pre-war South as a gentle, well-mannered aristocracy and said the Civil War had been fought for “State’s Rights.” Pollard’s (and his fellow “Lost Cause” authors’) attitude towards slavery and their willful ignorance of the fact (demonstrated, as Gates points out, in the ordinances of secession themselves) that the “right” the Southern states were fighting the federal government over was the “right” to own other people as slaves — is indicated in this passage from Pollard’s book, quoted on the Wikipedia page about the “lost cause” mythology generally:
We shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery. But we may suggest a doubt here whether that odious term “slavery” which has been so long imposed, by the exaggeration of Northern writers, upon the judgment and sympathies of the world, is properly applied to that system of servitude in the South, which was really the mildest in the world; which did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement; and which, by the law of the land, protected the negro in life and limb, and in many personal rights, and, by the practice of the system, bestowed upon him a sum of individual indulgences, which made him altogether the most striking type in the world of cheerfulness and contentment.
The romanticization of the Confederacy went into hyper-drive in 1870, when the death of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee was used as an occasion for both official and unofficial mourning throughout the South — Gates’ program includes a photo of a Southern courthouse in which every one of the outside columns was wrapped in a black spiral ribbon of mourning — including the erection of statues of Lee, usually on horseback, in public places throughout the South. These statues have become flash points of controversy in public life today as anti-racist Blacks and whites have demanded they be taken down, and white racists and nationalists (including President Trump) have insisted that they should remain. The bitter clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 began when a liberal mixed-race city government in Charlottesville ordered a Lee monument removed from a public park and Right-wing nationalist and racist Richard Spencer issued a nationwide call, “Unite the Right,” for white supremacists, nationalists and conservatives in general to come to Charlottesville to protect the Lee statue — which led to the death of one counter-protester and President Trump’s statement that “there were good people on both sides.”
White authors, not just in the South but the North as well, put out propaganda that said the Black-run state governments in power during the Reconstruction years had been either incompetent, corrupt or both; Gates’s program includes cartoons, some drawn by the legendary Thomas Nast, which depicted Black legislators as little more than apes. Probably the most powerful piece of propaganda for the “lost cause” mythology was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, based on a novel called The Clansman by the fanatically racist North Carolina author Thomas Dixon — which, in one of those uncomfortable bits of history, also turned out to be the finest film, from purely artistic criteria, made to that time. It depicts the Black legislators of the Reconstruction government (almost all played by white actors in blackface) as eye-rolling stereotypes playing craps on the legislative floor and lusting after innocent, virginal white women.
The good guys in Griffith’s film are the Ku Klux Klan, who seize power back from these corrupt monsters and secure renewed white rule by taking the Blacks’ guns away — all to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (It was a silent film but it went out with a musical score to be played in the theatre as the film was shown, and for his exciting finale with the Klan saving the white South from the depradations of the Blacks, Griffith and his musical director, Joseph Carl Breil, specified the “Ride of the Valkyries.”)
Northern Republicans in Congress and the newly elected president from the 1868 election, Ulysses S. Grant, fought back. In 1871 Congress held hearings as part of an elaborate investigation into the activities of the Klan and other Southern vigilante groups, and as a result they passed the so-called “Enforcement Acts” under the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment (which has since become boilerplate in most subsequent Constitutional amendments) that “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
Alas for the cause of racial equality in the U.S., the Grant administration also turned out to be spectacularly corrupt; while Grant himself (like later Republican President Warren G. Harding and unlike Donald Trump) was apparently personally honest, he appointed a lot of crooks and grafters to his Cabinet, The most famous scandal of the Grant administration was the Crédit Mobilier, a sham “bank” through which the Union Pacific Railroad funneled its construction contracts and created what amounted to a slush fund through which they could buy influence in Washington, D.C. through outright bribes of public officials.
The Democratic Party swept into power in both houses of Congress in the 1874 midterms — though the outgoing Republicans managed to hold out long enough that in their lame-duck session they passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which like the one a much later Congress passed in 1964 made it illegal for private businesses to discriminate in public accommodations on the basis of race. Unlike the one passed in 1964, the one passed in 1875 was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883, saying that the government had no authority to tell private business owners whom they could or couldn’t serve.
Earlier, in 1876, the Supreme Court had gutted the Enforcement Acts by ruling that a group of private vigilantes who slaughtered African-Americans en masse could not be convicted in federal court of violating their civil rights because they were not “state actors” — i.e., part of the state government. The final blow to Reconstruction came with the 1876 Presidential election, in which the Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden — who based his campaign almost exclusively on the corruption of the federal government by Northern business interests and the economic “Panic” (19th-century speak for “depression”) of 1873 caused largely by the rampant self-dealing of the giant corporations that were taking over both the American economy and, through campaign contributions and out-and-out bribery of public officials, American politics.
The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, whose main qualifications seem to have been that he’d been a Union general in the Civil War and he’d somehow escaped being corrupted by the Grant administration scandals. Tilden won the popular vote but Hayes and the Republicans made a deal with the governments of three Southern states where the election was still in dispute to get their electoral votes in exchange for withdrawing the last federal troops from the South.
One curious thing about this program is that though it’s scheduled to be four hours long, only the first two hours deal with the actual Reconstruction period, 1865-1877; the rest of it deals with the success of the self-styled “Redeemers” of the South — the white politicians, activists and vigilantes who restored white supremacy after Reconstruction and kept the terror campaign going through, among other things, lynchings — along with the nationwide success of their anti-Black propaganda campaign and the efforts of African-Americans and their shrinking (and then growing) number of white allies to reverse the racist trend and win Black equality in the courts, in the law generally and in society.
The tenacity of white racists in the South in particular — and in the nation generally — is illustrated by how quickly Southern (and some Northern) states enacted laws aimed at suppressing Democratic voters in general and Black and Latino voters in particular were passed as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act and removed the “pre-clearance” requirement by which states with a history of racial discrimination in voting had to get any changes in their elections laws approved in advance by the federal government to make sure they did not have a discriminatory intent or effect.
It’s clear Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the many people (mostly Black, though one quite important white person in Reconstruction historiography — Eric Foner, who along with white historians Eric McKitrick and Kenneth Stampp and Black historian John Hope Franklin began the re-examination of Reconstruction in the early 1960’s and started moving away from the pro-white, pro-“Redeemer,” anti-Black consensus that had ruled Reconstruction historiography since the 1890’s — was prominently featured) he interviewed on screen are seeing the current upsurge in white racism that helped elect Donald Trump President is merely an interruption in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the arc of history … bend[ing] towards justice” and that the civil rights movement that started in the 1960’s (or earlier) was the beginning of a permanent trend towards racial (and other) equality in this country.
But what if it isn’t? What if Donald Trump and the racists in his coalition will be as successful in snuffing out the gains of the civil rights movement (what some historians have actually called the “Second Reconstruction”) long-term as their predecessors in the white-supremacist “Redeemer” movement were in snuffing out the gains of the first Reconstruction? What if America’s future is a so-called “nationalist populist” one in which the nation is ruled indefinitely by a Right-wing coalition who regards the ideas that whites are inherently superior to people of color, men are inherently superior to women, and Queers are pond scum who deserve jail instead of marriage? What if someday Barack Obama is viewed as as bizarre an anomaly in his historical era as Robert Smalls is viewed today in his?If nothing else, the tragic story of Reconstruction is an object lesson in the dogged persistence of America’s racists and their determination, no matter how many strides African-Americans make towards equality, to push them back into the subservient position they regard as their inborn “nature”? At this point I’d have to say that one of those futures is as least as likely as the other!
 — The guarantee in the Fourteenth Amendment that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” — so hated by modern-day Right-wingers for granting automatic U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants if they are born on American soil — was largely intended to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that African-Americans were not U.S. citizens and “the Black man has no rights which the white man is obliged to respect.”
 — One of the most misunderstood aspects of American constitutional law is that it gives state governments virtually unlimited authority to determine who may — or may not — vote in their states. The great amendments that extended the franchise — the 15th, which extended the vote to people of color; the 19th, which extended it to women; the 24th, which barred disqualification of voters for failing to pay a poll tax (a favorite device of white Southern governments to deny the vote to Blacks); and the 26th, which lowered the minimum voting age to 18 nationwide — are all framed as specific limits on the otherwise absolute power of state government to enfranchise or disenfranchise people.
 — An historical parallel: in 1860 Lincoln, an upstart failed Senate candidate from Illinois, beat William Seward, based in New York and the party elite’s favorite, for his party’s Presidential nomination and then, once in office, appointed Seward Secretary of State. In 2008 Barack Obama, an upstart Senator from Illinois, beat the New York-based Hillary Clinton, the party establishment’s favorite for the nomination, and once he was elected he appointed Clinton Secretary of State.
 — Actually, the first serious historian to challenge the mythology of Reconstruction as an oppression against white Southerners by unworthy Blacks, white “carpetbaggers” from the North and Southern white “scalawags” who helped them was W. E. B. DuBois in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America. But because DuBois was both Black and a Communist his book was dismissed as special pleading and the challenge to the white-supremacist view of Reconstruction didn’t catch fire in academe for another quarter-century.