Why Reconstruction failed

Published 12:51 am Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Antebellum South was, as we have seen, really “two Souths.” Not only the South divided between the free majority and the enslaved minority, but a white, “free” South divided against itself by a large and growing wealth gap. There was the prosperous minority of slaveholders, and the far less prosperous majority of non-slaveholders. The interests of this majority, even with universal white manhood suffrage, took second place in the slavocrats’ thoroughly rigged system. This self-destructive subservience was continuously refortified by appeals to racial prejudice and white solidarity. The Confederacy was founded to perpetuate this status quo.

We see, then, that the wellbeing of the Confederacy as opposed to the wellbeing of the South and Southerners, both white and black, were not the same. (Which is why the Confederacy-celebrating Mississippi state flag is so mind-bogglingly perverse.) And therefore, one thing is clear — the South and southerners didn’t lose the Civil War; the Confederacy did.

It is in this context that we can understand the promise of the immediate postwar, post-slavery period of American history. It is called “Reconstruction.” But what exactly was to be reconstructed? The rebuilding of economic assets was only a small part of it. In the most basic sense, constitutional democracy itself was to be re-formed, in the nation and within the South. The end of slavery, therefore, represented a “double emancipation” of both white and black southerners. In the words of the preeminent historian Eric Foner, Reconstruction was “a stunning experiment — to fashion an interracial democracy from the ashes of slavery.”

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And into the early 1870s, the “stunning experiment” was working. Despite the still-common “Rape of the South” propaganda, the last 60 years of scholarship has shown that these Reconstruction governments were effective, to varying degrees. Compared to perfection, they fell far short. Compared to 19th century reality, they were competent and honest — notably more honest than the lily-white regimes that came before and after. Hamstrung as they were by the consequences of the ruinous Slavemasters’ War, these governments sought to establish and adequately fund statewide systems of public schools, to build infrastructure, and to promote economic diversification. In stark contrast to antebellum times, the majority actually ruled.

Which is why Reconstruction had to be destroyed. It was the danger of its success — not its failure — that spelled its doom. As historian John Dittmer says, the Reconstruction governments’ “progress in rebuilding & in fostering a climate of democracy convinced privileged whites that they had to act quickly — and brutally — if they were to regain political control.”

But that meant that those “privileged whites” had to convince the non-privileged white majority — again — to undermine its own interests. And they achieved that by — again — spreading racial alarmism about an ensuing “war of the races.” Now would begin the true Rape of the South. The unprecedented attempt to create a biracial democracy would be brought down by an unprecedented reign of terror. Sanctioned and directed by the South’s elite, the Klan and other likeminded groups unleashed a campaign of white supremacist violence. Their emblem, sensibly, was the flag of the Confederacy, the self-proclaimed nation of white supremacy.

As simple summary, John Egerton concludes, “Reconstruction didn’t fail in the South, it was murdered.” In the Orwellian logic of the day, these sadistic southern jihadis would be known as “Redeemers.” With the assassination of Reconstruction, much more died in the South than the rights of former slaves. Instead of continuing the self-reconstruction of democracy, the South returned to its self-deconstruction. Soon to come was the choking totalitarianism and institutionalized brutality of “Jim Crow.”

JIM WIGGINS is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Commu nity College history instructor.