A Storybook Dream of Reconstruction

In the years immediately after the Civil War, the victors imagined that the US was on the verge of becoming a racially just society. For four long years, Americans had warred against one another over the issue of slavery and whether the states had a right to secede.  The Confederate states had staked everything on these ideas.  Their determination to cling to them became a matter of pride and at last shame and bitterness, because in the end, they could not carry the argument even with the aid of cannons and guns.  When the Union won in 1865, shouldn’t the argument have been over, too?

For the Union, it was.  Northerners had fought down the challenge to the Constitution and the Union that secession represented.  Union victory established, as precedent already had, that no state had the right to rebel against the general government or defy its laws.  The nation was indivisible and the Constitution was the supreme law of the land.

More to the point, during the war, President Lincoln, since sadly deceased, had emancipated the slaves. With peace, all Americans understood that Congress would at last see to it that slavery was completely abolished, and that equal rights for all Americans irrespective of color would soon be written into the Constitution.  This was all the more certain because the entire leadership of the South was in a sort of political limbo, having just waged a murderous rebellion against the Union and the northern states.  In seceding, white Southerners had renounced their political influence.  They’d given up their place on the national stage.  Were former rebels still entitled to the rights of citizens, even?   The North could do what it wanted in Congress because the South’s absence gave it a monopoly.

These circumstances led reformers to imagine that American society was about to be re-created anew.  The old order lay in ruins, blasted and torn to smithereens.  If the southern fire-eaters were not dead, they were exhausted, negated, impoverished.  Northern abolitionists and millions of others believed that, at this moment, a great new multi-racial society, dedicated to equality, could be reconstructed atop the nation’s remains.

In J. L. Giles’ masterful engraving, Reconstruction, this optimism becomes inspirational, taking on a miraculous, storybook tone.  An enormous canopy or tent is being held aloft on poles that the people and the states supply.  The nation’s foundation in slavery has been removed.  Not only are blacks now being integrated politically, but the dream of social and economic equality is a reality, too.  White and black babes are equal from birth, and all are gathered together in the nation’s schools.  In addition, white and Native Americans civilly consider one another’s needs.  Inside the tent of the newly reconstituted nation, recent enemies from North and South are shaking hands.

Liberty and Justice smile down on the scene.  A host of otherworldly spirits, many of them notable American statesmen, also look on.  After tangling incessantly with one another on a lower plain, these adversaries have come together around the resurrected Christ.  This heavenly host–featuring luminaries such as Calhoun, Webster, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, John Adams, George Washington, John Brown–were in fact collectively responsible for the civil war.  Despite their wisdom and patriotism, they collectively failed to oppose and eliminate slavery by peaceful means.  Yet, as a new age of union and liberty dawns after years of unspeakable carnage, how impressed they are!

Which brings us to the sick side of this fantasy: its naïveté about political leaders, defeat, and power.  The Northern assumption that Southerners, if defeated, would be converted to a new point of view proved tragically wrong.  The Northern determination to create a fairer and more inclusive society would weaken and buckle, as former secessionists clawed their way back to the top in the decades to come.  Black Americans labored at a disadvantage amid an ongoing power struggle among whites.  When order and stability returned to the South, the master class sported a predictable hue.

Image: from this source.
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