Eminent Civil War historian Guelzo examines the many reasons the Reconstruction era, “the ugly duckling of American history,” ended in failure.
Reconstruction, the brainchild of Abraham Lincoln and carried out—or not—by successors Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, was meant to rebuild the rebellious Southern states and reincorporate them into the Union while altering their political structure to allow for the suffrage and citizens’ rights of former slaves. From 1865 to 1877, that federal project ground down before achieving its ambitions, though parts were put in place. As Guelzo (Director, Civil War Era Studies/Gettysburg Coll.; Redeeming the Great Emancipator, 2016, etc.) notes, there’s something in Reconstruction for nearly everyone to hate but also something powerful by way of an object lesson: Much of the South’s “Lost Cause” myth was born in the time, as a pointed morality tale in resisting a tyranny in which whites and not blacks were disenfranchised and the extraordinary levels of graft and corruption allowed do-gooders on all sides to point to the doomed effort with I-told-you-so smugness. For all that, Reconstruction had to grapple with large issues: Were the states formerly in rebellion still states? Who was responsible for paying Confederate debts? In the end, almost everyone concerned with the enterprise failed to press Reconstruction to its presumed end. Consequently, former slaveholders were restored to positions of power and influence that in turn subjected former slaves to peonage, which, as one former slave put it, “is not the condition of really freemen.” As seems so often the case in American history, African-Americans emerge the losers in Guelzo’s narrative. As he writes, it was not just property and economic freedom that fled them, but “what Southern blacks lost in wholesale amounts was political agency.” Thus the rise of Jim Crow laws and the spectacle, 150 years after the end of the war, of continued disenfranchisement and de facto segregation.
Essential reading for the historically minded in a time of ongoing struggle for civil rights.