| Photo Black representatives during Reconstruction Source Wikicommons | MR Online Photo: Black representatives during Reconstruction. Source: Wikicommons

Toward a third Reconstruction: Lessons from the past for a socialist future

Originally published: Liberation School on March 17, 2022 by Eugene Puryear (more by Liberation School) (Posted Mar 19, 2022)

The price…of slavery and civil war was the necessity of quickly assimilating into American democracy a mass of laborers…in whose hands alone for the moment lay the power of preserving the ideals of popular government…and establishing upon it an industry primarily for the profit of the workers. It was this price which in the end America refused to pay and today suffers for that refusal.1–W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America

Introduction

Karl Marx wrote to Lincoln in 1864 that he was sure that the “American anti-slavery war” would initiate a “new era of ascendancy” for the working classes for the “rescue…and reconstruction of a social world”.2 The Black historian Lerone Bennett, writing 100 years later, called Reconstruction, “the most improbable social revolution in American history”.3

Clothed in the rhetoric and incubated within the structure of “American Democracy,” it was nonetheless crushed, drowned in blood, for being far too radical for the actual “American democracy.” While allowing for profit to be made, Reconstruction governments made a claim on the proceeds of commerce for the general welfare. While not shunning wage labor, they demanded fairness in compensation and contracts. Reconstruction demanded the posse and the lynch mob be replaced with juries and the rule of law. This all occurred during a time when the newly minted “great fortunes” brooked no social contract, sought only to degrade labor, and were determined to meet popular discontent with the rope and the gun where the courts or the stuffed ballot box wouldn’t suffice.

The defeat of Reconstruction was the precondition for the ascension of U.S. imperialism. The relevant democratic Reconstruction legislation was seen by elites as “class legislation” and as antithetical to the elites’ needs. The proletarian base of Reconstruction made it into a dangerous potential base for communism, especially as ruling-class fears flared in the wake of the Paris Commune, where the workers of Paris briefly seized power in 1871. The distinguished service of Blacks at all levels of government undermined the gradations of bigotry essential to class construction in the United States.

Reconstruction thus lays bare the relationship between Black freedom and revolution. It helps us situate the particular relationship between national oppression and class struggle that is the key to any real revolutionary strategy for change today.

The new world

Like the Paris Commune, the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Mozambique, the Reconstruction governments were confronted by the scars of brutal war and long-standing legacies of underdevelopment. They faced tremendous hostility from the local ruling elites and the remnants of their formerly total rule, and were without powerful or terribly well-organized allies outside of the South.

With the status quo shattered, reconstruction could only proceed in a dramatically altered social environment. Plantation rule had been parochial, with power concentrated in the localized despotisms of the forced labor camps, with generalized low taxes, poor schools, and primitive social provisions.

Reconstruction answered:

“Public schools, hospitals, penitentiaries, and asylum for orphans and the insane were established for the first time or received increased funding. South Carolina funded medical care for poor citizens, and Alabama provided free legal counsel for indigent defendants. The law altered relations within the family, widening the grounds for divorce, expanding the property rights for married women, protecting minors from parental abuse… Nashville expanded its medical facilities and provided bread, soup, and firewood to the poor. Petersburg created a thriving school system, regulated hack rates, repaved the streets, and established a Board of Health that provided free medical care in the smallpox epidemic of 1873”.4

And further:

“Throughout Reconstruction, planters complained it was impossible to obtain convictions in cases of theft and that in contract disputes, ‘justice is generally administered solely in the interest of the laborer…’ Equally significant was the regularity with which lawmakers turned down proposals to reinforce labor discipline”.5

South Carolina disallowed garnishing wages to settle debts, Florida regulated the payment of farm hands, and the Mississippi legislature instructed local officials to construe the law “for the protection and encouragement of labor.” All across the South, former slaves assessed the taxable property of their former owners; state after state protected the upcountry farmer from debt, exempting his tools, personal property, and horse and plow from the usurers. In Alabama, personal property tools and livestock were exempt and a Republican newspaper declared that “a man who has nothing should pay no tax”.6

The school-building push resulted in a serious expansion of public education:

“A Northern correspondent in 1873 found adults as well as children crowding Vicksburg schools and reported that “female negro servants make it a condition before accepting a situation, that they should have permission to attend the night-schools.” Whites, too, increasingly took advantage of the new educational opportunities. Texas had 1,500 schools by 1872 with a majority of the state’s children attending classes. In Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina, enrollment grew steadily until by 1875 it accounted for about half the children of both races”.7

Georgia, which had no public school system at all before the war, had 1,735 schools by 1874. The first public school law in Georgia was passed on the 100-year anniversary, to the day, of Georgia’s slave-era law making it a crime to teach Blacks to read and write.8 In South Carolina, in 1868, 30,000 students attended four hundred schools. By 1876, 123,035 were attending 2,776 schools, one-third of all teachers were Black.9

The source of this social vision was the most solid base of Reconstruction: the Black workers, farmers, and farmhands. Within the Black population there grew a few men of wealth and the pre-war “free” population provided notable and standout leaders. However, at the end of the day, Black was essentially synonymous with “proletarian.”

Black political power made itself felt all over the South in perhaps the most profound cultural turnaround in U.S. history. Blacks—who just a few years previously had, in the words of the Supreme Court, “no rights” that a white man “was bound to respect”—now not only had rights, but exercised power, literally and metaphorically, over their former masters.

The loss of a monopoly on the positions of power vested in either local government or local appointments to state and federal positions was deeply intolerable to elite opinion, alarming them “even more than their loss of statewide control”.11 In 1900, looking back, a North Carolina Congressman, highlighted Black participation in local government as the “worst feature” of Reconstruction, because Blacks “filled the offices which the best men of the state had filled. He was sheriff, deputy sheriff, justice of the peace…constable, county commissioner”.12 One Charlestonian admirer of the old regime expressed horror in a letter: “Surely our humiliation has been great when a Black Postmaster is established here at Headquarters and our Gentlemen’s Sons to work under his bidding”.13

This power was exercised over land sales, foreclosures, tax rates, and all civil and minor criminal cases all across the Black Belt. In Mississippi, former slaves had taken control of the Board of Supervisors across the Black Belt and one-third of the Black population lived under the rule of a Black sheriff.

In Beaufort, South Carolina, a center of the Plantation aristocracy, the mayor, police force, and magistrates were all Black by 1873. Bolivar County Mississippi and St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana were under total Black control, and Little Rock’s City Council had an on and off Black majority.14

Vicksburg and New Orleans gave Black officers command of white policemen while Tallahassee and Little Rock had Black police chiefs. Sixty Blacks across the South served as militia officers as well. Integrated juries also appeared across the South; one white lawyer said it was the “severest blow” he had ever felt to have to address Blacks as “gentlemen of the jury”.15

In South Carolina, Blacks had a majority of the House of Representatives and controlled its key committees. There was a Black majority in the Senate, the Lt. Governor and Secretary of State were Black throughout Reconstruction, and Blacks served as Land Commissioner, on the Supreme Court, and as Treasurer and Speaker of the House.16 Scottish journalist Robert Somers said the South Carolina statehouse was “a Proletarian Parliament the like of which could not be produced under the widest suffrage in any part of the world”.17

In Mississippi, throughout Reconstruction about 20% of the State Senate was Black as were 35% of the State House of Representatives.18 Two Black men served as Speaker of the House, including Isaac Shadd, a militant abolitionist who helped plan John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Mississippi sent two men to the U.S. Senate, the only Blacks to serve during Reconstruction in that body. Sixteen Blacks from the South served in the U.S. Congress.

In Louisiana, a Black man was the governor for a brief period and the treasurer and the secretary of education for a much longer time. Florida’s superintendent of education was also Black, along with the Secretary of State.

One Northern observer touring South Carolina summed up the general upending of the social order noting there was “an air of mastery among the colored people.” They further noted that whites were “wholly reserved and reticent”.19

The source of Black power in the South was not simply the passive presence of large Black populations, but their active political organization and mobilization. This took place in a variety of overlapping venues such as the grassroots Republican “Union Leagues,” churches, and masonic networks. Newspapers often served as points of political education and influence as well.

“By the end of 1867, it seemed, virtually every black voter in the South had enrolled in the Union League or some equivalent local political organization…informal self-defense organizations sprang up around the leagues, and reports of blacks drilling with weapons, sometimes under men with self-appointed ‘military titles.’ The local leagues’ multifaceted activities, however, far transcended electoral politics. Often growing out of the institutions blacks had created in 1865 and 1866, they promoted the building of schools and churches and collected funds ‘to see to the sick.’ League members drafted petitions protesting the exclusion of blacks from local juries”.20

In St. Landry Parish in Louisiana, hundreds of former slaves gathered once a week to hear the newspaper read aloud to get informed on the various political issues of the day. In Georgia, it was said that every American Methodist Episcopal (a predominantly Black denomination) Minister was active in Republican organizing (Hiram Revels, Black Senator from Mississippi was an AME minister). Holland Thompson, a Black power-broker in Montgomery, Alabama, used a political base in the Baptist church as a route to the City Council, where he shepherded into being that city’s first public school system.21

All across the South, it was common during Reconstruction for politics to disrupt labor flows. One August in Richmond, Virginia, all of the city’s tobacco factories were closed because so many people in the majority-Black workforce were attending a Republican state convention.22

Blanche K. Bruce’s political career, which would lead to the U.S. Senate, started when he became actively engaged in local Republican political meetings in Mississippi. Ditto for John Lynch, one of the most powerful Black politicians of the Reconstruction era. The New Orleans Tribune was at the center of a radical political movement within the Republican Party that nearly took the governor’s office with a program of radical land reform in 1868.

Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina all had “labor conventions”—in 1870 and 1871—where farm workers and artisans came together to press for regulating rents and raising minimum wages, among other issues. Union Leagues were often sites of the organization of strikes and other labor activity.

One white Alabamian noted that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to keep a negro away from the polls…that is the one thing he will do, to vote.” A Mississippi plantation manager related that in his part of the state Blacks were “all crazy on politics again…Every tenth negro a candidate for some office.” A report from the 1868 elections in Alabama noted the huge Black turnout: “In defiance of fatigue, hardship, hunger, and threats of employers.” They stood in the midst of a raging storm, most without shoes, for hours to vote.23

Republican politics in the South were viable only due to these Black power bases. The composition of these politics required the rudiments of a popular program and a clear commitment to Black political power, and thus a degree of civil equality and a clear expansion of social equality as well. Reconstruction politics disrupted the ability of the ruling classes to exercise social control over the broad mass of poor laborers and farmers.

Republican politics was a living and fighting refutation of white supremacy, in addition to allowing the working classes access to positions of formal power. However outwardly accommodating to capital, the Reconstruction governments represented an impediment to capital’s unfettered rule in the South and North.

The political economy of Reconstruction

In addition to economic devastation, Reconstruction governments faced the same challenges as any new revolutionary regime in that they were beset on all sides by enemies. First and foremost, the Old Southern aristocratic elite semi-boycotted politics, organized a campaign of vicious terrorism, and used their economic influence in the most malign of ways. Secondly, the ravages of war and political turmoil caused Wall Street, the city of London, and Paris Bourse to turn sour on democracy in the South. On top of that, increasingly influential factions of the Republican Party came to agree that reconstructing the South was shackling the party with a corrupt, radical agenda hostile to prosperity.

The Republican coalition rested on a very thin base. While they had the ironclad support of Black voters, only in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi did Blacks constitute a majority, and even there, Republicans needed some white support to firmly grasp electoral power.

Most of the white Republican leaders were Northerners, with an overrepresentation of Union army veterans seeking economic opportunity after the war. Most entered politics to aid their own economic interests. These would-be capitalists, lacking the economic resources and social connections, sought a political tie and the patronage that came with it, which could become the basis for fortunes. This created a pull towards moderation on a number of economic and social issues that seeded the ground for Reconstruction’s ultimate defeat.

The Reconstruction governments had one major problem: revenue. Republican leader John Lynch stated as much about the finances of the state of Mississippi: “money was required. There was none in the treasury. There was no cash available even to pay the ordinary expenses of the State government”.24 Reconstruction governments sought to address this issue with taxes, bonds, and capitalist boosterism.

Early Reconstruction governments all operated under the belief that, with the right accommodation, they could revive and expand commerce. In particular, the railroad could open the upcountry to the market and encourage the expansion of various forms of manufacture and mineral extraction. A rising tide would lift all boats, and private capital would provide the investment and employment necessary for the South to prosper. And as such, they showered favors on the railroads in particular:

“Every Southern state extended munificent aid to railroad corporations… either in… direct payments… or in the form of general laws authorizing the states endorsement of railroads bonds… County and local governments subscribed directly to railroad stock… from Mobile, which spent $1 million, to tiny Spartanburg, South Carolina, which appropriated $50,000. Republican legislators also chartered scores of banks and manufacturing companies”.25

In 1871, Mississippi gave away 2 million acres of land to one railway company.26 The year before, Florida chartered the Great Southern Railway Co., using $10 million in public money to get it off the ground.27 State incorporation laws appeared in Southern legal codes for the first time, and governments freely used eminent domain. Their behavior, in the words of one historian, “recapitulated the way Northern law had earlier been transformed to facilitate capitalist development”28.

Many states also passed a range of laws designed to exempt various business enterprises from taxation to further encourage investment. That investment never showed up, to the degree required at least. Diarist George Templeton Strong noted that the South was “the last place” a “Northern or European capitalist would invest a dollar” due to “social discord”.29

As investments went, the South seemed less sure than other American opportunities. There were lucrative investment opportunities in the North and West as the Civil War had sparked a massive industrial boom, creating the careers of robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

The South was scarred by war, generally underdeveloped, and politically unstable from the fierce resistance of white supremacy to the rise of Black power. Major financiers were willing to fund cotton production—which was more of a sure thing—and a handful of new industries, but generally felt the South wasn’t much worth the risk. Southern state bonds thus traded at lower values than Northern or Western states, and given the South’s dire economic straits, their supply far outstripped demand for them on the market.

This meant that these investments attracted those “trained in shady finance in Wall St.” whose “business was cheating and manipulation,” and who were “in some cases already discredited in the centers of finance and driven out…of the North and West”.30

The old ruling classes grafted themselves onto the new enterprises, using their history and connections to become the board members and agents of many of the companies. Among other things, this meant the new enterprises were controlled by Democrats, who, while happy to exploit the Reconstruction governments, were doing all they could to undermine them and restore themselves to political power.

The old plantation owners were joined in the new ruling class matrix by the merchants and bankers who arose alongside the expansion of the railroad and of the commercial farming economy outside of the Black Belt.

This new “Bourbon” aristocracy quickly emerged as the main interlocutor with whatever outside investment there was. Economic uncertainty only increased after the Panic of 1873 sent the country into a depression. This made the South an even less attractive investment to outsiders and increased the power and leverage of the Democratic elite, who desired a quick return to total white supremacy and Black subordination.

Republican governments, then, had a choice: they could either turn towards this business class and try to strike an understanding around a vision of the “Gospel of Prosperity,” with some limited Black suffrage, and thus, expanded social rights for the laboring class, or they could base themselves more thoroughly on those same laboring classes, particularly in the Black Belt.

The political power of the elite still rested primarily on their monopoly of landownership and thus effective control over the most profitable industries. Land reform, breaking up the big plantations, and granting the freedman access to tracts of land would fatally undermine that control. It was a shift that would have curtailed the ability of planters to exercise economic coercion over their former slaves in the political realm and would have inserted the freedman more directly into the global economy, thereby marginalizing former planters’ roles as intermediaries with the banks, merchants, and traders. Among other things, this would strengthen Republican rule, crippling the economic and social power most behind their opposition.

Land, was, of course, the key demand of those emerging from slavery. Aaron Bradley, an important Black leader in Savannah, Georgia became known for holding “massive…public meetings” that were described by one scholar as “frequent gatherings of armed rural laborers,” where the issue of land ownership was front and center.31 “Deafening cheers” were heard at a mass meeting in Edgefield County, South Carolina, when a Republican orator laid out a vision where every attendee would acquire a parcel of land.32 In the words of Du Bois, “this land hunger…was continually pushed by all emancipated Negroes and their representatives in every southern state”.33

Despite that, only in South Carolina was land reform taken up in any substantial way. There, under the able leadership of Secretary of State Francis Cardozo, 14,000 Black families, or one-seventh of the Black population, were able to acquire land in just the four years between 1872 and 1876.34

Elsewhere, states eschewed direct financial aid to the freedman in acquiring land and mostly turned to taxation as an indirect method of finance. Cash-strapped planters, unable to make tax payments, would be forced to forfeit their land that would be sold at tax sales where they could be bought by Blacks. Of course, without state aid, most freed people had little access to the necessary capital. In Mississippi, one-fifth of the land in the state was forfeited through tax sales, but ultimately, 95% of that land would end up back with its previous owners.35

Through hard struggle, individuals and small groups of Blacks did make limited footholds into land ownership. In Virginia, Blacks acquired 81-100 thousand acres of land in the 1860s and 70s. In Arkansas in 1875 there were 2,000 Black landowners. By that same year, Blacks in Georgia had obtained 396,658 plots of land worth the equivalent of over $30 million today.36 Ultimately, however, most Blacks were consigned to roles as tenant farmers, farm laborers, or town and city workers. This placed the main base of the Reconstruction governments in a precarious position in which they were susceptible to economic coercion on top of extra-legal terrorism by their political enemies.

The chief advocates of the showering of state aid and the eschewing of land reform was the “moderate” faction of Republicans who tended to gain the upper-hand in the higher and more powerful offices. The fruits of these policies, however, sparked significant struggle over the direction of the Republican cause.

In Louisiana, in the lead-up to the 1868 elections, the Pure Radicals, a grouping centered on the New Orleans Tribune— the first Black daily newspaper—nearly seized the nomination for the governor’s chair on a platform laden with radical content. Their program was for an agriculture composed of large cooperatives; “the planters are no longer needed,” said the Tribune. The paper also editorialized that “we cannot expect complete and perfect freedom for the working men, as long as they remain the tools of capital and are deprived of the legitimate product of the sweat of their brow”.37

As mentioned, several states had “labor conventions.” The South Carolina convention passed resolutions endorsing a nine-hour day and proportional representation for workers on juries, among other things. The Alabama and Georgia conventions established labor unions, which embraced union league organizers across both states, and engaged in a sporadic series of agricultural labor strikes. Ultimately, most of these resolutions would never pass the state legislature.

Nonetheless, they certainly give a sense of the radicalism in the Republican base. This is further indicated by Aaron Logan, a member of the South Carolina House, and a former slave, who in 1871 introduced a bill that would regulate profits and allow workers to vote on what wages their bosses would pay them. The bill was too controversial to even make it to a vote. But, again, it’s deeply indicative of the mood among Black voters since Logan represented the commercial center of Charleston. Logan, it should also be noted, came on the scene politically when he led a mass demonstration of 1,000 Black workers, demanding the right to take time off from work to vote, without a deduction in wages, and he ended up briefly imprisoned at this action after arguing for Black gun ownership. 38

On the one hand, this resulted in even the more moderate factions of the Republican coalition broadly to support Black officeholding. Additionally, the unlimited largess being showered on corporations was curtailed by 1871.

On the other hand, the Reconstruction governments were now something of a halfway house, with their leaders more politically conservative and conciliationist than their base. They pledged to expand state services and to protect many profitable industries from taxes. They were vigilant in protecting the farmer’s axe and sow while letting the usurer establish debt claims on his whole crop. They catered to—but didn’t really represent—the basic, and antagonistic, interests in Southern society. And it was on this basis that the propertied classes would launch their counter-offensive.

Counter-revolution and property

The Civil War had introduced powerful new forces into the land:

After the war, industry in the North found itself with a vast organization for production, new supplies of raw material, a growing transportation system on land and water, and a new technical knowledge of processes. All this…tremendously stimulated the production of good and available services…an almost unprecedented scramble for this new power, new wealth, and new income ensued…It threatened the orderly processes of production as well as government and morals…governments…paid…the cost of the railroads and handed them over to…corporations for their own profit. An empire of rich land…had been…given to investors and land speculators. All of the…coal, oil, copper, gold and iron had been given away…made the monopolized basis of private fortunes with perpetual power to tax labor for the right to live and work.39

One major result was the creation of vast political machines that ran into the thousands of employees through patronage posts that had grown in size as the range of government responsibilities and regulations grew along with the economy. It created a large grey area between corruption and extortion. The buying of services, contracts, and so on was routine, as was the exploitation of government offices to compel the wealthy to come forth with bribes.

This started to create something of a backlash among the more well-to-do in the Republican coalition. Many of the significantly larger new “middle classes” operating in the “professions” began to feel that the government was ignoring the new “financial sciences” that prescribed free trade, the gold standard, and limited government. They argued that the country was being poorly run because of the political baronies created through patronage, which caused politicians to cater to the whims of the propertyless. These “liberals,” as they became known in Republican circles, increasingly favored legislation that would limit the franchise to those of “property and education” and that would limit the role of government in the affairs of businesses or the rights of workers.

This, of course, was in line with the influence of the rising manufacturing capitalists in the Republican Party, and became a point of convergence between “moderate” Republicans and Democrats. That the Democratic Party was part of this convergence was ironic as it postured as the party of white workers, although in reality they were just as controlled by the wealthy interests, particularly on Wall Street, as their opponents.

Reconstruction in general, and in South Carolina in particular, became central to the propaganda of all three elements. The base of Reconstruction was clearly the Black poor and laboring masses of the South, who voted overwhelmingly for Grant and whose governments were caricatured as hopelessly corrupt. On top of all that, they were willing to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for public goods for everyone else.

It made the Reconstruction governments the perfect scapegoats for those looking to restrict the ballot of the popular classes in the service of the rights of property. Taxes, corruption, and racism were intertwined in a powerful campaign by the wealthy—in the clothing of the Democratic Party—to dislodge Republican rule.

Increases in taxation were as practical as they were ideological. The Reconstruction states had only debts and no cash. In order to attract more investment, early Republican governments didn’t dare repudiate the debt racked up by the rebels. The failure to ignite an economic boom and the lackluster demand for Southern bonds left increasing taxes as the only realistic means to increase revenue to cover an expanded role for public services.

The antebellum tax system had been very easy on the planters. Republicans relied on general property taxes that were increased more or less across the board. In particular, the wealthiest found their wealth—in land, stocks, and bonds—taxed, often for the first time. Their wealth was certainly taxed for the first time at their real value, since planters lost the power to assess their own property.

The planters, the bankers, and the merchants, or the “men of wealth, virtue and intelligence” in their own minds, organized a vicious propaganda war against higher taxes. They went so far as to organize conventions in the mid-1870s to plead their weak case. South Carolina’s convention, which included 11 Confederate Generals, put the blame for the tax “burden” squarely on the fact that “nine-tenths of the members of the legislature own no property”.40

Their critique wasn’t just over tax rates, but what they were being spent on. They depicted the Reconstruction governments as corrupt and spendthrift. These were governments run foolishly by inferior races, which were, in their world, dangerous because they legislated for the common man.

They also linked Reconstruction to communism. In the wake of the war, working-class organization intensified. Only three national unions existed at the end of the war, while five years later there were 21. Strikes became a regular feature of life.41 Their regularity was such that the influential magazine Scribner’s Monthly lamented that labor had come under the sway of the “senseless cry against the despotism of capital”.42 In New Orleans, the white elite feared Louisiana’s Constitutional Convention in 1867 was likely to be dominated by a policy of “pure agrarianism,” that is, attacks on property.43

The unease of the leading classes with the radical agitation among the newly organized laborers and the radical wing of the Reconstruction coalitions was only heightened by the Paris Commune in 1871. For a brief moment, the working people of Paris grasped the future and established their own rule, displacing the propertied classes. It was an act that scandalized ruling classes around the world and, in the U.S., raised fears of the downtrodden seizing power.

The Great Chicago Fire was held out to be a plot by workers to burn down cities. The Philadelphia Inquirer warned its readers to fear the communist First International, which was planning a war on America’s landed aristocracy. Horace White, editor of the Chicago Tribune, who’d traveled with Lincoln during his infamous debates with Douglas, denounced labor organizations as waging a “communistic war upon vested rights and property.” The Nation explicitly linked the northern labor radicals with the Southern freedman representing a dangerous new “proletariat”.44

August Belmont, Chairman of the Democratic National Convention, and agent for the Rothschild banking empire, remarked in a letter that Republicans were making political hay out of Democratic appeals to workers, accusing them of harboring “revolutionary intentions”.45

The liberal Republicans opened up a particular front against the Reconstruction governments, with a massively disorienting effect on Republican politics nationwide. Among the ranks of the liberals were many who had been made famous by their anti-slavery zeal, including Horace Greeley and his southern correspondent, former radical Republican James Pike. The duo turned the New York Tribune from a center of radicalism into a sewer of elitist racism. They derided Blacks as lazy, ignorant, and corrupt, describing South Carolina as being victimized by “disaffected workers, who believed in class conflict”.46 Reporting on the South Carolina taxpayer convention, Greeley told his audience that the planters were menaced by taxes “by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen”.47

Greeley also served as a cipher for Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, who observed that “reading and writing did not fit a man for voting. The Paris mob were intelligent, but they were the most dangerous class in the world.” He stated further that the real possibility of poor whites and Blacks uniting was his real fear in that they would “attack the interests of the landed proprietors”.48

The liberal Republicans were unable to capture the zeitgeist in the 1872 election. Former Union General and incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant and his campaign managers positioned their campaign as the true campaign of the working man. Nominating Henry Wilson, “The Shoemaker of Natick,” former indentured servant, and “friend of labor and the Negro,” as Vice-President. They famously waved the “bloody shirt,” reminding Northern workers and farmers what they had fought for and linking their opponents to a return of the Slave Power.

However, their challenge scrambled Republican politics and Grant quickly sought to conciliate his opponents by backing away from enforcing the rights of the freedman with force and doling out patronage and pardons to all manner of rebels, traitors, and terrorists. In 1874, Democrats swept the midterm elections, further entrenching the consolidation of the political power of capital. So emboldened, the 1875 elections devolved into an orgy of violence and fraud. Black Republican leader John Lynch noted that “Nearly all Democratic clubs in the State were converted into armed military companies”.49

In Yazoo County, Mississippi, a Republican meeting was broken up by armed whites who killed a state legislator. In Clinton, Mississippi, 30 Black people were murdered when bands of white vigilantes roamed the countryside.50 As one historian details:

“What we have to deal with here is not a local or episodic movement but a South-wide revolution against duly constitute state governments…the old planters as well as the rising class of bankers, merchants, and lawyers…decided to use any and every means…they drew up coordinated plans and designated targets and objectives. Funds for guns and cannons were solicited from leading planters”.51

That same historian estimates that “thousands” were killed in this brutal campaign.52

John Lynch, the Black Republican leader from Mississippi, related that, when he asked President Grant in the winter of 1875 why he had not sent more assistance to loyal Republicans besieged by terrorists in Mississippi, Grant replied that to have done so would have guaranteed a Republican loss in Ohio. This is as clear a sign as any of the shifting sands of Republican politics.

Black Power in the South had become an obstacle to the elites in both parties. It was the only area of the country where the “free ballot” was bound to lead workers holding some of the levers of power. Black suffrage meant a bloc in Congress in favor of placing social obligations on capital, a curtailment of white supremacy, and bitter opposition to property qualifications in voting. The very fact that opposition to Reconstruction was cast in “class” terms, against the political program of the freedman as much as the freedman themselves, speaks to these fears.

A solid (or even not so solid) Republican South was an ally to political forces aggrieved by the “despotism of capital” around the country. A solid white supremacist South was (and is) a bastion for the most reactionary policies and allies of policies of untrammeled profit making, which is, as we have shown, the direction in which the ruling classes were traveling. Thus, Reconstruction had to die.

The final charge

It was not until after…that white labor in the South began to realize that they had lost a great opportunity, that when they united to disenfranchise the Black laborer they had cut the voting power of the laboring class in two. White labor in the populist movement…tried to realign economic warfare in the South and bring workers of all colors into united opposition to the employer. But they found that the power which they had put in the hands of the employers in 1876 so dominated political life that free and honest expression of public will at the ballot-box was impossible in the South, even for white men. They realized it was not simply the Negro who had been disenfranchised…it was the white laborer as well. The South had since become one of the greatest centers for labor exploitation in the world.53 -W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America

While Reconstruction was destroyed in the service of the ruling classes, its defeat could not have taken place without the acquiescence and assistance of the popular classes among the white population as well. In the South, in particular, the role of the “upcountry small farmer” was essential.

During the war, these yeomen farmers had coined the phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” At first, there was some fear, and some electoral evidence, that poor whites and the newly freed slaves might make an alliance of sorts. Instead, the rift between them widened. The hierarchy constructed of white supremacy relied on inculcating racial superiority in many ways, one of them being the idea of “independence” that made white small farmers “superior” to slaves. They were poor, but at least they were masters of their own patch of land.

The coming of the railroad changed all of this drastically. The railroad opened up the upcountry to the world economy. While it initially seemed like an opportunity, it was, in fact, a curse. Many small farmers dove into cotton production, the one thing financiers were eager to fund. They quickly found, however, that the cost of transporting and marketing their goods, in addition to the costs of inputs from merchants, made success very difficult, and made it almost certain they would have to resort to credit. The rates of usury were, however, allowed to go high enough that a majority of these small farmers became trapped in webs of debt.

The only way to keep going was to offer one’s crop as security for loans, ahead of time—the so-called “crop-lien.” From masters of their own realm, these farmers had now become slaves to debt, losing all real control of their destiny and farming to avoid eviction rather than to make any money.

This reality increased resentment at Reconstruction governments, and, given their dire financial situation, created another base of support for those trying to make an issue out of higher taxes. This ultimately helped solidify white opposition to Republican rule behind the planters and their Democratic Party.

As the 1870s turned into the 1880s, this consensus started to crack. The depression unleashed in the Panic of 1873 led to a breakdown of the two-party system as the two parties consolidated their views on how to move the country forward at the expense of workers and farmers. A variety of movements started to emerge, particularly strong in the West, opposing various aspects of the new consensus.

In the 1880s, the movement started to strengthen itself through a series of “Farmers Alliances” that spread like wildfire across the country. The alliances not only advocated and agitated for things like railroad regulation and more equitable farming arrangements, but also organized their own cooperatives and attempts to break free of the unjust state of affairs to which they were subject. The alliances were also major sites of political education where newspapers and meetings helped define and disseminate the economic realities of capitalism and exactly why these farmers were facing so much exploitation.

A Black alliance, the Colored Farmers Alliance, also grew rapidly, ultimately embracing millions of Black farmers. Black farmers, likewise, were getting the short-end of the stick in terms of the results of Reconstruction-era land policies. Despite being shut out of land ownership, Black farmers were highly resistant to returning to the plantations as farm laborers. This led to a rise in tenancy where Black farmers rented the land and took on the production of the crops for a share of the crop that they could sell, or what is called “sharecropping.”

Similar to white farmers in the upcountry, however, this system turned viciously against them. The costs of credit to carry out various farming activities or to cover the cost of goods in the offseason meant that they too, quickly and easily became ensnared by debt. This started to create intriguing political opportunities in the South. Disaffected white farmers started to become interested in the third-party movements representing popular discontent, particularly the Greenback-Labor Party.

The Greenbackers embraced much of the agrarian reform ideas favored by farmers, and added in support for an income tax, the free ballot, and the eight-hour day for workers. In Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama, the Greenback movement found some shallow roots with white farmers who, recognizing the political situation, understood their only possible ally could be Blacks.

Black politics, while in retreat, had not disappeared. The Colored Farmers Alliance was rooted in the same networks of religion, fraternal organization, and grassroots Republican political mobilization that had formed during Reconstruction. It was thus more politically inclined than the Southern Farmers Alliance of whites, which remained tied to the Democratic Party and its white supremacist policies.

Nonetheless, a growing number of Blacks seeking political opportunity sought to embrace the Greenback movement through a process known as “fusion.” This meant Republicans running joint candidates or slates with third parties in order to maximize their voting power and take down the Democrats. This led to somewhat of a “second act” of Reconstruction. The Colored Farmers Alliance played a key role in the early 1890s in pushing the alliances to launch the Populist Party, turning the incipient potential of the Greenback Party into a serious political insurgency, but one which couldn’t be truly national without a Southern component. Populism united the agrarian unrest of the West and South against the “money power” of the Wall Street banks.

Populists championed public ownership of the largest corporations of the time—the railroads—as well as the communications apparatus of the country. In addition, they advocated an agricultural plan known as the “sub-treasury system” to replace the big banks in providing credit to the farmers as well as empowering cooperatives rather than private corporations to store and market goods. All of these were ingredients to break small farmers out of a cycle of debt.

They also advocated for a shorter working day and a graduated income tax and sought to link together the demands of urban workers and those living in rural areas, saying in their preamble: “Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. ”If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” The interests of rural and civil labor are the same; their enemies are identical”.54 This turned the People’s Party into a real challenge to the ruling class on a national scale, one particularly potent in Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama on the Southern front:

“The People’s (Populist) Party presidential candidate James B. Weaver received over one million votes in 1892 (approximately nine percent of the vote), winning 22 electoral votes (albeit, mostly in the West); in North Carolina, a Populist-Republican alliance took over the state legislature in 1894; Populists and their allies sat in Congress, governor’s offices, and held dozens of local offices over the next two years; and scores of Black and white People’s Party chapters had been established across the region”.55

This success would evoke a wave of terrorist violence against Populists and the Black community writ large that rivaled Reconstruction times and that, in terms of outright election fraud, exceeded it, which can be viewed clearly through the example of North Carolina, and Wilmington, in particular.

The 1892 election, the first time out for the Populists, opened up a new lane of cooperation. White Populists openly appealed for Black votes. “In addition to voting the ticket, blacks sometimes…took roles in county organizations and in mobilizing black voters. Some counties [even] placed blacks on ballots, and blacks were present at Populist rallies and in local Populist nominating conventions”56. In Raleigh, Blacks campaigned on horseback and on mule with the Presidential candidate James Weaver as well.57 The results reflected the campaign: “African Americans voted “en masse” for the People’s Party in 1892 in the first and second districts of the eastern part of the state, where the majority of black counties were. Black voters in both Hyde and Wilson counties, for instance, gave near unanimous support to the third party ticket”.58

Over the next two years Populists, Black and white, worked with Republicans, Black and white, to hammer out a fusion agreement for the 1894 state elections. This was despite fairly significant differences, such as the rise of Black populism, for instance, which heralded a rise in class differences within the Black community. Nonetheless, they found common ground and swept the elections:

“Among other changes, the elected Republican-Populist majority revised and simplified election laws, making it easier for African Americans to vote; they restored the popular election of state and county officials, dismantling the appointive system used by Democrats to keep black candidates out of office; and the fusion coalition also reversed discriminatory “stock laws” (that required fencing off land) that made it harder for small farmers to compete against large landowners. The reform of election and county government laws, in particular, undermined planter authority and limited their control of the predominantly black eastern counties”.59

The Fusion coalition also championed issues like “public funding for education, legislation banning the convict-lease system, the criminalization of lynching”.60 The Fusion government also restricted interest rates to address the massive debts being incurred by farmers and sharecroppers. Most notably, the Fusion governments stood up to the powerful railroad interests and their Northern backers like JP Morgan.

The port city of Wilmington was an important Republican stronghold and had to be neutralized for Democrats to break through the Fusion hold on the state. In 1897, Democrats started a vicious campaign of white supremacy, forming clubs and militias that would become known as “Red Shirts,” along with a media offensive.

As the Charlotte Observer would later state, it was the “bank men, the mill men, and businessmen in general,” who were behind this campaign.61 One major theme of the campaign was a particular focus on Black men supposedly “preying” on white women and girls. Physical violence and armed intimidation were used to discourage Blacks or Republicans and Populists of any color from voting.

As the election drew closer, Democrats made tens of thousands of copies of an editorial by Alex Manley, the Black editor of the Daily Record newspaper. Manley, an important civic leader in Wilmington had written the editorial in response to calls for increased lynchings against Blacks to stop interracial relationships. Manley argued that white women who sought out relations with Black men often used rape allegations to cover their tracks or end a dalliance.

While undoubtedly true, it raised the ire of white supremacists to the highest of pitches. On election day, most Blacks and Republicans chose not to vote as Red Shirt mobs were roaming the streets and had established checkpoints all over the city. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats won.

Unwilling to wait until their term of office began, some of the newly elected white officials and businesspeople decided to mount a coup and force out Black lawmakers right then and there. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of whites, marauded through the streets, attacking Black businesses and property and killing more than 300 Black people in the process. They forced the Republican mayor, along with all city commissioners, to resign at gunpoint. They banished them from the city, leading them in front of a mob that assaulted them before putting them on a train out of town. At least 2,000 Black residents fled, leaving most of what they owned behind.

The Wilmington massacre destroyed the Fusion coalition. All over the state, fraud and violence had been used against the Fusionists to no avail, but, as evidenced by the example of Wilmington, there was little chance of rebuilding ties of solidarity.

The same can be said for the populist period more generally. While Populists certainly have a mixed record, at best, when it came to racism in the general sense, it’s undeniable that the Populist upsurge opened up new political space for Blacks that had been shut-off by the two major parties. Further, it did so in a manner that was ideological much more commensurate with the unrealized desires of Republican rule.

So, in North Carolina and all across the South, Populists were crushed in an orgy of violence and fraud. Racism was a powerful motivating factor in Southern politics across this entire period. This racism, however, did not stop large numbers of whites from entering into a political alliance with Blacks. The anti-Populist violence has to be seen in this context as a counterweight against the pull of self-interest in the economic field.

Toward a third Reconstruction

Reconstruction looms large in our current landscape because so much of its promise remains unrealized. The Second Reconstruction, better known as “the sixties,” took the country some of the way there, particularly concerning civil equality. It reaffirmed an agenda of placing social claims on capital. It also, however, revealed the limits of the capitalist system, showing how easily the most basic reforms can be rolled back. This was a lesson also taught by the first Reconstruction.

The history of Reconstruction also helps us to understand the centrality of Black Liberation to social revolution. The dispossession of Blacks from social and civic life was not just ideologically but politically foundational to capitalism in the U.S. The Solid South, dependent on racism, has played and continues to play a crucial role as a conservative influence bloc in favor of capital.

Reconstruction also gives us insight into the related issue of why Black political mobilization, even in fairly mundane forms, is met with such hostility. The very nature of Black oppression has created what is essentially a proletarian nation which denounces racism not in the abstract, but in relationship to its actual effects. Unsurprisingly, then, Black Liberation politics has always brought forward a broad social vision to correct policies, not attitudes, which is precisely the danger since these policies are not incidental, but intrinsic, to capitalism.

In sum, Reconstruction points us towards an understanding that “freedom” and “liberation” are bound up with addressing the limitations that profit over people puts on any definition of those concepts. It helps us understand the central role of “white solidarity” in promoting capitalist class power. Neither racism nor capitalism can be overcome without a revolutionary struggle that presents a socialist framework.


References:

  1. Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935/1999). Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (New York: Simon & Schuster), 325.
  2. Marx, Karl. (1865). “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America,” Marxists.org, January 28. Available here.
  3. Bennett, Jr Lerone. (1969). Black Power U.S.A.: The human side of Reconstruction 1867-1877 (New York: Pelican), 148.
  4. Foner, Eric. (1988/2011). Reconstruction: America’s unfinished revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Perennial), 364-365.
  5. Ibid., 363, 372.
  6. Ibid., 372-375.
  7. Foner, Reconstruction, 366.
  8. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 651.
  9. Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 179.
  10. Magnunsson, Martin. (2007). “No rights which the white man is bound to respect”: The Dred Scott decision. American Constitution Society Blogs, March 19. Available here.
  11. Foner, Reconstruction, 355.
  12. Rabinowitz, Howard N. (Ed.) (1982). Southern Black leaders of the Reconstruction era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 106-107.
  13. Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 150.
  14. Foner, Reconstruction, 356-357.
  15. Ibid., 362-363.
  16. Facing History and Ourselves. (2022). “The Reconstruction era and the fragility of democracy.” Available here.
  17. Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 183-184.
  18. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 441.
  19. Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 160.
  20. Foner, Reconstruction, 283-285.
  21. Ibid., 282-283.
  22. Ibid., 282.
  23. Ibid., 291.
  24. Lynch, John R. (1919). The facts of Reconstruction (New York: The Neale Publishing Company), ch. 4. Available here.
  25. Foner, Reconstruction, 380.
  26. Ibid., 382.
  27. Rabinowitz, Southern Black leaders of the Reconstruction Era, 73.
  28. Foner, Reconstruction, 381.
  29. Ibid., 391.
  30. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 407-408.
  31. Rabinowitz, Southern Black leaders of the Reconstruction era, 291-294.
  32. Foner, Reconstruction, 374.
  33. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 601.
  34. Foner, Reconstruction, 375.
  35. Ibid., 376.
  36. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 603.
  37. Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 247.
  38. Foner, Reconstruction, 377-378.
  39. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 581.
  40. Foner, Reconstruction, 415-416.
  41. Ibid., 478.
  42. Cox Richardson, Heather. (2001). The death of Reconstruction: Race, labor, and politics in the post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 85.
  43. Foner, Reconstruction, 328.
  44. Cox Richardson, The death of Reconstruction, 86-88; Foner, Reconstruction, 518-519.
  45. Cox Richardson, The death of Reconstruction, 88.
  46. Ibid., 94.
  47. Ibid., 96.
  48. Ibid., 97.
  49. Lynch, The facts of Reconstruction, ch. 8. Available here.
  50. Foner, Reconstruction, 558-560.
  51. Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 330-331.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 353.
  54. Populist Party Platform. (1892). Available here.
  55. Ali, Omar. (2005). “Independent Black voices from the late 19th century: Black Populists and the struggle against the southern Democracy,” Souls 7, no. 2: 4-18.
  56. Ali, Omar. (2010). In the lion’s mouth: Black Populism in the new South, 1886-1900 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), 136.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid., 140.
  60. Ibid., 141.
  61. The Charlotte Observer. (1898). “Editorial,” November 17.
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