Claude Bowers on Reconstruction

[Monday March 6, 2006]


(12:45) Well, Mr. Bowers, your chapter two on Andrew Johnson was very interesting and the most favorable portrait of him I have ever read, by far. And he seems to have shared Joseph Smallwood’s idealization of the common worker and smallholder. But your chapter three, “With Chase Among The Ruins,” makes a very mixed impression. On the one hand, an interesting portrait of slick, conniving Salmon P. Chase, who Lincoln put on the court mostly to get his vote for certain wartime measures – can’t remember offhand which – that were sure to come before the Supreme Court sooner or later. Chase seems to have been a slimy article, for sure, and certainly his intolerance and narrow-sightedness is clear enough in this picture, given that we can trust the picture as drawn.

But it is precisely in your approving quotation of contemporary mimicry and ridicule of the speech of the freed slaves that you leave yourself open to interpretations of racism. How would you like your pronunciation mocked? It is cruel, and your selection of evidence cuts two ways. On the one hand the difficulties are made clear. On the other hand, you show no side of the issues but that of the white southern society. A reader coming to your book new to the subject might think that no one favored negro franchise but corrupt politicians; and that no negro (soldiers, say) could possibly have advanced to the point of deserving it; or that black as well as white might justly fear powerlessness and seek to have the vote to protect themselves even if they couldn’t spell CAT.

It is true, the swaggering injustice of occupying troops and the crude indiscipline of suddenly freed ex-slaves must have created a situation barely tolerable – but did those proud southern women you are so protective of ever do anything to make the situation better? And did the Black Codes enacted by southern legislatures give no cause for legitimate suspicion among even well-meaning northerners who didn’t want to see the old slave-ocracy stay in power? Serious questions, Mr. Bowers.

Serious questions, and it is just such questions as this that ought to be posed and exchanged more often in public. Mostly, though, people form sides and talk past one another. As you in your day are doing, of course, and Caesar or Socrates in theirs.

You will remember, please, that my book was not created ex nihilo and did not exist in a vacuum. It was an attempt – perhaps in places an injudicious attempt, I admit, in places intemperate – to set forth the facts to a generation that had been fed on the lies of the victorious plunderer. And by that I mean not the Union army but the carpetbaggers and scalawags who rode to power on the bayonets of that army. I set out to correct a generation of lies – two generations, really, and I had no intent to present a fair and balanced picture. Perhaps I should have done so, but perhaps that would have required a different temperament, which might have resulted in no book at all.

My mimicking – or, rather, quoting the mimicking – of freed negroes you find offensive, and I understand that your generation finds any such mimicry offensive. We did not. And if there was a certain ridicule there – well, there deserved to be! One might say, almost, there needed to be! For if one did not laugh – as Mr. Lincoln used to say – one would die.

Possibly there were negro soldiers who would not have disgraced the vote. Let us say definitely. The point remains: the overwhelming majority of freed negro men were not in any way ready for the franchise and their northern sponsors knew it. What is worse, many northern sponsors of negro suffrage did so because they knew the former slaves were incapable of exercising the franchise. They delighted in their imagining the humiliation of the former white ruling class.

Yes, we always see this. “They did evil, so we will do evil to them; they deserve it.”

Exactly so.

Nonetheless it is true that the freed blacks also needed something to protect them, and if it wasn’t going to be white northern troops forever, what could it be?

Your argument is typical of the well-meaning; it is precisely what was used as cover by those whose intent was not construction but pillage.

But how do you respond to it?

Ultimately two incompatible peoples will co-exist on terms they each find at least tolerable, and those terms will alter as the circumstances alter.

Slavery stopped race relations from evolving

Did not see that happen under slavery, exactly – and there was no sign of slavery disappearing right up into secession. It was only secession and defeat that ended slavery.

Now here you hit upon an interesting and undeveloped point. Slavery – it may be argued – artificially caused the situation, prevented the situation from being resolved, and made the eventual end as terrible as it was. I am not, my friend, an apologist for slavery!

If not for slavery we never would have had four millions of negroes in the heart of southern society. They would no more have been allowed to partake in the great experiment than you welcome Haitians in your day. That is number one.

Number Two, slavery prevented any gradual readjustment of social relations, because the first necessity was profit, the second safety, and the third did not exist. Because of slavery, the negroes already in the country did not participate in a gradual elevation of their condition – accumulating capital and wealth, acquiring literacy and even learning, lessening the very real differences between the races.

And of course Number Three, slavery caused the war, for there was no way to get rid of it and the former path of isolating it and letting it die out had been abandoned.

However – once remove slavery from the equation and you now have a situation concerning the same two peoples, living cheek by jowl, in some ways knowing each other almost too well, and in other ways misunderstanding and mistrusting each other deeply. They have to find a way to live together, and – given the circumstances, wherever one side had had all the advantages and the other the disadvantages – either the natural result would be that the whites would write the rules, or the unnatural result would be that the blacks, or the blacks and northern whites. The theoretical best result – black and white working together to produce a mutually tolerable result – was possible only theoretically. For one thing there were the radical Republicans. For another, there was the Union army. And for an all important third, there was the first deadly sin – Pride.

Southern dragon ladies.

To be crude about it, yes. Mothers instilling hatred in their children, and pride, and contempt, is not pretty and it will at some point be paid for.

So your argument is that if left to themselves, black and white southerners would have found a modus vivendi?

They did anyway. Left alone they might have found one far more favorable to both. That is my argument.

Your argument, though, reads strangely in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.

Did they not readjust things?

Only when the federal government stepped in and greatly expanded federal regulation of states as an unwanted side-effect.

Unwanted – again, by the well-meaning. But very much desired by others, who mouthed pieties – and profited. And in any case, the civil rights legislation came in response to what amounted to a people’s demand that the social terms be readjusted. The federal government did not lead, but followed. Let people change their hearts – let them change their boundaries of what they will accept – and no government will long stand in their way.

Okay. I’m tired again, so enough for now. (1:40)

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