Race and Reconstruction

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

Claude Bowers’ book about Reconstruction, The Tragic Era, is considered to be discredited by historical authorities because of its racism and its assumption of the necessary inequality of the races. But, of course, one might be a racist and make arguments that were not, or might not be a racist and make arguments that were. His book was published in 1929, at the height of an intolerant era – but that speaks more to why it could be published than why it was published. That is not the same thing as saying that he wrote it hoping for the approval of the Ku Klux Klan.

To speak of race always requires thought and care, lest prejudice or self-righteousness mislead us. Bowers was a liberal in his day, an appointee of Franklin Roosevelt, an opponent of fascism. He was not a racist in the sense of believing that blacks (or any other race) were genetically inferior to whites. And it is minimal fairness to assume that he was as sincere, as interested in truth, as sickened by corruption, as we are – at least until evidence proves otherwise.

So when he said that black slaves a year out of slavery were not ready for the ballot, can we label the statement as racist and dismiss it? Consider the reality of the situation. Do you suppose that slavery is good for one’s character? And do you think that a culture deliberately inculcating enforced ignorance, dependence, servility, fosters the makings of good citizenship? Obviously not. But then, do these wronged people, once freed by an outside force, necessarily immediately possess the wherewithal to be good citizens? Do they know how to work and support themselves? Do they know how to vote intelligently? Can they even read? After generations in which they have been treated as property – often bred like animals, literally – years in which marriage and kinship ties were utterly disregarded by those who owned them, are they now by some magical wand to be instantly transformed into people with the morals and habits and inherited tendencies of the descendants of Europeans? It is impossible!

Lincoln knew that, and he knew it was going to be a thorny problem to deal with.

In 1865 it was evident that there was no going back to slavery. Perhaps, mixed in with the anguish of defeat and the total loss of what they had had, southerners did sometimes breathe a sigh of relief that at least that incubus had been removed, however badly. And there must have been many who silently cried out against the folly of the slave-owners who had resisted all schemes of compensated emancipation and had thereby brought the whole region to ruin. But repentant or unrepentant, resigned or intractable, in mid-1865 there was not a man, woman or child on the face of the earth who thought that slavery as it had been would ever be reestablished in the American republic. Slavery was dead. So was colonization. Lincoln had thought of colonization, too – sending the former slaves elsewhere – hoping that it was the answer to the problem. But who was going to pay to transport four million black men, women and children overseas, and where were they to go, and who was to force them to do so, when they clearly did not want to go?

And yet – there they were. The slaves had been freed, and now in some or another way whites and the newly freed blacks had to live together. The white society had no feeling of equality with a people who were ignorant and had no traditions in common with them. This had less to do with racism than with other things as well, that are rarely expressed.

1) The white southerners heard the northerners talk of equality and took that to mean that they were to be reduced to the level of freed slaves – for they saw that they themselves were not in charge of their own destiny, and they noticed that the white northerners were not welcoming the freed slaves to come live with them in the north.

2) Most slaves had no education, no means of support, no accumulated capital, no profession, and relatively few skills. Now, this certainly was not the fault of the people who had been deprived of all this – but it was their condition, and that condition was not to be talked away, any more than we can talk away the condition of the homeless on our city streets.

3) Neither former slaves nor former owners nor white inhabitants who were not former slave owners (by far the greatest number), had any model of a society in which whites and blacks lived together on terms of equality. We did not achieve it in 100 years. How could it have been achieved overnight in 1865?

Reconciliation and readjustment might have had a better chance if the real difficulties had been expressed and addressed, in a spirit of conciliation and thoughtful goodwill rather than revenge and malignity. And this of course is why they killed Lincoln, to prevent him from using his immense prestige to accomplish reconciliation as best he could. He had no magical wand either, but he had thought upon the problem, and that put him far ahead of those whose idea of thought was actually a mere venting and stoking and execution of hatred.


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