Redemption Songs

The U.S. Civil War cost $6.6 billion in 1860 dollars, with which you could have bought freedom for all American slaves, set each of them up with forty-acre parcels and mules, and still have about $3.5 billion to cover back pay. So, the war was a bad bargain; more importantly, fumbling its aftermath represented an unforgivable waste of so many dead. And much as we like to talk about Lincoln's leadership, the villains and cavilers who squandered the dearly bought victory are an integral part of the Civil War story.

Nicholas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells the villains' tale well, beginning with the 1873 Colfax massacre in Louisiana. After a contested election, African American Republicans holed up in the courthouse, besieged by white Democrats who set it afire and murdered the freedmen as they emerged under flag of truce. At least seventy-one blacks were killed (as against two or three whites). The lead besieger became the county sheriff and, Lemann writes, "[t]he Negroes who remained in Colfax had no choice but to live meekly under the rule of the men who had killed their husbands and sons and brothers." The episode had repeated sequels with few variations, providing a sickening, slow-mounting body count as the postwar reconstruction of the South disintegrated.

In the telling, the villains' great virtue is their frankness: they are, literally, unreconstructed racists. As Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar explained, Reconstruction meant "exclusion (by means of the ballot in the hands of the freedmen) from any share in the government, of the only class in which reside the elements of dignity virtue & the welfare of society." As one son of the South put it in an article Lemann quotes, whites considered the question "whether or not the negroes, under the reconstruction laws, should rule…" Answering "no," he and his fellow whites took action:

Throughout the countryside for several days the negro leaders, some white and some black, were hunted down and killed, until the negro population which had dominated the white people for so many years was whipped.

Let's give that excusing phrase, "the negro population which had dominated the white people for so many years," the admiration it deserves. Consider the relative weight placed on a decade of emancipation as compared to centuries of bondage. Such self-pitying hypocrisy would be funny, if it weren't for all the coffins it helped to fill.

Lemann's quick trip through the story of how the white South reclaimed its supremacy is a perverse pleasure, if you have the stomach for some harsh truths and a brisk wallow in a disgraceful part of our heritage. But there is more to this tale than the terrorists: by the time Lemann begins his history the Republican leadership had already compromised their claims to seriousness about Reconstruction. This is the story Garrett Epps tells in Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America.

The Fourteenth is the longest and potentially most important of the Constitution's amendments. Its more principled drafters meant it to make good on James Madison's original intention that the federal government have a check on the actions of the states when fundamental rights were at issue. In the contemporaneously considered Civil Rights Act, Congress recognized for freedmen the same rights as "white citizens" -- "to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property." White southerners objected that such laws were revolutionary; Senator Lot Morrill of Maine replied, "this species of legislation is absolutely revolutionary. But are we not in the midst of a revolution?"

If so, it was a revolution all but swallowed by its Thermidor. Politics got in the way of change: unlike Madison's revolutionary peers, the Fourteenth Amendment's framers worked in public, and in anticipation of electoral reaction. As a result they produced, as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania said, "a shilly-shally bungling thing," an unwieldy attempt to guarantee civil rights to freedmen without seeming to offend Americans' cherished traditions. So shilly-shally were the amendment committee's proceedings that they chucked one draft in favor of a submission from the utopian spiritualist and ex-Congressman Robert Dale Owen.

The puzzlingly quaint spectacle of Congressional leaders taking advice on vital matters of postwar reconstruction from out-of-work politicians with peculiar religious leanings should not distract us from the real obstacle to Reconstruction's success: even genuine idealists like Stevens were forced into compromises by Republicans less interested in building a free society than in securing government contracts for friendly corporations. Many Republicans did not really think blacks should vote. As Epps points out, Stevens knew he did not have the backing to get voting rights into the amendment, and so left suffrage out. Without a voting population of African Americans, Reconstruction was doomed.

The Fourteenth Amendment went into the Constitution in 1868 with vague language guaranteeing citizens of the United States the “privileges and immunities” pertaining thereto. It turned out the Supreme Court would read that phrase to exclude pretty nearly every right worth having. By the time the nation adopted a voting rights amendment in 1870, it was already too late. The country that had won its war had no commitment to securing the peace, and the South's white supremacist redeemers, emboldened by the feeble opposition they met, had established themselves as the power and later the law in the old Confederacy.

So much of what we remember about the Civil War era comforts us with the bravery and righteousness of American warriors that these books, emphasizing as they do the failure of American leaders, may come as unpleasant surprises. But then ours is an age of unpleasant surprises, and acknowledging the limits of the role played in American history by the better angels of our nature is one we ought to endure.

Eric Rauchway is the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America. He teaches history at the University of California, Davis.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.

You may also like