The President's Plan for Reconstruction
4 The President's Plan for Reconstruction
For more than four million African Americans living in the Southern United States, the end of the Civil War (1861–65) brought the freedom they had hoped for during all the long years of slavery. Ever since the arrival of the first white colonists in the New World, blacks captured in Africa and transported across the sea on slave ships had toiled without pay in fields and as house servants in the South. They had endured harsh conditions with remarkable strength and adaptability. Freedom brought great joy and expanded opportunities, but it also created new challenges. Probably the most threatening was the resentment of white Southerners, who found this changed society—and especially their new relationship with blacks—hard to accept.
A changed society
Northern journalists who traveled south in the days following the war's April 1865 conclusion found a devastated landscape littered with the debris of the bloody conflict: torn-up railroads, bridges, and fences; fields overgrown with weeds; ruined walls and chimneys left in the wake of an invading army that had burned everything in its path. They found black people both jubilant and in need of help as they tried to establish independent lives. White Southerners, meanwhile, were reeling not only from their personal losses but from the collapse of their society and economy. Their resentment over that collapse was heightened by the presence of the blue-coated soldiers (many of them black) who had so recently been their enemies; the South was now occupied by the Union army.
Meanwhile, all around were the former slaves whose unpaid labor had allowed the owners of the plantations (large estates where basic crops like cotton, tobacco, and rice were grown) to live in wealth and leisure. Whites now had to pay their employees to perform both the hard, tedious labor and the menial tasks previously reserved for their slaves, and in some cases—for Confederate money was now worthless and many whites were bankrupt—they even had to do this work themselves. As noted in Been in the Storm So Long: TheAftermath of Slavery, one young lady complained, "It does seem a waste of time for people who are capable of doing something better to spend their time sweeping and dusting while scores of lazy negroes that are fit for nothing else are laying around idle."
Such racist views, which held that blacks were inferior in every way to whites, that they lacked energy and intelligence, and that they were made for nothing better than to serve white people, were widespread in the South, as indeed they were in all parts of the United States in the nineteenth century. This attitude would severely hamper the efforts of African Americans and others to win for blacks the civil rights that whites took for granted. During the era of Reconstruction—the period stretching roughly from the end of the Civil War in April 1865 to the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) in 1877—both black and white Americans would participate in the effort to rebuild the South. It was a time of struggle, marked by hope and achievement but also marred by brutality and injustice. In the months immediately following the war's end, though, it seemed that injustice would rule the day.
The president's plan
As the war was drawing to a close and a Union victory seemed inevitable, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) had devised a plan for readmitting the Southern states into the Union and reorganizing their state governments. Referred to as the Ten Per Cent Plan, Lincoln's program allowed the states to form governments as soon as only 10 percent of eligible voters (white males who had been able to vote in 1860) signed a loyalty oath, vowing their faithfulness to the Union. It is likely that Lincoln had intended this only as a temporary measure, but he died before his intentions—and his full vision of the new Southern society—could be known. Assassinated on April 15, 1865, Lincoln left a nation not only grieving for its fallen leader but uncertain about how to mend the wounds the war had left, how to bind the divided nation into one again.
The man called upon to take Lincoln's place was Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), a former U.S. senator from Tennessee who had been rewarded for his loyalty to the Union (both before and during the war) with the position of vice president. Thrust into the task of guiding the nation through what was probably the darkest hour in its history so far, Johnson was an unknown quantity. No one was sure exactly where or how he would lead the country.
The Radical Republicans are optimistic
Nevertheless, the Radical Republicans in Congress felt optimistic. This group of senators and representatives, dominated by such men as U.S. representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) of Pennsylvania and U.S. senator Charles Sumner (1811–1874) of Massachusetts, had been pushing for a transformed Southern society. They hoped to break the power of the large landowners (and former slaveholders) and to ensure that African Americans had the same civil and voting rights as whites. The Radicals had been unhappy with Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction. They felt it did not impose harsh enough penalties on those who had rebelled, and they believed that governments established by only 10 percent of the population were not very democratic. Based on Johnson's previous statements, the Radicals expected him to propose a plan more in keeping with their own ideas.
Before the start of the Civil War, Johnson had been a determined supporter of the Union (or Federal government). When Southern leaders proposed that eleven states secede (separate) from the Union and form their own government (subsequently named the Confederate States of America), Johnson had voted against such a move. During the first year of the war, he had remained loyal to the Union. When Tennessee had been occupied by the Union army in 1862, Lincoln had named Johnson the state's military governor.
Two years later, Johnson had joined Lincoln on the Republican ticket as candidate for vice president. During the campaign, he had used harsh language to denounce the rebellious Confederates. As quoted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, Johnson declared, "I say the traitor has ceased to be a citizen, and in joining the rebellion has become a public enemy." Referring to the punishment to come when the war was finally over, Johnson said the "traitors must be punished and impoverished."
It was this kind of language that convinced both the Radicals and the more moderate Republicans in Congress that Johnson shared their views. Immediately after becoming president, Johnson continued to talk in the same way, calling for the arrest of Confederate leaders like President Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) and threatening to charge the rebels with treason and break up the great Southern estates into small farms. However, even though he was committed to the abolition of slavery, Johnson did not propose that the Federal government get involved in ensuring civil rights for blacks. These matters, he suggested, should be left up to the individual states once the South was reorganized.
Johnson surprises everyone
Ten days into Johnson's administration, U.S. senator Zachariah Chandler (1813–1879) of Michigan, a Radical and a member of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, reported
Andrew Johnson: Advocate for White Workers
Throughout his political life, Andrew Johnson considered himself a champion of ordinary working people. During the Reconstruction era, however, he proved that he did not feel the same concern for ordinary African Americans.
Johnson was born on December 25, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. His family struggled financially and Johnson received no formal schooling. While apprenticing with a tailor (working with and learning a trade), he learned the basics of reading and writing. After two years, Johnson and his brother ran away to Tennessee; the rest of the family eventually joined them. Settling in the eastern Tennessee town of Greeneville, Johnson worked in a tailor's shop. He married a quiltmaker named Eliza McCardle (1810–1876), who helped Johnson continue his education. The couple would raise five children.
After becoming interested in debating, Johnson was elected to a local government position in 1828. Two years later, he became mayor of Greeneville; five years later, he was elected to the Tennessee state legislature. Although he did not win reelection in 1835, he was elected again in 1839. He continued to support the interests of the non-slave-owning white workers of eastern Tennessee against those of the wealthier slave owners who lived in the middle and western parts of the state. Johnson was not, however, opposed to slavery and even owned slaves himself.
In 1840, Johnson joined the Democratic Party and ran successfully for state senator. In that office, he gained a reputation for strong opinions and for a reluctance to compromise. From 1843 to 1853, Johnson served as a U.S. congressman. In his deep reverence for the federal Union and for the U.S. Constitution, he modeled himself after his hero, former president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37). This created friction with many other Southern Democrats, who were already drifting away from the Union.
As a member of Congress, Johnson proposed a Homestead Act that would offer as many as 160 acres of federal land to anyone who was willing and able to farm it. The bill repeatedly failed to be approved by the Senate and was not passed until 1862. Meanwhile, in 1853, Johnson was elected governor of Tennessee, after which he signed into law the first public school system in the state. Four years later, he became a U.S. senator. Once again he pushed for the passage of the Homestead Act, which was actually opposed by Southern members of his own party (who feared it might include limits on slavery) and supported by Northern Republicans.
Even though he was not against slavery, Johnson was a strong nationalist who did not support the growing anti-Union sentiment in the South. Tennessee was not one of the original seven states to secede from the United States, but Tennesseans did vote to join the Confederacy after the successful Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861. Having opposed secession, Johnson left Tennessee and spent most of the first years of the war in Washington, D.C., while continuing to visit his family in Union-held Nashville. Johnson was the only Southern senator who did not resign his seat.
By March 1862, the Union army had taken control of most of Tennessee, and President Abraham Lincoln rewarded Johnson for his loyalty to the Union by making him the state's military governor. Thus Johnson oversaw the restoration of order and establishment of a new state government. In the summer of 1864, anticipating an end to the war and hoping to gain favor with Northerners who sympathized with the South, Lincoln convinced the Republican Party to nominate Johnson as his running mate in the upcoming presidential election. In November, Lincoln and Johnson defeated former Union general George B. McClellan.
Less than two months into the new term, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson was propelled unexpectedly into the office of the president. Johnson's plan for the Reconstruction of the South proved so lenient that the region's old leaders were able to regain power. Constantly at odds with the Radical Republicans who dominated Congress—a situation made worse by his difficult personality—Johnson was eventually impeached (tried for misbehavior) and nearly missed being removed from office.
For the 1868 election, the Republicans passed over Johnson and nominated instead popular Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77). After leaving Washington, Johnson returned to a hero's welcome in Greeneville. He made several unsuccessful bids for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate before being elected senator in 1874, becoming the first (and so far only) ex-president to serve in that office. Johnson served just less than five months; he suffered two strokes and died on July 31, 1875. In accordance with his instructions, he was buried with his body wrapped in a U.S. flag and his head resting on a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
with relief that Johnson was, as noted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, "as radical as I am." Believing that the Senate and House of Representatives must have a say in the reorganization of the South, Chandler and his colleagues assumed that Johnson would delay the formation of any Reconstruction program until December, when the next session of Congress was scheduled to begin. Thus, they were shocked when Johnson quickly put his own plan into motion, making it clear that he saw Reconstruction as the responsibility of the president, not of Congress.
On May 29, Johnson issued two proclamations. The first, often referred to as the Proclamation of Amnesty, established that most Southerners would be allowed to take an oath of allegiance (loyalty) that would offer them a complete pardon and amnesty (protection from prosecution) and would restore to them any property—except for slaves, of course—seized by the federal government during the war. White Southerners were relieved to hear that most of them would not face treason charges or lose any of their civil rights or property. Exempted were fourteen classes of citizens, including not only Confederate civil and military leaders but anyone who had supported the Confederacy and whose property was valued at $20,000 or more. As noted in A Short History of Reconstruction, this was meant to punish the members of what Johnson had called "the pampered, bloated, corrupted aristocracy" of wealthy Southern plantation owners. These people could, however, apply for pardons from the president.
The second proclamation laid out the steps for the states to form new governments. The president would appoint provisional (temporary) governors, who would call for state conventions and supervise the election of convention delegates. All those who had been eligible to vote in 1860 and had taken the loyalty oath would be allowed to vote and run for office. Once the conventions had established voting and office-holding regulations, elections for state governors, legislators, and members of the federal Congress could take place. Each state was also required to proclaim that secession had been an illegal act, cancel any debts left over from the Confederacy, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (the document that officially outlawed slavery).
By the end of the year, when Congress met, Johnson would declare Reconstruction complete. Despite the relatively harsh requirements he had laid out, the new state governments organized under his program would take a much different shape than anyone—including Johnson himself—originally expected, with the South's old, wealthy planter class firmly in charge again. Understanding why this happened requires a look into Johnson's background and how his fundamental beliefs differed from those of the Radical Republicans.
A Southern Unionist
Both Johnson and the Radicals shared a hatred for the Southern aristocracy, which they saw as a spoiled, lazy minority that had grown wealthy through the labor of others. But this is where their views parted. Unlike Johnson, the Radicals envisioned a transformed South where blacks would have civil rights and where U.S. business interests would be aided by federal protections. Johnson's idea of change in the South really extended only to the rise of the small farmer, who the president felt had been held down by the wealthy plantation owners. Like Southerners before the Civil War, Johnson still believed in a decentralized form of government; that is, one that gave the individual states a great deal of freedom to govern themselves independently. He envisioned the new South as a kind of a rural paradise in which—importantly—white people were in charge.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson had risen from poverty to the most important office in the nation. Born in North Carolina, he moved as a young man to east Tennessee to make his own living in a tailor's shop. He had no formal education, and his wife taught him to read and write. Johnson entered politics as a town alderman (a member of a city council) and later became a mayor, then a state legislator, then a five-term member of the U.S. Congress. He served for two terms as Tennessee's governor before becoming a U.S. senator, a position in which he worked for tax-sup-ported free public schools and the Homestead Act (which made 160-acre plots of federally owned land available for anyone who wanted to settle on them).
Johnson had always been a strong defender of ordinary working people, but he did not feel the same way about African Americans. He had not always been opposed to slavery and even owned slaves himself before the Civil War. Eventually he did come out against slavery, but his stance was based more on a fear of miscegenation (sexual relationships between blacks and whites, which some thought would mar the "purity" of the white race) and on the advantage slavery gave to wealthy people than on the injustice of slavery. In fact, as reported in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, Johnson once said that he wished that "every head of a family in the United States had one slave to take the drudgery and menial service off his family." Johnson believed in democracy, but felt that it applied only to whites. The main goal of his Reconstruction program was to make the white small farmers of the South its new leaders.
It was not only Johnson's ideas that brought him into clashes with the Radicals, and eventually with all the Republicans in Congress. His personality did not help his case. Unlike Lincoln, Johnson was not able to make the most of his impoverished background and use it as a bond with the masses of ordinary U.S. citizens. Instead, he felt bitter and resentful toward wealthy people, who, he believed, had treated him with scorn. He lacked self-confidence and often failed to act decisively at important times. In addition, he was known as an intolerant, inflexible person who was unwilling to compromise. All these qualities served him poorly in his attempt to put through his own plan for Reconstruction.
Conflicting ideas about the future
Other issues central to the way white Southerners reacted to Johnson's plan involved land and labor. The war ended with the occupation of the eleven Confederate states by the Union army. This gave Union military officers responsibility for deciding what to do about the tens of thousands of former slaves who must now seek paid work to support themselves. It was widely believed by these officers and by agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency established in March 1865 to aid the former slaves in their transition to freedom, that the best course for blacks was to remain on their plantations as field workers or domestic servants. They were discouraged from moving to the large Southern cities (such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina), owing to fears about the problems that overcrowding and unemployment might breed. (Nevertheless, many blacks—especially in the weeks and months immediately following their emancipation—did flock to the cities, in search of work, protection, or the support of a growing African American community.)
The Northern whites concerned with the matter of land and labor assumed that the South would make a smooth transition from slavery to a free market system (where people work for wages and then buy what they need to survive). What they failed to anticipate were both the attitude of white Southerners and the hopes and dreams that African Americans had nurtured through generations of slavery. While white plantation owners wanted low-paid, well-disciplined workers to raise their crops, blacks yearned to farm land that belonged to them. These two conflicting ideas of the future would create a big problem in the South in the years to come.
Blacks long to own land
The Freedmen's Bureau had originally been authorized to distribute about 850,000 acres of Southern land that had either been abandoned or confiscated by the Union army during the war. The Freedmen's Bureau official in charge of this issue was General Rufus Saxton (1824–1908), who was revered by African Americans for his firm commitment to the idea of landownership as the best way for blacks to take up their lives as freed people. Indeed, blacks closely associated landowner-ship with freedom itself and, like most Americans, with success. They also felt that their more than two centuries of unpaid labor entitled them to be compensated with free land.
During the summer of 1865, Saxton began settling blacks on land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In the Sea Islands (located off South Carolina) and along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, thousands of blacks had been farming confiscated land since early 1864, authorized by Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891) when, after his victorious arrival on the coast, he issued Special Field Order #15. In addition, the original plan for the Freedmen's Bureau had authorized the agency to distribute confiscated land to the former slaves.
As the summer progressed, however, Confederates who had fled their plantations began returning, surprised and outraged to discover former slaves farming their land and even living in their homes. The question of how this situation would be resolved was answered at the end of May, when President Johnson issued his Proclamation of Amnesty, restoring all confiscated property to former supporters of the Confederacy as long as they signed a loyalty oath. By September, Johnson had specifically ordered that most confiscated land be restored to its former owners.
In October, General Oliver Howard (1830–1909), the much-respected director of the Freedmen's Bureau, traveled to Edisto Island (part of the Sea Island chain) to inform the black settlers there of the government's decision and to do what he could to ease the shock and pain of this news. At a meeting attended by about two thousand former slaves, voices from the crowd expressed the disappointment and frustration felt by all. Howard asked that a committee be formed to create a plan to facilitate a smooth transition of ownership. The committee's response, as quoted in Reconstruction and Reaction:The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, is a moving testament to the strength of their feelings:
You ask us to forgive the owners of our island. You only lost your right arm in the war and might forgive them. The man who tied me to a tree and gave me 39 lashes and who stripped and flogged my mother and my sister and who will not let me stay in his empty hut except I will do his planting and be satisfied with his price and who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not have anything to do with him if I had land of my own—that man, I cannot well forgive. Does it look as if he has forgiven me, seeing how he tries to keep me in a condition of helplessness?
Despite the protests not only of blacks but of sympathetic whites like Howard, Saxton, and the group known as Gideon's Band (white Northerners who had come to the Sea Islands before the war's end to educate and otherwise help the freed slaves there), the army soon began removing most blacks from the land they had occupied in Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. The few who resist-ed—using weapons to drive off the former owners—were also eventually forced to leave. In early 1866, responding to complaints from Southern whites that Saxton was working against their interests, Johnson removed him from his post. This added to the general sense of betrayal blacks felt as their dreams of owning land seemed to fade away.
The unexpected results of Johnson's plan
As President Johnson embarked on his plan for Reconstruction, he envisioned that the leaders who had dominated Southern politics before the war—that is, the wealthy class of plantation owners, who actually represented a very small minority of the total Southern white population—would now be replaced with Unionists (those who had remained faithful to the federal government throughout the Civil War). Johnson assumed that the majority of Southerners shared his contempt for what he called the slaveocracy, those who had accumulated wealth and lived in leisure while their slaves did all the labor.
Oliver Otis Howard: Admired by African Americans
A Civil War general assigned to the difficult task of taking charge of the newly formed Freedmen's Bureau, Oliver Otis Howard soon gained the esteem of the former slaves for his dedication to the cause of justice and advancement for blacks. In fact, as noted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Howard "may have been second only to Abraham Lincoln in the esteem of the ex-slaves."
Born in 1830 in Leeds, Maine, Howard was the son of a prosperous farmer who died when the boy was nine years old. After earning a degree from Bowdoin College in 1850, Howard immediately entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating near the top of his class in 1854. He subsequently served in a variety of military posts (including math instructor at West Point). Soon after the start of the Civil War, Howard was made colonel of the Third Maine Regiment, and three months later he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. He was made a brigadier general of the regular army in 1864.
During the war, Howard took part in many famous battles, including the first Bull Run, Fair Oaks (where he lost an arm), Antietam, and Gettysburg. He accompanied General William T. Sherman on his "March to the Sea," and was horrified by the looting and successive violence he witnessed. On May 12, 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Howard commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (better known as the Freedmen's Bureau), a position for which President Lincoln had previously selected him.
The Bureau was charged with assisting the former slaves in their transition to freedom by dispensing food, clothing, fuel, medical care and other forms of aid; eventually it would also play a role in organizing schools and dispensing justice for blacks who had been mistreated or cheated. Howard took on an extremely challenging task, as his agency faced not only a shortage of agents to carry out its work but the animosity of white Southerners, who resented the Bureau's advocacy of blacks. One of his most heart-wrenching moments came when, in October 1865, he had to inform a large gathering of South Carolina blacks that they would have to vacate the land they thought the government had given them.
Though plagued by charges of corruption and incompetence by some its agents, the Bureau achieved a great deal in its short life, including distributing fifteen million food rations to poverty-stricken Southerners, both black and white; dispensing medical care to a million people; and spending $5 million on helping to set up black schools. Howard's real concern for the problems facing African Americans made him a hero to the people he was dedicated to helping.
Howard was one of the founders of a leading black educational institution, Howard University in Washington, D.C. He served as the university's president from 1869 until 1874. Throughout the 1870s, he was involved in the U.S. government's military efforts to ease white settlement of the West by bringing the Native Americans who lived in the region under control. Howard helped to negotiate a treaty with the Apache Indians and commanded military expeditions against the Nez Perce, the Bannocks, and the Paiutes. He later wrote a number of books based on his experiences among Native Americans.
During the 1880s, Howard served in a number of army positions, including superintendent of West Point. At the time of his retirement in 1894, he was commander of the Division of the East. Howard spent the remainder of his life at his home in Burlington, Vermont, busy with writing, religious and educational activities, and speaking engagements. He died on October 26, 1909.
As it turned out, he was wrong. Although ordinary white Southerners had felt some envy and resentment for the planter class, in many ways they also respected and admired these traditional leaders of a society and culture cherished by whites at all economic levels. Most people in the South, after all, had supported secession, and most—as now became obvious—were still willing to accept the old leaders. Thus the people who had dominated Southern politics before the war, and even those who had been active in the Confederacy, quickly realized that Johnson's lenient plan would allow them to take their own places at the head of their society.
Former confederates receive pardons
Few of the arrests of Confederate "traitors" that Johnson had threatened were made, and even the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, spent only two years in prison. The fact that little desire for any real change existed was borne out by the results of the state government elections held in the South in the fall of 1865. Although many Unionists were elected in the states of the Upper South (such as Maryland and Missouri), almost all of those elected in the Deep South (which included such states as Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina) were plantation owners and former Confederate military leaders and office holders. Some had even bragged, during the campaign, of their activities during the war. One of them was Alexander H. Stephens (1812–1883), who had been vice president of the Confederacy under Davis and who now had been elected a senator in Georgia.
The fact was that many of the officials elected under Johnson's plan for state reorganization were not eligible to take the required amnesty oath. This left Johnson in an embarrassing bind, for he did not want to declare invalid the results of the program he himself had designed. Johnson's solution was to begin issuing presidential pardons in large numbers and with very little difficulty for the applicants. By 1867, in fact, he would issue 13,500 pardons. Thus Johnson seemed to completely turn his back on his earlier ideas.
Historians have proposed a number of reasons for this turnaround. Perhaps Johnson felt that this was the only way to ensure white supremacy in the South or to make sure that he would win reelection when the time came. Perhaps he lacked the strong will it would take to push through economic and social changes that were sure to meet resistance from white Southerners. It has also been suggested that Johnson derived some pleasure from his power to grant pardons to the Southern aristocrats he so resented, and that they took advantage of this weakness. In any case, by the end of the year Johnson was in a position of either admitting that his program had backfired or coming out against the Radicals in Congress, as well as, eventually, the moderate Republicans who had been more inclined to support him.
Schurz reports on conditions in the South
Even before reaching that point, Johnson hoped to prove that true reform was underway. He had sent out some military and government officials to report on conditions in the South. One of these was General Ulysses S. Grant, who returned from a one-week tour and reported that all was well. A much less favorable report was filed by a former Union general, politician, and journalist named Carl Schurz (1829–1906), whose advice Johnson chose to ignore. Schurz claimed that even though Southerners admitted defeat and were cooperating with efforts to reorganize their governments, they were still bitter and reluctant to acknowledge that they had done anything wrong in either seceding or fighting the Union. They were eager to end the federal occupation of their society, hostile to the Northerners among them, and extremely unwilling to accept the fact that blacks were now free and must now be considered ordinary U.S. citizens.
In his report, Schurz chronicled numerous acts of violence by whites against blacks, including shootings, hangings, and arson attacks on schools and churches. He found that Southerners were just as opposed to educating blacks as they had been during slavery, still just as convinced that the Southern society created by whites would be threatened by blacks who could read and write. As recounted in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, former slave Douglass White, who had served in the Union army, described what had often happened when he and his neighbors had sent their children off to school in Louisiana: "Big white boys and half-grown men used to pelt them with stones and run them down with open knives, both to and from school. Sometimes they came home bruised, stabbed, beaten half to death, and sometimes quite dead." Sensing the vulnerability of blacks to attacks and exploitation by whites, Schurz urged the president to provide federal protection for African Americans. "Nothing renders society more restless," he warned, "than a social revolution but half accomplished."
Carl Schurz: An Immigrant Devoted to Democracy
An active politician who served as a general in the Civil War (1861–65), Carl Schurz was also the author of a chilling report that convinced many Northerners to support the Radical Republicans' plan for the Reconstruction of the South.
Born to poor parents in Germany in 1829, Schurz was a good student with a special interest in music. He was just about to enter college when his father went bankrupt and was sent to debtor's prison. After helping to arrange for his father's release, Schurz finally entered the University of Bonn. He intended to become a history professor, but in 1848 he became a student leader in the democracy movement that was sweeping across Europe. Caught up in the political disorder that soon engulfed his country, Schurz was labeled a rebel, imprisoned, and sentenced to death.
Making a dramatic escape through the prison sewer system, Schurz fled to Paris, then London, but he returned to Germany to make a daring and successful rescue of a friend who was still imprisoned. Again he went to Paris, but he was forced to leave when authorities there viewed him as a troublemaker. He moved to London, where he married a German woman. The couple left for the United States in 1852.
After arriving in New York, Schurz quickly became involved in politics. He and his growing family settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Schurz became a U.S. citizen and studied English intensely while working as an editor of a German-language newspaper. Schurz then moved his family to Wisconsin, where there were many German immigrants and where his ability to speak both German and English made him an asset to local politicians. He became active in the Republican Party while also earning a law degree and practicing law.
Schurz often spoke out on the issues of the day, especially the abolition of slavery. In 1860, he served as a Wisconsin delegate at the Republican political convention, and he subsequently campaigned for nominee Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln became president, he made Schurz the U.S. minister to France, but the Civil War drew Schurz back to the United States. In 1862, he was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers, serving under General John C. Frémont (1813–1890). Schurz led troops in the second battle of Bull Run and at Chancellorsville, Chattanooga, and Gettysburg.
After the war, Schurz returned to his work as a newspaper editor. He made a tour of the South and recorded his observations in a report that, while ignored by President Andrew Johnson, was submitted to the U.S. Congress. Northerners were shocked by Schurz's descriptions not only of the physical devastation of the South but of the brutal ways in which blacks there were being treated. His account—and his plea for federal assistance for the South and especially for the former slaves—helped to drum up support for the Reconstruction plan devised by the Radical Republicans in Congress.
Later, Schurz became editor of the Denver Post, then of a German-language newspaper in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1869, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he spoke out against several of the policies of President Ulysses S. Grant. Schurz campaigned for Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 presidential election, and when Hayes was elected he made Schurz secretary of the interior. Thus, Schurz had held the two highest positions possible for a naturalized citizen—U.S. senator and cabinet secretary.
As head of the Department of the Interior, Schurz oversaw the relocation of Native Americans onto reservations, a process that would continue throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As he became more familiar with American Indians, Schurz grew more sympathetic to their plight. He believed that they should be treated with dignity but that they should become integrated with white society (rather than being allowed to live as they always had, which was their wish).
Schurz resigned this post in 1881 but stayed active in politics as well as through writing and editing. He served for six years as editor of the well-known Harper's Weekly magazine, and continued to speak and write (including his autobiography) until his death in 1906.
Even though the president refused to acknowledge it, Schurz's report was submitted to Congress, and Northerners were shocked by its contents. Adding to their dismay and disgust was news of the infamous Black Codes, a set of policies adopted by the Southern states under the Johnson program. In setting the terms of his Reconstruction plan, Johnson had left the treatment of blacks, their role in society, and any decisions to grant them civil and political rights up to the individual states.
Southern states enact the Black Codes
Left to their own devices, the former states of the Confederacy chose to restrict voting rights to whites only. As reported in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, they agreed with Mississippi governor Benjamin Humphreys (1808–1882), who declared that "ours is and it shall ever be, a government of white men." Neither did the states make any provision for the establishment or support of black schools. They saw blacks as bound for no greater goal than being agricultural workers or servants without education, skills, or property. Motivated both by their desire to maintain a pool of cheap labor and by a real belief in the limitations of blacks, they considered no other role acceptable. Through the Black Codes, they tried to ensure that no other role would be possible.
The Black Codes rose out of a white conviction that African Americans were lazy by nature and would not work unless they were forced to, and that they should be kept under strict control and denied most civil rights. The laws represented an attempt by the state to limit black people's options and thus ensure a stable work force for the plantations, backed up by rigid enforcement of labor agreements or contracts that restricted not only work conditions but behavior. Often these contracts called for the kind of gang labor (driven by overseers) that the blacks had learned during slavery to hate, as well as complete obedience to the plantation owner (which might mean not leaving or having visitors without permission). This tactic did not always work, as blacks sometimes signed contracts but then refused to comply with all of the rules. The labor shortage that immediately followed the war gave blacks some bargaining power, especially in Florida and Texas. Bad harvests in the autumns of 1865 and 1866, however, chipped away some of that leverage.
The Codes did grant blacks the right to marry and to own and sell property; at the same time, however, they called for segregation of public places, prohibited interracial marriage, and prevented blacks from serving on juries or testifying against whites. Blacks were forced, in effect, into signing labor contracts, because unemployed blacks could be arrested as vagrants, the definition of which also included those who were seen as idle, disorderly, or even careless with money. In South Carolina, blacks had to obtain special licenses and pay high fees if they wanted to perform work other than agricultural labor. In Mississippi, which had some of the most severe Black Codes of all the states, blacks must have written evidence each January that they had signed labor contracts. If at any point during the year they broke their contracts, all of the wages they earned up to that point could be forfeited. In Louisiana and Texas, the laws applied to all members of the family who were able to work (a way to keep women and children working in the fields); in Florida, they made "disrespect" a crime, and in North Carolina, even the "intent" to steal was against the law.
As reported in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, the Black Codes were designed to show that, in the words of Georgia politician Emerson Etheridge (1819–1902), "the Negroes are no more free than they were forty years ago, and if anybody goes about the country telling them they are free, shoot him." It was evident that white Southerners were, in fact, trying to recreate the conditions of slavery, and that they were more than willing to use violence to achieve that goal. Northerners were outraged, and even some Southerners agreed that the laws had gone too far; a few of the states even modified early versions of their codes to remove any references to race, though of course the codes were not meant to restrict anyone but blacks.
Opposition to Johnson's program grows
Leaders of the African American community called on Congress for help. A group of them even met with President Johnson in early 1866 to express their dissatisfaction with his program, which had allowed former Confederates to shape the new Southern governments according to their own ideas. Pressed to explain why he would not support black suffrage, Johnson asserted that he would not risk further tension or possibly a race war between blacks and whites. As reported in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, black leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895), who had spearheaded the fight for freedom and was now working for the expansion of black civil rights, told the president, "You enfranchise [give the vote to] your enemies and disenfranchise your friends."
But by now it seemed that it was too late for Johnson to turn back. He defended the Black Codes as restrictions necessary to the well-being of the former slaves, thus putting himself firmly on the side of the plantation owners for whom he had once expressed such contempt. Meanwhile, though, the discontent stirred by the president's program was growing.
At first, supporters of Johnson's plan had included Northern businessmen, who hoped for a quick return to agricultural production in the South. After all, cotton had been the nation's leading export, and many Northerners, including merchants, lawyers, bankers, insurance brokers, and shipowners, benefited from the cotton trade. In addition, the New England textile industry needed a steady influx of cotton to keep its looms humming. But the news of the Black Codes and of ever-increasing attacks on blacks by resentful, angry whites helped the Radical Republicans make their case not only against Johnson's program but in favor of black suffrage.
When the Thirty-ninth Congress met in December 1865, Johnson proclaimed in the face of evidence to the contrary that Reconstruction had already been accomplished and that the Southern state governments were headed by leaders loyal to the Union. The stage was now set for a showdown with the Radicals. In the months to come, Johnson would face an overwhelming tide of opposition as the moderate Republicans in Congress rallied to the Radical cause. Many would claim that Johnson had himself brought about the downfall of his short-lived Reconstruction program.
For More Information
Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Benedict, Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869. New York: Norton, 1974.
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Golay, Michael. Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913. New York: Facts on File, 1996.
Jenkins, Wilbert L. Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Murphy, Richard W. The Nation Reunited: War's Aftermath. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1987.
Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997.
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
Wagner, Margaret E., Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, eds. Civil War Desk Reference. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Wharton, Vernon L. The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1900. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
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