Was Reconstruction good or bad? Your view on that topic will largely dictate whether you see the white Southerners of the Civil war time period in a good light or bad light. The view of Reconstruction was largely negative in white society until the 1980’s. With the publication of Eric Foner’s book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (Harper & Row 1988), the popular white view changed. A Colombia historian, Dr. Foner is widely respected. His tome received positive reviews. Reprinted several times, it has now become a classic history of the Reconstruction period in U.S. history.
Dr. Foner makes a valuable point throughout the book, that with the end of Reconstruction, so ended the right to vote and other civil rights for Southern African-Americans. His research is exhaustive. Yet, he does diminish what had been accepted prior to his book, the degree to which Reconstruction was abused by both Northern politicians and local African-Americans. For example, we know that many African-Americans profited handsomely from their positions of power. The perception in the time before Dr. Foner’s book was that black men had been manipulated by the white Northerners, but they may have been willing to be manipulated. For example in a book widely read in its day, Charles Nordhoff traveled the South in 1875 on a tour requested by his boss, James G. Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Mr. Nordhoff’s mission was to find out the “truth” of Reconstruction. The northern public was aware of charges of corruption. Mr. Nordhoff was sent to either verify those charges or discount them. His resulting book, The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875, largely verifies the charges of corruption by “carpet-baggers” and by African-American men who appeared to be under the control or instigation of white northerners now living in those Cotton states.
Mr. Nordhoff in his tour of Louisiana talks about seeing “colored” members of the Louisiana legislature – men who were slaves ten years before – now “driving magnificent carriages, seated in stylish equipages, and wearing diamond breast pins.” He discussed a box containing election returns from one of the upstate parishes being carried into New Orleans by a Conservative politician (meaning by a Republican) to a house of prostitution in New Orleans. The Conservative politician was holding it ransom for some large reward from the Conservatives in that parish.
Mr. Nordhoff reported in his book that while most murders in Louisiana since 1870, with two major exceptions – Coushatta and Colfax – were not political, few of the murderers received their just punishment. There were some 33 murders. But, pardons were frequent. Mr. Nordhoff explained that between 1865-1868, the white citizens of Louisiana did kill and oppress the freed black man. But, when Reconstruction began in 1868, the freed black man was given authority for which he was not prepared. Mr. Nordhoff saw black members of parish police juries (like the county commissioners in Texas) who could not read or write, or just barely so. Yet, those black police jury members had total control over taxes, roads and bridges. In 1868, the Louisiana legislature paid $4.2 million for 70 miles of railroad that was never completed. The railroad was sold as a connection from New Orleans to Mobile, but it never got beyond the first 70 miles. Mr. Nordhoff, a former abolitionist, recounted many such incidents of abuse.
Dr. Foner allows that black Republicans were not immune to illicit gain, but he compares it to corruption practiced by white Democrats. He suggests that corruption was common throughout the country, not just in Reconstruction cotton states. Foner, Reconstruction, at pp. 388-389.
But, Dr. Foner’s book does not appear to address the issues presented in the prior research, that the post-war economy plummeted in the South after the Civil War and after Reconstruction started. The 1874 value of real property in New Orleans had fallen to one-third the value it had in 1868, the last year prior to Reconstruction. Henry, The Story of Reconstruction (Konecky & Konecky 1999, but originally published in 1938), p. 516. The Sheriff of Orleans Parish was paid $60,000 in 1868, a time when $500-600 was the typical yearly wage for skilled labor. This was in a city that did not completely support secession.
In the 1860 election for example, John Bell, the nominee of the Constitutional Union party (composed of former Whig party members), won each Orleans Parish voting district by a 2:1 margin over Douglas and Breckinridge. The Constitutional Union party was founded on the eve of the 1860 election. Its major plank was to preserve the union. Stephen Douglas, the nominee of the Northern wing of the Democrat party ran ahead of John Breckinridge, the nominee of the Southern wing of the Democrat party. Breckinridge was the candidate favored by the rest of Louisiana and by the rest of the South. Breckinridge and Douglas essentially split the Democrat vote. Together, the Democratic vote would have amounted to some 5400 votes, compared to some 5200 received by Bell. If just one Democrat had run in 1860, Bell might well have lost. But, the results do show New Orleans was not a “fire-eater” (the term used for ardent secessionists) city. Jerry Tarver, Political Clubs of New Orleans in the Presidential Election of 1860, La. Hist. Assoc., Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring, 1963), p. 126. The Crescent City was not a secessionist center.
Neither does Dr. Foner address another concern presented by the earlier scholarship on the subject, that many black males of the time simply voted as they were told by white Republicans. The White League, Robert Henry tells us, said the Negroes “invariably” voted like a body of soldiers obeying a command. The white Southerners accused the blacks of voting “blindly” based on how they were instructed. Henry, The Story of Reconstruction, p. 517. Even allowing for some hyperbole, that charge presents serious systemic issues with Reconstruction.
And, it was the concern with outlaw black citizens acting with impunity that was cited by the White League for its formation in New Orleans. Among the graft and corruption, there was also a problem found in newly freed blacks acting with criminal intent. Gangs of “riotous” blacks incited by three former city officials had committed unspecified “outrages” against white persons at the Third Ward Polling place on Poydras Street. Stuart O. Landry, The Battle of Liberty Place (Gretna Press 2000, but originally published in 1955), p. 69. In another incident, a white man was assaulted by a crowd of “Negroes” for carrying a concealed weapon. The Metropolitan Police, created by the carpet-bagger governor, Henry Clay Warmoth, were essentially a private army for the governor. Joe Gray Taylor, New Orleans and Reconstruction, La. Hist. Assoc. (Vol. 9, No. 3, p. 196. Gov. Warmoth did not deny his corruption. Without Negro votes, he would never have been elected. Ibid. Gov. Warmoth was replaced by William P. Kellogg, who was only more corrupt than Gov. Warmoth.
In May, 1874, a white woman was robbed in broad daylight on a major street in new Orleans. The newspaper of the day proclaimed no one was safe due to Negro outrages. Joe Gray Taylor, New Orleans and Reconstruction, p. 201. That was surely hyperbole, but this was a time when even approaching an unknown woman was socially forbidden. That one white woman would be robbed during the day was shocking. Also in May, 1874, a home was entered while the family was out and all the silver was taken. The newspaper warned New Orleans white citizens to watch out for Gov. Kellog’s men during the day. In other words, the newspaper believed the daytime burglar was a Republican. New Orleans Bulletin, May 8, 1874, p. 3. Dr. Foner’s book does not address this apparent spike in crime, or the perception that the crime was due to Republicans. In disregarding these issues, Dr. Foner’s book reveals a lack of balance, just as the earlier Reconstruction books lacked balance.
It is accurate, it seems to me, that the hysteria of the time seems racist. The Battle of Liberty Place quotes news stories of the day indicating widespread fear of “black militia” marching by and possibly storming saloons and businesses. It seems likely that white Southerners of the time felt an irrational fear of newly freed blacks. Before the Civil War, there was a constant, almost unconscious fear among whites that the blacks would rise up and kill all the whites. The City of New Orleans actually saw a large slave revolt in 1811. So, the fear had some basis. In fact, the fear of slave rebellion was so wide spread that when Gen. Ben Butler first came to New Orleans, he brought his wife. Mrs. Butler had a nightmare during one of her first nights about a slave revolt. Fears of a slave revolt were so widespread that even a visiting and protected white wife of a Northern general had some deep fears of a slave revolt – at a time when the Union army was actually freeing black slaves.
But, fear, however racist and irrational, held by a large segment of the population cannot be ignored. It is the fundamental duty of any government to allay fear. The federal government imposed a government on Louisiana. The Republicans disregarded the fear felt by the whites and it did not provide the most fundamental requirement of any government, reliable police protection.
Dr. Foner never mentions the open corruption of two successive Louisiana governors. Neither does he acknowledge that unlike corruption in other states, in the South, open corruption was essentially sanctioned by the federal government. Dr. Foner never discusses the extent to which freed blacks were allowed, and even encouraged to harass the white Southerners. His book does help remedy the lack of attention to black suffrage and civil rights in prior Reconstruction research.
But, it appears Dr. Foner remedied that imbalance in part by overlooking the lack of fundamental state police powers. If the state cannot enforce criminal laws, then the state has failed a central function. Mr. Foner misses an important point about Reconstruction. When you impose a government on a people otherwise accustomed to democracy, that government cannot simply be as good as the government found in other states. It must be better. It must be a government that the whites can at least tolerate. Reconstruction failed in that respect. For all its superb research and needed balance, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution misses that most salient need of an imposed governance, it must work and it must be relatively free of corruption.