The French word, manqué, as used here by Mr. McPherson means a "missed opportunity," that is, the author contends that America missed a golden opportunity to fulfill the promise of racial equality immediately following the Civil War.
The reasons for that missed opportunity are economic, political and, in many ways, attitudinal. Certainly the citizens of the Southern States were determined to maintain their social system of white supremacy by passing the so-called "black codes," which limited the economic and political rights of the liberated slaves. When Congress tried to negate those laws, the Ku Klux Klan emerged to "keep the blacks in their place."
Nor was racial prejudice the exclusive province of the South. While the Radical Republicans were pressing the southern states to allow blacks to vote in 1867, only seven of the twenty northern states permitted black suffrage. Moreover, in many Northern States the segregation of blacks, in public facilities and schools for example, was rigidly enforced.
The widespread poverty and illiteracy of the liberated slaves, a basic unwillingness to supply them with land, and the sheer magnitude of enforcing laws to protect the blacks-from Virginia to Texas—all proved insurmountable obstacles on the road to racial equality. Still, Mr. McPherson asks the reader to consider that, while the Radical Republicans indeed took some radical measures during Reconstruction, one reason for the "missed opportunity" might be that those measures were simply not radical enough.
More than forty years ago Charles Beard, one of the country's leading historians, described the Civil War era as the Second American Revolution. Beard maintained that Northern victory transferred political and economic power from the old Southern planter aristocracy to the new Northern industrial plutocracy and set in motion the explosive economic growth of the last third of the nineteenth century. Whatever the validity of Beard's argument (it has been challenged by several economic historians), there is no doubt that in the field of race relations the Civil War and Reconstruction did produce revolutionary changes. In a period of less than ten years, four million slaves were emancipated by the force of arms, enfranchised by the national government, and granted equal civil and political rights by the United States Constitution. But this was an aborted revolution; the promise of racial equality was never fully implemented even during Reconstruction; and after 1877, black Americans were gradually repressed into second-class citizenship, from which they are emerging slowly and painfully in our own time. This essay will try to describe the potential revolution of racial equality a century ago and to analyze the reasons for its failure.
Northern war aims evolved through three stages during the Civil War. The earliest and most important war aim, of course, was restoration of the Union. Until late in 1862 this meant the Union "as it was"—with slavery still in it. The North did not go to war to abolish slavery, and it took more than a year of discussion and agitation to bring the government to a policy of emancipation. Despite his own abhorrence of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was sensitive to the pressures of proslavery conservatives in the North and the need to keep the border slave states in the Union. The election of 1860 had shown that most Northerners, although opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories, were not in favor of abolishing it where it already existed. The Constitution protected slavery; and Lincoln hoped that he could bring about restoration of the Union constitutionally with a demonstration of federal force and a short war, followed by political negotiations and compromise.
But there were a good many people in the North who wanted to make emancipation a second war aim. These abolitionists (black and white), and Radical Republicans, believed that slavery had caused the war and that Union victory was impossible without elimination of this festering sore. The Radicals, joined by a growing number of moderates, argued with telling effect that emancipation was a military necessity. They pointed out that the 3-1/2 million slaves in the Confederacy constituted more than one-third of its population, raised most of the food and fiber for the South, and did most of the digging, hauling, and construction work for the Confederate army. A blow against slavery would cripple the Southern war effort and attract thousands of freed blacks to the side of the North, where they could work and fight, not only for their own freedom, but for the Union as well.
The military necessity thesis was the most compelling argument for emancipation, but abolitionists also emphasized political and moral considerations. Politically, an antislavery policy would strengthen the Union's diplomatic efforts to keep Great Britain from helping the South, for English public opinion would not tolerate its government's intervention on the side of slavery against freedom. The Radicals also pointed out that even if the Union could be restored by negotiation and compromise, slavery would remain a source of future strife. There could be no internal peace in America, they argued, while four million people were in bondage. Moreover, the North professed to be fighting for the preservation of democratic government; the national anthem declared the Union to be the "land of the free and the home of the brave." But the Northern policy of fighting for the restoration of a slave-holding Union, said the abolitionists, made a mockery of this profession.
By 1862, mainly as a result of developments in the war itself, these arguments began to gain converts. The Confederacy won most of the major battles in the first seventeen months of the war, and a serious danger of British intervention on the side of the South existed in 1862. War weariness and defeatism lowered Northern morale. Lincoln's conservative policy toward slavery alienated the Radical wing of his party. As these pressures built up Lincoln and the Republican Congress took timid and then decisive action against slavery in the second year of the war. Congress passed a series of antislavery and confiscation acts, and in September of 1862 the President issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, stating that all the slaves in states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, would be freed. The South was still in rebellion on that date, so Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation. Henceforth, the North officially fought for freedom as well as Union.
Thus the second war aim was proclaimed, to be confirmed by Northern victory and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Well before the end of the war, however, Radicals began calling for a third war aim: civil equality for the freedmen. The antislavery ideals of abolitionists and Radical Republicans envisioned not only freedom for black people, but a positive guarantee of equal rights as well. Gradually, fitfully, haltingly, and with doubtful conviction, the North groped toward a commitment to equality as its third war aim; but never was equality so important an objective as Union and emancipation. Many Northerners who supported or accepted emancipation as a military necessity were notably unenthusiastic about this third war aim. It is necessary, not only for a comprehension of the Civil War and Reconstruction but also of the race problem in our own time, to understand the incomplete and halting efforts a century ago to implement equality and the reasons why they failed.
The first step toward equality was the enlistment of black men in the Union army. As Frederick Douglass put it: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship." Undertaken tentatively as an experiment late in 1862, the employment of Negro soldiers proved a success and was prosecuted on a full scale in the last two years of the war. In a sense, this result was a logical outgrowth of emancipation; for one of the purposes of freeing the slaves was to deprive the Confederacy of a vital manpower resource and utilize that resource for the Union, not only by getting black men to dig trenches and haul supplies for the Northern armies (the sort of work slaves did for the South), but by putting them into uniform to fight for Union and freedom.
Despite the initial skepticism of many Northerners, including President Lincoln, black men demonstrated impressive fighting qualities. In a series of battles all over the South in the last two years of war, Negro troopers proved their courage and determination. Thirty- eight black regiments fought in the Union armies that invaded Virginia in 1864, helping to deliver the hammer blows that finally drove Lee's forces to surrender. Negroes were the first soldiers to enter Charleston and Richmond when these important strongholds fell late in the war. By the time the war was over, about 180,000 black men, most of them former slaves, had fought for the Union army, and another 25,000 had served in the navy. More than 37,000 black soldiers lost their lives in the defense of union and freedom. Twenty-one Negroes won Congressional Medals of Honor for their courage on the field of battle. Black troops numbered nearly 10 percent of the total Union forces and constituted an even higher percentage of the Northern armies in the final, decisive year of war. As early as August 1863 General Ulysses S. Grant and President Lincoln declared that the enlistment of black regiments was "the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion." After the war was over, the influential New York Tribune said that the use of Negro troops had shortened the war by a year. The performance of black soldiers earned new respect for their race, made emancipation secure, and helped push the North toward a commitment to equality. The contribution of the Negro to the Union war effort created a debt that could be paid only by granting full citizenship to the race.
The drive for equal rights began in the North itself. Before the war, black men did not enjoy first-class citizenship in most Northern states. Several states had "black laws" that barred Negroes from immigration into the state, prohibited testimony by blacks against whites in courts, and otherwise discriminated against people with dark skin. In many parts of the North public accommodations, transportation facilities, hotels, and theaters were off limits to Negroes. During the war black soldiers were thrown off the horse-drawn streetcars of Washington, Philadelphia, and New York on several occasions. Public schools in most parts of the North were segregated, and in some areas black children were barred from schools altogether. Blacks in Northern cities were frequently threatened by mob violence. In 1862 and 1863 white workingmen, fearful that emancipation would bring a horde of freedmen northward to compete for jobs, killed scores of Negroes in several urban race riots, climaxed by the New York Draft Riots of July 1863.
But the impetus of emancipation and the reputation of black soldiers began to break down racial discrimination in the North. Blacks were admitted to Congressional galleries and to White House receptions for the first time in 1864. A Negro lawyer was granted a license to present cases before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1865, just eight years after Roger B. Taney, as Chief Justice, had declared, in the Dred Scott decision, that black men had no rights that white men were bound to respect. Congress passed a series of laws forbidding discrimination against Negroes in the federal courts, the post office department, and on Washington streetcars. Northern states with "black laws" repealed them during, or shortly after, the war. In the postwar decades many states took even greater steps toward equal rights. Massachusetts passed a public accommodations law in 1865. Several other states followed suit in the 1870s and 1880s. Most Northern states abolished de jure school segregation. This equalitarian legislation was honored more in the breach than in practice, and a great deal of discrimination remained in the North despite the laws, but at least a beginning was made.
The question of Negro suffrage became the major issue of Reconstruction. The right to vote is a basic right of citizenship in a democracy, and the issue of black voters, especially in the South, where Negroes were a majority of the population in three states and a minority of more than 40 percent in three others, generated more conflict, controversy, and dissension than any other single question in the fifteen years after the Civil War. By the end of 1865 most members of the Radical wing of the Republican party were committed to some kind of effort to secure equal voting rights for the freedmen; and by 1867, the moderate majority of the party had also come around to this position.
The prospect of Negro suffrage presented a good many practical difficulties. The four million freedmen were for the most part illiterate, penniless, and totally without political experience. The institution of slavery had crippled the self-reliance, initiative, pride, and manhood of many Negroes. The black people emerging from slavery did not have the social, economic, and educational resources to make themselves the instant equals of their old masters.
Although Radical Republicans were concerned about these problems, most of them suppressed their doubts and emphasized the positive arguments for Negro suffrage as a cornerstone of Reconstruction. The very logic of the Union war effort seemed to require the granting of equal citizenship to the Negro, who had fought not only for his own freedom but for the cause of the North. To have sloughed off these important allies into second-class citizenship would have been a repudiation of the debt that many people thought the Union owed the black man. Moreover, as a practical matter, it became clear that the freedmen would need the ballot to protect their basic civil rights. Republicans feared that if emancipated slaves were left without political power they would be reduced to some form of quasi-slavery or serfdom. The "black codes" passed by most Southern states in the months after the war confirmed this fear. Some of these codes required the arrest of black vagrants (the question of vagrancy to be determined by white sheriffs) and their lease for specified periods of time to white planters, apprenticed black children to white "masters" in certain circumstances, prohibited Negroes in some states from buying or renting land, or in other ways fastened a subordinate legal status upon the freedmen. The black codes presented the Radicals with dramatic evidence of the need for federal protection and political rights for the freedmen.
Many Republicans also feared that if the Southern states were readmitted to the Union without Negro suffrage, they would send Democratic congressmen to Washington and reduce the Republican party once again to a minority party. Thus the ballot for freedmen became something of a political necessity for the Republicans. But it was not only expediency or partisanship that motivated Republican thinking on this issue. Most Southern Democrats and a sizable proportion of their Northern brethren had been Confederates or Confederate sympathizers. They had fought a bitter war to destroy the Union and preserve slavery, causing 350,000 Northern deaths. Thus it was easy, and not entirely specious, for Northern Republicans (and most Northern voters) to identify the Democratic party with treason and the Republican party with union and freedom. The Northern mood of 1864-69 would not stand for any policy that readmitted the Democratic South to the Union with undiminished political power, thereby "letting the fruits of victory slip from our grasp." In such circumstances, the enfranchisement of the freedmen (who were expected, with good reason, to vote Republican) was patriotic as well as good politics for the Republicans.
There was also a punitive motive for Negro suffrage. Many Northerners, bitter toward "traitors" and "rebels," wanted to destroy the political basis of the Southern "aristocracy" they believed had caused the war and punish the Confederates by temporarily disfranchising them and permanently enfranchising their former slaves, thereby destroying the old political power structure of the South and creating a new Republican coalition of unionist whites and black freedmen.
Thus, for a variety of reasons, including equalitarianism, patriotism, political partisanship, and bitterness, the Radical wing of the Republican party pushed for enfranchisement of the freedmen as the cornerstone of their Reconstruction policy. In some cases this required political courage by Republicans who represented districts where racism was still a potent force. Despite the changes in Northern attitudes toward the Negro caused by the war, latent, and often overt, prejudice was still widespread. Blacks could not vote in most Northern states at the end of the war; many white voters, in spite of their hatred of the South, disliked the prospect of black equality and feared that freedmen's suffrage would be a major step toward equal rights in the North as well as in the South. For this reason, as well as their skepticism about the freedmen's qualifications for the ballot, moderate Republicans (a majority in the party) shied away from Negro suffrage in 1865-66 and tried to find a middle ground between black enfranchisement and readmission of the South with no federal protection at all for the freedmen. Their solution was the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, proposed in 1866, which guaranteed citizenship and civil rights to the freedmen and reduced the representation of Southern states in Congress by the proportion of their adult male citizens who could not vote. Thus the South's political power was reduced, while an inducement was offered for voluntary enfranchisement of the freedmen.
This moderate proposal was sabotaged by President Andrew Johnson and by the short-sighted intransigence of the South. Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat who remained loyal to the Union during the war and was rewarded with the 1864 vice-presidential nomination of the "Union Party," a wartime coalition of Republicans and War Democrat. After Lincoln's assassination, Johnson gradually gravitated back to his Democratic allegiance, urged the readmission of the Southern states with minimum conditions, and defied the policy of the Republican majority in Congress. With remarkable political ineptitude, Johnson vetoed moderate Congressional legislation, encouraged the Southern states to refuse ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, alienated the moderate Republicans, and drove them closer to the Radical wing of the party. In the 1866 Congressional elections the Northern voters overwhelmingly repudiated Johnson's policies and gave the Republicans a mandate to push through their Reconstruction program over the President's vetoes.
In the spring of 1867, Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts that provided for military administration of the South until new state constitutions could be drawn up instituting universal manhood suffrage. Only after the state governments elected under these constitutions had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment would their representatives be readmitted to Congress. By the end of 1868, eight of the former Confederate states had been restored to the Union under these conditions; in 1869 Congress adopted the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting voting discrimination on grounds of race, and required the remaining three Southern states to ratify it before returning to the Union. By 1870, all the ex-Confederate states were under Republican control, with several black officeholders; the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were in the Constitution; the Union was restored; and the third Northern war aim of equality was achieved.
Or was it? Despite appearances, Radical Reconstruction rested on a weak foundation. During the 1870s the foundation gradually crumbled, and the walls came tumbling down. The framework of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments remained in the Constitution, to become the basis for the Negro Revolution of the mid-twentieth century; but in the 1870s the nation failed to carry out the promises of equality contained in these amendments.
There are several reasons for this failure. In the first place, most Northern whites were only superficially committed to the equalitarian purposes of Reconstruction, and many were openly hostile. From 1865 to 1869 there was a temporary radicalization of Northern public opinion that made possible the passage of Reconstruction measures enfranchising the freedmen, but this was the result more of war torn anti-Southern sentiment than of genuine pro-Negro feeling. In 1867, when the Reconstruction Acts instituted Negro suffrage in the South, black men could vote in only seven of the twenty Northern states and in none of the four border states. Several times, from 1865 to 1868, Northern voters rejected Negro suffrage amendments to their own state constitutions. Not until the Fifteenth Amendment went into effect in 1870, three years after the Southern freedmen had been enfranchised, did most Negroes in the North have the right to vote. The Northern hostility or indifference to equal rights betokened ill success for an equalitarian Reconstruction policy, which required a strong national commitment if it was to succeed.
A second reason for the failure of Reconstruction was the bitter, sometimes violent, and always well-organized opposition of most Southern whites. Confederate veterans, accustomed to the use of violence to attain political ends, formed such organizations as the Ku Kim Klan, the White League, the Red Shirts, and numerous "rifle clubs" to terrorize Republicans, especially black Republicans, as a means of breaking down and destroying the party in the South. The federal government made several efforts between 1870 and 1874 to enforce equal rights against this Southern counterrevolution. The "Ku Klux Act" of 1871 gave the President sweeping powers to use the armed forces and courts to suppress white terrorist organizations; and this law, when enforced vigorously in 1871-72, was successful in temporarily quelling Southern anti-Republican violence. But a combination of factors after 1873 caused a decline in federal enforcement efforts: financial depression, which diverted national attention to economic issues; Democratic victory in the congressional elections of 1874; adverse Supreme Court decisions that stripped enforcement legislation of much of its power; and growing Northern disillusionment with the whole experiment of Reconstruction, which produced diminishing enthusiasm among Republicans for the party's Southern policy. Actually, even with the best of intentions, the federal government could not have completely suppressed the Ku Klux Klan and its sister organizations, since the number of troops in the army was inadequate for the purpose and most of the regiments were on the frontier fighting Indians.
Another dimension of Southern white resistance was the refusal or inability of many property-owning whites (and whites owned most of the property) to pay taxes to the "alien" Republican state governments. During Reconstruction most of the Southern states built public school systems almost from scratch, constructed new charitable and welfare institutions, and undertook ambitious programs of railroad building, aided by state grants and loans. All of this cost money, more money than the South had been accustomed to paying for public and social services, more than property owners were willing or able to pay in taxes, especially when they were opposed, as some of them were, to such innovations as public schools or when they believed that much of the revenue went into the pockets of corrupt officials. The Southern state governments, in some cases, were too weak or unstable to compel payment of taxes, and the resulting deficits were another reason for the collapse of Republican regimes as the 1870s wore on.
A third reason for the failure of Reconstruction was the illiteracy, inexperience, and poverty of the freedmen. It had been illegal to teach slaves (and free blacks, in some states) to read or write. The institution of slavery trained black people to dependence and denied them the opportunity and responsibilities of freedom. It would have been criminal of the North merely to emancipate the slaves, give them equal rights on paper, and then say: "All right, you're on your own—root hog, or die!" And to the credit of some Northern people and the federal government, efforts were made to educate and assist the freedmen in their difficult transition from slavery to freedom. In one of the major outpourings of idealism and missionary zeal in American history, freedmen's aid societies in the North sent thousands of teachers to the South to bring literacy to the Negroes. The federal government created the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865. More than a thousand freedmen's schools, supported by Northern philanthropy and aided by the Bureau, were in operation by 1870; and the new public school system of the South was built on the foundation provided by these mission schools. After 1870, the missionary societies concentrated their efforts on secondary schools and colleges to train the teachers, ministers, and leaders of the new black generation. The major institutions of higher learning for Negroes evolved out of these freedmen's schools: Howard, Fisk, and Atlanta Universities; Morehouse, Spelman, and Talladega Colleges; Hampton Institute; Meharry Medical College; and many others. But despite the admirable efforts of the crusade for freedmen's education, 70 percent of Southern blacks were still illiterate in 1880. An effective crash program to educate and train four million freed slaves would have required a far greater commitment of national resources than was undertaken. The mission societies did their best; but after the expiration of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1870, they received no more federal aid. Black Southerners remained at a large educational disadvantage in their relations with white Southerners.
Another facet of the black man's disadvantage was his poverty. Most emancipated slaves owned little more than the clothes on their backs when freedom came. Unless they received some kind of massive economic assistance, it was dear they would remain an economically subordinate class, dependent on whites for employment. Many abolitionists and Radical Republicans believed that there must be an economic reconstruction of the South if civil and political reconstruction were to succeed. The great abolitionist orator, Wendell Phillips, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and others urged the adoption of a thorough program of land reform as a basis of Reconstruction. They called for the confiscation of plantations owned by former Confederates, and the redistribution of the land in forty-acre plots to the freedmen. But this proposal threatened the sanctity of private property as a basis of society and was too radical for most Northerners. A small amount of Confederate property was expropriated during the war, and some of these lands found their way to black ownership; but there was no major program of agrarian reform. Most, blacks became wage-earners, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers, rather than independent landowning farmers. The South was not reconstructed economically, and consequently political reconstruction rested on an unstable foundation.
Because of educational and economic disadvantages, black people lacked the social and psychological resources to sustain their equal rights in the face of Southern white counterrevolution. This is not to deny that there were effective Negro leaders during Reconstruction. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the era was that this largely uneducated and property less people could produce such a group of able leaders. Twenty black men were elected to the national House of Representatives and two to the Senate after the war. Several Negroes served as lieutenant governors, secretaries of state, superintendents of education, and treasurers of Southern states. No black man was elected governor, but one Negro lieutenant-governor, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, served for a month as acting Governor of Louisiana. Blanche K. Bruce was an outstanding black senator from Mississippi; Robert B. Elliott, of South Carolina, and John R. Lynch, of Mississippi, were talented black congressmen. These men and others provided strong leadership for their race, but they could not overcome the determined white power structure. At least 100,000 black veterans of the Union army lived in the South during Reconstruction. Republican state governors enrolled many of them in state militia regiments to protect the freedmen's rights against terrorism. But there were four or five times as many white veterans of the Confederate army in the South, many of them enrolled in the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations. These men were better armed and better led than the black militiamen; and in the pitched battles of the violence-wracked years of Reconstruction, the white paramilitary groups usually prevailed.
One other major reason for the failure of Reconstruction was the instability of the coalition called the Republican Party in the South. This coalition was composed of a small number of Northern whites ("carpetbaggers"), Southern whites ("scalawags"), and the freedmen. Some of the carpetbaggers and scalawags deserved the pejorative connotations of these words, invented by their opponents, but others were honest, sincere men who wanted to make interracial democracy work. Inevitably there was friction among the three components of the Republican coalition. Native white Republicans shared some of the region's dislike for "outsiders," and there were power struggles within the Republican Party that pitted carpetbagger against scalawag. Though blacks provided most of the Republican votes, whites held most of the offices, which produced a growing demand by Negro leaders for greater representation and power in party councils. Many scalawags could not transcend their Southern upbringing and were uncomfortable in a predominantly black party, especially when blacks tried to move into positions of power. Some of the carpetbaggers also had difficulty transcending deeply ingrained racial prejudices. The Southern Democrats, increasingly united and strong under the banner of "home rule and white supremacy," took advantage of racial and other tensions in the Republican Party, and, by a combination of inducements and threats, brought many scalawags over from the "black Republicans" to the "white man's party." The unstable Republican coalition broke into squabbling factions in several Southern states in the 1870s, making it easier for the Democrats, aided by the terrorization of black voters, to gain control of one state after another.
How did the North react to crumbling Republican power in the South? Many Northerners had hoped that with the passage of the Reconstruction Acts and adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the task of restoring the South to the Union and ensuring equal rights would be completed. The North wanted to turn its attention to other issues. As reports of corruption, conflict, and violence filtered up from the South, however, it was clear that Reconstruction was not yet accomplished, and that continuous and vigorous national effort would be required to maintain Negro rights against Southern counterrevolution. But disillusionment and indifference sapped the Northern will. As early as 1870, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, which had been one of the foremost advocates of Radical Reconstruction a few years earlier, declared that it was time to "have done with Reconstruction. The country is sick of it." In the 1870s, The Nation, an independent liberal weekly with great influence among Northern intellectuals, became increasingly disenchanted with the results of Negro suffrage. The Nation declared that the Republican state governments of South Carolina and Louisiana were "a gang of robbers making war on civilization and morality," and concluded that the average black man "as regards the right performance of a voter's duty is as ignorant as a horse or a sheep." By 1876, The Nation had decided that the North should never have attempted "the insane task of making newly-emancipated field hands, led by barbers and barkeepers, fancy they knew as much about government and were as capable of administering it, as the whites."
Many Northern journalists visited the South during the 1870s and wrote feature stories that were increasingly sympathetic to the white viewpoint. James Shepherd Pike, a reporter for the New York Tribune, gathered his articles into a book published in 1874 with the title The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government. This book and others portrayed a South ruled and ruined by "Carpetbag-Negro government." Under the impact of this journalistic barrage, Northern public opinion gradually became indifferent, and even hostile, to the plight of freedmen and Republicans in the South. There was a growing consensus that Reconstruction was a mistake, that the federal government ought to cease its "misguided efforts" to enforce equal rights in the South, and that the Southern people should be left alone to work out the race problem on their own terms. 'The whole public are tired of these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South," wrote the United States Attorney General, in refusing a request from the Republican Governor of Mississippi for federal troops to protect Negro voters in 1875. Mississippi was captured by the Democrats in the election, and the Attorney General's remark symbolized Northern indifference to this development.
Widespread reports of Republican corruption, incompetence, and misgovernment were one of the most important factors in turning Northern opinion against Reconstruction. It would be foolish to deny that there was corruption in the South. Like all myths, the myth of greedy, rapacious carpetbaggers, jackal-like scalawags, and incompetent, bribe- taking politicians is based on a modicum of truth. But reality bore only slight relation to the grotesque picture depicted by contemporary journalists and echoed by many historians. Disorder and mistakes inevitably accompany rapid social change such as occurred in the postwar South. The building of railroads, the construction of a public school system, the physical rehabilitation of a region scarred by war, and the democratization of the Southern political system could not have been achieved without a dislocation of values and standards. And the Southern situation should be placed in national perspective. The post-Civil War era was an age of corruption, bribery, and swindling in Northern as well as Southern states and in the federal government itself. All the Southern state governments combined probably did not steal as much from the public treasury as the Tweed Ring in New York City. Even the South Carolina and Louisiana legislatures could scarcely match the brazen bribery that took place in Albany, New York. One contemporary critic charged that the Standard Oil Company could do anything it wanted with the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it.
Despite the propaganda of Southern whites, it was not so much dishonest Republican government that they opposed as it was any Republican government at all, honest or dishonest. The Reconstruction government of Mississippi was clean and honest, yet it, too, was overthrown by terror and intimidation. Why, then, did influential segments of Northern opinion accept the journalistic descriptions of Southern corruption? Primarily because the North, in spite of its superficially pro-Negro attitude of 1865-69, had never really been converted to a genuine belief in racial equality. The Northern radicalism of 1865-69 was produced mainly by warbom hatred for Southern whites and temporary gratitude to black soldiers who had fought for the Union, but as the memories and passions of war faded in the 1870s the underlying racism of the North reasserted itself. Thus the Northern people were willing to believe exaggerated stories of the incompetence and corruption of "Negro- Carpetbag" governments. As the 1876 centennial of American independence approached there was a movement toward sectional reconciliation and a rededication to national unity. This was all very well, but the freedmen became victims of this "clasping of hands across the bloody chasm." The price of reconciliation was "home rule" for the South and a cessation of Northern interference in Southern "domestic affairs."
With the exception of some of the old Radical Republicans and abolitionists still alive in 1876, the North was prepared to retreat from Reconstruction. It was a Presidential election year, and all signs pointed to a Democratic victory. Capitalizing on the economic depression, widespread disgust with the scandals of the Grant administration, and disillusionment with Reconstruction, Democrats hoped to expand their 1874 capture of the House of Representatives into occupation of the White House. The disputed Presidential election of 1876 resulted in one of the most bizarre political crises of American history. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won a majority of the popular vote, and was only one electoral vote short of victory, with the outcome in the three Southern states still controlled by Republicans—South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana—in dispute. Two sets of electoral returns were submitted from each state. If Tilden won any of these votes, he was elected; Republican Rutherford B. Hayes needed the electoral votes of all three states to become the nineteenth President. With the Democratic House and Republican Senate deadlocked over the issue, there could be no Congressional counting of electoral votes, as specified by the Constitution. Passions ran high, many feared another civil war, and there was a real danger that no President would be inaugurated on March 4, 1877. Finally, Congress appointed a special commission to canvass the disputed votes. The commission, by a partisan vote, awarded all the electors to Hayes, thereby making him President. Angry Democrats in the House charged fraud and threatened a filibuster to prevent completion of the electoral count. Behind the scenes, however, several Southern Democrats were in consultation with Hayes's lieutenants, and a series of agreements was worked out whereby the Southerners promised to allow a completion of the vote in return for commitments from Hayes to withdraw the last federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana (where the federal presence was the only power keeping duly elected Republican governments in office), to give political patronage to Southern Democrats, and to use his influence in behalf of appropriations for Southern internal improvements. This "Compromise of 1877" ended the electoral crisis. Hayes took office and promptly withdrew the troops from South Carolina and Louisiana. The Republican governments immediately collapsed and the South became solidly Democratic.
Some Republicans and former abolitionists charged that the compromise was a sellout of the freedmen; in a sense they were right. Hayes's withdrawal of the troops brought an end to meaningful national efforts to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the South until the 1950s. In the three decades after 1877, Southern blacks were gradually disfranchised, Jim-Crowed, and reduced to a degraded second-class citizenship. But Hayes really had no choice in 1877. Democrats controlled the House and threatened to block appropriations if he tried to use the army in the South; the North had already given up its moral commitment to Reconstruction; and the overthrow of Southern Republican governments was a virtual fait accompli by the time Hayes took office.
The Civil War and Reconstruction, therefore, were a revolution manqué. The Union was restored and the slaves freed, but the Negro did not achieve equality. There was a period of bright promise in the late 1860s, but it flickered out in the backlash of the 1870s. A genuine revolution of equality would have required a revolution in institutions and attitudes which did not occur. Despite the enfranchisement of the freedmen, the basic institutional structure of Southern society remained unchanged: The whites retained most of the wealth, property, education, power, and experience. The racial attitudes of both North and South bent just enough to accept (sometimes reluctantly) emancipation, but remained basically opposed to genuine equality. The revolution of racial equality was a failure.
And yet not quite a failure. The Civil War-Reconstruction era produced the system of public schools and private colleges for Negroes that brought literacy to the race and trained future generations of leaders. From the colleges founded by Northern abolitionists and missionaries after the war were graduated, among others, W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, James Farmer, and Stokely Carmichael. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were permanent results of Reconstruction, and in our own time the fusion of educated black leadership and reinvigoration of these Amendments has generated a Second Reconstruction that may produce the racial equality envisaged by the first.