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Our Forgotten Labor Revolution

After the Civil War, workers struggled to make wage labor go the way of chattel slavery.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

The Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. The holy trinity of the American political tradition.

In the beginning was the word, the sacred text celebrating the end of arbitrary colonial government and the creation of a constitutional republic. Then there was the redemptive war, a punishment for the original sin of slavery and whose reward was the Union reborn. The new United States declared the primacy of the national state, declared free labor the foundation of its economy, and established national citizenship. Finally, the third deed put a human face on the capitalism that the Civil War unleashed.

This, anyhow, is how the standard undergraduate syllabus is arranged. It is how publishing houses organize their books; it is how the typical historical survey punctuates the American story. To be sure, other moments, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan revolution get honorable mentions.

But they receive their meaning primarily as decorative fabric stretched across the tripartite scaffolding: the Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. We are supposed to believe that there is nothing to remember in those historical voids. If we go looking, all that we will discover is a series of errors, like Jim Crow, that we have since corrected.

How then to think about the fall of 1887, when a small group of labor organizers connected to the Knights of Labor, started agitating among sugar cane workers deep in the Louisiana bayou?

In August, the Knights started talking to the mostly black cane-cutters who were now working for their former slave masters. They promised higher wages, an end to payment in “scrip” rather than money, and even the hope of running a plantation “on the co-operative plan” instead of under the thumb of a boss. By September thousands had joined the Knights, by October they were ready to stop working if the local planters refused to raise wages, by the first of November they were on strike.

Three weeks later they were slaughtered. With the aid of a judge and state militia leader, white vigilantes disarmed the strikers, corralled them into the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana and unleashed a three-day orgy of violence. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes historian Rebecca Scott, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.”

Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next fifty years. . . .”

Where does an event like this fit in our national history? Who were the Knights? What was their vision of society? What was the threat they posed?

These are questions we cannot answer by reference to the “holy trinity” narrative. That is because between Reconstruction and Jim Crow was a forgotten time in which the emancipation of slaves inspired a further movement to emancipate workers from the domination of the labor market. It was a moment of promise and of danger — the promise of freedom, the danger of challenges to class power.

If we want to understand our history, rather than just congratulate ourselves about it, we have to abandon the prevailing, comforting narrative of progress that carefully extrudes those moments that do not fit with America’s national image as a self-correcting liberal democracy.

Looking back at forgotten labor struggles is therefore not just an exercise in setting the record straight, it is an exercise in emancipating our own thinking from attempts to discipline and control it.Reconstruction and its aftermath is an especially fertile period because it is when the language of liberty began to take new form, but had not yet been thinned out into the libertarian discourses that we know today.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

The Promise of Reconstruction

The Civil War saw the largest, uncompensated expropriation of property in American history: the abolition of slavery. Nullifying slave owners’ property in persons meant returning personhood to the slaves. It also extinguished roughly half the value of all Southern assets, which in today’s prices amounts to roughly $3 trillion.

This expropriation was followed by “Recon­struction,” a period of constitutional dictatorship maintained by the North’s military occupation of the South. The purpose of occupation was not only to ensure orderly return of the South to the Union, nor just to secure passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but also to coercively guarantee the freedom of former slaves against those who would resist it.

There was no extending of economic, civil, and political rights to former slaves without a period of coercion against the ancien regime. When communists today propose such measures it is denounced as the most horrible violation of the democratic spirit and personal liberty. But here, at the heart of our own history, is forced expropriation of one class to emancipate another.

And there is more. Reconstruction inaugurated a struggle over how to define the freedom in whose name the North fought. Abolition was just the beginning. What followed was the question of emancipation.

This might sound odd: didn’t the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments abolish slavery, establish due process, and guarantee national citizenship? That would have been news to former slaves. They had been famously promised, as a part of their emancipation, “forty acres and a mule.” And not just them. In fact, in the Morrill Land Grant and Homestead Acts of 1862, the state had affirmed the idea that a fully free citizen was someone who had access to a piece of land — some share of the means of production — so that they did not have to be dependent on another.

Lincoln himself had declared, prior to the war, that free labor was not the same as wage labor: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while . . . [This] is free labor.” The promise of American freedom was that everyone might enjoy this full independence.

More to the point, former slaves had learned that their emancipation was not something done to them but something they seized for themselves — they no longer had to ask for permission from a master. The connection between emancipation, independence, and self-assertion was found in the organization of black militias for the protection of civil rights, their seizure of land, and the working of this land individually or in self-directed labor companies.

Consider, for instance, these words from former slaves on Edisto Island, South Carolina, who occupied abandoned plantations and then were commanded, by a Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, to return the land to former masters:

General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government . . . [without them] we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former . . . we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon.

Without land they were forced to work for former masters, or some other masters, for a pittance. To be formally free but possess no land was to find oneself “in a more unpleasant condition,” since in principle one might even find oneself homeless, in even more abject dependence on an employer. The promise of land, whether worked individually or collectively, was that one would no longer work under the arbitrary command of another.

Here was a possible meaning of Reconstruction: all forms of economic dependence are incompatible with free citizenship. In the name of freedom, being without property and dependent on employers was a condition that also had to be abolished. Free people had a right to some share of the means of production — be it land or some other productive property. They even had a right to take it from those who opposed this equal freedom.

One expropriation would follow another and, as those same former slaves put it, each should enjoy the protection of the state. What made such ideas so dangerous was that they were not exclusive to the South. Northerners who fought in the name of this freedom or who supported the Northern cause also believed they had a right to property, to a full and equal freedom.

It is not hard to see how such ideas could unify workers in the North and the South and turn Reconstruction into a radical project of reform, one wholly consistent with, even motivated by, American ideals of freedom. That is just what happened, but what did it look like? Here is where the Knights of Labor, who preserved the free labor ideals of Reconstruction well past its official conclusion, matter so much.

The Red Banditti

The Knights of Labor first formed in 1869 and grew, by the 1880s, into the first national labor association ever to organize unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis — an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. Their founding documents said they had come together “for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses.”

Casting their concerns in a familiar, post–Civil War idiom, they asked, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” They called the new wage labor “wage slavery” and they wanted “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”

To advance their mission, the Knights established assemblies everywhere from the male-dominated mines of rural Pennsylvania to the mostly women-employing garment factories of New York to the railroads of Denver.

The Knights’ expansion into the American South began in 1886 at their general assembly meeting in Richmond, Virginia. In a conspicuous show of racial solidarity, a black worker named Frank Ferrell took the stage to introduce the Knights’ leader, Terence V. Powderly, before Powderly’s opening address. To defend his controversial decision to have a black Knight introduce him, Powderly wrote “in the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.”

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After the general assembly the Knights spread throughout Southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, setting up cooperatives, organizing local assemblies, and agitating for a new political order.

They enjoyed initial success in Louisiana. One district assembly in the Bayou region claimed 5,000 black members, more than forty local assemblies were spread across planter country, and the membership included some of the most influential local leaders from the headier days of Reconstruction. These were some of the same leaders who had served in politics, drilled self-defense militias, and organized labor companies in the 1870s, prior to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

A spirit of self-assertion not seen for over a decade blew through the cane fields. The plantocracy knew it. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self-organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti’.”

But the Knights brushed aside these warnings. Just four hundred miles away, near Birmingham, Alabama, the Knights had already founded cooperative settlements, including a collectively managed iron foundry and cigar works. They hoped to reproduce such efforts in Louisiana, starting in the cane fields. If planters would not raise wages and pay in proper currency rather than useless scrip, the Knights were ready to call a strike. The planters refused and the workers struck.

But it was not to be. First the Louisiana state militia showed up, sporting the same Gatling guns that had, only a few decades before, been used for the first time in the North’s fight against the South. The militia broke the strike and forced thousands of defenseless strikers and their families into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. A group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” organized by the same judge that had declared martial law, then took over and went on their three-day killing spree.

The Knights’ influence was broken. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred — it was easy to forget it had ever been possible for cane cutters.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many such instances over the course of Southern history. In each instance, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy.

In this case, however, it is worth recalling that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, usually overlooked, language of freedom. This was that same conception of liberty that led former slaves during Reconstruction to refuse to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. It was the same idea of emancipation that motivated them to seize land and work it in “labor companies,” to organize their own militias, to vote as they wished, to hold local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was momentarily suppressed and its end appeared to spell the defeat of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean.

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana speaking the language of freedom, they not only revived old hopes for self-organization and economic independence, but also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom.

Former slaves were now modern workers and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage laborers everywhere. They sought a reconstruction not just of the South but of the entire country.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the trans-racial language of making all workers into their own bosses, scared Northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. Indeed, if we see the Thibodaux massacre only as a story of Southern racism, we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the planter class and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority.

After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold they were met with a violence not all that different from that of Louisiana’s “Peace and Order Committee.” Throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Knights faced violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with the police, state militia, and federal troops.

Indeed, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. Perhaps the most famous was the Haymarket incident in Chicago, in May 1886, when workers and police died during marches for an eight-hour working day.

But even before Haymarket, in Chicago no less than the bayou, capitalist overlords had been baying for blood. “Load Your Guns, They Will Be Needed Tomorrow to Shoot Communists,” read oneChicago Times headline from 1875, responding to a possible demonstration of socialists and reformers against the city’s half-hearted efforts to address poverty. Republican Chicago was a hotbed of bourgeois financing of labor repression. In 1877, a business group called the Citizens Association responded to strike riots by raising $28,000, which they used to buy rifles, cannons, cavalry equipment, and a Gatling gun.

In 1886, after the famous Haymarket incident, an organization of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen raised $300,000 in private donations to buy land and equipment for a fort and an armory located near the city. In Haymarket, and numerous other strikes, capital got what it paid for.

Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with capital, its private guards, spies and “provocative agents,” a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion blurred into a haze.

What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses? It was nothing less than the promise of the Civil War itself. Or, put more precisely, it was a particular interpretation of the ideal of republican liberty that free-labor abolitionists so frequently invoked before and during the Civil War. It was the ideal that all citizens should live in an economy in which they determine their fate rather than find themselves subject to the arbitrary will of another.

The language the Knights used was shot through with the antislavery ideal. William H. Seward’s famous abolitionist line that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Northern freedom and Southern slavery was echoed in the Knights’ own slogan that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Whether Southern agricultural worker, Northern shoemaker, or Western switchman, wage-laborers were propertyless and therefore dependent, seeking the same kind of freedom as the freed slaves of Edisto Island.

Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found equally applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana or the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. This ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists, and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee.

Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was, according to the Knights, the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence.

While these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause — one that had its roots deep in the critique of slavery itself. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent postwar labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.”

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, SC.

The Revolution Betrayed

Northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction of the South when the industrialists, merchants, and financiers that made up the heart of the party started to fear that workers were taking the promise of emancipation too seriously. A few of the most radical Republicans were won over to elements of labor reform, perhaps most famously Wendell Phillips. But by 1877, the bourgeois heart of the Republican Party was beating a different pulse.

Violent railroad strikes in 1873–74 foreshadowed the Great Strike of 1877, which not only paralyzed the country but briefly witnessed workers taking over St. Louis and running the railroads themselves — cooperatively, without bosses. They were quickly brought to heel by a mixture of armed guards, local police, and the newly reformed National Guard. Indeed, the National Guard was created out of the compromise of 1877, in which federal troops would no longer be allowed to enforce domestic law — as they did during Reconstruction — but with an exemption written in for cases of “insurrection,” namely, strikes.

Republicans had lost the heart for Reconstruction of the South because they were losing control of its meaning. The constitutional dictatorship that Northern leaders had imposed on the South had lost its charm, especially as freed slaves demanded redistribution of property, or, as in cases like Edisto Island, just seized that property themselves. Employers worried they now needed armed forces back home, to control workers, rather than bringing the former Confederacy to heel. Strikebreaking looked like a much better use for federal troops and state militia than helping redistribute property in the name of emancipation.

It was time to proclaim former slaves free, close up shop, and turn to making money.

Those former slave-owning planters now looked like less threatening, even useful, allies in the project of disciplining labor. And, in any case, for the Northern investors in US wartime debt, it was time to get freed blacks back onto plantations, picking cotton, so that it could be sold on international markets. After all, an influx of foreign exchange was needed to help put the dollar back on the gold standard, stabilize the currency, and allow them to cash in.

It was well and good to have freed the slaves but enough was enough. The limits of bourgeois universalism had been reached. It was time for Northern capitalists to make a deal, end Reconstruction, and get back to the business of making money.

Work Left Unfinished

Official Reconstruction might have been bargained away in the halls of Congress but, as the Knights of Labor reminds us, the ideals of Reconstruction had not been put to rest. Rather they had been nationalized and radicalized.

In fact, the Knights were not even the most dangerous of those who sought to extend the new freedom into the industrial economy. After all, they rejected revolutionary violence. Yet even their vision of an alternative future had to be suppressed. Their demand for an egalitarian economy, of nationalized public utilities like telegraphs and railroads, and built around producers’ cooperatives was still considered far too dangerous to the emerging capitalist order.

The radicalization of the promise of freedom was not only why Reconstruction had to be ended but why a certain memory of that period has had to endure.

Emancipation had to be understood as abolition, abolition had to be understood as the end of just slavery, and Reconstruction had to be told as a purely Southern question. These days, the dominant story about the Civil War and Reconstruction is so powerful that some dismiss the very idea of freedom as conservative, or at least “bourgeois.” But it is worth remembering that Reconstruction ended not because freedom had been achieved but because it started to become dangerous.

The quest for independence had transcended the abolition of slavery and become a call for self-organization and the redistribution of property. One expropriation threatened to follow another. A proper reconstruction of America meant that the majority should seize its freedom, through its own efforts, by turning the economy into a reflection of the democratic ideal. That is not just an ideal worth remembering but one worth recovering.

Reconstruction matters because it is dangerous.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

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Killing Reconstruction

During Reconstruction, elites used racist appeals to silence calls for redistribution and worker empowerment.

Jacobin  Summer 2015  Issue 18

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The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

Northern victory in the Civil War was supposed to usher in a new nation. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands on the battlefields did not simply end slavery in America, it also created a new kind of national government designed to promote economic opportunity for everyone.

As Northerners struggled to fight and fund a war of unprecedented magnitude, they replaced a prewar system run by a handful of wealthy Southern slaveholders with a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” That new, popular government took firm root in the country after the war, as citizenship was extended and all men got the right to vote. Between 1860 and 1870, it seemed, a Second American Revolution had finally aligned the Constitution with the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal.

It didn’t last.

A year after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, many soured on the idea of popular government. They looked to the South, where an observer warned that a “proletariat Parliament” dominated by black men was ruining South Carolina, and to the North, where the rising power of workers made a popular magazine snarl that “the interference of ignorant labor with politics is dangerous to society.”

They concluded that not everyone should have a say in government. With this ideological shift, things changed fast. In 1875, the Supreme Court suggested that citizens could be denied voting rights so long as discrimination was not based on race. The next year, white voters took back the South.

Lincoln’s vision of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people had lasted only about a decade.

The usual story of Reconstruction blames its failure on the racism of Southern whites, helped by accidental President Andrew Johnson. But Confederates did not control national politics; their stock was too low after losing a war that had killed more than 600,000 Americans and cost more than $6 billion to control anything. Northerners controlled national politics.

Reconstruction failed not because Southern whites opposed it — although most of them did — but because Northerners abandoned it. They came to believe that antebellum slaveholders were right in one important way: they had warned that poor workers must not be allowed to vote because, given the chance, they would insist on a redistribution of wealth.

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Northerners in 1861 began a four-year crusade to remake the American government so that wealthy men would not dominate it. They poured out their blood and sacrificed their brothers for that cause. Ten years later, that course would be reversed. America depended not on human equality, they came to think, but rather on what slaveholders had always said: the protection of property.

The story of this momentous change depended on a strange twist of politics that brought together a coup in Paris, industrialization in New York City, and black suffrage in South Carolina in the year before a presidential election. Those three seemingly disparate events came together in a toxic mix that linked antisocialism and racism in American thought so tightly that they have never come undone.

The Threat from Below

From March through May 1871, workers in Paris established a commune. This relatively minor development in world affairs became headline news in America because in 1866, after years of failure, entrepreneurs had finally completed a transatlantic telegraph cable that linked America to Europe. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 had provided sensational copy to feed a nation hungry for exciting news after its own war. With the end of that conflict, editors turned to scenes from the Commune to fill their columns.

They reported lurid stories of the Commune as a nightmare, a “wild, reckless, irresponsible, murderous mobocracy.” Workers in Paris had taken over the government and were confiscating all money, factories, and land. Their plan was to redistribute wealth from men of means to themselves.

The Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that the “Communists of Paris” were operating with the “communistic idea ‘that property is robbery.’” In that, they were echoing the International Workingmen’s Association, which, the Boston Evening Transcriptwarned, was made up of “agrarians, levelers, revolutionaries, inciters or anarchy, and . . . promoters of indiscriminate pillage and murder.”

During the Civil War, when American workers were laying down their lives to protect the nation, few Northerners would have believed that the working class would deliberately destroy society. Indeed, wartime Republicans thought that workers were key to a healthy economy, and they deliberately remade the government during the war to respond to the needs of those they believed were central to the Union cause.

Pushing aside the Plains Indians, Republicans passed the Homestead Act to put every man on his own farm; they created public colleges and the Department of Agriculture to make sure poor farmers had access to the newest ideas. They funded a transcontinental railroad to take settlers to the Western fields and mines. Finally, they passed theThirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.

Republicans believed they were bolstering the economy by guaranteeing every man a chance to rise and “contribute to the greatness and glory of the Republic.”

“What is beneficial to the people cannot be detrimental to the Government; for in this country the interests of both are identical,” said Illinois Republican Owen Lovejoy. “With us the Government is simply an agency through which the people act for their own benefit.” Schools and the Department of Agriculture would “increase the prosperity of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce.” The upfront costs would be “richly paid over and over again in absolute increase of wealth. There is no doubt of that,” insisted notorious budget hawk William Pitt Fessenden.

When Northern Democrats howled in horror at the racial equality established by the Thirteenth Amendment, Republican James Ashley of Ohio retorted that their free labor would make America “the most powerful and populous, the most enterprising and wealthy nation in the world.”

Only six years later, Republicans were willing to entertain the idea that, far from being the heart of America, workers were dangerous levelers. Far from advancing their interests, the government must be protected from their influence.

It Can Happen Here

This about-face had its roots in the economic developments of the war years. The Civil War created a business boom in the North as industries met military needs. Congress passed high tariffs to protect domestic industry from foreign competition, recognizing that industry would need nurturing to enable it to bear the new manufacturing taxes Congress imposed. By the end of the war, thriving businesses produced iron, railroads, shovels, horseshoes, buttons, rain slickers, and every other thing soldiers or their families needed.

But the boom did not spread prosperity to industrial workers. There was little labor agitation during the war as the drain of men to the battlefields kept unemployment low, but wages did not keep up with inflation. At the same time, government contracts poured tax dollars into the coffers of industrialists and financiers. As soon as the war was over, workers organized to demand that Congress level the economic playing field.

As workers began to organize, growing industries brought immigrants to New York City, where they tended to vote for Democrats. New York State was Republican, but control of the city determined which way the state would swing in national elections. New York had far more electoral votes than any other state, giving its largest municipality special importance in national politics. In 1870, New York as a whole had swung into the Democratic column, which did not bode well for Republicans hoping to maintain control of the White House in 1872.

So in 1871, furious that New York City workers, and immigrants at that, threatened their control of national politics, Republicans warned that what was happening in Paris could just as easily happen in America. Indeed, maybe it was already happening.

The First International had established headquarters in the city in 1867, where they were fomenting disturbances, Republicans warned. They were at war against capital and property, and would force anyone who owned anything to divide it with those who had nothing. In their eyes, every small farmer was a member of the “landed aristocracy,” who should be forced to share his wealth. This philosophy would only appeal to poor, lazy, vicious men, who would rather steal from the nation’s small farmers and mechanics than work themselves.

In April 1871 the New York Times noted that

the very extravagances and horrible crimes of the Parisian Communists will, for some years, weaken the influence of the working classes in all countries. The great ‘middle-class,’ which now governs the world, will everywhere be terrified at these terrible outburst[s] and absurd[ities], they will hold a strong rein on the lower.

The Johnson Counterrevolution

Southern Democrats had fought viciously against Republican Reconstruction measures, but Northerners ignored their racist howling. Republican attacks on workers in 1871 gave Southerners a powerful new weapon.

Immediately after the war, white Southerners did all they could to reinstate racial dominance. They resurrected the prewar world of white supremacy, passing what became known as “Black Codes,” a series of laws that kept black Southerners in a state as close to slavery as the Thirteenth Amendment would permit.

In Mississippi, courts could “apprentice” black children to white masters, and black men could be arrested, fined, and then “hired out” to anyone who paid their fines. Most states sentenced “vagrants” to forced labor, and the punishment for breaking the law was the lash, the chain gang, or a fine that required a prisoner to work for the man who paid it. Nowhere could a black person testify against a white person.

Republicans refused to accept a “reconstruction” that remanded loyal black Unionists to quasi-slavery under the same men who had been fighting to destroy the Union less than a year before. They refused to seat the newly elected Southern congressmen.

Then, while a committee hashed out a congressional plan for Reconstruction, Congress tried to spread equality to the South. In 1866, it expanded the scope of the Freedmen’s Bureau to enable it to buy land to put impoverished black and white Southerners onto homesteads and to get the education that they so sorely lacked. Republicans did not limit the operation of the measure to the Confederate states. They included the black and poor white populations in the border states, as well. Congress also provided for federal courts in states where African Americans could not testify or sit on juries.

Republicans considered these relatively uncontroversial measures, designed to integrate the South into the national free-labor economy with the same sort of government programs that Republicans had advanced so successfully in the wartime Union.

But they faced the resistance of Andrew Johnson. He vetoed the bills. In his veto messages, the president tied racism to fears of a dangerous underclass and hatred of the new federal taxes the Republicans had created during the war. Johnson offered a way for racists to oppose black rights by using a new, apparently principled, language about small government.

Johnson enlisted traditional Southern racism to attack the argument that government should help poor men rise. Ignoring the benefits for white Southerners, he claimed the measures would simply give a handout to lazy blacks, paid for by hardworking white men.

Homestead and education legislation was far beyond the scope of the government’s authority, he said. Congress had “never deemed itself authorized to expend the public money for the rent or purchase of homes for the thousands, not to say millions, of the white race who are honestly toiling from day to day for their subsistence.” He also claimed that the government “has never founded schools for any class of our own people.”

While these statements were technically true, since the government had acquired by treaty the land distributed under the Homestead Act and the Land-Grant College Act provided means for states to establish colleges rather than providing federal schools, they threw a racist slur onto Republicans’ government activism.

Johnson then undermined the argument that homesteads and education benefited the entire country. The homestead provisions of the new bill were simply a “system for the support of indigent persons,” he insisted. Why, he asked in a rhetorical question that misrepresented the bill, should the government provide homes for ex-slaves, when it had never done so for white men? Freedmen should work hard to succeed, not look for handouts.

Johnson tied racism and fears of class warfare to the new national taxes imposed during the war. Republicans were using tax money to create an army of loyal bureaucrats that would suck the nation’s new taxpayers dry, Johnson said. The new requirements for federal courts and the “Freedmen’s Bureau” would cost more than $23 million, he insisted, and would create “an immense patronage,” including agents and officers and clerks, all funded by tax dollars.

Johnson’s veto message laid out the argument that has dogged American politics ever since: that government activism means special help for black people paid for by hardworking white taxpayers.

Divide and Rule

This was the formula Southern white Democrats adopted in 1871. When Republicans began to attack Northern workers, Southern Democrats abandoned overtly racist arguments and instead began to insist that ex-slaves were forcing communism on the South. The Fifteenth Amendment established black male suffrage in 1870, and South Carolina had a black majority. This meant that white South Carolinians could argue that their state provided a perfect illustration of workers plundering the wealthy through the ballot box.

Before the Civil War, wealthy white Southerners had explicitly warned Northerners that letting poor workers vote would destroy society. Slave owners argued that a society’s workers were strong and loyal, but they were also stupid, and must be kept down. Like logs driven into the ground to form the foundation of a house, these people were the “mudsill” of society, performing its menial labor. Their work supported the small, refined upper class, which led progress and civilization.

Maintaining this system depended on keeping government in the hands of society’s best men. If members of the mudsill were allowed a say, they would demand policies that put more of the fruits of their labor into their own pockets. Allowing the mudsill to vote would mean an active government that would redistribute wealth. They would divert money to themselves and fritter it away, rather than permitting rich men to accumulate the fortunes that would enable them to improve society. Human progress would stop.

Southern whites had achieved an ideal “harmony of . . . political and social institutions,” as a South Carolina senator said, by enslaving its mudsill according to race. The North, in contrast, made the grave error of letting its mudsill vote. Poor voters were fledgling revolutionaries.

When Republicans guaranteed the suffrage to black men, they enabled Democrats to recall the planters’ argument that letting the “mudsill” vote would force a redistribution of wealth. Republican politicians would court black voters by promising policies that gave jobs and services to blacks, the argument went. Ex-slaves would do anything to get out of low-paying field work, so unproductive but highly paid government jobs would replace the actual production the South so desperately needed. A leading Democratic newspaper in New York claimed there would soon be “negro governors, negro mayors of cities, and negro occupants of every grade of office State and municipal.”

What would fund such extravagance? Tax dollars paid by hardworking white men. This system would “corrupt” government, as those without property spent other people’s money.

And since poor African Americans would not have to pay the taxes they levied, their governments would be “among the most wasteful and corrupt that ever existed.” Black governments would “perpetuate robbery,” making “extravagant expenditures” for roads, schools, hospitals, asylums, and other public institutions. Taxes would carry away the wealth of laborers, who would be ground into poverty. An active government would mean the nation’s hard workers would become slaves to unproductive, lazy African Americans.

This was precisely the argument that white South Carolinians developed in 1871. The South Carolina legislature had a black majority. In reality, African-American legislators tended to vote in favor of propertied interests rather than workers, but white observers insisted they were radical levelers. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes.

But while taxes in South Carolina had fallen disproportionately on professionals, bankers, and merchants before the war, the new legislature placed taxes on land, making large landowners pay new, large tax bills. The same legislature also used state funds to buy land to sell to settlers — usually freedmen — at low prices.

South Carolina Democrats railed in racist agony against the “crow-congress,” the “monkey-show,” but they also interpreted the new tax through a class lens. One observer commented that, with prominent white South Carolinians disenfranchised and black men voting, “a proletariat Parliament has been constituted, the like of which could not be produced under the widest suffrage in any part of the world save in some of these Southern States.” When the South Carolina government began to collect the new tax, a “Tax-payers’ Convention” insisted that workers were confiscating property.

Northern Republicans who were unwilling to entertain the racist arguments of Southern whites picked up this new class argument. TheNew York Tribune explained that white South Carolinians trying to overthrow the black majority in the state were not racists; they were anticommunists. The problem in South Carolina was that African Americans were taking wealth away from hardworking white South Carolinians and redistributing it to “ignorant, superstitious, semi-barbarians,” who were “extremely indolent, and will make no exertion beyond what is necessary to obtain food enough to satisfy their hunger.”

Ignoring the very real needs of a state rebuilding from a war that had destroyed its cities, fields, and people, the New York Tribune reported that the tax robbed property owners to support the “Nigger Government.”

Explicitly, the New York Tribune compared ex-slaves to the Paris Communards. It ran an interview with Georgia Democrat Robert Toombs, a former slaveholder who had been a staunch secessionist and served as the first Confederate secretary of state. He explained that a mob was “the most dangerous class in the world to be trusted with any of the powers of government.” Unless voting was limited to men of property, “the lower classes . . . the dangerous, irresponsible element” would control government and “attack the interests of the landed proprietors.” According to Toombs: “Only those who owned the country should govern it, and men who had no property had no right to make laws for property-holders.”

In the end, the Taxpayer’s Convention called only for the South Carolina government to trim its budget, but the convention’s work reached far beyond that lackluster end. White Southerners had managed to turn their racial animosities into an economic argument acceptable to northern Republicans.

Republicans continued to link class and racial animosities. What was happening in South Carolina was just like what was going on in New York, they warned. Both were being ruled by “irresponsible non-property-holders.” Taxpayers must stand against the growth of the government, even for good ends, because it inevitably bred waste and corruption. When black men began to vote after the Civil War they had brought socialism to South Carolina.

Better Dead Than Red

It appeared the nation could share the same fate.

The timing of the South Carolina Taxpayer’s Conventionspread its language widely across the North. In the next year’s presidential election, pro-Grant and anti-Grant factions fought for control of the Republican Party. Anti-Grant forces used the language of the convention to attack the Reconstruction governments that Grant supported in the Southern states. In Republican as well as Democratic newspapers, story after story repeated the idea that the Southern governments were corrupt, that lazy black legislators were using government contracts to funnel the wealth of white taxpayers to poor ex-slaves.

When the economy crashed in 1873, Northern “reformers” were primed to attack “socialism” across the country. E. L. Godkin, the editor of the Nation, explained that African Americans were “but slightly above the level of animals,” and were plundering property holders. “The sum and substance of it all is confiscation,” he said. In the North, he went on, taxpayers had to beg for relief from those imitating South Carolina, and making “socialism in America the dangerous, deadly poison it is.”

It was not taxation people opposed, an author wrote in Scribner’s Monthly, but rather “unjust, tyrannical, arbitrary, overwhelming taxation, producing revenues which never get any further than the already bursting pockets of knaves and dupes.”

In 1875, the Supreme Court offered a way to guard America from this creeping socialism. In Minor v. Happersett, it ruled that citizenship did not necessarily guarantee voting. This opened the door for restrictions based on qualifications other than race, which was prohibited under the Fifteenth Amendment. In the election of 1876, whites took back the South. In 1880, the former Confederacy voted solidly Democratic.

By 1890, the trend in America was to keep the vote from workers, immigrants, and people of color, even as white middle-class women won it at the state level. A push in 1889 to protect black voting and establish federal funding for schools created a backlash as people conjured up images of Reconstruction as an era when “a large mass of ignorant voters” had taken over government and “ruined” the South.

“White voters, as a class, are the more intelligent, masterful, and powerful, and they are the property owners,” Harper’s Weekly noted. Black men simply wanted to confiscate white tax dollars. Southern whites appealed to “the business men of the North” to keep lazy black men from voting and imperiling “not only the properties of Southern, but of Northern men also — railroad stocks, state bonds, city bonds, county bonds, mining and manufacturing interests.”

In 1890, the New York Times suggested limiting suffrage based on either education or property to keep poor workers from voting. Mississippi did just that. Other Southern states followed suit. Northern states also found ways to restrict voting by immigrants and poor whites.

There was one final necessary step to keep poor voters from corrupting government: to reject any government workers and African Americans supported, even if they had won fair and square.

In 1898, after a coalition of blacks and white Populists won control of Wilmington, North Carolina’s municipal government, 2,000 of the “best citizens” rioted to take back the city. It was imperative for the “ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, railroad officials, cotton exporters, and . . . the reputable, taxpaying, substantial men of the city” to enforce “white supremacy,” they said, because “thriftless, improvident” black men had used their votes to put their coalition into power.

Property was not safe, and officials and police officers who had been hired under the coalition in the past were so “incompetent” that “highly esteemed” men and women were assaulted on the streets. In November 1898, a citizens’ council organized, burned a black-owned newspaper office, murdered between fifteen and sixty African Americans, and forced the fairly elected coalition members to resign their offices.

One white man declared: “We . . . will never again be ruled by men of African origin.”

An Enduring Legacy

The political events of Reconstruction established in the American mind — both among antislavery Northerners and reactionary Southerners — the idea that an active government redistributes wealth from hardworking white people to lazy African Americans. It has shaped modern day America.

This idea has put a genteel veneer on arguments against both black rights and protection for workers. In the 1950s and ’60s, it enabled movement conservatives to oppose integration by arguing that government efforts to promote equality were sucking tax dollars from hardworking white men to provide benefits for African Americans.

It permitted Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy, as Republicans urged Americans to stand against “communism and integration,” a strategy political operative Lee Atwater famously described as a way to say “nigger, nigger, nigger” while talking only about economic freedom.

It was the inspiration for Ronald Reagan’s African-American welfare queen, whom he described as the ultimate government moocher, with “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards” who “is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.”

This idea echoes today in the rhetoric deployed by the Right against Barack Obama. A black president, by the peculiar definition laid down a hundred and fifty years ago, must be a socialist. And it threatens to echo into the future as libertarians insist it is not racial or class biases that make them want to undermine the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and protections for workers; they simply want to promote individual freedom.

We continue to reap the poisonous fruits of Reconstruction.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. Her most recent book is To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

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Why Are So Many Distraught to Learn that Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War? 

HNN   July 19, 2015

We would all like to be able to believe stories and events that we have heard throughout our life. Regardless of where we acquire them, no one likes to feel as though they need to fact check. In history as well as other disciplines, the need to corroborate the narrative is simply a given. We refer to this study as historiography. Essentially the examination of not just the history, but who is telling the history. Who are the individuals, are they objective in recording the events, and do they have biases that would alter what we would otherwise take as truth? More importantly, it is an excellent life lesson, being able to be critical in a constructive manner. In other words, not being gullible.

I always begin the semester by showing my classes a clip of Ron Paul giving a lecture on the origins of the Civil War. To sum up this lengthy talk, he is advocating that the Civil War was fought solely based on state’s rights issues, little to do with slavery. That being said, today nearly all scholars would argue that this belief is a complete fallacy. The catalyst for the Civil War was one hundred percent based on the issue of slavery, more specifically the expansion of such. However, the more imperative issue I try to convey to my students is who wrote such a narrative that made its way into our country’s story and there became taken as truth?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple, the losers. There was a massive campaign throughout the South, years following the Civil War, to illustrate the South did not fight for such an institution, but for individual rights. The comparison of the South to our Founding Father’s similar fight during the American Revolution is a noteworthy example. Of course, over time this becomes even more deeply engrained, even making its way into the textbooks.

Why? Because who in the middle of the twentieth century wanted to admit great grandpa fought for something other than an honorable and admirable ideology. Ron Paul would be the product of this faulty narrative being taught in school and he would then go on to proliferate that same message. An individual who did not study the American Civil War in depth, would potentially take what a well thought of leader such as Ron Paul said simply as the truth, without hesitation.

It is normal and expected to trust individuals whom we admire or appear to be knowledgeable on a topic. There are countless times I find myself falling into this same trap. Whether it is our banker, our politicians, or others, history teaches us that a society that flourishes questions what has always been accepted as reality. Therefore we enable modifications to the status quo and perhaps affect positive change.

South Carolina recently signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from their capitol. Despite the arguments of a loss of history to some degree, we could argue questioning the meaning of a Confederate flag flying above a government institution in the twenty-first century leads us to be more sensitive to race relations and equality in a progressive nation. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the flag’s removal is irrelevant. The significance is to applaud the idea that we are being constructively critical, questioning what our ideology as a society may be lacking, and possibly teaching our younger generations to follow suit in the world they will be creatimg.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has two new books available, Tracking Life’s Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings) now available on Amazon.

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America’s Long History of Racial Fear

By

We’re History  June 24, 2015
An Amalgamation Waltz

An Amalgamation Waltz. Edward Williams Clay, 1839 (Photo: American Antiquarian Society)

Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.

At the heart of Wednesday’s violence is America’s history of chattel slavery, a labor system built on violence, in which all whites were effectively authorized to do violence to African Americans in order to keep them at work and prevent them from challenging their enslavement. But this brutal system also produced rebellions. Whites – even those who never owned a slave – lived with the fear that that racial order might be turned upside down, destroying everything that they held dear. In other words, whites attributed to blacks the same desire for domination that they themselves were exercising. It is no accident that the alleged shooter is reported to have said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

The history of chattel slavery, upended in the Civil War, was followed by the history of Reconstruction, a moment during which America’s racial hierarchy was unsettled, and black people were able to claim a measure of political and civil equality. But the moment was a brief one. White conservatives all over the South, abetted by many white northerners, denounced the new interracial Southern governments as exactly the “world turned upside down” that they had feared during slavery. They overthrew those governments by force and fraud and set about reconstructing white supremacy as best they could without the law of slavery as a foundation.

The Reconstruction years thus gave way to another history: the continuing struggle by white supremacist activists to create and enforce Jim Crow’s exclusion, segregation, and lynching. This struggle took a lot of work, and it required that whites remain intensely fearful of blacks. One of the greatest victories of white supremacy in this era was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women. Despite overwhelming evidence that this claim was unfounded (especially as revealed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett), the fantasy that predatory black men routinely victimized white women became the justification for lynching. Those fears may have run deepest in the South, where the great majority of the black population resided well into the twentieth century, but they found a home in the North and West as well.

As Jim Crow began to crack beneath the blows of the post-WWII black freedom movement, politicians drew on that history to sustain white racial domination. Scare campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement promised that civil and political equality would unleash black men’s alleged sexual ambitions and, once again, overturn a well-established racial hierarchy. The power and persuasiveness of those arguments helped explain the residential segregation and redlining across the North that lies at the heart of so many of today’s inequities. It lay behind the differential sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine and undergirded the fearful discussion of “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still used to justify the overwhelmingly disproportionate police scrutiny, arrest, and conviction and incarceration of African Americans.

America’s long racial history of imagining blacks as fearsome, criminal, and bent on political and sexual domination has never gone away. This is not because the fantasy is real, but because it has played such a powerful role for hundreds of years. No wonder that it is so readily wielded as a weapon, whether through cynicism, ignorance, or ruthlessness. No wonder that its murderous version of history was so easy for Dylann Roof to find and embrace.

Dylan Roof’s murderous night is not simply a South Carolina tragedy. It is an expression and a consequence of American history – a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.

About the Author

Stephen Kantrowitz

Stephen Kantrowitz is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several books, including Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

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The Hypocritical and Shameful History of the Democratic Party Before the Civil War 

HNN  June 15, 2015

Hoosier William Kennedy was apoplectic in July 1854. “We may expect no better of such as Douglas and Pettit and all the Northern Doughfaces that Followed in their wake,” Kennedy wrote furiously to his congressman. “They have made themselves far beneath Judas he got thirty pieces of silver for betraying his lord and master but they have betrayed him in his ministry.” Clearly, Kennedy felt deceived. But what could have made him so angry? The answer is plain: His Congressional representatives disregarded the desires of their constituents when they voted in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Many Northern Democrats were stunned when their congressmen supported a bill that violated Northern free soil sentiment by permitting the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

Kennedy understood in the summer of 1854 what most Northern Democrats would not realize until the winter of 1857 – that a significant portion of Northern Democratic office-holders held anti-democratic principles; that they favored minority rule over the majority will, and had no qualms about ignoring their own constituents in order to implement such policies and further their own careers. These few Democrats, unfortunately, held the balance of power both within the party and in the federal government, casting the crucial Northern votes for pro-slavery candidates and legislation, causing, in the end, the fragmentation of their party and the near destruction of the Union. Kennedy and Northern Democrats would find the 1850s a troubling time as their Congressmen seemed to be serving Southern slaveowners rather than Northern free men. Southern minority domination was what they sought, but civil war was what they wrought.1

Democracy, and its kin concept of egalitarianism, was at the heart of the political and social rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic Party. In fact, the party was commonly known as simply “the Democracy,” primarily by its adherents. Democratic Party icons Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson employed this rhetoric with astonishing success, claiming that the party was the sole defender of individual liberties and the laboring masses against the evils of special privilege and concentrated wealth, while they, themselves, were wealthy, powerful, and privileged. The rhetoric masked a deeper, darker agenda that was, ironically, largely contradictory to the party’s professed principles. From its inception under Jefferson in the 1790s, the Democratic Party was controlled by Southern slave-owners, and aggressively pursued a pro-Southern, pro-slavery program, often at the expense of its own Northern wing. Nevertheless, the rhetoric was potent enough to hold the loyalty of a generation of Northerners, even as many of them recognized the uneven nature of the coalition. The banner may have read freedom, equality, and democracy, but the reality was an organization dedicated to slavery, concentrated wealth in the form of land and slaves, and anti-democratic, minority rule.

Southern power and slavery expansion were the fundamental principles of the antebellum Democracy. The party structure, itself, was designed to protect and further these objectives and was a glaring example of minority, anti-democratic rule. From the beginning, Southerners used parliamentary procedure to preserve control of the party apparatus, despite the North’s fast increasing population. In the 1810s and 1820s, they employed the secret caucus, then, after widespread backlash against that practice, the “two-thirds rule,” which required the consent of two-thirds of convention delegates to achieve passage of resolutions, platforms, and nominations. The two-thirds rule successfully prevented any Northerner who did not endorse slavery from gaining the presidential nomination, as well as prevent any anti-slavery notions from sneaking into resolutions. (Indeed, it was enough to thwart former President Martin Van Buren’s bid for the nomination in 1844, despite the fact that a majority of the convention supported him. The Southern-controlled meeting instead turned to the slave-owning expansionist James Polk of Tennessee.) While a two-thirds rule might seem to ensure the will of the majority, it was, in practice, a form of minority domination. Southerners, though a numeric minority, could, with the aid of a few willing Northerners, dictate policy and candidates.

Surprisingly, by the 1850s Democrats no longer bothered to hide their anti-democratic values, especially Northern Democrats who were well-aware that their actions violated the will of their constituents. Their votes on pro-slavery legislation were clear enough, but in the halls of Congress, in partisan presses, and in personal correspondence, they bragged about their disregard for the populace. Furthermore, they weaved warped arguments about the dangers of majority rule and the necessity for unfettered elected officials. When former Democratic Senator Daniel Dickinson of New York was asked in 1853 why he had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to both his constituents and the New York state legislature, he struck a cavalier attitude: “I should best discharge my duty to the constitution and the Union by disregarding such instructions altogether; and although they were often afterwards repeated, and popular indignities threatened, I disregarded them accordingly.”2

In both word and deed, Democrats advocated for anti-democratic minority rule. The most potent example is the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas. Created by a small minority of pro-slavery militants in the summer of 1857, the Lecompton Constitution was designed to force slavery on the free-state majority of that territory. In the fall of that year, the document was sent to Congress for approval. If Congress accepted it, majority rule would be discarded and minority, pro-slavery rule would be enthroned against the will of the people. By employing parliamentary tricks, presidential influence, and outright bribery, Democrats were able to push the bill through Congress (though the people of Kansas rejected it regardless).

In addition to their votes, Democrats gave voice to a virulent strain of anti-democratic, minority rule theory that has heretofore been ignored by scholars. Though Southern Democrats had been vocal about their fear of the majority for generations, such words were shocking from the mouths of Northern Democrats. The first, and most prominent argument in favor of minority rule was that the crisis in Kansas had created a national calamity that needed to be brought to a swift end. A conclusion to the crisis, Northern Democrats asserted, could only be achieved through a speedy acceptance of the flawed Lecompton Constitution, regardless of the will of the territorial majority.

A second argument reasoned that it made no difference whatsoever that Lecompton violated the will of the majority, only that the process of its creation appeared to be legal. Others fashioned an alternative view of history in order to rationalize forcing Lecompton onto Kansas, emphasizing the dangers of the mob and claiming that the federal government had been designed by the Founding Fathers to prevent majority rule.

Still others justified their actions in the service of the Slave Power by claiming that Congressmen, once elected, were free to follow their own judgment, regardless of the wishes of their constituents. And finally, a fifth rationale maintained that the public could not always be trusted to vote on legislation and constitutions, and therefore the sentiments of majorities – either in Kansas or the nation as a whole – were sometimes irrelevant. These themes, though distinct, often operated simultaneously in the reasoning of Northern Democrats as they struggled to defend their service to the South.

From President Buchanan’s message on the first day of the first session of the Thirty-Fifth Congress, to closing remarks and final votes on Lecompton in April 1858, determined Democrats labored to convince their colleagues and the nation that pro-slavery, minority rule in Kansas was both desirable and necessary. The first argument, that of expediency, was the most common. Following Buchanan’s lead, Democrats asserted that “Bleeding Kansas” and the crisis over slavery in the territories could only be brought to a conclusion through a speedy, unceremonious acceptance of Lecompton. It mattered not, they argued, that Lecompton was unrepresentative, fraudulent, and enormously unpopular. Rather, it was the only bill before Congress that would bring the territory into the Union immediately; Lecompton and Kansas were just waiting for admission, and all Congress had to do was vote “aye.”

Like the plea for expediency, the second rationale – the veneer of legality (provided by administration recognition) was enough to accept Lecompton, despite its many flaws – appeared in the arguments of several Democrats. President Buchanan’s message to Congress on December 8, 1857 provides an example of this line of thought. Downplaying election frauds in Kansas, Buchanan declared that since the elections that produced the constitutional conventional in Lecompton appeared legal, the results must be binding, regardless of the will of the majority. The free-state majority that boycotted the elections, he reasoned, had been given every opportunity to exercise their voting rights and chose not to do so, thus forfeiting its right to oppose the outcome. “A large portion of the citizens of Kansas,” he explained, “did not think proper to register their names and to vote at the election for delegates; but an opportunity to do this having been fairly afforded, their refusal to avail themselves of their right could in no manner affect the legality of the convention.” Or, as Senator Graham Fitch of Indiana later stated, “That many, and perhaps a majority of the citizens of Kansas did not vote either at the election of representatives to the Territorial Legislature, or delegates to the convention, may be true. Where is your remedy? You cannot compel men to vote. They can only be permitted and invited to do so.” This rationale stunned Northern voters who saw clearly that the Kansas free-state majority had boycotted the elections because of widespread electoral fraud and violence.3

The third argument against majority will – that majorities are dangerous – can be seen in Senator Fitch’s comments in late December. The Hoosier senator argued that citizens should not have control over their own constitutions, and that popular approval of constitutions was undesirable. “The recognition of popular sovereignty by the repeal of the Missouri line,” he claimed, “consisted in the fact that it placed the question of slavery where all others previously were. It did not provide, nor did it contemplate, nor did its supporters imagine, nor did its author intimate, that it contemplated the submission of every bank proposition, every internal improvement project, every school system, every election qualification in a new constitution, to the people, before the people by and for whom it was formed should be admitted to the Union.” Fitch then launched an attack on majority rule in general. “Our Government is one of checks and balances; and some of its checks apply even to the people themselves. Among the objects of our government, one is to protect the legal rights of the minority against an illegal assumption or a denial of those rights by a majority . . . If a majority resolve itself into a mob, and will neither vote nor observe law or order, the minority who are law-abiding, who form and obey government, cannot be deprived of the benefits and protection of that government by such majority. Is mobocracy to be substituted for democracy?” By equating majority rule with “mobocracy,” Fitch dismissed any opposition to Lecompton as catering to the ignorant masses and violating the intent of the Founding Fathers.4

In addition to Fitch’s surprising attack on majority rule, still another argument was raised in defense of the Slave Power. Senator Jesse Bright, also from Indiana, took the floor in March 1858. His lecture on republican government presents a fourth theme in the fight for Lecompton and minority rule. He argued that congressmen, once elected, were no longer bound to follow the wishes of their constituents. Their election, he maintained, constituted a moral and political blank check, regardless of the manner of election. “Nothing . . . can be clearer to my mind than the proposition that the act of delegates legally elected, and acting within the scope of the powers conferred upon them, is the act of the people themselves. According to the genius and theory of American constitutions, it is entirely immaterial by what majority such delegates are elected, or what number of voters appeared at the polls.” It did not matter, reasoned Bright, if the election was fraudulent or unrepresentative, only that it occurred; the will of the majority was irrelevant.5

Bright’s lecture led him to a fifth argument in favor of ignoring the will of the majority – that the American people could not be trusted to make decisions. The practice of submitting constitutions to a popular vote, or subjecting legislation to the majority will, he asserted, was destructive to American government. “So strong . . . is my conviction of the viciousness of the principle of submitting to a direct vote of the people the propriety of the enactment or rejection of laws, that for one I am prepared to extend the same objection to the submission of entire constitutions to the same tribunal.” The people, either the majority in Kansas or the nation as a whole, should have no voice in government, except at elections, and then only as long as the will of the people did not run counter to the interests of the Slave Power. Though Bright explained it best, many other Democrats used this rationale to defend their own actions in the service of slavery. These five arguments in favor of minority rule rationalized their disregard for their constituents and their support for a highly unpopular and blatantly undemocratic policy in Kansas.6

It is clear, then, that the antebellum Democratic Party was democratic in name only. By practicing minority rule within the party, trying to force slavery on an unwilling populace, denying people the right to vote, and arguing that majority rule was dangerous and disagreeable, Democrats’ violated their own professed principles.

1 James Shields to Charles Lanphier, Oct 25, 1854, Charles Lanphier Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; William Kennedy to John G. Davis, July 1, 1854, John G. Davis Papers, Indiana Historical Society.

2 Daniel Dickinson to Henry E. Orr, Sept 13, 1853 in Daniel S. Dickinson, Speeches, Correspondence, Etc., of the Late Daniel S. Dickinson, of New York. Ed by John R. Dickinson (New York: G.P. Putnam & Son, 1867), 476-481.

3 CG, 35C-1S, 4-5, 138; Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 1-5.

4 CG, 35C-1S, 137-138.

5 Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 163-166.

6 Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 163-166.

Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University, is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis.

 

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How the Civil War Changed the Constitution

disunion45The most obvious constitutional result of the Civil War was the adoption of three landmark constitutional amendments. The 13th ended slavery forever in the United States, while the 14th made all persons born in the United States (including the former slaves) citizens of the nation and prohibited the states from denying anyone the privileges and immunities of American citizenship, due process or law, or equal protection of the law. Finally, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited the states from denying the franchise to anyone based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

These amendments, however, have their roots in the war itself, and in some ways can been seen as formal acknowledgments of the way the war altered the Constitution. Other changes came about without any amendments. Thus, the war altered the Constitution in a variety of ways. A review of some of them underscores how the Union that President Lincoln preserved was fundamentally different — and better — than the Union he inherited when he became president.

Slavery
The first and most obvious change involves slavery. The 13th Amendment was possible (as were the other two Civil War amendments) only because the war broke slavery’s stranglehold over politics and constitutional development. The Constitution of 1787 protected slavery at every turn. Although framers did not use the word “slavery” in the document, everyone at the Constitutional Convention understood the ways in which the new form of government protected slavery. Indeed, the word “slavery” was not used at the request of the Connecticut delegation and some other Northerners, who feared that their constituents would not ratify the Constitution if the word was in the document — not because the delegates objected to the word itself.

It would take many pages to review all the proslavery features of the Constitution, but here are some of the most significant ones. The three-fifths clause gave the South extra members of the House of Representatives, based on the number of slaves in each state. Without these representatives, created entirely by slavery, proslavery legislation like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 could never have been passed.

Equally important, votes in the Electoral College were based on the number of representatives in the House, and so slavery gave the South a bonus in electing the president. Without the electors created by slavery, the slaveholding Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to the non-slaveholding John Adams.

The “domestic insurrections clause” guaranteed that federal troops would be used to suppress slave rebellions, as they were in the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 and John Brown’s attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1859.

An image from Harper's Weekly showing the House of Representatives during the passage of the 13th Amendment, Jan. 31, 1865.

An image from Harper’s Weekly showing the House of Representatives during the passage of the 13th Amendment, Jan. 31, 1865.Credit Library of Congress

Finally, it took two-thirds of Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states, and it took three-fourths of the states to ratify any amendment. Had the 15 slave states all remained in the Union, to this day, in 2015, it would be impossible to end slavery by constitutional amendment, since in a 50-state union, it takes just 13 states to block an amendment.

The political power of the slave states meant that the nation was always forced to protect slavery. Thus the South in effect controlled politics from 1788 until 1861. Slave owners held the presidency for all but 12 years between 1788 and 1850. All of the two-term presidents were slave owners. Three Northerners held the office from 1850 to 1860 — Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan – but all were proslavery and they bent over backward to placate the South.

It took the Civil War to break slavery’s stranglehold on politics and fundamentally alter the nature of constitutional law and constitutional change.

The demise of slavery began with slaves running away and the army freeing them. But the key moment was the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the first important executive order in American history. In order to destroy slavery — and save the Union — Lincoln found new power for his office.

Secession and Nullification
Since the beginning of the nation, claims that states could nullify federal law or even secede had destabilized American politics and constitutional law. Sometimes Northerners made these claims, such as the disgruntled New Englanders who organized the Hartford Convention to oppose the War of 1812. But most claims of nullification came from the slave South. In 1798 Jefferson secretly wrote the “Kentucky Resolutions,” while his friend James Madison wrote the “Virginia Resolutions”; both asserted the right of the states to nullify federal law.

From the earliest debates over the Union, in the Second Continental Congress, until the eve of the Civil War, numerous Southern politicians publicly advocated secession if they did not get their way on issues involving slavery and other issues. In 1832-33 South Carolina asserted the right to nullify the federal tariff, and then officially (although mostly symbolically) passed an ordinance to nullify the Force Law, which authorized the president to use appropriate military or civil power to enforce federal laws. At this time Georgia also brazenly declared it did not have to abide by a federal treaty with the Cherokees. In 1850 Southerners held two secession conventions, which went nowhere. In the debates over what became of the Compromise of 1850, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina asserted the right of the South to block federal law.

Some Northern opponents of slavery — most notably William Lloyd Garrison — argued for Northern secession because they rightly understood that slavery dominated the American government. But Garrison had few followers, and even many of them never accepted his slogan of “No Union With Slaveholders.” In the mid-1850s the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional, but when the Supreme Court upheld the law the Wisconsin Court backed off.

In short, nullification and secession were not new ideas in 1861, when 11 states left the union, but had been part of the warp and weft of constitutional debate since the founding. But the Civil War ended the discussion. The question of the constitutionality of nullification or secession was permanently settled by the “legal case” of Lee v. Grant, decided at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Grant had successfully defended the Constitution and the idea of a perpetual Union. Secession lost, and the United States won. The Supreme Court would weigh in on this in Texas v. White (1869), holding that secession had never been legal and that the state governments in the Confederacy lacked any legal authority.

Money and National Power
From the beginning of the nation there had been debates over whether the United States government could issue currency. Indeed, before the Civil War there was no national currency, only “bank notes” issued by private banks or state banks. For two periods (1791-1811 and 1816-1836) the federally chartered Bank of the United States circulated bank notes that functioned as a national currency. But Andrew Jackson vetoed the bank’s recharter on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, and for the next 25 years the nation’s economy was hampered by the lack of a stable, national currency.

civil-war-sumter75-popupThe war changed this, too. In order to finance the war, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase developed a policy that led to the issuing of “greenbacks,” and suddenly the constitutional issue was settled — not in court, but by the exigency of the conflict. The Supreme Court was perplexed by this new policy and after the war the court briefly declared that issuing greenbacks was unconstitutional, but then quickly changed its mind. Since then, the dollar has emerged as the most important currency in the world. Although no longer backed by gold or silver, American currency remains “the gold standard” for international transactions.

Military Law and Civilians
The war also created a new set of rules — laws that are still with us — for when and how military tribunals or martial law can apply to civilians. For example, when the war began there were no federal laws prohibiting acts of sabotage or for preventing civilians from forming armies to make war on the United States. Nor was there any national police force. Thus, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus along the railroad route from Philadelphia to Washington and used the Army to arrest pro-Confederate terrorists, like John Merryman, who was tearing up railroads leading to Washington, D.C., and trying to organize a Confederate army in Maryland.

Again, this was a matter of necessity, not ideology: Congress was not in session, and so Lincoln acted on is own authority. Indeed, if Merryman had been successful, members of Congress would have been unable to reach Washington to meet. Congress later approved Lincoln’s actions and authorized even more-massive suspensions of habeas corpus. Thus, the Constitutional rule from the Civil War is that in a dire emergency the government may act to restrain people to preserve public safety.

But what happens when the immediate and pressing emergency is over? May the military still be used to arrest and try civilians? The answer from the Civil War is an emphatic no. During the war military officials in Indiana arrested Lamdin P. Milligan for trying to organize a Confederate army in that state. There was no combat in Indiana at the time, civil society was smoothly functioning, and even Milligan’s allies were not blowing up bridges or destroying railroads as Merryman had been doing. Nevertheless, the Army tried Milligan and sentenced him to death. In 1866, in Ex parte Milligan, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial was unconstitutional. The military might arrest Milligan because of the emergency of the war (just as it had arrested Merryman), but the court ruled that if the civilian courts were open, as they were in Indiana, it was unconstitutional to try a civilian in a military court.

This has generally been the law of the land ever since. In the aftermath of 9/11 the Supreme Court upheld the rule that civilians (even terrorists in the United States) could not be tried by military tribunals, but could only be tried by civilian courts. The Justices relied on Milligan.

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Racial Change and the Movement Toward Racial Equality
When the war began, federal law denied African-Americans virtually all constitutional rights. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, decided in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that blacks could never be citizens of the United States, even if they were treated as citizens in the states where they lived. This led to the oddity that blacks could vote for members of Congress and presidential electors in six states, and could hold office in those states and some others, but they were not citizens of the nation. Federal law nevertheless supported Taney’s rulings. For example, before the war blacks could not be members of state militias, serve in the national army, receive passports from the State Department, or be letter carriers for the post office.

During the war all this began to change. In 1862 Congress authorized the recruitment of blacks in the national army and in state militias. While most black soldiers were enlisted men, some served as noncommissioned officers, and a few served as officers. Martin Delaney held the rank of major. Just as striking, Eli Parker, a member of the Seneca nation, served on Ulysses S. Grant’s personal staff as a lieutenant colonel and was promoted to brevet brigadier general at the very end of the war.

The war also broke down racial and ethnic/religious taboos and attitudes. Abraham Lincoln became the first president to meet with blacks, and in the case of Frederick Douglass, seek out their advice. In 1864 and 1865 Congress gave charters to street railway companies that required that there be no discrimination in seating. Congress also changed the law that limited military chaplains to ministers of the gospel, thus allowing rabbis and Roman Catholic priests to become chaplains. During the war Congress created the office of recorder of the deeds for the city of Washington. The first officer holder was Simon Wolfe, a Jewish immigrant, but after that, the office was held by African-Americans for the rest of the century, including Frederick Douglass, Blanch Bruce, a former senator, and Henry P. Cheatham, a former congressman. In his last public speech Lincoln called for enfranchising black veterans and other members of their race. Five years later the Constitution would reflect that goal in the 14th and 15th amendments.

Today we rightly look back at these two amendments, and the 13th, as the most important lasting constitutional legacies of the Civil War. And that they are. But it is also important that we look at how America’s understanding of the Constitution, especially as it related to racial and ethnic equality, changed during the course of the war, and not simply as a consequence of it. Put differently: The Civil War amendments changed the Constitution. But even if, somehow, they had never happened, the war itself would have altered the way Americans saw one another, and their government.

finkelman

Paul Finkelman is a senior fellow in the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism at the University of Pennsylvania and a scholar-in-residence at the National Constitution Center.

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Did the American Civil War Ever End?

A giant bust of Lincoln by the artist David Adickes in a field outside of Williston, North Dakota.

A giant bust of Lincoln by the artist David Adickes in a field outside of Williston, North Dakota.Credit Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

disunion45When did the Civil War end? Many have answered never. As late as 1949, in an address at Harvard, the writer Ralph Ellison said that the war “is still in the balance, and only our enchantment by the spell of the possible, our endless optimism, has led us to assume that it ever really ended.”

Still, there was an ending of sorts, in 1865. Sometimes, it came cleanly, as with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. At other times, the war just seemed to give out, as soldiers melted away from their regiments and began to find their way home. Other generals in more distant theaters fought on gamely: Not until June 23 did Stand Watie, a Cherokee chief and a Confederate brigadier general, sign a cease-fire agreement at Doaksville, in what is now Oklahoma. The last Confederates of all were the furthest away: After evading capture in the North Pacific, the confederate raider Shenandoah sailed all the way to Liverpool, where its crew surrendered on Nov. 6, the fifth anniversary of Lincoln’s election.

Then there was Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This sickening act of violence, when added to all the others, brought a definitive feeling that an era had ended, as surely as Lincoln’s election in November 1860 had precipitated it. The funeral train that carried Lincoln’s remains home to Springfield, Ill., drew millions, and while the tragedy felt senseless, it also offered the nation a chance to mourn something much larger than the death of a single individual. To the end, Lincoln served a higher cause.

After he was laid to rest, on May 4, the armies united for an epic display of glory, worthy of Rome. Over two days, on May 23 and 24, more than 150,000 soldiers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington before a reviewing stand where President Andrew Johnson and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stood.

That was a political as well as a military statement, for this vast army did not exactly disappear. The Grand Army of the Republic, founded in 1866, would become a potent lobbying force for veterans. Its immense gatherings helped to choose Lincoln’s successors for decades.

More than a year later, on Aug. 20, 1866, President Johnson proclaimed that final pockets of resistance in Texas were “at an end.” We could call this, too, the close of the war.

But much remained “in the balance,” as Ellison said; uncomfortable, unfinished. Certainly, the presence of so many veterans was a new fact for Americans, and kept the war alive, simmering, for decades.

More than a few required help to cope with their trauma, and the federal government, which had grown so much during the war, grew again to address their needs. It paid out pensions, it built hospitals, it maintained service records, and it assumed more responsibility for the mental and physical health of those who had given so much. That was an important precedent for the New Deal and the Great Society.

To this day, as a recent Wall Street Journal article reported, an elderly North Carolina woman, Irene Triplett, collects $73.13 a month for her father’s pension. He served in both the Confederate and Union armies: His tombstone avoids that complexity by saying simply, “He was a Civil War soldier.”

Reintegrating these former soldiers took decades. What we now regard as the best Civil War fiction, such as the work of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce, did not even appear until the 1890s, as if the war’s memory was too potent at first.

A new product, Coca-Cola, was introduced in 1885 by a former Confederate officer, John Pemberton, who had been slashed by a saber in the final fighting of the war, after Appomattox, then wrestled with an addiction to morphine, to dull the pain. A pharmacist, Pemberton experimented with a mysterious formula that derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut, to ease his suffering. The early marketing for the elixir suggested that it could reduce the symptoms that veterans suffered from, including neurasthenia, headaches and impotence.

Many veterans retained their sidearms, including Confederate officers, and weapons were easily available, thanks to an arms industry that had done great service to the Union cause. They could hardly be expected to voluntarily go out of business. With new products (like Winchester’s Model 1866 rifle), sophisticated distribution networks and a public eager to buy, the industry entered a highly profitable phase. Winchester’s repeating rifles needed hardly any time for reloading, and sold briskly in Europe, where American arms tipped the balance in local conflicts.

The Winchester was easily transported to the West, where new military campaigns were undertaken against Native Americans, and few could be blamed for wondering if the Civil War had in fact ended. Many of the same actors were present, and it could be argued that this was simply another phase of the crisis of Union, reconciling East and West, rather than North and South.

This tragic epilogue does not fit cleanly into the familiar narrative of the Civil War as a war of liberation. Peoples who had lived on ancestral lands for thousands of years were no match for a grimly experienced army, eager to occupy new lands, in part to reward the soldiers who had done the fighting.

Natives called the repeating rifles “spirit guns,” and had no answer for them. They fought courageously, but in the end had no choice but to accept relocation, often to reservations hundreds of miles away. Adolf Hitler would cite these removals as a precedent for the Nazi concentration camps.

In other ways, the war endured. The shift westward created a huge market for building products, furnishings and all of the technologies that had advanced so quickly during the fighting. One skill that amazed observers was the speed with which Americans could build railroads and the bridges that they needed to cross. Between 1865 and 1873, more than 35,000 miles of tracks were laid, greater than the entire domestic rail network in 1860.

This activity was very good for business. Huge profits were made as those who had become wealthy supplying the war effort adapted to the needs of a civilian population eager to start anew. Indeed, it is difficult to tell from the 1870 census that any war had taken place at all. The 1860 census had valued the total wealth of the United States at $16 billion; 10 years later, it was nearly twice that, $30 billion. So many immigrants came between 1860 and 1870 that the population grew 22.6 percent, to 38.5 million, despite the massive losses of war dead.

To careful observers in 1865, it was palpable that something important had already happened during the war. To organize victory, a grand consolidation had taken place, in which leading concerns had improved their organizations, crushed their smaller rivals and strengthened distribution networks. The railroad was a key part of this consolidation; so was the telegraph, often built along the tracks. Military goods needed to move quickly around the country to supply armies, and all of those skills were instantly transferable to private enterprise. One firm, an express freight delivery service founded in Buffalo, moved its goods slightly faster than the competition. It was, and is, known as American Express.

civil-war-sumter75-popupInformation was vital to make all of these systems work. During the war, the Military Telegraph Corps built 8 to 12 miles of telegraph line a day; and the military alone sent 6.5 million messages during the war. By the end of 1866, more than 80,000 miles of line existed, and these were rapidly extended into the West and South, reknitting some of the strands of Union.

Entirely new sectors of the economy had sprung up as well. In 1859, on the eve of the conflict, oil was discovered in northwestern Pennsylvania, and throughout the war, its value became clear to a war economy that urgently needed to lubricate the machinery of production. John D. Rockefeller bought a refinery in Cleveland in 1863, a major step on the way to the creation of Standard Oil. As soon as the war ended, the search for oil in new locations began: The first well in Texas was dug in 1866, in Nacogdoches County.

Many veterans, having paid so dearly for freedom, were troubled to come back from the war, only to find a new economy, dominated by industrial barons, quite a few of whom had paid substitutes to do their army service. Lincoln’s words about freedom continued to move people, but his emphasis on equality seemed to fade as the power of money rose to new heights. It was not only that a small elite had become extremely wealthy; but money itself seemed to move in new ways, fast and loose.

In other words, it was unclear to many Americans what, exactly, they had won. A great evil had been defeated; and Union forcibly defined and defended. But so rapid were the changes unleashed by the war that soldiers blinked their eyes in amazement when they returned home. Like Ulysses, the Greek hero their commander was named after, they often did not recognize the country they came back to.

Perhaps the most complicated legacy of the war was its claim to have liberated millions of African-Americans from slavery. This was not the official purpose of the war when it began in 1861, but it became so, especially after the scale of the war required a cause worthy of so great a sacrifice.

But when did slavery actually end? Was it the national ratification of the 13th amendment, on Dec. 6, 1865? Or the day Mississippi ratified it, in 1995? Or the gift of full citizenship (including voting rights) to African-Americans? There are those who would argue that we are still waiting for that Day of Jubilee. To read the stories that came out of Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Baltimore in the last year — all communities that remained in the Union — is to realize how distant the victory of the Civil War feels to large numbers of African-Americans.

Of course, that does not minimize the importance of the Confederacy’s defeat. It ended forever a way of life and politics that had dominated the United States from its founding. It accelerated the demise of slavery where it still existed, in Cuba and Brazil, and encouraged liberals around the world to push for greater rights. In the fall of 1865, Victor Hugo wrote in a notebook, “America has become the guide among the nations.”

In France, Napoleon III was destabilized by Lincoln’s victory, and pulled back from his adventure in Mexico, where his puppet, Maximilian, was shot by a firing squad in 1867. Three years later, he was removed after his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the transfer of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany left a bitterness that would fuel the world wars of the 20th century.

Without the Civil War, and its tempering of the national character, would the United States have been able to mount a great global campaign against fascism? Surely it would have been feebler, without the manufacture of war matériel across all the regions, or the rhetoric of freedom Franklin D. Roosevelt used to inspire the world.

Nearly all of the national triumphs of the last century, from the civil rights movement to the exploration of space to the birth of the digital age, stemmed from the contributions of Southerners, Northerners and Westerners working together. We have had failures too — we see them on a daily basis. But the refusal to fall apart in 1861 made a difference.

Ted Widmer is an assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University, and the editor of “The New York Times Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation.”

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