The struggle between North and South did not end at
Appomattox. Instead, it switched decisively, in June 1866, from massed armies
maneuvering around natural boundaries to the halls of Washington, where Congress tried to outflank a Southern-born President in order to defend the
rights of recently emancipated slaves.
like now, the House and Senate were dominated by Republicans, and the meaning
of loyalty filled the political discourse. But back then, unlike now, an
activist majority tried to ensure and extend the rights of citizenship, as
Congress used its not-inconsiderable powers of investigation and
legislation to advance its agenda.
But Andrew Johnson proved that a carefully crafted House and Senate strategy can by
stymied by an obstructionist President—even a politically maladroit, unpopular
This past weekend, I saw The Free State of Jones, a film with most unusual subject
matter: not just the “secession within secession” staged by poor whites in the
Civil War, but also their abortive alliance with freedmen in the decade after
the guns ceased firing.
Most remarkable is its attempt to address America’s Reconstruction period—an era three
times as long, by a conservative estimate, as the war itself, but only covered,
to any significant degree, by three major Hollywood releases: Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and
The Outlaw Josey Whales; a now
all-but-forgotten feature about the President at the heart of it, Tennessee Johnson; and, on TV, the
mini-series Roots II and a 1979 TV
movie adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel, Freedom
Road, starring Muhammad Ali, in a rare acting role. It’s a dismal commentary that the first three productions, the
most widely seen, are also the most fundamentally inaccurate. (I considered the
outsize role of Birth of a Nation and
Gone With the Wind in shaping
Americans’ attitudes to this era in this prior post.)
It is less likely that Hollywood has developed a
sudden interest in this dimly-understood era than that a star’s box-office
clout has carried the day. Matthew McConaghey
did not always possess the kind of leverage to launch a historical film:
some years ago, I recall one of my instructors at a summer writing program
discussing how a screenplay about the early 19th-century
Native American warrior Red Eagle had vanished with McConaghey’s name attached
to the project because of the subpar box-office performance of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot.
All power to the star of Dallas Buyers Club and True
Detective, then, for committing his prestige to The Free State of Jones and shining a light on a period that has
been all too often distorted—not just in cinemas but, far less understandably,
the groves of academe for much of the early 20th century.
Although the movie sags slightly in the middle and could
have recruited an African-American with similar star power as McConaghey, it
manages to spotlight, economically, a host of events involving the Civil War
and Reconstruction in the Deep South: fierce dissent in pockets of the
Confederacy, the education of freedmen, the “Black Codes” in the immediate
postwar period that sought to place them in de
facto slavery, their rising voting-rights activity, and the domestic
terrorism practiced by the Ku Klux Klan. (A full consideration of the film can be found on this post by Prof. Michael Steudeman from the University of Memphis, from the "Rhetoric, Race and Religion" blog.)
By the end of 1865, conditions in the defeated South
were every bit as dark and desolate as depicted in the film, probably even more so. An entire economic and social order built on slavery
had collapsed. On the one hand, defeated secessionists desired readmission to
the Union on essentially the status quo basis that existed before the Civil
War. At the same time, unable to vent their anger over losing on the Northern
victors, they turned on freedmen and unionist poor whites who were far more vulnerable.
At first, Congressional Republicans had yielded the
initiative on Reconstruction to Johnson, certain that, as a Southerner who had,
against all odds, sided with the Union, he would deal with former Confederates
far more harshly than Abraham Lincoln. To their astonishment, he had far more
sympathy with Southern whites, even those who had risen in rebellion, than with
After months of watching the President fail to
protect African-Americans or Union loyalists in the South, the House of
Representatives and Senate agreed to form the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to "inquire into the
condition of the States which formed the so-called Confederate States of
America, and report whether they, or any of them, are entitled to be
represented in either house of Congress.”
Over the next several months, nearly 150 witnesses
would be called, including one who would have been familiar to many members
from his past service in the House, the former Vice-President of the
Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens.
Unbelievably, he argued that Southerners’ views on “constitutional liberties”
had not changed after the war, and that included even the “abstract principle”
of secession. They expected that “immediately the states would be brought back
into their practical relations with the government as previously constituted,”
so that they could “look to the arena of reason and justice for the protection
of their rights in the Union.”
“Their” rights meant those of the former
Confederates. As for the freedmen, Stephens felt that the South “would be
unwilling to do more than they have done for restoration.”
This kind of attitude didn’t sit well with the Joint
Committee. The views of its 15 members could not be said to be even remotely
bipartisan—only one senator and two congressmen were Democrats—but now,
Southern intransigence, combined with abundant testimony about the retribution
visited upon freedmen and Unionist whites, propelled more conservative
Republicans such as Committee Chairman William Pitt Fessenden to ally with the
so-called “Radical Republicans,” led by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (pictured).
Deeply provoked, the Joint Committee, in its report issued June 20, 1866, warned, in language that Southerners would have found punitive
but that Northerners saw as only just, that the federal government “had a
perfect right to exact indemnity for the injuries done” in the Civil War, and
that, far from being states, the former units of the Confederacy had, by the
conflict’s end, been reduced to “disorganized communities” without civil
governments, constitutions or “established and recognized rules,” and thus that Congress was not
obliged to respect any rights they claimed.
The former Confederate states could only resume
their place in the government, the Joint Committee concluded, by guaranteeing
the rights of the freedmen and excluding Confederate officials. For readmission
to Congress, they needed to ensure “such constitutional or other guarantees as
will tend to secure the civil rights of all citizens of the republic; a just
equality of representation; protection against claims founded in rebellion and
crime; a temporary restoration of the right of suffrage to those who had not
actively participated in the efforts to destroy the Union and overthrow the
government, and the exclusion from positions of public trust of, at least, a portion
of those whose crimes have proved them to be enemies to the Union, and unworthy
of public confidence.”
None of the above remedies mentioned economic
solutions for the freedmen. The one conceived of by the Radical Republicans,
land grants, was born of one of their landmark measures passed during the Civil
War, the Homestead Act of 1862. But the Southern
Homestead Act, passed on June 21, 1866, demonstrated the limits of even
relatively well-intentioned legislation.
The legislation opened up 46 million acres of public
domain land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In an
attempt to ensure that freedmen and loyal whites would have a first opportunity
at the land, Congress instituted a six-month later starting date for former
Confederates. But the legislation missed the goal of real land reform, for
*Often, many freedmen could not capitalize on the
six-month window because of labor contracts that ran through January 1867. Additional problems were encountered in
Louisiana because of severe flooding and closed land offices.
*Rather than awarding land from subdivided
plantations confiscated from their Confederate owners, Congress designated
public land that was poor in quality and hard to till.
*Because much of the public land was given over to
timber, fraud and racial intimidation were rampant, trespassing and homestead
entries by people who did not intend to farm the lands.
*Many freedmen had no means to travel to these newly
opened lands, which were not only far away from where the claim were filed but
also in either the Deep South or over the Appalachians. Even when ordered to
assist them, Army troops were inconsistent in doing so.
*Many freedmen did not even own enough capital to
buy equipment for tilling the land.
*Though accused of vengefulness, many Republicans,
even a number of Radicals, would not go along with the idea of seizing the only
abundant, fertile land: massive plantations of former slaveowners.
*The idea of the federal government granting
freedmen additional favors ran against the grain of both mainstream Protestants
with their belief in earthly rewards coming through hard work and against the
Republican Party base, which believed in a free-soil ideology with as much
appeal to racists who feared black labor as to abolitionists.
As a result, Congress repealed the Southern
Homestead Act only 10 years after passage.
Free State of Jones rightly spotlights the shriveled promise
of the Fifteenth Amendment to ensure voting rights for African-Americans. But
in June 1866, the Radical Republicans managed to pass another so-called
“Reconstruction Amendment,” the Fourteenth Amendment. Like the Fifteenth, it did not produce what it originally
promised, but it ended up becoming perhaps the most important and controversial
of the post-Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution.
The amendment, particularly in the first section,
was worded broadly, even vaguely—an intention of its creators, to allow as much
flexibility as possible in case of further incursions on the rights of freedmen.
The crucial portion of this amendment was Section 1, with such hotly debated
clauses as the “privileges and immunities” of citizens, “due process,” and “equal
protection of the law.”
The amendment had its drawbacks (e.g., by extending
rights explicitly to males, it fractured the coalition of women and
African-Americans that had been so important in the abolitionist movement). The
ambiguity of its language also allowed judges in the Gilded Age and early
Progressive Era to consider corporations as “persons” while bypassing the
African-Americans who were the legislation’s intended beneficiaries.
But beginning in the 1930s, judges began to apply the
amendment in more and more civil-rights cases—and, with greater explicitness
than before, it defined citizenship as a matter of birthright.
(It was this aspect of the amendment to which Donald Trump took such heinous
exception.) Just as important, through the "due process" clause, the "incorporation doctrine" evolved so that rights spelled out by the federal government began to be applied to states as well.