Reconstruction Redux?: Let’s Hope Not

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2004

Not too long ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mentioned that he was finding some comforting parallels with the present day in a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. As is the case today, he observed, many people “were despairing” during the Civil War, but although “the carnage was horrendous,” the final outcome was “worth” the cost.

But if the secretary were to take a more expansive view of that great conflict and look beyond the years from 1861 to 1865, he might find less reason for optimism. The fact is that while the Union prevailed on the battlefield after four years of struggle, the Old South arguably “won the peace.” Despite 12 years of federal occupation, the states of the Confederacy ended up with a social system not too different from the one that had prevailed before the war. Despite constitutional amendments and statutes extending civil and political rights to freedmen, blacks were essentially relegated to a form of involuntary servitude in the South for decades.

Some would say that this does not bode well for our enterprise in Iraq.

Lincoln and the Radical Republicans in Congress clashed over Reconstruction. Lincoln wished to restore the Union as quickly as possible with minimum federal interference in internal affairs. His theory of government held that the states were never out of the Union—the Union is perpetual. Instead, individuals within the states were in rebellion. He wished to reestablish the proper relationship between the federal government and the states controlled by rebels as quickly as possible. He believed that “restoration” and suppression of the rebellion could occur simultaneously.

The Radicals, on the other hand, wished to use the full power of the federal government to effect a social revolution, extending civil and political rights to former slaves. Radical Republicans rejected Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction, which they dismissed as a “soft peace.” They believed that the war must be won before Reconstruction could begin. For many Radicals, the rebellious states were disorganized communities without legitimate civil governments. Some radicals wanted to return seceded states to a territorial status, governed by Congress.

Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction called for establishing a tangible nucleus of loyal citizens in each seceded state—10 percent of qualified voters based on the 1860 census—who would swear an oath of allegiance. Accordingly he sought to grant amnesty or pardons to white Southerners—excluding Confederate civil officers, military officers (including those who had resigned commissions in the U.S. Army or Navy), and members of Congress or judges who had resigned their seats or appointments (these could apply for individual pardons, which would be granted liberally)—and give those who took a loyalty oath to the government the full power to reestablish state governments. His plan implied, but did not make explicit, that the abolition of slavery was a precondition for the restoration of a state. Before the end of the war, Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee were “reconstructed” according to Lincoln’s plan, but Congress refused to seat the representatives of those states.

In 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis Act—an explicit rejection of the presidential Reconstruction. This act called for temporary rule by military government to supervise enrollment of white male citizens. It required that a majority of voters take an “ironclad” oath, declaring that they had not voluntarily supported the Confederacy. Delegates to a state convention would then be selected from among the list of qualified voters. This convention was required to repudiate secession and abolish slavery prior to restoration. And of course, all slaves were to be emancipated. Lincoln employed a “pocket veto” to kill the bill.

When Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency. Johnson, a Unionist Democrat from Tennessee, had repudiated his state when it seceded and kept his seat in the U.S. Senate. Subsequently appointed war governor of Tennessee, he was tapped as Lincoln’s VP candidate in 1864.

The Radicals initially preferred him because of his denunciation of rebels as “traitors”: “treason must be made odious,” he said, “and traitors must be punished and impoverished.” The Radicals were convinced that Johnson shared their views.

But Johnson was a Jacksonian Democrat who believed that all white men were equal. He was an agrarian foe of affluent Whigs and plantation owners, whom he despised. He believed in democracy for whites, not freed slaves; his main reason for accepting the end of slavery was that it punished plantation owners. He believed in the right of all white men to hold slaves.

Like Lincoln’s plan, Johnson’s 1865 plan for Reconstruction was lenient. It empowered the president to appoint provisional governors, call state conventions, and supervise the election of delegates. Only those who could qualify under state laws in effect in 1860, or who had taken the loyalty oath, were entitled to stand for election as a delegate. The state convention then prescribed the permanent requirements for the voters who would elect representatives to local governments, state legislatures, and Congress. The state conventions were also required to renounce secession by proclaiming the illegality of ordinances of secession, repudiate Confederate debt, and ratify the 13th Amendment. Once these requirements were met, federal troops would withdraw.

But Johnson was discredited by the irresponsible behavior of the Southern Reconstruction governments and the deference he paid to them. In effect, he became a captive of the old Confederates, whom he detested.

The Johnson state governments repealed ordinances of secession but did not repudiate secession; reestablished social control over freed slaves by means of odious Black Codes; and ignored proscriptions against un-amnestied Confederates. Mississippi refused to ratify the 13th Amendment and South Carolina refused to repudiate Confederate debt. In response, Navy secretary Gideon Welles wrote, “The entire South seem to be stupid and indiscreet, know not their friends, and are pursuing just the course which their opponents, the Radicals, desire. I fear a terrible ordeal awaits them in the future.”

Welles’s words were prophetic: As he predicted, the behavior of Southern states and Johnson’s vetoes of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills led to a loss of credibility on the part of the executive branch and caused a shift in Congress, which gave power to the Radicals. The election of 1866 was a disaster for Johnson. His intemperate rhetoric was matched by the Radicals’ electoral strategy of “waving the bloody shirt” of the late rebellion. Republicans gained a veto-proof majority of both houses of Congress and won every Northern governorship and legislature, paving the way for Radical Reconstruction.

The new Congress passed three Reconstruction acts between March and July of 1867 over Johnson’s vetoes. In general, the acts divided the South into five military districts. Each state had to form a government in conformity with the Constitution based on universal male suffrage. Once Congress approved the state constitution, that state would be readmitted to the union with full rights and privileges.

Fed up with what they perceived to be Johnson’s obstructionism, Congress tried to strip him of his power by passing the Tenure in Office Act and the Command of the Army Act. The controversies led to Johnson’s impeachment. He was acquitted by one vote, but his power was gone.

The Radicals pushed through a number of far-reaching statutes that vastly expanded civil and political rights, most notably the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. But such social revolution led to violence against blacks and Republicans. The Ku Klux Klan is the best known of the groups that committed murder and mayhem in an attempt to terrorize blacks and white Republicans in the South. Indeed, the KKK acted in essence as the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party in the South.

The KKK comprised mainly low-status, low-income whites who saw free blacks as economic and social competitors and who therefore sought to maintain a caste system to “keep the Negro in his place.” The violence became so bad that KKK leaders tried to abolish the organization. In response to the wave of violence in the South, Congress passed three force acts between May of 1870 and April of 1871, which broke the power of the KKK by 1872.

But that was not the end of the violence. Indeed, a far more effective method of resistance was what came to be known as “the Mississippi Plan.” In the Mississippi state election of 1875, observes Kenneth Stampp, Mississippi Democrats simply resolved to use as much force as necessary to win. Local Democratic clubs organized themselves into armed irregular militia companies, parading through black districts and dispersing Republican meetings. They posted armed observers at polling places to prevent blacks from registering. They provoked riots that led to the deaths of hundreds of blacks.

The Radical governor of Mississippi was rendered powerless. According to Stampp, he “concluded that there was no way to prevent the Democrats from carrying the election, and his chief concern was to find some way to stop the killing of Negroes.” Counties that had gone Republican in 1871 now went Democrat by large margins. “In three Mississippi counties… the Republicans polled twelve, seven, and four votes respectively.”

The Mississippi plan became the template for resistance throughout the rest of the South. It worked, and by 1876, the federal government renounced its responsibility for Reconstruction, abandoned black Americans, and invited Southern white men to formulate their own programs of political, social, and economic readjustment.

There were many reasons for the failure of Reconstruction, but the one that is most important from today’s standpoint is that the North finally lost the will to see it through to the end. By targeting white Republicans and blacks and raising the cost of their efforts, white Southerners also successfully targeted public opinion in the North.

There is no reason to suggest that things in Iraq are going the way of Southern Reconstruction. But it is clear that the dynamics are similar. The “center of gravity” in both cases is public opinion. We have to remember that a war doesn’t end when the victor says it’s over but when the defeated party says it’s over. If the defeated party thinks the victor doesn’t have the will to go the distance, it has an incentive to raise the cost and defeat the victor’s will. During Reconstruction, white Southerners held out longer than Northern will. Let us hope that this is not the case in Iraq.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.