Washington Post: Reconstruction Op-Ed

Two historians recently wrote an Op-Ed at the Washington Post recommending that the federal government fund a Reconstruction Memorial in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Every reason cited involved the black experience. There was no mention of non-blacks except to remark that “20th century…white supremacists dismissed Reconstruction as a mistake.”  Regrettably the remark seems to falsely imply that anyone identifying non-racial faults with Reconstruction is a white supremacist. In truth, however, the consequences of Reconstruction were far more multiracial and lasted much longer than the currently popular race-centric narrative suggests.

1938 Black Sharecroppers

1938 Black Sharecroppers

The elephant in the room is Southern poverty. A century after the end of the Civil War eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 report on Southern economic conditions disclosed that whites comprised half of the region’s sharecroppers and two-thirds of its almost equally destitute tenant farmers. Roosevelt’s report stated univocally that white sharecroppers were “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.”

Sharecropper incomes ranged from $38 to $87 annually in 1938 thereby equating to $0.10 to $0.25 per day. By comparison during the depression that followed the 1873 Financial Panic sixty-five years earlier, the Ohio Department of Labor Statistics estimated the poverty line at one dollar a day.

1938 White Sharecroppers

1938 White Sharecroppers

Shortly after the Great Depression of the 1930s began, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan—honored presently by the MIT Sloan School of Management—voluntarily cut his annual salary from $500,000 to $340,000. His $160,000 cut was more than all the income taxes paid by Mississippi’s two million residents that year. Widespread Southern poverty also led to lower life expectancies. Sixty-five years after the end of the war, for example, South Carolina was in 1930 the only state with as much as half of its population under the age of twenty.

The Post editorialists ignore the national agendas that contributed toward protracted Southern poverty. Examples include high protective tariffs that averaged 45% for fifty years after the war, generous Union Veterans pensions that did not even stop growing until 1921 and approximated 40% of the federal budget in 1893, discriminatory railroad freight rates, discriminatory banking regulations, absentee ownership of Southern resources, lax monopoly regulation, and the requirement (after termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1870) that the nearly indigent Southern states alone bear the financial burden to educate the children of former slaves even though emancipation was a national policy.

Another common flaw of modern Reconstruction historians is their failure to adequately examine how developments in one part of the country affected other parts. The Post Op-Ed makes no mention of such intersectional factors. There is instead a tendency to portray the “white supremacist” South as an evil twin to the rest of the country and largely responsible for today’s lingering racial problems. At the least, however, a valid picture of Reconstruction requires knowledge of how the Gilded Age in the North impacted the South. The experience of Amos Akerman is an example.

Five years after Akerman served as a Confederate quartermaster during the Civil War, President Ulysses Grant appointed him attorney general. He was the most vigorous of Grant’s five attorneys general in pursuit of Southern racial justice. After only a year in office, however, Grant abruptly asked him to resign after Akerman had taken actions contrary to the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad and railroad moguls Collis Huntington and Jay Gould. Akerman’s replacement would later resign amid bribery accusations.

In short, the interpretations of many modern Reconstruction historians focus too much on racial injustices and not enough on the political and economic factors affecting all races of Southerners. At best, such historians are substituting one mythology for another. Their narratives are driven by the zeitgeist of our era and ignore the wisdom expressed by Carlos Eire who was a child refugee from Castro’s Cuba and won the National Book Award for his memoir of his escape and re-settlement in America: “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”

3 thoughts on “Washington Post: Reconstruction Op-Ed

  1. Harris Syed

    Looking at the Washington Post’s previous track record of covering the Civil War it’s no surpirse is that given that they are in the Yankee capital they are pretty anti-Southern (though not always) in some of their articles these include “Five Myths Why the South Seceded” (written by a New Englander) dismisses tariffs (more speciifcally financial policies) as being a factor in the causes of the Civil War even though online you can look up historical record and find Northern, Southern and/or British newspapers in places such as AHA (the ones pandering to the anti-monument crowd) and newspaper archives that will tell you that the tariff/financial issue did have a role even the Georgia and Texas secession ordinances mention financial issues as do speeches by Robert Barnwell Rhett, Thomas H. Reagan, William Lowndes Yancey, Robert Toombs etc.

    Another anti-Southern article written by the Post is one called “Remove the Southern belle from her inglorious perch” written by Elizabeth Boyd (author of a book called “Southern Beauty: Race, Ritual, and Memory in the Modern South) which as the name suggests it wants Southern belle things like hoop skirts banned on Southern college campuses because it is supposedly is “racial symbol” because it is the Old South Ms. Boyd evidently doesn’t realize that the Southern belle stereotype has already been a staple in pop culture such as the X-Men’s Rogue and Dukes of Hazzard’s Daisy Duke and none of them were ever “racial”.

    Other articles written by anti-South authors include this Reconstruction article and the various articles on Confederate monuments including one on the Confederate flag these authors are very much the intellecual equivalent of those monument vandals none of these authors have ever looked at the larger socioeconomic factors Reconstruction had on the South nor do they seem to look at the financial and constitutional reasons for the South’s secession or the other factors in building Confedertae monuments they are victims to Righteous Cause mythology.

    Same thing with Wikipedia and Wikiquote articles about the Civil War they are Righteous Cause in nature and are selective in their quoting none of them ever include quotes regarding the financial/constitutional reasons for secession specifically how they cover some Confederate states they leave out any quotes suggesting the other causes of the Civil War and from what I have searched on places like Michael T. Griffith’s Civil War section and its articles this info that has been included certainly would never show up anywhere on Wikipedia or Wikiquote as you Philip Leigh have tried to add a Reconstruction book written by a Nashville Southerner whose parents experienced it and that of black Redshirts which the blog Cotton Boll Conspiracy and the books Never Surrender and Hurrah for Hampton covered they were rejected by Wikipedia administrators for being “neo-Confederate” even though it includes information not found elsewhere

    1. Robert D.

      Let’s not forget one important aspect of the Civil War that isn’t mentioned by outlets such as the Washington Post. The Republican Party was founded as the anti-slavery party. It was the Republicans that fought to end slavery. It was the democrats who wanted to keep slavery alive. The economy of the democrats depended on slavery.

      Andrew Johnson (the democrat who was president after Lincoln’s assassination) and the democrats wanted to reverse all the anti-slavery measures that were put in place. They didn’t directly say that they wanted to keep slavery. But you can tell they didn’t want it to go away. What they did believe was that it was up to each individual state to decide if they would keep slavery legal.

      The democrats of that time are nearly identical to democrats of today. They want to keep non-whites labeled as victims and incapable of doing anything on their own. They demand everyone believe that non-whites are incapable of accomplishing anything without government assistance. And any non-white who demonstrates that they can do just fine on their own is labeled as all manner of nasty things by democrats.

      Look at Ben Carson. He isn’t white. He is a brain surgeon. And the democrats hate him. He doesn’t need the government stepping in and telling him that he can’t do something because he isn’t white. His independence flies int eh face of democrat propaganda and so they hate him.

      So don’t forget, it was the democrats who wanted to keep slavery alive. It was the Republicans who fought to bring slavery to an end The Republican Party was founded as the anti-slavery party. The Republicans back then and today believe that everyone has the right to equal opportunity. The democrats believe that everyone is entitled to the same outcome regardless of effort or ability, the don’t want everyone to have the same opportunity to try.

      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        That’s the Dinesh D’Souza spin.

        After the Civil War the Republicans were chiefly interested in Black votes. The Party wanted to remain in power and by granting votes to ex-slaves they created a solid Republican-reliable voting block. The Party did nothing for the civil rights of Chinese-American or Native-Americans. They focused entirely on the solitary minority that would be Republican-loyal. They elected Ulysses Grant President after Andrew Johnson even though Grant received a minority of white votes. He won the popular vote only because of the Black vote in the South.

        Andrew Johnson was not trying to perpetuate slavery. He recommended that the Southern states grant Blacks who were Union military veterans and/or landowners of $250 in property the right to vote. Nonetheless, he conceded voter qualifications had forever been a State’s Right, and the federal government could not usurp that authority without a constitutional amendment. He also told a newspaper interviewer that he would have provided Blacks the right to vote under such conditions if he had remained governor of Tennessee, which was his post before becoming Vice President.

        As regards your comments applicable to the present Democratic Party, I agree.

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