Eric Foner Gets This Right

(January 3, 2017) In the 48th episode within the middle segment of his Civil War and Reconstruction lectures, Columbia’s Dr. Eric Foner comments on the long-term postwar dominance of the Republican Party and its implications for the relative prosperity and impoverishment of America’s North and South geographic sections, respectivley. Foner says:

The [Civil] War creates the national dominance of the Republican Party. From 1860 to 1932—72 years—only two Democrats are elected President. [Republicans] control the national government most of that time. One result is that national economic policy favors the North.

[Aside from the status of Freedmen] many other political issues of the late nineteenth century come out of the Civil War. What should be the tariff? How should [war] bondholders get repaid…Greenbacks or gold? What should happen to paper currency?

The chief consequence of the national economic policies favoring the North during the 72 year period Foner mentions was that they promoted prosperity in the North while relegating Southern farmers—white and black—into peonage.


As explained in recent posts, the persistently high post-war tariffs were a major factor benefitting the North and hurting the South in the post war era. First, they increased the cost of domestic goods, which were chiefly produced outside the South. Second, they promoted monopolies, primarily in the North. Third, the tariffs often prevented interested overseas buyers of American cotton from selling manufactured goods into the USA. That blocked, or limited, the potential buyers from earning the exchanges credits needed to pay for the American cotton and encouraged them to purchase cotton from other countries.

The multi racial consequences of the post-war Republican economic policies were far more drastic and protracted than the vast majority of modern historians realize. Consider the first economic depression following the Civil War that was triggered by the failure of Jay Cooke’s financial empire in 1873.

Although the federal government did not record poverty statistics at that time, the Ohio Department of Labor estimated “absolute poverty” at a dollar a day. Sixty-five years later President Franklin Roosevelt submitted a report to Congress informing that Southern sharecropper per capita incomes ranged to $0.10 to $0.25 per day. Although modern historians commonly associate sharecropping with blacks, Roosevelt’s 1938 report explained that whites composed half of all Southern sharecroppers and that they lived “under economic conditions almost identical with those of Negro sharecroppers.”

Seventy-three years after the Civil War, Southern farmers—white and black—were living under conditions similar to nineteenth century Russian serfs. Southern poverty adversely affected health. As late as 1930, for example, half of South Carolina’s population was under the age of twenty.

After World War II the manufacturing interests of the Northern states wanted “free trade” on a global basis. Essentially they no longer had any international competition since the economies of Europe and Asia had been wrecked by the war. Consequently, America sharply reduced her tariffs in the 1940s in order to encourage reciprocity overseas. The current economic conditions in Detroit and Flint illustrate how badly Northern industialists overestimated their ability to compete without protective tariffs.

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2 thoughts on “Eric Foner Gets This Right

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Foner has three sections to his lectures, (1) antebellum, (2) Civil War and (3) Reconstruction. I am at the 15th segment of the third section and Foner so far has little to say about how white Southerners were adversely affected by Reconstruction.


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