(January 5, 2017). In this lecture, Dr. Eric Foner’s summary of the 1866 New Orleans race riot provides a misleading narrative:
[Andrew] Johnson’s efforts to mobilize support in the North [for his Reconstruction Plan] are injured by race riots that breakout in the South in the summer of 1866 leading to scores of deaths of African-Americans…[The biggest] is the New Orleans riot.
You may remember during the Civil War [that Louisiana] had a constitutional convention [authorized by Lincoln’s 10% plan] that abolished slavery but didn’t give any rights to blacks. It did, however, authorize the president of the convention to re-convene it, if desired. [Since Lincoln’s amnesty gave most of the returning Rebels the right to vote in Louisiana] in 1866…the old [Republican-controlled] convention tries to reconvene and that leads to race riots.
Professor Foner correctly notes that the riot damaged prospects for Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan because the violence persuaded many Northern voters that it was not working. Foner also correctly implies that one aim of the new convention was to authorize black suffrage, but he fails to mention that another aim was to disfranchise ex-Confederates. Moreover, the professor does not explain why many white Louisianans interpreted the new convention as an attempted coup d’état.
First, the state constitution formed under the 1864 Lincoln plan was already ratified and the resulting state government had been operating for two years.
Second, although the original convention stipulated that its president could “re-convoke [it] for the purpose of…formation of a civil government,” a civil government had already been formed. It was, therefore, doubtful that the convention could legally be reconvened.
Third, since the convention president did not “re-convoke” it Republican leaders substituted someone else who conformed to the true agenda, which was to mandate black suffrage and remove the vote from enough ex-Confederates to assure Republican control of the state government.
Fourth, the 1864 constitution had already, and specifically, granted the legislature the power to authorize black suffrage.
Fifth, in June 1866 the “re-convoked” conventioneers disregarded a sizeable quorum shortfall and called for a new convention set in New Orleans for July 30, 1866 to write a new constitution. Defiance of the quorum shortfall removed the last vestige of legitimacy to the re-convening.
After advance warning of possible trouble by the New Orleans mayor and others, the local military commander telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for instructions. Not only did Stanton never reply, he neglected to tell President Andrew Johnson about the emergency. As a dubiously ethical Johnson enemy, it is hard to avoid concluding that Stanton deliberately wanted to provoke racial genocide in order to discredit Presidential Reconstruction and promote Radical Reconstruction.
In the end the military failed to intervene until after almost forty blacks had been killed by whites who wanted to prevent the probably illegitimate convention from getting underway. The blacks, some of whom were armed, had been demonstrating in support of the convention.