(November 20, 2018) Recently The New York Times published an Op-Ed by two professors that urged the National Park Service to “help convey the full story of how America was remade after the Civil War.” They want the Service to manage a network of narrative-based memorials. Unfortunately, their comprehension of the “full story” is distorted by political correctness. Every potential site they mentioned involved race-centric stories.
While the racism in the region of the era was undeniably shameful, the Op-Ed falsely implies that Southern whites endured no hardships worth remembering. It suggests that Southerners are fit only to play the role of the villain, with blacks as the victims and white Northern Republicans as “the good shepherd” whose noble intentions went awry. If the Reconstruction narrative of earlier eras sanitized the part of Southern whites, this version whitewashes Northern Republicans.
First, Southern poverty was a longer lasting consequence of the Civil War than was racial segregation. In 1960 eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. Although commonly associated with blacks, as late as 1940 two-thirds of the South’s tenant farmers were white. Moreover, black and white sharecroppers earned “almost identical” incomes averaging seventeen cents per day.
Various discriminatory federal policies, such as high tariffs, contributed to the South’s protracted poverty. Although imposts on dutiable items were under 20% prior to the Civil War they averaged 45% for forty-five years after the war. They dropped briefly during Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s two presidential terms but jumped upward after Republicans regained power in the 1920s. America did not become a true free-trade advocate until after the end of World War II when the industrial economies of Europe and Asia were wrecked and could not compete with the factories north of the Ohio and Potomac rivers.
Such tariffs injured black and white Southerners in three ways. First, they increased the price of manufactured goods, including farm implements. Second, by restricting American imports they made it difficult for European countries to earn the exchange credits needed to buy Southern cotton and other raw material exports. That motivated overseas commodity buyers to seek raw materials from other countries. Third, they fostered the growth of domestic monopolies in the manufacturing sector. Despite the higher shipping costs, for example, American steel producers sold some finished goods cheaper in Europe than they did domestically—a signature characteristic of monopolies.
Second, contrary to popular belief, post-war Republicans generally opposed civil rights for racial minorities. What rights initiatives they did adopt were selfishly selective. They focused on ex-slaves because blacks composed the solitary racial minority large enough—and sufficiently Republican-loyal—to assure the infant GOP’s long-term control of the federal government. Since the Party was only a decade old at the time, its leaders worried that it would be strangled in its cradle unless the Southern states could only be readmitted to the Union as Republican-controlled puppet regimes.
Some blacks, such as Booker T. Washington, were not fooled:
In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white [Carpetbag and Scalawag] men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites.
In contrast, Republicans generally denied citizenship to other racial minorities such as Chinese-Americans and Native-Americans. The 1870 Naturalization Act, for example, excluded Chinese and other “non-whites” although it specifically included “persons of African descent.” The Republican-controlled federal government waged war on Native-Americans and cheated them out of their lands. Even today the U. S. Treasury stands ready to disburse about $1 billion to the Sioux alone for Black Hills claims—an award the tribes are refusing as too little. Moreover, most of the money many historians assume Republicans used to supervise Southern elections for the benefit of blacks was really used to police elections in Northern cities where immigrants tended to vote for Democrats. Finally, America’s largest lynching happened in 1873 in Los Angeles, not the South, where all nineteen victims were Chinese-Americans.
Third, within a dozen years after the Civil War Republicans no longer needed the black vote to retain control of the federal government for two reasons. First, population gains put more electoral college votes in the North. Second, all five new states added to the Union between 1861 and 1876 had predominantly Republican electorates and initially had two Republican senators each. Moreover, the next seven states to join between 1876 and 1896 were Republican as well and also initially each provided two new Republican senators. Consequently, Northern Republicans largely abandoned blacks after the 1876 presidential elections, only about a dozen years after the end of the Civil War.
* * *
My Southern Reconstruction book provides more information.