(November 14, 2017) Provided below is a review of my Southern Reconstruction book by Dr. Wayne Wolf who is Professor Emeritus at Chicago’s South Suburban College. It appears in the December 2017 issue of Civil War News.
(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.
(January 4,, 2017) As I continue through the YouTube lectures posted by Columbia University’s history professor Eric Foner, I came to one about President Andrew Johnson’s attempt to implement “Presidential Reconstruction” in a futile effort to pre-empt “Congressional Reconstruction” that the Republicans would later adopt.
Johnson’s plan, which he hoped to have a fait accompli by December 1865, required that the Rebel states elect delegates to conventions to adopt constitutions and resolutions to: (1) ratify the 13th Amendment ending slavery, (2) repeal their secession ordinances, and (3) repudiate the Confederate debt. This was more than Lincoln had required in his December, 1863 “10% plan,” which was the only official plan that the martyred President ever announced.
Although Mississippi did not promptly ratify the amendment, Foner erroneously implies that the state failed to quickly abolish slavery and foot-dragged for 140 years by saying:
Mississippi refused to ratify the 13th Amendment. They thought about it a long, long, time. Eventually, the state…did ratify the 13th Amendment, but it did not happen until 1995. So it took them a long time to accept that: “Slavery is gone. I’m sorry.” [audience laughter.]
Professor Foner failed to mention that the Mississippi state constitution of August, 1865 outlawed slavery. It was adopted by a vote of 87-to-11.*
*Henry, The Story of Reconstruction, 79; Mississippi State Constitution: August 1865,
Sometime last night, perhaps around sunset in Phoenix, Arizona State Professor Brooks Simpson wrote a critique of my post about the 1866 Memphis Race Riots. It’s at his Crossroads blog, which is a good place to safely observe his reality distortion field without having to worry about a bite in the neck.
Simpson fails to address the central question of whether black suffrage in the South was more important to Radical Republicans as a matter of morality or as a tool to sustain the Party’s political power. As always, he plays the race card early and often as if morality was all that mattered to Republicans and that racism was all that mattered to their opponents. He does not mention that Republicans abandoned black Southern voters eleven years after the Memphis Riots as well as many other factors suggesting the primacy of political—as opposed to moral—motivation.
Nor does he mention that three Northern states put black suffrage on the ballot in 1868 where all of them rejected it. He ignores Northern racism where blacks represented 1% of the population and could not impact the balance of political power in any state. Conversely, he pretends that racism alone explains the white Southerner’s objection to black suffrage where African-Americans represented 40% of the population and would be an even greater percentage of total voters given black suffrage and continued disfranchisement of former Rebels as in Tennessee and other Southern states.
Among the specific errors and obfuscations in Simpson’s remarks are the following:
Simpson: [In May 1866, which was the time of the Memphis riot,] there was not much support for black suffrage…The fact is that there is no evidence that there was widespread support for enfranchising blacks among Republicans in 1866.
1. Not true. After Congress refused to seat the Southern representatives sent to Washington in December 1865 under President Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan, the congressmen set-up a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to develop an alternate plan. The two would become known as “Presidential Reconstruction” and “Congressional Reconstruction.” The committee was composed of 12 Republicans and 3 Democrats. It was the brainchild of member Thaddeus Stevens who was the prime architect of Congressional Reconstruction and high profile proponent of black suffrage as well as a notorious vessel of hatred toward white Southerners and a businessman of dubious ethics.
At the time of the Memphis riots Southerners could not know that the Fourteenth Amendment, which was a work in progress, would not require black suffrage but instead mandate all states to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes if they did not provide black suffrage. Thus, it would have negligible effect on the North but big impact in the South. Republicans had to settle on the convoluted approach of limiting the influence of white Southerners because of doubts about getting enough Northern states to approve the amendment if it included universal suffrage without regard to race. California, for example, did not want Asian-Americans to gain power.
2. Contrary to Simpson’s claim, the willingness of the vassal government in Nashville to do the bidding of Washington Republicans was fairly evident at the time of the riots. Tennessee, for example, was the third state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which it did about two months after the Memphis riots. Seven months later it adopted black suffrage. It would also further disfranchise ex-Rebels by requiring that whites applying for voting certificates supply at least two witnesses that the applicant did not support the Confederacy during the war.
Simpson: [To gain control of Southern states Republicans] would have to appeal to at least some white voters, because only in three states was the majority of the potential electorate African-American in 1867 (Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Continue reading
Most Civil War era students know that a Radical Republican Congress took control of Southern Reconstruction by obtaining a near veto-proof majority against President Andrew Johnson. Since Johnson considered the congressional plan to be unconstitutional, the infant GOP wanted him removed from office so that he could not interfere.
As explained in an earlier post, the Republicans settled on impeachment as their methodology. They accused Johnson of violating a law intended to prevent him from replacing one of his own cabinet members without approval of the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate trial fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove (convict) the President. Johnson’s successor, Ulysses Grant, complained about the law and it was repealed about twenty years after adoption.
Fewer Civil War era students, however, realize that the Republican Congress also took shots at the Supreme Court. Congress was prepared to run roughshod over both of the other two federal government branches in order to impose its will. They wanted Reconstruction arranged in a manner that insured a sizable new voting bloc for their Party even if their plan was unconstitutional. In an act that makes present-day Republicans look generous, they passed the 1866 Judicial Circuits Act in order to deny President Johnson the opportunity to replace Supreme Court justices.
This was accomplished by temporarily permitting the court’s size to number as few as seven justices. Johnson would not be allowed to nominate a replacement unless the number of justices fell to six. Shortly after Republican Ulysses Grant succeeded President Johnson, Congress passed an act that set the Supreme Court at nine justices.
In 1868 Congress passed a law that did not permit appeals to the Supreme Court from lower federal courts where habeas corpus was at issue. The court had already ruled that individuals could not be tried in military courts if civilian courts were operating in the region. But Congress wanted to be able to prosecute Southerners in the military districts of the South without permitting them to transfer the case to a civilian court. The 1868 law prevented the accused from appealing to the Supreme Court under a writ of habeas corpus to have the case shifted to a civilian court. Based on prior rulings, the Supreme Court would almost certainly granted such an appeal.
No single federal government branch ever again dominated the other two as did the Radical Republican Congresses of the Johnson era and first Grant administration. Fearing further congressional restraints, the court failed to review cases that might anger Republicans. It was mostly irrelevant on such matters until the Democratic Party gained strength in the 1874 elections.
My Civil War Books
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated
To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide
With each passing year conventional books seem to become less important sources of public knowledge and opinion. Increasingly, Internet sites assume that role and none is more influential to the casual learner than the Wikipedia.
Theoretically a publicly-edited encyclopedia is self-correcting and includes the most comprehensive knowledge. It works well on non-controversial topics, but historical narratives are often conflicted with differing interpretations. As Napoleon asked rhetorically, “What is history but an agreed upon fable?” Many Civil War Wikipedia entries underscore his point.
Unfortunately, many such entries are locked. Two examples are Generals Grant and Lee. Only a priesthood of mostly pseudonymed editors can make corrections or add anything. Theoretically, anyone can prompt changes and additions by discussing them with the authorized contributors.
But based upon recent experience with a publicly editable entry for Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment, I have my doubts. The Johnson impeachment contributors had an agenda, simplified to: Johnson Bad – Congress Good. Facts inconsistent with that agenda were generally missing.
Johnson was portrayed as dishonorably manipulating votes to keep the final tally short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him. Ultimately, he was acquitted when the final 35-to-19 vote fell one short of conviction . Continue reading