(January 22, 2019) In today’s politically correct environment most academic historians lament that post Civil War Reconstruction failed to confiscate large amounts of land owned by Southern Whites and redistribute it to Blacks. This, they argue, would have given economic power to the Freedmen thereby minimizing the ensuing protracted racism. The chief reason Northerners failed to do so, they explain, was because Northerners chose to be lenient with the defeated Southerners. But they were not lenient, as this speech about my Southern Reconstruction book documents.
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In truth, the chief reason Northerners didn’t want to confiscate Southern lands was because they worried such action might adversely impact the national economy after the War ended in 1865. Since they rightly feared that a drop in wartime spending might cause a recession, they wanted the Southern economy to recover as quickly as possible, although they were unwilling to invest any federal tax money to help it along. As feared, America’s Gross Domestic Product declined 23% from $10 billion in 1865 to $7.7 billion in 1871. But during the same period annual cotton production alone increased from zero to 4.4 million bales, which about equaled the average annual production for the three years prior to the War. Southern production of tobacco and other goods and services also increased. Thus, without the South’s recovery the national GDP would have declined even farther.
Aside from the GDP, however, Northerners were anxious to get cotton back into production in order to improve the nation’s trade balance-of-payments, which threatened to be in almost perpetual deficit. As the table below documents, cotton alone accounted for about 70% of American exports before the War and for the decade after the War it represented an accumulated average of 61%. Notwithstanding that tariffs on dutiable items increased from 19% before the War to an average of 45% for nearly fifty years afterward, America reported a merchandise trade deficit for every year except two during the first eleven years after the War. The accumulated deficit for that period totaled $750 million. Without cotton exports the deficit would have been nearly $3,600 million, which was more gold than the Treasury had available to settle the international payments shortage.
The above figures underscore one reason why the Republican Party chose to abandon the Carpetbag regimes in the former Confederate states. Starting in 1872, and increasingly thereafter, Republicans became persuaded that the national economy would do better with White “home rule” state governments in the South in place of the Carpetbag regimes whose corruption was perceived as a drag on the region’s economic recovery.