Democracy Seized -- and Lost
— Jim Toweill
The Epic Story of Reconstruction
Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen
By Philip Dray
Houghton Mifflin, 2008, 480 pages, $20 cloth.
RECONSTRUCTION WAS AMONG the messiest, most complex periods in U.S. history, and certainly one of the most emotionally exhausting to revisit. Accounts of the period resonate with hope of almost millenarian proportions and are tainted by tragedy — not the kind of tragedy that brings release, but the kind that leaves one sick with incredulity.
The failure of Reconstruction continues to reverberate, even in the era of Obama, whose rise to prominence might have been impossible without its legacy. Revisiting Reconstruction, one is emphatically reminded that history does not always move steadily forward, lumbering toward an egalitarian horizon.
Today, when state-sanctioned oppression is rampant, it seems unlikely that, at one point in its history, the United States might have genuinely embraced and acted upon the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Extrajudicial renditions, ICE raids and deportations, the criminal justice system’s war on African-American communities and other malfeasances betray the nation’s hypocritical lack of commitment to racial justice.
Yet during the 14 or so years of Reconstruction, the United States undertook its greatest experiment with democracy, and flirted with making legal and civil equality for Black citizens the officially recognized and enforced policy of the nation.
The Revolutionary Moment
Immediately following the Civil War, the possibility of genuine emancipation for Black Americans in the South seemed bleak. Following Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction was to return ex-confederate planters to power in the hopes that this would promote the speedy reconciliation of the Union. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a new set of Black Codes, laws that were essentially attempts to retain the vestiges of slavery.
This situation was reversed by an unusual combination of federal and grassroots power. In Congress the Radical Republicans, strongly opposed to slavery for ideological reasons, united with more pragmatic cohorts excited by new economic opportunities in the South. They had the numbers to override Johnson’s vetoes and pushed through legislation attempting to guarantee civil rights for Black Americans and installed federal troops throughout the South.
At the same time, Black Southerners refused to wait for the federal government to grant them the terms of their new citizenship. In some cases, the process of civil emancipation began before the war ended.
In areas of Louisiana and South Carolina liberated before the end of the war, former slaves began to assert their relative political and economic freedom. Two hundred thousand Black troops fought for the Union and were essential to its victory. Many of these were former slaves, and in the military they gained a measure of equality they were not likely to give up.
In 1865, former slaves and free Blacks held Colored People’s Conventions throughout the South. During these gatherings former slaves and free Blacks developed economic initiatives, plans and organizations for self-defense, and bills of rights that would repeal the Black Codes and replace them with more egalitarian statutes. Some organized their own educational facilities, and others seized the land of their former owners and began to farm.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted Black Americans abstract legal citizenship, they had already, to a large extent, defined the contours of that citizenship and were eager to exercise it. A year after the end of the Civil War — or at least its official combat operations — equality with white Americans seemed to be a real possibility. The city of New Orleans desegregated its streetcars; state officials discussed the compensation of former slaves for unpaid work; federal officials contemplated the redistribution of private property and in a few cases went through with it, allowing Black farmers to own and freely cultivate the lands they had been compelled by force to tend.
The South’s electoral map had been completely transformed. There were Black majorities in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and only small white majorities in Alabama and Georgia. Moreover, many poor whites in those states saw the antebellum planter classes as oppressors and could not be counted on to vote for Democratic candidates.
Due to the exercise of Black political consciousness and federal suppression of secessionists, these demographics translated into real political power. Two thousand or more African-American men who had been slaves or marginalized members of society took government position, and 17 of these men stood on equal footing with whites in the U.S. House and Senate.
At the height of Reconstruction, Black representation in Congress rose to a level that it would not reach again until well into the 20th century. In the 44th congress of 1875-1877, eight Black men held positions, including one Senate seat.
After that the numbers dropped precipitously. Between 1901 and 1931 there were no Black members of congress, and until 1945 there was never more than a single Black Representative. No African American held a senate seat until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts in 1967; to this day no other African-American senators have come from the former confederacy.
The decline of Reconstruction was due to an active counterrevolution that consisted of attacks on both the state and grassroots fronts. In a sense, the Civil War didn’t end in 1865, but continued as a series of guerilla skirmishes. The Ku Klux Klan were only the most historically visible of hundreds of armed white militias. Black communities resisted, but they often lacked the weaponry, access to resources and connections enjoyed by the upfront white supremacists.
Black leaders were also far more measured in their responses to the crisis and generally refused to imitate the ruthlessness and demagoguery of the recalcitrant racists, whose constant guerilla attacks put pressure on Washington to make a choice: act decisively or abandon the Southern states to “home rule.” Moderate Republicans backed off, unwilling to sacrifice “states’ rights” to protect the rights of Black Americans, and hesitant to commit federal troops to the South when they were needed to fight Indian wars in the West.
Tracing an Epic Struggle
Philip Dray’s Capitol Men isn’t the only account of the period to focus on Black leaders, but it might be the quickest read. Focusing on punctuated events rather than legal and political processes, Dray presents Reconstruction as an epic, weaving together dozens of colorful episodes and anecdotes.
Four Black legislators are singled out for their own chapters. The first of these, Robert Smalls, has been the subject of a number of books and articles, likely because of his heroic biography. As a slave he earned the trust of the confederate army, who allowed him to co-pilot a gunboat, which he eventually stole and navigated to a Union blockade. Later Smalls would become a scourge of the confederacy, piloting the Planter against them, becoming a distinguished leader of the Sea Island communities of South Carolina and representing them in Congress for multiple terms.
Another figure with an incredible biography was P.B.S. Pinchback, a gambler, duelist, shrewd politician, grandfather of Harlem Renaissance novelist Jean Toomer and the nation’s first Black governor. Notorious for drawing pistols in the street and maneuvering between Louisiana’s Republican factions, Pinchback was elected to both the House and Senate, but ultimately prevented from taking a seat in either. Despite these setbacks he continued a career in politics and law, and lived to see the beginning of his grandson’s literary career.
Unfortunately the lives of Black politicians were not all success stories. Robert Brown Elliott was one of the nation’s most gifted orators, repeatedly embarrassing white supremacist Congressmen in debates. Though he served as congressman and attorney general for the state of South Carolina, he died in New Orleans, virtually unknown at the age of 42.
Alonzo Ransier, also a gifted legislator from South Carolina, was relegated to the position of street-sweeper after the 1870s. And perhaps the most heartbreaking account is that of Oscar Dunn, the highly respected and incorruptible Lt. Governor of Louisiana who was poisoned to death long before Reconstruction was over.
Dray also gives plenty of page-time to Congressmen Blanche K. Bruce, Richard H. Cain and Hiram Revels, but overall Capitol Men spends a great deal of time discussing the lives of other figures. Some of these seem relevant, like Radical Republican leaders Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, President Grant, and Frederick Douglass — one of the few Northern Black leaders mentioned — while forays into the lives of figures like Adelbert Ames are less so.
Ultimately, of the 17 Black congressmen who served during Reconstruction, only seven are discussed at length. Whether this selective approach is due to lack of available documents or just oversight is not clear.
Neither a multi-biographical work or the complete “story of reconstruction,” the book tries to be both, which creates numerous problems. Dray fails to adequately address the economic issues involved in Northern dissatisfaction with the Reconstruction governments, nor does he address the consequences of inadequate land reform.
He also underemphasizes the extent to which Black communities took responsibility for their own organization and defense. Outside of the “exceptional individuals” who rose to positions of leadership, Black Southerners are largely absent, and one might infer that they were merely hapless victims of white repression.
A Different World Lost
As readable as Dray’s prose is, and as much as he attempts to insert moments of comedy and adventure, these cannot prevent the narrative from becoming, in places, a horror story. The stomach-turning accounts of violence and brazen denunciations of Black humanity from public officials accumulate at an overwhelming pace.
In Dray’s concentrated account, the lengths to which advocates of “home rule” went to make African Americans politically ineffective through violence, intimidation, disfranchisement, economic exclusion and exploitation are almost fantastic. Even more disturbing is the knowledge that these episodes only constitute a tiny fraction of the period’s oppression, and that further federal assistance might have controlled it.
Though Eric Foner and Joshua Brown’s Forever Free is a much more comprehensive introduction to the period, Capitol Men is an engrossing, emotionally affecting treatment of race and politics during Reconstruction. It puts an exclamation point at the end of W.E.B. DuBois’s claim:
“If the Reconstruction of the Southern States…had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort, we should be living today in a different world.”
ATC 144, January-February 2010