“The twelve years that are the conventional designation of the Reconstruction period, from 1865 to 1877, teem with associations and developments that seem regrettable, if not simply baleful.”
Massive tomes have been written about the history of the Reconstruction. Guelzo pockets it into 130 pages, if you choose to ignore the supplements. It’s a wonder that the U.S. survived as a nation. Guelzo’s narrative is concise, but not snappy—it’s a bit of a tough read because so much is crammed onto every page.
The best predictor of the future is the past. So, we read history, understanding it is one person’s interpretation of the past. So much of what we see today flows from those 12 years of chaos. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President proved to be the antithesis of Lincoln. He was a Southerner from Tennessee. His direct actions overrode Congress’s attempts to set up an orderly transition from war to productive peace. Instead, former Confederate officers stepped into positions of power and eventually drove out the “Carpetbaggers” from the North. Johnson was impeached in March 1877, but the measure did not pass. In November, Ulysses S. Grant was elected, a flawed man with no political experience.
The Supreme Court took advantage of weak executive and legislative leadership, carving new powers for itself. They became the arbiter of efforts to bring North and South together, more often driving them further apart. In 1883, the overturned Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill, a deed not rectified until Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
Though southern blacks were almost immediately elected to new legislative bodies in the South, they proved unable to formulate and negotiate favorable legislation. They were too poorly educated and underfunded. No charismatic leader arose from among them who could have led a more effective effort. Slavery proved no training ground for politics.
Guelzo, in the end, endorsed the theory that the U.S. would have fared much better if the rebellious states had been held and managed by the victorious North until arrangements were made for the integration of the former slaves and the infrastructure rebuilt. Instead, we proved true to our American need to “get it done” and left the South in shambles for both freed people and whites.
I was enlightened by Reconstruction. It deserves a second read, but not for a while…