How the war and restore the former Confederate states

How valid is the term
‘revolution’ as a framework for interpreting Reconstruction, 1863-1877?



slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward
These words by W.E.B. Du Bois are used to characterise the short-lived nature
of the period of Reconstruction, and its demise. Reconstruction was the period
that followed the Civil War in which attempts were made to redress the issue of
slavery and its political, social and economic legacy.2
While the chronological definition of Reconstruction remains open to dispute,
most historians follow Eric Foner in dating the start of Reconstruction with
the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The destruction of the central
institution of antebellum Southern life, slavery, permanently transformed the
war’s character, and produced far-reaching conflicts and debates over the role
former slaves and their descendants would play in American life and the meaning
of the freedom they had acquired.3
The first historiographical school of thought on Reconstruction, the Dunning
School, argued that Reconstruction was misguided and punitive because it
imposed changes on the South that went far beyond those needed to settle the
issues of the war and restore the former Confederate states to the Union. In
the 1950s and 60s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Revisionist
historians claimed that Congress’ post-war policies were not excessive, instead
they were realistic and appropriate. Had they been successfully implemented and
not resisted, the changes would not have been left for the Revisionist’s own
generation to carry out a century later. In the 1970s, Post-revisionism
emerged, suggesting Republicans in Congress were too cautious and conservative
to effect meaningful change. 4
The term revolution means a rapid and
fundamental period of political, social and economic change. 5
This essay will argue that the term revolution is not a framework for
interpreting Reconstruction in any respect; political, economic, social or
legal. While there were attempts to change the political and socioeconomic
orders of the time, Reconstruction ended without concrete evidence of enough
permanent change. Politically and legally it was too conservative, socially and
economically the change was not prominent and long-lasting enough to withstand
Reconstruction’s ending in 1877.

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term revolution is not valid as a framework for interpreting Reconstruction as
it was too politically conservative.  This
conservatism meant the Republicans didn’t delegate enough power to the federal
government to provide security for blacks in the South. Republicans framed the
most limited, conservative Reconstruction possible, adhering until 1868 to the
position that legislation was merely a temporary divergence in the federal
system. 6
The constitutional conservatism of the Republicans was shown by their debate over the justification of war
powers. War powers were the idea that the Government had extended powers in
times of war, which were no longer justifiable in times of peace. Most
Republican legalists justified wartime measures as a way to preserve the old
balance of the Constitution. Rather than admit the war solicited a change in
the use of the federal system, they argued it merely forced a suspension of
peacetime constitutional provisions. James W. Grimes, a respected member of the
Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, insisted in 1866 that “During the
prevalence of the war we drew to ourselves here as the Federal Government
authority which had been considered doubtful by all and denied by many of the
statesmen of this country. That time, it seems to me, has ceased and ought to
cease. Let us go back to the original condition of things, and allow the States
to take care of themselves.”7
This highlights the conservative nature of the Republicans who presided over
Reconstruction and their urge to return to political set up more suited to pre-Civil
War America. By seeking to return to the limitations of the peacetime
fundamental law, the Republicans sought not to create change, but return to
prior conditions. This was not revolutionary as blacks required greater federal
action to create real and long-lasting change in the South. Les Benedict argues
that it was this kind of constitutional conservatism that left Republicans so
ill prepared to cope with the complex problems of Reconstruction.8
U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican, identified that the
sole hope for a permanent rearrangement of the southern political order lay in
southerners voluntarily agreeing to change. Steven’s programme insisted the
seceded states be held as territories governed by Congress until they drafted
state constitutions themselves that were approved by Congress. This radical
territorial policy by Stevens would have allowed for fundamental political
change as it would have solved the issue that the Southern States would not
adhere efficiently to Reconstruction plans if they were forced by Congress. Instead,
Richard Henry Dana’s consciously conservative program was used, which built on
the war powers doctrine, with the legal-constitutional justifications for expanded
national power developed during the war. He suggested it would be “an
irreparable mischief for Congress to assume civil and political authority in
state matters.” 9 This
highlights how the constitutional conservatism of many of the Republicans, as
most relied on the grasp of war doctrine, took the forefront over greater
federal intervention. Therefore, as most Republicans relied on the grasp of war
doctrine to justify their Reconstruction legislation, they employed a narrow
and conservative Reconstruction on the South. The actions of the Republican’s
were too averse to change, favouring and aiming for the return to the
traditional relations between the federal government and the states. There was
therefore not revolutionary as there was little sense of political change.





failure of land reform in the South demonstrates that the term revolution is
not valid for interpreting Reconstruction. Freedom for ex-slaves meant
independence and autonomy, which meant there had to be economic
self-sufficiency. Given that the Southern economy relied heavily on
agriculture, prosperity and success for blacks in the post-emancipated South relied
on the ownership of land. The system of contract labour employed from 1863 in
the south, which sought to ensure a ready supply of labour to the plantations, prevented
blacks from gaining autonomy and economic freedom. The ‘Port Royal experiment’
and similar projects, led by Northerners such as Edward S. Philbrick, attempted
to show how cotton could be cultivated under conditions of freedom. They hoped
to stimulate newly freed slaves to provide labour on ‘slave crop’ by offering
regular wages and access to North-made goods in established plantation stores.
However, these experiments were profitable to the Northern based investors at the
expense of former slaves. A report on the situation for the U.S. Sanitary Commission
stated that most of the investors in the land “cared little whether their
profits came out of the blood of those they employ or from the soil.” Despite
the willingness to alter the conditions of employment and recognise the needs of
the black labourers, the intention of this system of labour, was to enforce “continuous
and faithful service, respectful deportment, correct discipline and perfect
subordination on the part of the negroes.”10
Perman suggests that this hardly described a labour force removed from the strictures
of slavery.11 This
is corroborated by Pressly, who suggests the ending of legal slavery seemed to
have left intact certain evils of the old regime. 12
White southerners were prepared to use legislation and if necessary force to
prevent blacks owning lands. This meant that by 1180, only 15% of former slaves
owned lands. As the Freedmen’s Bureau acted as an intermediary between former
slaves and their masters in the post-emancipated South, their approach was
largely based on the North idea of “free labour ideology”. This meant labourers
and employers could bargain freely over terms so that over time labourers could
improve their situation until they became self-sufficient. However, the “free
labour ideology” was constantly infringed upon by the Bureau, preventing the
labour market from operating freely and autonomously. The Bureau had to
intervene on behalf of labourers, whose bargaining position was weaker. This
affected the autonomy of ex-slaves as many, who were undoubtedly illiterate,
relied on the Bureau to negotiate contracts. Perman notes how Freedmen’s Bureau
officers often acted as a labour agent eager to get labourers into the field
and the crops into the ground. Thus, the forms and terms of these contracts
seemed to be less than voluntary. 13
The results of these contracts were that, workers were often tied to a
particular employer, and usually to a designated piece of land, for an entire
year. Wiener concludes that sharecropping was not simply a matter of individual
choice, but a compromise resulting between the planters’ need for labour and
the freedmen’s demand for autonomy.14
Freedmen, seeking autonomy, had to sharecrop as a compromise. By the 1870s, 80%
of African Americans in the South were sharecropping. This was not
revolutionary in any sense as blacks were still dependent on the land owners,
largely due to debt peonage.  Debt
peonage, a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with
work, was major problem prominent in the Reconstruction South as a result of
the failure to properly provide a revolutionary solution to the labour
situation after emancipation. While peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867,
many southerners were swept into peonage through different measures to the
extent that the situation was not completely eradicated in the South until the
1940s. Thus, the farmers stayed in perpetual debt and slavery perpetuated itself;
but rather than a physical slavery, it was an economy bondage that held black people
to the land.15



Lichenstein argues that while the freedmen’s conditions of work were different to
slaves, they were hardly revolutionary. Freedmen had ‘no sense of collective
consciousness as a distinctive class and almost no means of using their combined
labour power to demand improved terms… of work.’16




was this conservativeness that was embraced in the Fourteenth Amendment to the
Constitution, framed in 1866 and adopted to the Constitution in 1868. Written
by William P. Fessenden, the joint committee’s Report closely followed Dana’s
views, emphasizing the temporary nature of the exclusion of the southern

the Fourteenth Amendment appeared to be radical, as it for the first time
define American citizenship and guaranteed citizens’ rights, it was not radical
enough to consider Reconstruction a revolutionary period. It did not expand the
national government’s jurisdiction in areas traditionally left for states.


After 1868, when violence in the South
forced many Republicans to endorse some permanent form of constitutional power
which was truly Radical, most Republicans tried to limit the degree of
expansion, and many others refused to make this new departure at all.







W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America

Foner- Encyclopedia Brittania

Foner- America’s unfinished revolution- p.xxv

Michael Perman, Emancipation and Reconstruction in History

5 Definitions
of Revolution from theorists

Les Benedict- The conservative basis of Radical Reconstruction

Les Benedict

Les Benedict

Speech of Richard H. Dana at Faneuil Hall, Boston (in reading list)

10 General
Nathaniel P. Banks- Perman- Emancipation and Reconstruction p. 8

11 Perman-
Emancipation and reconstruction p.8

12 Thomas
Pressley p. 15

Perman emancipation and reconstruction p. 33

14 Jonathan
Wiener, reconstruction revisited

15 Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, “Debt Peonage in the Cotton
South After the Civil War,” The Journal of Economic History 32:3
(1972), pg 642

16 Alex
Lichenstein- Foner- Reconstruction revisited