Conclusion To Series on The Reconstruction Era

Index to posts in this series

This series was motivated by recent scholarship arguing that the Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, gave our nation a new beginning, one centered on equality of citizens. I discussed The Nation That Never Was by Kermit Roosevelt; The Second Founding by Eric Foner, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, I also discussed several Supreme Court cases from that era, The Slaughterhouse Cases, US v. Cruikshank, and The Civil Rights Cases; and several recent SCOTUS cases continuing their foul legacy. Enough. Here are some final thoughts.

1. Once again I’m reminded of the astonishing amount I don’t know. I think my education as a young person was reasonably solid. But I have no memory of any of the history I’ve discussed in this series. As I recall, I was taught that we passed the Reconstruction Amendments after the Civil War, that Johnson was impeached, and that Grant was corrupt. Then we learned about a the civil service laws, a little early labor history, the financial collapses caused by speculators and frauds, and the reforms of the Progressive Era. I didn’t learn about Plessy v. Ferguson until my first mandatory history course in college. It’s worse today, of course.

Much of what I’ve written about here is posted under Left Theory, because I’ve tried to focus on abstract ideas that might provide a framework for thinking about a left version of the future. It’s hard to get worked up about ideas, which suited me as I didn’t want to write rage posts. But there’s nothing abstract about this series.

I was enraged from the beginning by the insistence of the Founding Fathers on enabling a brutal slave system while yammering about Enlightenment Ideals. Thomas Jefferson enslaved his own children with Sally Hemings even as he claimed that all men are created equal. Maybe Roosevelt is right to say Jefferson was talking about the state of nature but the contrast between ideas and practice is grotesque and disgusting. How are we supposed to accommodate it in our veneration of the Founding Fathers?

The Reconstruction Amendments were drafted by men who had waged and survived the Civil War, knew that the slavers started it, and wanted to stamp out slavery as part of the crushing victory they achieved. Voters elected Senators and Representatives who knew that the slavers had never accepted defeat; that they intended to enforce White Supremacy by force and by legalized resistance, the KKK or state legislatures. Between 1865 and 1875 Congress enacted numerous laws to enforce equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race.

The Supreme Court refused to recognize the Reconstruction Amendments or laws passed pursuant to those amendments. They read the Privileges and Immunities Clause out of the 14th Amendment. They narrowed all three amendments, and ignored the part giving Congress the power to legislate to enforce ir known purpose. Congress passed more laws, and the Supreme Court swatted them away. The Court intentionally substituted its policy preferences for those of the elected branches of government.

I’ve never claimed to be an expert in any of the areas I’ve written about here at Emptywheel. I only claim to be willing to engage with the text and to try to give it a fair reading. But this was simply too emotionally charged. Maybe someone else could read this material as if it were an essay by John Locke, but not me. And to think that a vast majority of moraly and intellectually deficient Red State politicians want to walk away from it — no. Just no.

2. Much of the material in the last part of the series revolves around the role of the Supreme Court and its centuries of rejection of majority rule. But that’s not the whole story. If a majority of White voters thought the Freedmen and their own Black neighbors were their equals they could have forced change one way or another. But while many, perhaps most, white people were sympathetic, that didn’t mean they were ready to accept Black people as equals.

This point is illustrated by a scene in Beloved. Long after the end of the Civil War Denver, a Black woman, desperately needs a job. She goes to the home of the Bodwin’s, the people who helped her grandmother and mother afterthey escaped from slavery. She knocks on the front door, and Janey Wagon, the Bodwin’s maid, opens it.

“May I come in?”
“What you want?”
“I’m looking for work. I was thinking they might know of some.”
“You Baby Suggs’ kin, ain’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Come on in. You letting in flies.” She led Denver toward the kitchen, saying, “First thing you have to know is what door to knock on.” P. 297-8.

Even the Bodwin’s, who were aggressively anti-slavery, didn’t let Black people enter at the front door. I’d guess this was the dominant attitude in that era. Citizenship was one thing. But there was little, if any, support for social equality.

One piece of evidence supporting the view that the national consensus was that social equality was impossible can be found in a 1910 editorial in the New York Times, supporting a Jim Crow law requiring separation of Black and White people on railroad cars in interstate commerce. The Times says the case, Chiles v. Chesapeake & Ohio RR, reverses an earlier decision barring such discrimination.

The present decision reveals the influence of the change in public opinion since the reconstruction era: it justifies both the law and compliance with it by the carrier, and permits the rest of the Southern States to amend their “Jim Crow” laws after the example of Kentucky.

The Southern Legislatures, thwarted during the first years following the civil war in their efforts to separate negroes from whites in public conveyances, have gradually passed laws to this effect in every State save Missouri, and the courts have sustained them.

Without public opinion on their side, Black people were left to their own devices, treated as second-class citizens by state and federal governments. Over time the national mood turned into indifference to violent White Supremacist attacks on Black People. This mood was reflected in Supreme Court decisions in cases like Plessy v. Ferguson. That indifference didn’t even begin to change until the 1950s. White Supremacists, closet racists, and pandering politicians continue to fight a rear-guard action with plenty of wins.

That thought takes the edge off the fury and exposes a deeper layer of emotions: sadness that just like the Founding Fathers we do not live up to our professed ideals.

28 replies
  1. Aj_21JUN2019_1613h says:

    It is hard to swallow that those amendments are there but cannot be used or enforced.
    As in DJT , if convicted should not be on any ballot.
    VRA is in serious trouble because southern states are allowed to ignore whatever they wish.
    I am one of those who feel pregnancy without choice is state mandated slavery. If we must consent to the use of any part of our body for the life of another person then we must have choice or it is enslavement.
    This period was covered but very sketchily in high school and college. We must do better.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. THIRD REQUEST: Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. You published this comment as “Ada B” which is little better than your previous username “Aj.” Because your username is far too short it will be temporarily changed to match the date/time of your first known comment until you have a new compliant username. Thanks. /~Rayne]

    • Chris Hatcher says:

      As trite and calculatingly cold as it sounds, Ada, the definition of “person” in this scurrilous debate is yet to be clarified, a not minor point used to continue oppressing women for their choices.

    • wasD4v1d says:

      “As in DJT , if convicted should not be on any ballot.”

      My reading is that the 14th does not exclude from ballot, nor from winning elections. Written for senators and representatives, it allowed House or Senate to make that determination, then refuse to seat them. If my understanding is correct, we should be very careful what we wish for.

  2. Zinsky123 says:

    Mr. Walker – thanks again for another thoughtful, historically grounded post – very well done! I have read Eric Foner’s excellent Second Founding and it provides one of the best legal and legislative histories of the pre- and post-Civil War era I have found. The United States has such an interesting and bitter involvement with slavery, over time. Compared to other First World countries that outlawed slavery, the U.S. attachment is very “sticky” and continues to reverberate through our politics. Not so much in England, Brazil and other large countries that enslaved people. American politics continue to very much pivot around a North-South axis echoing the old Confederacy, although it is increasingly rural-urban too. One side refuses to accept defeat (The Lost Cause) and our politics continue to be malevolently influenced by the basal hatred of a certain group of white people towards black people generally.

  3. jdalessandro says:

    I’m nearly 70, and my major recollection of grammar school teaching about this era was being taught that ‘the freed slaves were like children, wandering around without purpose” or words to that effect. It was a northern all-white Catholic school undoubtedly using public school books, but reconstruction was not an era in my untrustworthy recollection that children were taught much about in the 60s — it was rushed past [Carpetbaggers and Scallywags, Garfield gets shot and its time to Remember the Maine]– and that has to change if it hasn’t already. For one thing, it was not emphasized enough back then that black people were hardly passive; in addition to making up a major part of the Union’s military advantage in the war with their own blood, many former slaves returned armed to the South and did not meekly submit to their quasi re-enslavement. In other words, seeing them as victims only. Still, the savagery in New Orleans, Oklahoma and other places should clearly be as much a part of our historical canon as Valley Forge — in appropriate doses for younger age groups — just as much as the slow motion destruction of native peoples. And the rehabilitation of President Grant, judging by the Chernow book, is already underway, and its about time. Even the Fox creature and author Baier sees the similarity between Grant crushing the Klan and our own troubled times. History can’t be put back in the box; the attempts to do so in Florida will not work. And as I always like to say, way too much, who needs woke history when we have the real thing?

    [FYI – your username has been changed on this comment from “JDALESSANDRO” to “jdalessandro,” which you’ve used on the last 23 comments. Letter case matters; please use the same case each time you comment. /~Rayne]

      • jdalessandro says:

        Sorry about the Caplock; must have been giddy over Melendez going down in flames.

        Bmaz reminded me of this story from Jimmy [Its a Good Drinkin’ Beer] Breslin. He was in school, and he handed in his written assignment to the nun, which was supposed to be “What I did On My Summer Vacation.”
        Although he’s in 5th grade or so, he decides to write something on a higher level, such as “The world is in turmoil; what does it matter that one young boy ruminate on how he spent his time away from school, etc” and he was quite proud of it. But the nun looked at it quizzically, and seemed to be pondering it quite carefully, until she suddenly says to him, “Mr. Breslin; stand up; we need to show this to the principal”. So he does as he’s told, thinking, maybe they’re going to give me an award for original writing, or tell his parents that he has a rare gift of some sort.
        They reach the principal, his teacher shows her the essay, and the principal examines it and nods her head, and says, “Mr. Breslin, did you write this?” And he says he did. And the principal says, “Young man, this is the worst penmanship I’ve ever seen.”
        But I get the point.

  4. WilliamOckham says:

    I’m very grateful for your posts here, especially this series. Even though I don’t often have much to add to the conversation, I want you to know that your work is appreciated.

  5. Jim Luther says:

    Thank you for an excellent series Mr. Ed Walker.

    I was raised among evangelicals in Alabama, although I left immediately after university and never looked back. All those years ago, I had a vague sense that things were better elsewhere, but not until years later did I realize just how “distinct” the Deep South is. My personal feeling is that the role played by religion, specifically the Southern Baptists, is vastly understated. The Southern Baptist Convention remains the largest Protestant congregation in the country, and one must remember that the explicit reason for the creation of the SBC was to provide moral/religious justification for slavery – something it unapologetically supported until 1995. IMHO, the SBC (and its even more evangelical offshoots) sit at the heart of the “unique” moral and ethical positions of their followers, the politicians that they support, and the policies in place where they hold power. “The most segregated place in America is the church” although Hispanic Protestants are breaking that model slightly.

    Maps displaying the density of SBC/evangelical population are very similar to maps displaying infant death, maternal childbirth death, education levels, obesity levels, poverty, expected lifespan, etc.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I agree that organized religion in the secessionist states acted shamefully, and din’t do much better over the next century. It’s important to note, however, that abolition was a main focus of many religious in other parts of thec country.

      • Jim Luther says:

        Totally agree on the diversity of behaviors among religious followers, and not only in comparing the Confederate states to others, but even within the Confederate states. For example, look at the southern African-American churches. I am suggesting that a rather small, but politically powerful, group of organized religion may be a significant part of the problem.

        It is interesting in comparison to the reaction of the Muslim world to ISIS. It was not as common as one would have hoped, but it was not uncommon for mainstream Muslim leaders to call out the Jihadi-Salafi Islam sect and say “that is not Islam.” Not just individuals, but Imams, had the courage and strength of conviction to call out the Jihadi-Salafi Islam sect and say it was a perversion of the faith. And they spoke out under a real threat of violence.

        My hope is that influential American Christian leaders somehow gain the courage and strength of conviction shown by those brave Imams in the Middle East to do likewise, but after 170 years of silently biting their tongues I have my doubts. That church leaders are too weak, scared, (something else?) to point out evangelical and prosperity gospel congregations and say “Practice any religion you want, but please don’t call it Christianity” is cowardly IMHO. No wonder the Christian faith is fading in America when it is no longer recognizably Christian.

      • JohnK-NOLA says:

        My former job as a loss control inspector brought me into the Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans. One of the exhibits is a crown of thorns that was sent by the pope (Pius IX?) to Jefferson Davis.

    • Savage Librarian says:

      My move was the opposite of yours, Jim, from the North to the South in 1980. But it felt like 1950. And I agree with you about how much influence the Southern Baptist Convention has on politics and culture. In fact, Marcy inspired me to write this awhile back:

      In a Bind(er)

      First it was the catch & kill he
      tried to ditch, but now there’s Milley,
      Still he couldn’t resist to gild the lily,
      But his shilly-shally was too willy nilly.

      It took more than one hefty dolly
      to shell game the document haul he
      doled out in bits to apprenticed Molly,
      Did she bundle some for a Svengali?

      Oh, covfefe, a coffee boy’s grinder
      ain’t got nothin’ on a document finder,
      3-ring circus, that dang Russia binder
      claps back like a stealthy sidewinder.

      And the Southern Baptist Convention,
      Is it even paying attention,
      Does it notice or even mention,
      Disbelief is on makeshift suspension?

      Who was it a faith leader forsook?
      Are classified maps what donors took?
      And is the pollster off the hook?
      Who is the author; who will make book?


      • Jim Luther says:

        I guess what I am pondering is that EW consistently points out the damage caused by the failure of mainstream media to cease, call out, or even honestly report upon, false and/or violent propaganda in its industry, yet it seems to me that the exact same failure in the the Christian faith seems to be resulting in equal, if not more, damage. What keeps us (not specifically EW, but the larger community) from even mentioning the significant role of a rather small group of evangelical organizations in the slide toward authoritarianism?

  6. Joe Stewart says:

    I too am routinely surprised by my ignorance. And then I recall an observation from Thinking Fast & Slow, paraphrased, that we create stories to fill in the missing parts – doesn’t matter if it’s true so long as it’s relatively “complete”…. Our brains are lazy, unless we work them and reading is a good training mechanism.

  7. Attygmgm says:

    White supremacy is tenacious, resistant, and mutates freely should one manifestation get foreclosed. Slavery gets eliminated, Jim Crow replaces it. Overt Jim Crow gets attacked, more subtle Jim Crow develops.

    One on hand, the Constitution embodies the prevailing white supremacy of 1789. On the other hand, time has opened tools to combat that same white supremacy, and the seemingly endless capacity people exhibit to separate into Us and Them.

    Not helpful that the Court makes this harder, and exasperating after the elected branches reflect some progress, only to have it undone on appeal.

    Thanks to Ed for his writings on how “progress” remains measured in millimeters when there remains far to go.

  8. BobBobCon says:

    I think it’s worth noting that underlying the legal and policy discrimination was an extremely determined toxic, anti-scientific effort to establish that African Americans were intrinsically, biologically subhuman.

    And of course these arguments were trotted out as far as Asians, Native Americans, Jews, women — anyone who White men in power wanted to argue didn’t qualify for equal rights or treatment.

    One of the ongoing arguments for separate but “equal” policies was that equal treatment for Black school kids actually meant worse, because supposedly they were dumber and didn’t need all of the benefits of public schools offered to White kids. And so it was somehow “equal” to segregate schools and offer worse educations based on racist pseudoscience.

    It’s not an accident that the same kind of pseudoscience is being pushed by the right today. Whether it’s the open lies of the neonazis, the BS cloaked in academic thought of people like Charles Murray, or the “just asking questions” crowd’s gaslighting that there are vast areas of possibile grounds for inequality, it’s all an attempt to reignite a lot of thoroughly debunked fables about evolution as grounds for further legal discrimination.

    Serious evolutionary scientists have established how bad these fables are. But a lot of charlatans keep pushing them, and any price they pay for it, if any, isn’t nearly high enough.

  9. FiestyBlueBird says:

    Thank you, Ed. Good stuff, including comments, too.

    America is not alone in the general problem. Ours is a variant.

    The general problem is in our nature as a species: to be assholes to others not like “us,” whoever “us” is.

    The spectrum of respective capacities among people for empathy, ethical behavior, curiosity, grasp of complex concepts, etc., is wide.

    Christopher Hitchens comment about human DNA being so close to chimpanzee DNA: “And it shows.”

    Rupert Murdoch speaking of Hannity: ‘He’s retarded, like most Americans.’”

    Rupert and bmaz agree, then. (“People are stupid,” bmaz recently wrote.)

    Is this defect the norm across the universe in those places where sentient/intelligent life evolved, or did we just draw one of her short straws when Goddess of Wisdom came round?

    The physics of global warming will eventually take care of it. New life will emerge after. Might be awhile before there is music again.

    Last thoughts:

    A great deal of our “humor” is based on man’s stupidities. When natural stupidity rises to existential threat, individually or nation-wide or species-wide, it’s not funny.

    It’s OK if I get slapped for any of this. I come here because it is filled with people more knowledgeable than I am. I love it in a way similar to my 30+ years in computer systems analysis, business intelligence, metadata library maintenance, and one-off coding projects to answer questions unanswerable from production systems. I was surrounded by really bright people. (And funny, too!) All that’s way in the past. Now enjoying Wired’s current issue devoted to AI, of which my experience with is zero.

    • bloopie2 says:

      “People are stupid.” Well, yes–after all, remember that half of us are, by definition, below average in intelligence. I know that in at least a few aspects of what I do and think, I’m in there.

      • FiestyBlueBird says:

        Yes. George Carlin said that.

        “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”
        ― George Carlin

        I, being pretty average, have displayed my own stupidity here, and been called on it. But I like being around folks smarter than I am. That was my work environment. Not true of my retirement neighborhood. It’s an irritant, but not enough to move.

  10. Yankee in TX says:

    I move to the South when I was 16 and have spent nearly all of the rest of my life since then in the South. My mother was examining my younger brother’s high school history text book and remarked that “Reading this one might think that the South won the Civil War.” To which my New Orleans born girl friend cracked “Ya’ mean we didn’t?” I had to marry someone that clever!

    Our ignorance is infinite and the only cure is the continued effort at self education. The history of the Civil War and Reconstruction is only hurried over in Northern education and twisted in Southern education. Luckily I found Ken Stamp, Hesseltine , T. Harry Williams for outside reading and was later a student of Stephen Ambrose.

    The current efforts at disinformation and the attempts to block the even the study of disinformation, have lead to reread The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It reads as all too familiar and depressing when comparing those events to today. Twain and Santayana are unfortunate seers.

    When I was preparing for law school in the mid-70’s I stated reading a mid-50’s edition of Corwin’s The Constitution and What It Means Today. He stated that the States were the final bulwark to protect civil rights and civil liberties. After the tumult of the 60’s it was easy to see how wrong this was. Today states like FL and TX are leading the way to restrict our rights.

    • FiestyBlueBird says:

      I remember my dad reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He said there were so many names that it made it difficult to keep track of everything.

      Dad was on a B-17 crew. I went with him to England on a Mighty 8th reunion tour. Three days in was 9-11. But that’s another story.

      Earlier this week I watched for the first time the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. Gripping stuff, though it’s a fictionalized version of one of the trials.

  11. Boatsail says:

    The three most racist decisions to emerge from the Supreme Court are: Dred Scott v Sanford in 1857; Plessey v Ferguson in 1896; and, Shelby County v Holder in 2013.

    Of these three, the most racist, by far is Shelby County v Holder. Why?

    In 1857 when Chief Justice Roger Taney decided Dred Scott, slavery was embedded in the Constitution. It was four years before Lincoln’s first inauguration and the eleven slave states levied their war against the United States. It was 8 years before General Bobby Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified..

    The Plessy v Ferguson decision was finally overturned after 58 years in Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

    All of this took place long BEFORE chief justice James Crow roberts junior wrote Shelby County v Holder. roberts junion merely reincarnated John C. Calhoun and his Nullification Doctrine to Nullify the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. No textual originalism her for roberts junion.

  12. ShallMustMay08 says:

    Thank you Ed. I tuned into this series late after Kermit Roosevelt came onto my radar from a Supreme Myths (interview) podcast with Eric Segall.

    “First thing you have to know is what door to knock on.”

    Whew! In overall context for me here is that door(s) to equality are limited and often vague. Yet the doors to inequality will remain wide open and only when violated enough to merit the lowest courthouse door, if it isn’t properly nipped in the bud it only ripples on up. Yes, legislators have been rotten but all courts low and high for collegiality sake have not helped. (Especially in allowing and covering for lower process -intentional or inadvertent mistakes.)

    One thing I have stressed upon my youngest family members is that SCOTUS is a long term job they stay engaged and informed for any chance at reform because it will take years to simply even out (not lean left). The outright lying, making sh*t up and pay for play is obvious and undeniable only due to attention and sustained focus. However, I stress too the local voting rights, judges, and pols that they can not let slip by. All recognize and outwardly reject the racial inequalities thankfully but all inequality is institutional and systemic whether it is in policing, or education, or in pay. The list is long.

    I have one relative who I know has listened in past to some right wing garbage and allowed into his being. Every little chance I get I try to get him to see another perspective. As a minor example as a teen (normal mouthy) he came out against equal pay. I was shocked but he was adamant (physical reasonings). Well it is 5 years later now (moved from pure blue state to red) after graduating in 3 years and working towards his masters and phd for next 5 years. He is compensated well along with healthcare and looking at 5 years of stability. Very happy. So we were talking about balancing investment choices and then I struck – momentarily switching the subject (but kept him 1st) – to consider how pay inequality can have real hard cash effects on him personally. I simply said by the way you want your future spouse to be paid equally, have investing opportunities and affordable healthcare for two simple selfish reasons –
    1.) Better financial life for you and yours.
    2.) If marriage falls apart and the “local” process is fair, the less brutal for 2 housing costs, healthcare, child support and potential alimony/education financial burden on you.

    Yes I went b*tch mode not skipping a beat and right back to investing. I tell his sister’s the same for that exact “equal” reason. The resistance I remind them to equality is at “entry” (and birth), constant, and they all can see is getting steeper so as life changes and gets busier do not get distracted. We have friction everywhere but don’t let it exhaust you because unfortunately that is the goal. I learned far too late but they can learn and should hear from others.

    I grew up and was schooled in the north and and at home we always had policy and political conversations. I can not recall any college class discussing race in depth but clearly recall a Mr. Ripley in HS ending his slavery, reconstruction and civil rights lecture series discussing the then 1978 SCOTUS (paraphrasing) … we have a long way to go but it is slowly, very slowly getting better. From that moment on I paid attention to that court and then circuits but slipped on state and the lower courts.

    The doorway scene is masterful and perfect choice in closing out this series in reminding us most people are resistant to conflict. The human desire for some stability (expectations) and collegiality is extremely powerful.

  13. bloopie2 says:

    I’ve been reading recently about ancient Greece, when Athens was in its heyday, and I’ve noted that Plato identifies and discusses most, if not all, of the human traits of today’s citizens and rulers, and also the political problems of today’s governments. So, the wheel certainly turns slowly; has much changed in 2.5 millennia? I guess we need to be optimistic, and do what we can, in our limited time here.

    Ed, thank you for this series. It has been a frustrating but enlightening read. One last comment, in response to the discussion of what was and wasn’t covered in History class. Apparently, Leonard Bernstein was helpful in bringing Gustav Mahler into popularity in the latter half of the twentieth century; prior to that his work was not appreciated. In one statement I heard on the radio (an interview, perhaps), Bernstein notes all the terrible events that occurred in the world since Mahler’s 1911 death, a true parade of horrors, and remarks that Mahler perhaps was ahead of his time in anticipating those events with his dark and heavy compositions. My point in bringing this up is to note that even in the half century since my own last “History” class, which followed after Bernstein’s comment, so much has occurred that should be studied and remembered; how is a young person to do that, and to learn, as well, about the thousands of years preceding?

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