The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America, lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United State? If all labor, black as well as white, became free, were given schools and the right to vote, what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men, regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship would rule, and how would property and privilege be protected? (184)
This was the dilemma facing the Northern bourgeoisie in the face of the audacious lawlessness of the South. Northern industrialists had their own reasons for pursuing civil war with the South.
They looked upon free Negro labor as a source of profit, and considered freedom, that is, a legal doing away with individual physical control all, that the Negroes or their friends could ask. They did not want for Negro labor any special protection or political power or capital, any more than they wanted this for Irish, German, or Scandinavian labor in the North.
When, however, the South went beyond reason and truculently demanded not simply its old political power but increased political power based on disfranchised Negroes, which it openly threatened to use for the revision of the tariff, for the repudiation of the national debt, for disestablishing the national banks, and for putting the new corporate form of industry under strict state regulation and rule, Northern industry was frightened and began to move towards the stand which abolition-democracy had already taken; namely, temporary dictatorship, endowed Negro education, legal civil rights, and eventually even votes for Negroes to offset the Southernthreat of economic attack.
In the Republican Party, both Radical Republicans as well as pragmatic industrialists struggled for control of the party. EricFonerdescribes the Radical Republicans as”a self-conscious political generation with a common set of experiences and commitments, a grass-roots constituency, a moral sensibility, and a program for Reconstruction.Radicals had long insisted that slavery and the rights of Blacks must take precedence over other political questions.”8 These radicals, or in DuBois’s wordsthe”abolition-democracy,”took the reins of the Reconstruction process and dashed to the left. Stevens and Sumner led the charge.
The pursuit of a Radical Reconstruction reflected these priorities. Congress quickly took three actions to protect the rights of Southern Blacks.
Drafting the Fourteenth Amendment as a way to guarantee the rights of freedmen as citizens. This was necessary because the 1857 Dred Scott decision ruled that Blacks were”property not people.”Moreover, without the rights of citizenship there would be no way for Blacks to protect themselves from the excesses of racist state governments.
Congress moved to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was an agency in the South meant to advocate for newly freed slaves in the transition from slavery to freedom. The Bureau was charged with establishing schools, dividing the confiscated land of Confederate planters, supervising contracts between Black freedmen and their landlords, and mediating other disputes.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Under its provisions ex-slaves became citizens who enjoyed”the full and equal benefits of all laws.”The bill gave federal courts the power to intervene when state and local governments denied full protection of the law.
Andrew Johnson, of course, vetoed all of this legislation. But his actions only angered moderate Republicans and pushed them toward the Radicals, giving the Radicals the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto. Johnson became more vitriolic in his race hatred and openly campaigned with Democrats to undo all civil rights legislation. This only led to his intense political isolation, resulting in a landslide electoral victory for Republicans in the fall of 1866helping to usher in Radical Reconstruction.
The radicals tied Black suffrage to Reconstruction. Before Congress, Sumner persuasively argued,
Without their votes we cannot establish stable governments in the Rebel States. Their votes are as necessary as their muskets; of this I am satisfied. Without them, the old enemy will reappear, and under the forms of law take possession of the governments, choose magistrates and officers, and in alliance with the Northern Democracy, put us all in peril again, postpone the day oftranquility, and menace the national credit by assailing the national debt.
Fairly quickly, support for Black suffrage spread throughout the North. Even the New York Times argued,”The government cannot, without the worst dishonor, permit the bondage of the black man to be continued in any form.”(201)
But the greatest advocates for Black suffrage were the former slaves themselves. In one of many conventions of African Americans, Frederick Douglass helped to pen the following appeal:
In the ranks of the Democratic Party, all the worst elements of American society fraternize; and we need not expect a single voice from that quarter for justice, mercy, or even decency. To it we are nothing; the slaveholders everything.How stands the case with the great Republican Party in question? We have already alluded to it as being largely under the influence of the prevailing contempt for the character and rights of the colored race[we want] the complete abolition of the slavery of our racewe cannot be free while our brothers are slaveswe want the elective franchise in all the states now in the Union. (234)
Yet it would not be until five years after the war before Black men in the former Confederacy were formally given the right to vote. The main reason for this is because Southern state governments refused to ratify the congressional amendment. To underline the intransigence of the Southern governments, consider that Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, until 1995130 years after the war.
Despite the efforts of the former Confederacy, Radical Reconstruction went forward. The radicals were never able to get the full extent of what they and the freedmen wanted, but what was achieved in this short period of time was stunning.
In early 1867, Congress passed three Reconstruction Acts, which included the following:
The replacement of Johnson’s state governments;
The division of the South into five military districts;
The calling for the election of new state constitutional conventions by loyal Black and white Southerners under the armed protection of federal troops (and temporarily barring former Confederate officials from voting in these conventions and banning them from holding public office);
The ordering of these conventions to draft new constitutions with provisions for Black suffrage;
Decreeing the election of new state governments under the provisions of the recently drafted constitutions;
Requiring ratification of the Fourteenth Amendmentguaranteeing Black citizenshipas a condition for readmission of Southern states to the Union;
The empowerment of the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist freedmen and poor whites in the transition from feudal slavery to freedom.
The Reconstruction Acts absolutely transformed life in the South for freed Blacks and poor whites had also been disenfranchised and disempowered by the slaveocracy for centuries. DuBoismade a point of emphasizing the extent to which Reconstruction created the potential for unity between ordinary Blacks and whites in the South:
Here for the first time there was established between the white and Black of this country a contact on terms of essential social equality and mutual respect. The freeing of the nation from the strangling hands of oligarchy in the South freed not only Black men but white men. (210)
An organization called the Union League sprang up all over the South attempting to unite both ordinary Blacks and whites in their efforts to reshape the South in their own interest. Chapters of the league conducted political activity for the Republican Party, built churches and schools, launched labor strikes and protests, trained Black political leaders, created armed militias to defend Black communities, and helped to organize and mobilize Blacks to take political office.
In the call for new state governments and state elections, Blacks were able to exercise new political power. Displaced Confederates and Confederate sympathizers boycotted the state constitutional conventions, assuming that without their participation there would not be quorum and decisions could not be made. But, thousands of Blacks and ordinary whites proved them wrong as they flocked to the conventions to have their say on what their new states should look like. In the elections of 1867 and 1868, to the shock of Democrats everywhere, the Republican Party swept the electionswith 90 percent of eligible Black voters participating. But in only two states were there Black majorities. This meant that across the South, poor whites were also exercising their newfound rights in the hopes of forming a new society by giving their support and votes to the Republican Party.
Blacks for the first timetwo years removed from slaverywere elected to state governments and the United States Congress. Six hundred Black Republicans joined state legislatures, fourteen went to the U.S. House of Representatives, and two went to the U.S. Senate. Six became lieutenant governors, and thousands more took lesser offices including as judges and sheriffs. In this period it was not uncommon to have Black judges hear cases involving Black tenants and white landlordsand decide in favor of the Black to the shock of the whites. The reconstructed state became a tool for Blacks and poor whites to exercise some control over their own lives, whereas the previous state had mainly been used as a means of controlling Black labor. This is what DuBoisis referring to in his repeated references to the”dictatorship of labor”and the”dictatorship of the proletariat.”He is specifically contrasting the nature of the state under the control of the planters to the state under the control of the freedmen and poor whites. Under the dictatorship of laborwith backing from the U.S. militarythe state expanded massively to include public schools, public hospitals, public aid, and a commitment to care for the poor. This was to lead to a period of unfettered democracy. He says of the political experiment,
[Radical Reconstruction] was a test of the whole theory of American government. It was a dictatorship backed by the military arm of the United States by which the governments of theSouthern states were to be coerced into accepting a new form of administration, in which the freedmen and the poor whites were to hold the overwhelming balance of political power. As soon as political power was successfully delivered in to the hands of these elements, the Federal government was to withdraw and full democracy ensue. (345)
Even if what was achieved through Radical Reconstruction did not reach this level of democracy, it was something completely revolutionary, which turned a backward society upside down.
Summing up the Reconstruction era, a white lawyer in South Carolina commented,”We have gone through one of the most remarkable changes in our relations to each other, that has been known, perhaps in the history of the world.”
He was correct.