Monday, April 27, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part XLVIII: Epilogue, Part 3: ... And Dropping Them


"I yield to no one precedence in love for the South. But because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy." -- Woodrow Wilson, March 1880

Is it possible to lose a war but win the peace?

Of course it is. You need look no further than Germany or Japan. If you had told one of the survivors, starving in blasted-out ruins in 1945, that in only a few short decades their nations would stand near the top of the entire world in economic growth, they'd have thought you insane. Looking back from 1970, though, it was fairly clear: Japan and Germany, far from being impoverished conquered provinces, were very wealthy and very free. They both lost their war, and by 1970 no one was all that heart-broken about it.

(As an aside, it's ironic that a liberalized and democratized Germany and Japan have achieved most of the goals that their totalitarian masters had set for influence and prosperity. But I digress.)

So it was with the South, more or less. They lost the war for independence, yes. But the patience of the Northern taxpayer would not last forever. And there were projects the Northern taxpayer had no real interest in undertaking.

The failures of Reconstruction, then, can be divided into two broad categories. First, the things the Congress never really tried to do; and second, the things it did, but stopped doing after a while.

The fundamental problem surrounding the abolition of slavery was this: aside from freedom, nothing had been given the freedman. He owned nothing, and had few to no skills. What was he supposed to do with himself? How would he earn a living?

There were half-hearted efforts by the Freedmen's Bureau to address this problem. Vocational training, for instance. And efforts to get them included in the Homestead Act. Get them a fair start with property and skills. Unfortunately the effort was starved and stymied from the start. The Freedmen's Bureau was basically gutted by 1869, and closed outright in 1872.

Even in its failure, though, there were successes. Schools and colleges were established all over the country, first simply to teach them to read and write, and then to address their needs for higher learning. And it was able to offer assistance and advice to freedmen who were adjusting to their new relationships, employee to employer rather than slave to master.

But this effort to address the fundamental issue -- that the freedman owned nothing and knew little -- was barely a drop in the bucket. And after 1872, Congress more or less forgot about the whole thing until the 1960s.

That leads us to the other reason for Reconstruction's failure: Northerners got tired of paying for, and staffing, a military occupation of the Southern states. You see, Lee was fundamentally right: the North would get tired of being on a war footing, sooner or later. It took ten to fifteen years to get there, though, far too long for the Confederacy to get any benefit.

In the immediate aftermath, the Republican super-majority in Congress could do what it damned well pleased. And often did, despite Jackson's veto. (Again, I think Lincoln would have handled this better ... but we'll never know.) The Radicals wanted, and got, a harsh version of Reconstruction that was essentially an army of occupation sitting on the South until ... well, until the North tired of the effort. While an army of occupation was sitting on top of them, they had to pay attention to things like the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. They had to pay attention to voting rights. That doesn't mean they liked it.

And so, to all intents and purposes, the minute the North looked away ... the South returned to a passable version of status quo ante. Black Codes were passed that were very little different from the Slave Codes they replaced. This system mutated a little over the years, to become the Jim Crow laws that basically ruled the South from the 1870s to the 1960s, 1970s, and in some places even later. The system that was in place by the turn of the century was very little different from that which had been in place forty years before.

There were a few differences, though. People were acknowledged to own themselves. And those who could get out, who could move North or West, found life a little more pleasant. Not a whole lot, because discrimination was rife in those places as well ... but once the soldiers left, the South re-imposed their preferred social order.

And so it was that by 1880 or thereabouts, a young Southerner could well celebrate the Confederacy's ruin. Well, not "celebrate" as such. But like Wilson, they could have both the advantages of being part of the Union, and enjoy the privileges of class that their fathers and grandfathers had known.

They had lost the war, but they had also won the peace.

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