In the decade following the Civil War, the United States was charged with the task of rebuilding the literal and political landscape of the South. Federal troops who had once attacked the rebel states were now ruling over them until local governments could be established. How and when those local governments would be established, however, was a matter of debate.
Speeches by Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass from the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society provide evidence of the debate over Reconstruction policies including the conditions under which southern states would be readmitted to the Union. Abolitionists such as Phillips and Douglass called for nothing less than the full citizenship and enfranchisement of African Americans. Phillips, in his speech, criticizes an Executive branch, overeager to make peace, for being willing to readmit southern states under terms that leave room for "white men of the reconstructed States [to] keep inside the Constitution, be free from any legal criticism, and yet put the negro where no Abolitionist would be willing to see him," (page 31).
Douglass similarly criticizes an early Reconstruction policy, claiming that it "practically enslaves the negro, and makes the Proclamation of 1863 a mockery and delusion," (page 36). Douglass also feared the South would treat the Federal Government as a conquering force under Reconstruction and proffered the enfranchisement of African Americans as a safeguard against probable insurrection:
There will be . . . this rank undergrowth of treason . . . growing up there, and interfering with, and thwarting the quiet operation of the Federal Government in those states. You will see those traitors handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with mailicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers . . . Now, where will you find the strength to counterbalance this spirit, if you do not find it in the negroes of the South?
A search on suffrage produces pamphlets debating voting rights for men in the South. “Is the South Ready for Restoration?” points out the inconsistency of claiming political representation of African Americans in determining the Southern states’ power in Congress and in the Electoral College while “absolutely refusing the privilege of voting to those whom they thus claim as fully worthy of representation,” (page 10).
This point was taken into consideration in 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution provided citizenship to African Americans. “Negro Suffrage and Social Equality” explains that if African-American males were not allowed to vote in a state, Congressional representation would be reduced so that only the white male population was counted (page 1). Along with this incentive, Southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in order to re-enter the Union. Despite this stipulation, black men were not always represented at the polls and a year later, the Fifteenth Amendment more overtly established suffrage by guaranteeing African-American men the right to vote. In theory, this amendment eliminated a state’s ability to deny suffrage to black voters.
There was, however, a difference between providing laws protecting African Americans and enforcing those laws. The 1873 pamphlet, “The Struggle Between the Civilization of Slavery and That of Freedom,” explains, “You have abolished slavery; but you have not destroyed the civilization--the moral and social ideas, born of slavery,” (page 4). The term, “Reconstruction,” in the Subject Index yields additional pamphlets such as “The Massacre of Six Colored Citizens of the United States at Hamburgh, S. C., on July 4, 1876,” which documents the slaughter of a black militia at the hands of a white mob.
- Why did Phillips and Douglass consider some early Reconstruction policies a mockery of the Union victory and the Emancipation Proclamation?
- How did Reconstruction policies and their relation to African Americans change over time?
- How had the role of abolitionists changed in the wake of the Civil War?
- How did Reconstruction policies establish a new order in the South?
- What did the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment imply about southern states reentering the Union?
- Why do you think that it was easier to change laws instead of attitudes in the South?
- Do you think that racial attitudes can be changed by legislation?
- Could the Federal Government have gained control in the South without appearing to be a conquering force? If so, how?