Gaining a Nation, Losing the Republic: 

Reconstruction, 1863-1877

Bradley J. Birzer, Hillsdale College

For Sheldon Richman/The FREEMAN, January 2011

A dead president, carpetbaggers, scalawags, burning crosses, white hoods, an occupied South, Boss Tweed, Thomas Nast cartoons, the New York Democratic machine, and an imprisoned Jefferson Davis give us vivid images of the dozen years following the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s forces at Appomattox in April, 1865.  As every historian knows, often to his chagrin, these twelve years were tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic, especially in hindsight.  The time period, is also, of course, a let down after the tragedies and nobilities of the Civil War years.  Whereas men had clear purpose—no matter what side the person chose—during the war, political compromises and plunder defined Reconstruction.

A period of governmental corruption, monetary instability, gross expansion of political power, the solidification of public schooling, Anglo-Saxon racialist beliefs, manifest destiny, Indian Wars, and extreme violence, Reconstruction witnessed a giant leap toward a cohesive nation-state and far away from the founding vision of a decentralized federal republic.  

Plunder, Not Peace

A mere two months before John Wilkes Booth assassinated him, President Abraham Lincoln met with his two top generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, on the steamship, The River Queen, just outside of Hampton Roads, Virginia.  Though Lincoln would call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in his second inaugural, delivered early March of the same year, he offered his fullest plan and desires for what a reconstructed union might look like in a private conversation with Grant and Sherman.  Lincoln, he assured them, wanted nothing more than 

to get the deluded men of the rebel armies disarmed and back to their homes. . . Let them once surrender and reach their homes, [and] they won’t take up arms again. . . . Let them all go, officers and all, I want submission and no more bloodshed. . . I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around.  We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.[1]

While Lincoln had waged a terribly hard and total war, he also desired the softest peace possible.  Indeed, if one takes Lincoln’s words on The River Queen at face value, the United States of 1865 would look very much like the United States of 1860, with one exception: returning states would need to accept the emancipation of all slaves through the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  His architects of total war, Grant and Sherman, agreed completely with the president.  Neither of Lincoln’s generals knew how much longer the war would last, they explained to him, but they believed the war was rapidly approaching its an end with possibly only one or two major battles left.  They had reached endgame.

            When Booth cut down Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, two months later, he changed the entire course of American history.  Had Lincoln presided over the peace following the war, one has no reason to doubt, he would have reconciled constitutional relations with, among, and between the former Confederate states, officers, and citizens as quickly as politically possible.  The war, after all, had been viewed by almost all sides as a noble tragedy for the common good of the republic and the vision (no matter how varied) of the American founding fathers.  Men, for the most part, had chosen to fight, and they had chosen to fight, again and again.  Though a draft existed in the North, for example, after the summer of 1863, ninety-four percent of all Union soldiers had volunteered.  As General Joshua Chamberlain, the classicist from Maine’s Bowdoin College, had astutely observed of the surrender ceremonies in April, 1865:

Honor answering honor. . . . [as men] of near blood born, made nearer by blood shed. . . . On our part not a sound or a trumpet more, nor roll of drum; nor a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glory, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding.[2]

Just outside of Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E. Lee’s former Confederate forces, what remained of the Army of Northern Virginia, walked through two lines of Union soldiers.  The Union soldiers saluted the defeated for hours on end that day. “Reluctantly, with agony of expression,” Chamberlain recorded, the Confederate soldiers

tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart holding colors, and lay them down; some frenziedly rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips with burning tears.[3]

Such a scene, of course, is a far cry from the militarization and politicization, the martial law and the intrusion of Leviathan that one normally associates with Reconstruction as it actually happened.  Though President Jefferson Davis’s final executive order called for all CSA troops to divide into terrorist cells and launch attacks against civilians and urban areas, Robert E. Lee countermanded the order through deed and word, telling the men to “be good citizens as they had been soldiers.”[4]

            With Lincoln’s death, though, the war became personal in a way that it had not been during the mass bloodshed of the previous four years.  To many in the country, especially in the North, Lincoln’s death transformed him into a full-fledged American martyr, and his reputation exploded.  Those who took most advantage of this loss and manipulated it to their advantage were the Radicals within the Republican party—Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, and Representative George Julian of Indiana, to name a few–men who had despised and resented Lincoln as a spineless moderate, lacking a proper nationalist and vindictive streak.  

The Radicals had attempted nothing less than a Congressional coup against Lincoln in December, 1862, had openly desired a military dictatorship throughout much of the war, and had proposed their own version of Reconstruction as early as 1863.  Their vision of post-war America involved remaking the entirety of the South in their own image, with extensive punishment for all involved.  Just as they had wanted Lincoln to wage an ever increasingly hard war, they wanted a peace imposed by the sword.  Lincoln’s death provided them with a symbol around which to rally Northerners against their southern brethren.  “Within eight hours of his murder Republican Congressmen in secret caucus agreed,” as Lincoln biographer, David Donald explained, “that ‘his death is a godsend to our cause.’”  As the leader of the Radicals, the Ohio Senator Ben Wade, stated, “there will be no more trouble running the government.”[5]  

Wade and his fellow Radicals would have no small part in nationalizing the United States over the next dozen years. “The New England reformers thought they had struck down evil incarnate when they crushed the Sable Genius of the South; and their horror at the corruption and chaos of the Gilded Age was intensified proportionately as they discovered the extent of their own previous naiveté,” the cultural critic and historian, Russell Kirk wrote.  “They had dreaded an era of Jefferson Davis; but now they were in an era” of the radicals and “of worse.”  The true reformers “awoke to find their fellow-Republicans, the oligarchs of their party, intent upon concrete plunder.”[6]

And, Leviathan Expands Again

            Not surprisingly, the size of government grew dramatically during the four years of the Civil War.  The Union printed greenbacks, founded the U.S. Secret Service (the second federal police force, the first having been set up after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850) to protect the green fiat money, taxed incomes, promoted university education, built war factories and railroads, raised tariffs, declared—in some places—martial law and suspended freedoms of speech and habeas corpus, used troops to break labor strikes, and encouraged mobs to do what it believed it could not do openly.  In the South, President Jefferson Davis nullified the Confederate constitution almost from day one.  Davis often ignored Congress and his own Vice President, and he used the full power of his office to harass any political opposition.  Most notably, through fraud, Davis shut down the one opposition to develop, the classical liberal “Conservative Party” of North Carolina.  The CSA taxed incomes, excess profits, and licenses, and raised tariffs on imports as well as exports.  Because currency flowed only intermittently throughout the South, the CSA printed an outrageous amount of paper currency and established—to the horror of average southerners—the Tax-In-Kind men, empowered by the government to take whatever livestock, produce, and materiel they deemed necessary for the war effort.  Unlike the North, the South conscripted throughout much of the war, set prices, and enforced loyalty oaths.  The CSA, contrary to popular memory, also rigorously enforced its own laws against the several states making up the Confederacy.

            In terms of institutional history, very few of these laws continued into the period of Reconstruction.  With the collapse of the Confederate government, no confederate laws continued, of course.  With the end of the war, the Union repealed many, if not most, of its war measures.  The legacy and symbolism of such martial laws, however, remained into the Progressive period and beyond.  If Lincoln could centralize the Union and defeat the Confederacy and Slavery, could we not also use the federal government to wage war against poor standards, poverty, immigrants, or whatever thing the individual Progressive might resent?  In this, the memory and influence of Civil War legacy is a powerful one.  Perhaps no figure better represents this than John Wesley Powell, a Union officer who lost his arm in the 1862 Battle of Shiloh, and is often regarded as the father of American progressives.  Tellingly, through the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Ethnography, Powell crafted and promoted plans to remake the West (sometimes, physically) through the powers of the federal government.

            Believing the federal government under Lincoln had never gone far enough, the Radicals of Reconstruction expanded the scope and reach of the federal government as quickly as possible.   Not only did the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nationalize the Bill of Rights, but it also repositioned virtually all federal law as superior to all state and local laws, thus attenuating even further the already difficult balance of federalism.  Most Reconstruction laws began in the Radical-controlled congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction, dominated by Ben Wade.  Most importantly, through the impetus of the Joint Committee, Congress passed a series of haphazard laws establishing martial law over various districts of the South.  The rule of law, such that it was, was enforced through military rather than civilian courts.  Through a series of laws, Congress provided extensive funding for public schooling, welfare (direct aid) for freed slaves, and, sometimes, enforced the property rights of blacks.  None of this should suggest that somehow the Radicals were, as a whole, pro-black.  As the Pulitzer-prize winning historian T.H. Williams once noted, the Radicals “loved the Negro less for himself than as an instrument with which they might fasten Republican political and economic control upon the South.”[7]  In reality, the Radicals were little better in their promotion of rights, dignity, and liberties blacks than had been the plantation owners of the previous generations.  Each—white men of the North and South—desired to manipulate the black population for their own aggrandizement and profit.  As Robert Higgs has definitively shown in his path-breaking work, Competition and Coercion, American freedmen did exceedingly well in terms of culture, economics, and literacy in the fifty years after emancipation.  But, as Higgs persuasively argues, they did so through their own efforts and despite significant government and societal obstacles. 

Free from competitive counterpressures and strongly equipped to enforce compliance, public officials could discriminate pretty much as their pleasure or caprice might dictate.  Under these circumstances it was a definite blessing for the blacks that the governments of the post-bellum South were still quite limited in the range of functions to which they attended.  Such salvation as the black man found, he found in the private sector.[8]

By 1910, Higgs shows, one in four blacks owned his own land, two-parent stable families accounted for all black families, and 70% of all blacks were literate.  By any measure, these are impressive gains considering the overwhelming majority of American blacks had never had a choice over any one of these things before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Not surprisingly, given the abusive attitudes white Radicals held toward American blacks, corruption proved endemic to the entire Reconstruction effort. So much money flowed from Congress into the reconstructed South that manipulators and opportunists profited wherever and whenever possible, which was more often than not.  The Reconstruction governments simply had no manpower or will to prevent the corruption.  More often than not, they participated directly in the corruption, using it for political gain.  The famous nineteenth-century Scottish observer of America, James Bryce, recorded his own thoughts on the time period.  “Such a Saturnalia of robbery and jobbery has seldom been seen in any civilized country, and certainly never before under the forms of a free self-government,” he wrote in his The American Commonwealth, comparing the American officials of Reconstruction to Roman provincial governors in the last days of the Republic.  

Greed was unchecked and roguery unabashed. The methods of plunder were numerous. Every branch of administration became wasteful. Public contracts were jobbed, and the profits shared. Extravagant salaries were paid to legislators; extravagant charges allowed for all sorts of work done at the public cost. But perhaps the commonest form of robbery, and that conducted on the largest scale, was for the legislature to direct the issue of bonds in aid of a railroad or other public work, these bonds being then delivered to contractors who sold them, shared the proceeds with the governing ring, and omitted to execute the work. Much money was however taken in an even more direct fashion from the state treasury or from that of the local authority; and as not only the guardians of the public funds, but even, in many cases, the courts of law, were under the control of the thieves, discovery was difficult and redress unattainable. In this way the industrious and property-holding classes saw the burdens of the state increase, with no power of arresting the process.[9]

While almost all white leftist historians have downplayed or ignored this corruption since the 1960s, they do so at great peril to the dictates of honesty and truth.[10]

As they had failed to do with Abraham Lincoln in the attempted Congressional coup of December 1862, the Radicals tried to gain control of President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet.  When Johnson violated this law in February of 1868, the House of Representatives impeached the president on a vote of 126-47, following strict party lines.  The failure of the Senate to support the House’s impeachment somewhat attenuated the strength and confidence of the Radicals.  Indeed, though Radical regimes remained in power until 1876, the Radicals never again wielded the same kind of power as they had in the second half of the 1860s.[11]

The Lingering Agony of Nationalism

            In part, the Radicals also failed because the eighteenth president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, never accepted the fanatical premises upon which Radicalism had developed.[12]  A moderate Republican at best, Grant resented the post-war bloodthirstiness of the Radicals, few of whom had ever seen battle.  Despite this, Grant was a determined nationalist and, when he was not dealing with the corruption in his own administration, he was promoting “Americanness” wherever possible.  This became most clear in his policy toward the American Indians.  

U.S. Government relations the Indians had never been consistent.  It had gravitated between vicious brutality toward the Indians (as had been the case under Andrew Jackson) to respect and protection of Indian property (such as had been the case under Franklin Pierce).  After the Civil War, under the Johnson and Grant administrations, the U.S. Government waged a fierce war against the American Indians, confiscating their best property, relegating what remained of the tribe to the worst land.  The greatest atrocity committed by the federal government against American Indians came just at the very end of the Reconstruction period.  After a tragic misunderstanding, the military decided to round up, forcibly remove, and detain a sizeable minority of the Nez Perce Indians, a tribe faithfully allied to America since 1805.  When the Nez Perce understandably resisted, the government spared neither time nor expense to defeat them.  As the periodical, The Nation, reported:

How far the Indian insurrection on the Pacific Slope is for the present suppressed is not decided, but it were well, while its lesson is fresh, to realize that the Nez-Perces are not to blame for the expensive and sanguinary campaign, unless being goaded into a brief madness by the direct and endless oppression of our Federal authorities be blameworthy. . . . the neglect and bad faith of the general Government, continued for a quarter of a century, are apparent in the records of Congress.  There was swindling, not in petty matters and by individuals, requiring detection and proof, but on a grand scale by the United States itself.[13]

 It would be difficult to find a more telling example of government corruption and abuse of power during this period than its directing of the military against a peaceful, allied people, farmers and ranchers who had been occupying the same land—the Palouse and Camas Prairies of the Pacific Northwest—for nearly five hundred years.

Nation-building always and everywhere demands conformity and destruction of local and individual differences.  To overcome such divisions, the nation must create a religious type of myth and fundamental symbols to rally the population, and defend itself with unrelenting force.  The Reconstruction government did all of this without apology, and immigrants (especially Roman Catholics), blacks, and Indians suffered intensely.  “Nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism,” one of the great classical liberals of the day, E.L. Godkin, noted in hindsight in 1900. “We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors.”  Americans, Godkin argued, had forsaken the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution.  Further, he wrote, “The great party which boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and of citizenship now listens in silence to proclamations of White Supremacy.”[14]

Men who had fought valiantly on the battlefields of the Civil War must have asked themselves what it all had meant, if anything?

Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History, Hillsdale College, Michigan.  He is the author of several books, including his most recent about the American founding, American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI Books, 2010).  He dedicates this article—for his friendship and inspiration for over twenty years—to Larry Reed.

[1] Lincoln’s conversation quoted in Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 68.

[2] Chamberlain quoted in Nesbitt, ed., Through Blood and Fire: Selected Civil War Papers of Major Joshua Chamberlain (Stackpole Books, 1996), 175.

[3] Chamberlain quoted in Mark Nesbitt, ed., Through Blood and Fire, 176.

[4] Jeffrey Hummel, Emancipating Slaves: Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1996), 282; and Robert E. Lee quoted in Bruce Catton, The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, 570.

[5] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2nd ed., enlarged (New York: Vintage, 1956), 4.

[6] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1st ed., (Chicago, IL: Regnery, 1953), pg. 295.

[7] T.H. Williams quoted in Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 105.  The obvious exception to this is Thaddeus Stevens.

[8] Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 133.

[9] James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2: 335-336.

[10] Whether one should emphasize the corruption of the Reconstruction period is an issue hotly debated by historians over the previous century.  While few historians outright dismiss the extent of the corruption, most historians since the 1960s have chosen to see Reconstruction as a failed noble attempt, branding those who focus on the corruption as somehow lacking in idealism.  See especially Kenneth Stampp, “The Tragic Legend of Reconstruction,” the first chapter of his The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 3-23.  Unfortunately, Stampp’s view has become orthodoxy among professional historians.

[11] James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3d ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 572-581.

[12] The best biography of Grant is Josiah Bunting III, Ulysses S. Grant: The 18th President, 1869-1877 (Times Books, 2004).

[13] The Nation (August 2, 1877).

[14] E.L. Godkin, “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” The Nation (August 9, 1900), 105.