During Reconstruction, true citizenship finally seemed in reach for black Americans. Then their dreams were dismantled.
The broad outlines of the Reconstruction story have long been familiar, though the particular interpretive pressures put on particular moments have changed with every era. Toward the end of the war, Washington politicians debated what to do with the millions of newly freed black slaves. Lincoln, after foolishly toying with recolonization schemes, had settled on black suffrage, at least for black soldiers who had fought in the war. (It was a speech of Lincoln’s to this effect that sealed his assassination: John Wilkes Booth, hearing it, said, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through.”)
After Lincoln’s death, his hapless and ill-chosen Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, did as much as he could to slow the process of black emancipation in the South, while the “radical” core of the abolitionist Republicans in Congress tried to advance it, and, for a while, succeeded. Long dismissed as destructive fanatics, they now seem to be voices of simple human decency. Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist congressman from Pennsylvania, proposed shortly after the war’s end, in his “Lancaster” speech, a simple policy: punish the rebel leaders; treat the secessionist states as territories to be supervised by Congress, thus protecting the new black citizens; take the confiscated plantations on which masters had worked slaves like animals, and break up those plantations into forty-acre lots for the ex-slaves to own (a form of the classic “forty acres and a mule”). That this minimally equitable plan was long regarded as “radical” says something about how bent toward injustice the conversation quickly became.
Freed slaves eagerly participated in the first elections after the war, and distinguished black leaders went to Congress. The 1872 lithograph of “The First Colored Senator and Representatives,” by Currier & Ives, no less, shows seven black men given the full weight of mid-century Seriousness, including the first black senator from Mississippi, Hiram Rhodes Revels.
But white state governments steadily reconstituted themselves. By the eighteen-nineties, they were passing laws that, piece by piece, reclaimed the right to vote for whites alone. All of this was made worse by one of those essentially theological “constitutional” points which American professors and politicians love to belabor. Lincoln’s argument was always that, since it was unconstitutional for states to secede on their own, the rebel states had never seceded. The rebels were not an enemy nation; they were just a mob with a flag waiting to be policed, and the Union Army was the policeman. The idea was to limit any well-meaning attempt at negotiation, and to discourage foreign powers from treating the Confederacy as a separate state. After the war, though, this same idea implied that, since the state governments had never gone out of existence, their reborn legislatures could instantly reclaim all the rights enjoyed by states, including deciding who could vote and when.”