The Tyranny and Corruption of the Radical Republicans
Southern Reconstruction 1865-1877
March 18, 2020
Part 1 of a Series
Mike Scruggs – The South was as devastated by the Un-Civil War of 1861 to 1865 as much as any nation in the annals of warfare. By the end of the war, one out of every four white men had been killed or died of wounds or disease.
Over 40 percent of private property including homes, businesses, livestock, and crops had been destroyed. In South Carolina, where Sherman’s men had burned the capitol city of Columbia, over 50 percent of private property was destroyed. Most of this property damage was deliberately inflicted in implementing a “total war” policy on the civilian population to deny the Confederate Army the logistical means of resistance, but also to demoralize their families and supporters at home.
It was ordered in cold calculation by Northern political and military leadership but often executed with self-righteous religious zeal or criminal abandon. Recent scholarship now estimates that over 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died from the ravages of war and disease. In addition, there were over 130,000 Southern civilian deaths, including at least 80,000 displaced slaves, who died of malnutrition and disease following Emancipation and the collapse of the Southern economy following the war. Neither Christian teachings nor modern Geneva Conventions condone such total war. Reconstruction was an extension of “total war’ policy by political means.
To quote the eminent Southern historian, Clyde Wilson, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of South Carolina,
“The purpose of Reconstruction was not equality; it was plunder, plunder, plunder.”
The equally eminent Professor Emeritus of History at William and Mary, Ludwell Johnson, author of North against South, The American Iliad 1848-1877, gave a profound economic and political analysis:
’[T]he cardinal underlying objective of Reconstruction was to maintain and enhance the political dominance of the Republican Party, particularly that faction now referred to as the Radical Republicans.”
To avoid historical misunderstanding, it is necessary to point out that the Republican Party of the Civil War and Reconstruction bears little resemblance to the republican and free-market principles of Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump. The Republican Party at that time was dominated by those who favored an “American System” of big government serving big business.
They believed in high protectionist tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing and supported generous government subsidies to powerful railroads, public works, and industrial interests. They were the party of power through patronage. They were of the Hamiltonian philosophy of highly centralized government power and national banking. The Constitution and especially States Rights were frequently viewed as a hindrance to national prosperity and greatness. There were more moderate and conservative grass-roots factions in the party, but the Radical Republicans were able to dominate because of strong support in the press and their ruthless will to maintain and exercise power by whatever vicious propaganda, deception, and corruption necessary.
Neither did Democrats then much resemble Democrats today. In fact, the contrast between Democrats then and now is utterly astonishing. The Democrats of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were more agrarian, socially conservative, and strongly committed to the decentralized, limited government outlined in the U. S. Constitution, including States Rights. During the Reconstruction years, Conservative and Democrat were close political synonyms. Modern American Marxism, especially Cultural Marxism, which is today most often associated with modern Democrats, ironically has its closest antecedents in the Radical Republicans, who often combined radical abolitionism and growing religious apostasies with a strong belief in the efficacy of all-powerful government.
For more than a generation before the War, radical abolitionists and their Whig/Republican political allies had stigmatized the South as a brutal and backward society in need of punishment, repentance, and remaking. A distorted and propagandistic understanding of the conditions of slavery in the South and eroding respect for the Authority of Scripture fueled the preaching of many Northern pulpits Relentless Northern war propaganda magnified this twisted vision of the South into contempt and frenzied hatred for all things Southern. The Northern press seized upon every opportunity to fan the flames of sectional hatred. The devastating casualties endured by Union forces in conquering the South added a real and powerful emotional component to Northern animosity toward the South.
Nevertheless, near the end of the War, in his second inauguration speech, President Lincoln had presented a generous vision for bringing the South back into the Union fold. His often quoted words, “with malice toward none; with charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds,” were to set a new attitude and theme in the restoration of the South to the Union. Lincoln had instructed Grant in accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to “let him up easy.” Union General J. L. Chamberlain ordered his battle seasoned troops at Appomattox to give a salute of honor to Confederate troops as they passed in final review at that surrender. Robert E. Lee had advised his men to go home and be good American citizens.
Following the assassination of Lincoln, however, goaded by the press and Radical Republicans in Congress, the flames of regional mistrust, hatred, and a desire for vengeance on the South erupted with vehement passion. Lincoln’s Vice President, now President Andrew Johnson, a relatively conservative former Democratic Congressman from East Tennessee, had planned to follow the Lincoln plan for restoring the South to the Union. In this he would be vigorously opposed by the Radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania in the House, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate, and Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. Their objective was permanent Republican Party dominance of the nation. A humiliating and vengeful subjugation of Southern States was to be an important instrument of the Radical Republican plan for continued national dominance. Southern States would be remade into Republican States fashioned and tightly controlled by Radical Republicans.
Although civil rights idealism played a part in Radical Republican thinking, and a very great part in their talk, the main role of former slaves would be insuring Republican political dominance in the South and suppressing any rising political opposition. This would have the effect of opening the South to economic exploitation and dominance by enterprising Northern fortune and office seekers. Both Union war casualties and civil rights issues would provide fuel for demonizing the South. Waving the “bloody shirt’ and exaggerated and even fabricated reports of racial injustice and disorder in the South became powerful instruments for gaining and maintaining political power in the North.
The Union loyalist state governments established by President Johnson quietly concentrated on economic recovery during the latter part of 1865 and early 1866. General Grant confirmed this in reports to the President. Just before the end of the War, the Freedmen’s Bureau had been established to aid in the economic adjustment of former slaves. By the end of 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery had been ratified by seven Southern legislatures and became law. In July 1866, a Civil Rights Bill was passed to insure Southern blacks the full rights of citizens. Still the South was relatively quiet, but the Radical Republicans were stirring trouble both in the South and in Congress.
The Radical Republican leaders proposed a Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection and due process under the law theoretically to all Americans, but also denying public office to former elected officials who had supported the Confederacy. This was not only punitive in spirit but effectively eliminated the most likely source of any political opposition to Republican rule in the South. It also cleverly turned the Constitution upside down by enhancing arbitrary Congressional power over the States and the people. By February 1867, the Fourteenth Amendment had been temporarily derailed by the rejection of ten Southern and three Border State legislatures.
The Radical Republicans were ready for this. They had been stoking the flames of Northern outrage against the South by reporting numerous crimes and outrages against blacks. All this was contrary to the reports of General Grant. Few of these can now be substantiated. Most appear to have been either highly exaggerated or fabricated, and some even incited. Many of the reports were telegraphed from Washington. In March 1867, over the veto of President Johnson, Republicans passed the first Reconstruction Act. This act revoked the legal governments of ten Southern States and placed them under martial law, administered in five military districts. This act gave the vote to adult black males and disenfranchised Confederate veterans and former elected officials. This disenfranchised over 85 percent of Southern white men. In addition, Union soldiers stationed in the South were allowed to vote. Ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment was made a contingency for readmission to the Union.
Another Act greatly expanded the Freedmen’s Bureau in both size and powers. These powers included arbitrary police and judicial powers and the ability to levy fines against “civil rights violators.” Corrupt Freedmen’s Bureau agents thereby made a good living.
Reconstruction was not a plan to rehabilitate the Southern economy. It was a plan to remake the South into the ideological image of the North, plunder its resources and economy, insure Republican political power in Washington for the long term, and punish the South for its rebellion and sins. The most intelligent and humane method of providing economic recovery is to cut taxes and government regulations, and to provide government assistance in rebuilding infrastructure and meeting urgent humanitarian needs. Instead, an overwhelmingly Northern dominated Congress instituted punitive taxes and sent swarms of tax collectors and despotic government regulators to oversee the plunder and humiliation of the South. They were accompanied by swarms of political opportunists, shameless swindlers, and militant do-gooders.
To be continued.
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