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Reconstruction and Government

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David Blight makes an important point about Reconstruction–that among other things, the Radical Republicans were spurred by a fervent belief in the efficacy of the federal government to write wrongs and effectively administer programs, something that scared the defenders of white supremacy who wanted to oppress African-Americans.

Reconstruction statesmen did not have ready-made constitutional blueprints to implement in the devastated and chaotic former Confederacy. What they did have is what political leaders still possess to this day—historical experience as well as fundamentally different views of constitutional authority and practice. The radical Republicans, who were ascendant and dominated the process in 1866-1868, believed in activist-interventionist government, in unionism, and for its time, the revolutionary strides for racial equality embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Their experience profoundly infused their actions. These men and their party had overseen an unprecedented centralization of power in the federal government as a means of fighting and winning the Civil War. It is worth remembering, especially in America’s current political circumstances in the early 21st century, that these men of the first Republican Party vehemently believed in government.

Among the many measures they enacted during the war as they invented America’s first “big government” were the first federal income tax, the Homestead Act, subsidies to build the transcontinental railroads, military conscription, U.S. bonds and the greenback dollar as ways of financing the unprecedented challenge of fighting all-out war. Other measures included the Quartermaster Corps (the largest employer in the U.S. other than the Union army), an agency that employed more than 100,000 people by 1864 and became the means by which the North produced the material to defeat the Confederacy, and perhaps above all the emancipation of 4 million slaves and therefore the confiscation of $3.5 billion in property by executive order and military might. The men who forged early Reconstruction policies were the same men who found revolutionary ways to pay for and arm Grant’s and Sherman’s forces, to crush the Confederacy, free slaves, and save the U.S. from dissolution and extinction. They had reason to claim the powers they assumed.

As Reconstruction began, the other side—which included surviving white Southerners who would rebuild the Democratic Party as a white supremacist crusade, and northern Democrats who opposed black rights, an enlarged government, and federal intervention in the South—chose a very different constitutional vision. This persuasion infused by white supremacy, a withering sense of defeat and desperate economic hardship, but also by a profoundly conservative view of federalism, promoted state sovereignty over federal power. They believed that despite the results of the war, the federal government had no authority to keep ex-Confederate states out of the Union, under military rule, and with many whites temporarily disfranchised and black men provided the right to vote and hold office. In this great political-constitutional struggle, one side enacted a revolution none could have fully envisioned in 1860. The other side hunkered down, forged a lethal sense of grievance, employed political organizing, racial solidarity, powerful and lasting myth-making, and terrorist violence to forge a counter-revolution.

This is such an important point as the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Calhoun and worked for over three decades to drown government in a bathtub while using its police power to again oppress African-Americans into a permanent underclass and use white solidarity to undermine any sense that the government can work for all. I would argue Blight’s point is one we do not make enough. Like the New Deal and the Great Society, the Radical Republicans and Congressional Reconstruction were an early sign that government can be effective and can improve the lives of all. Yet it will always be challenged, at least if our history is any guide, by powerful forces who wish to institute white supremacy, a task much easier of the government is weak outside of its police powers decentralized enough that they are in the hands of local authorities and not those who would use them to increase racial equality.

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