Scott referenced Jamelle Bouie’s Times piece on the problems of free labor ideology and the failures of Reconstruction. It is really outstanding. The most important thing to understand about mid to late 19th century America is free labor ideology. But it’s hard to easily grasp. Basically, it is the idea that the future of the nation was one of free white farmers and artisans and skilled laborers that would spread the wealth of America across the white race fairly evenly, creating a responsible, hard-working, striving republic of freeholders based around an idealized version of the free market. This vision is a huge part of why lots of northerners opposed slavery while not giving one whit about the fate of black people. It is why abolitionists became the most anti-union fanatics in the country after the war. It’s why workers struggled so much to understand why capitalism wasn’t working to spread wealth relatively equally. It framed the civilization narratives whites used against Native Americans. And it stopped cold the economic reforms that could have given freed slaves real emancipation in the Reconstruction South, the subject of Jamelle’s essay.
But the laudable commitment from Grant and the Republican Congress to the political rights of the former slaves was fatally undermined by their indifference to the vast social and economic inequality of the postwar South. Unable to see past an ideology of “free labor” and “free soil,” they also couldn’t grasp how slavery and racial stigma gave black Americans a fundamentally different relationship to economic life. The result was actions that ultimately sowed seeds for new relationships of race hierarchy in the South and the nation at large.
In “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age” (the latest volume in Oxford’s history of the United States), the Stanford historian Richard White notes how most Republicans “sincerely embraced free labor and continued to believe in its transformative capacity and egalitarian assumptions.” They believed that Southern whites in particular would embrace the prosperity of free labor, “even at the price of supporting Reconstruction policies that extended economic opportunities to black men.”
But Southern society still rested on ideas of hierarchy and caste that still shaped behavior for former masters, former slaves and poor whites. “To the plantation planters such a wage contract was economic heresy and social revolution,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “Black Reconstruction in America.” Many poor whites, likewise, “faced with the dilemma of recognizing the Negroes as equals,” saw them as a “threat” to their “very existence.”
To upend this relationship, Republicans would have to transform the property relations of the South. Without land redistribution and a measure of material equality, political rights for blacks (and whites) would falter under the weight of planter power and racial caste. As Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and an ardent support of black civil rights, argued in the first months after the war, “How can republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse, exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs?” He continued, “If the South is ever to be made a safe republic let her lands be cultivated by the toil of the owners or the free labor of intelligent citizens.”
Deeply entwined as they were with Northern capital and committed to the protection of private property, neither Grant nor the Republican Party was willing to take those steps. Instead, they allowed Northern and Southern employers to extract profit by any means necessary, imposing peonage and sharecropping on landless former slaves. The government would distribute land, but to railroads and Western settlers, not blacks.
Grant entered office committed to the fortunes of the formerly enslaved. But by the end of his administration, he had acquiesced to white racism and financial power, largely withdrawing from the South and leaving its black citizens at the mercy of a reinvigorated class of owners and planters. Reconstruction as an active federal presence was already coming to an end when Republicans cut the 1877 deal that made Rutherford B. Hayes president and withdrew federal troops from the South. With time, the Southern owner and planter class would construct a new system of race hierarchy, affirmed by the mass of poor whites, that would reproduce racial stigma and mire the South in poverty and disadvantage.
Slavery horrified a lot of northerners. So did the Confederacy. But upending private property rights, even for those who committed treason in defense of slavery? That was impossibly horrifying. That plays straight into the extremely violent response to even mild union demands in the coming decades. Even as free labor ideology turned into social Darwinism and the Gospel of Wealth for the rich, they held onto their idealized free market to justify anything they did, up to and including sanctioning southern white terrorism against African-Americans by Grant’s second term and calling out the military to shoot strikers.
In other Civil War news, check out this Keri Leigh Merritt essay on the swamps where southern whites avoiding military service hid. It’s very good too and notes how much they had learned from runaway slaves on how to do this.