America's Reconstruction as Revolution
November 28, 2007
There are many reasons one may describe the Reconstruction era as America's unfinished revolution. It was a time that promised great change and progress, not only in the Southern United States, but across the entire country, and many of these changes were realized, if only for a short time. But it is not sensible to assume that the age after the progress had been reverted was the same as the antebellum South or even of the South before Reconstruction began. Though the Republican reformations did not stick, the South, and America, after Reconstruction was a new place. It operated on different systems with different ideals.
A logical place to view as the beginning of Reconstruction is the first of January, 1863. This is the day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was able to make such a declaration because the nation was at war, and as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, he could make military orders. Because of the logistics of the position, Lincoln could not free all slaves. He could only free slaves in the areas that had seceded from the union and taken military action against the United States. This included the ten states of the Confederacy that were not under Union control. Emancipation did not apply to slaves in Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky, as they were slave-holding states that never seceded from the union. The slaves of Tennessee also remained in bondage as the Union Army had already taken control of the state by January 1, 1863. Slaves were overjoyed upon hearing upon hearing the proclamation. They gathered in celebrations across the country. But January 1 was not the first day that slaves took a hold of freedom. From the beginning of the war many slaves understood that emancipation would undoubtedly be achieved, and they acted to that extent. When Union troops took over the land, most slaves no longer toiled for their owners and many fled to Union lines. The slaves could see what was on the horizon. "War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun."
The Proclamation signaled a turning point in not only the war, but the direction of the entire nation. For the first time, the country specifically committed itself to the issues of the black population. By making the Proclamation, Lincoln solidified the goal of the war as the end to slavery, instead of only the reunification of the nation. Slavery was the "central institution" of the pre-war South and was a fundamental element of the Southern way of life. Immediately, there were radical changes in many facets of American Life. Large numbers of blacks became soldiers in the union army and some went to battle against the Confederates. Many soldiers were former slaves from confederate states and fought against their past owners. In terms of the law, this was a great step up for blacks. They were allowed to testify against whites in military court and were viewed as equal by military law. They were not, however, treated equally in the other aspects of the military. They were segregated into black-only regiments and rarely saw time in combat. Instead they performed physical labor to aid the Union cause. This still, was a vast improvement over slavery and all enlistees would be "certified as free, and so would their wives, mothers, and children."
In 1865 the war was over. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant after the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. The official Reconstruction could now begin. The first period was presidential Reconstruction, which lasted until the congressional elections of 1866. The bulk of presidential Reconstruction fell onto Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. His was the task of finding a way to integrate the freedmen into American society while reconciling the division between North and South and reintegrating the latter both politically and economically. This would be no easy task. Looking at Johnson's past statements and political career, many assumed that he would make broad reforms and radical change in effort for Southern reunification. This was not the case, however. Johnson took a moderate stance against the radical Republicans who previously thought of him as an ally. The main topic of contention was the issue of black suffrage. Johnson stated that it was unconstitutional for the Federal government to force black suffrage onto states, and it was especially unsavory if Reconstruction was to occur quickly. This was a disappointment to the radical Republicans, who viewed black suffrage as essential to the successful reunification of the North and South. Furthermore, Johnson was opposed to the idea of blacks voting altogether. "'White men alone,' Johnson declared, 'must manage the South'" His plans provided few new roles for freedmen, and essentially forced them to return to plantation labor. "The freedmen had no role in his vision of a reconstructed South. When a black delegation visited him at the white house in early 1866, Johnson proposed that their people emigrate to some other country."