Americans, including academics, have an immense appetite for books, stories and films about the people, processes and details of the Revolution and the Civil War. American academics have a nearly equally immense appetite for books and articles about democratization, but more recently their tastes have changed to include studies of authoritarianism, dictatorship, and repression.
Neither citizens at large nor academics, however, have much of a taste for the period in which American history comprises grim accounts of authoritarianism, terror, dictatorship and the violent overthrow of elected governments — the period between 1876 and 1956.
American academics do occasionally research and write about these years, but they prefer to focus on what are, generally, more uplifting stories. These include the expansion of American industry, the political integration of millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, the development of the welfare state and the increasingly important role of the US as a global power. What negative aspects there are to the role of urban political machines, the unequal distribution of wealth in the Gilded Age, and the inability (or unwillingness) of the US to bring democracy to the real or metaphorical islands where US troops were dispatched from the Philippines to Central America or the Caribbean, form a necessary counterpoint to the ineluctably progressive character of the American experience.
Inherent in these stories — whether told in the academic or the popular press — is the belief that America is one country, with one people. Its territorial boundaries expand and its population becomes increasingly diverse but, as our national motto has it, we are, out of many, one. Walt Whitman is our national poet because he celebrates our protean ability to combine a multitude of individuals. To the extent that we may be slightly skeptical of how exceptional we are, we sometimes note the role that ideas of race have played in the history of the American state and American society. Because African slavery in the Americas was nearly coextensive with white settlement, we have come to see African Americans as people against whom there has been discrimination but who are historically part and parcel of the American people and American history.
There are sound reasons for looking at American history this way, but we can learn something else about the history of our country and the world by looking at things slightly differently: as the centuries-long account of attempting, with varying degrees of success, the integration of two very different countries — one with liberal democratic and market institutions riven by class conflict, and one with an authoritarian political system and a command economy and a caste society — into one, and of attempting, often with very little success, to democratize one of them.
Seen in this light and shorn of the idea that the conflict over race is simply a matter of individual prejudice (although that too exists), similarities between post-colonial states in the Middle East, Asia and Africa with the United States become more apparent. For anyone interested in whether an occupying army can accomplish democratization, or the ways in which a dispossessed elite regains authority, or simply how much political capital US governments are willing to expend in the pursuit of democratization, the years between 1865 and 1960 in the American South provide a wealth of insight.
In April 1865, the federal government won the war it had prosecuted for four years against an insurgent government, the Confederate States of America (CSA). Unlike many rebellious movements the CSA was a fully formed state. It had an army, governing institutions and offices, diplomatic representatives and a legal system. It claimed and, except when militarily defeated by the Union army, largely succeeded in maintaining a monopoly of legitimate violence in the territory it claimed.
Had the Union not occupied the south, including its successive capitals, there is no reason to believe that it would have been anything other than a functioning state in the global system of states. It is generally understood today that the war was fought over the issue of slavery but what this means is often unclear. The war was not fought over racial discrimination, but over whether the state would recognize and defend property rights in human beings. More exactly, it was fought to determine whether a political system in which slavery provided an elite with crucial economic power would continue to exist in North America where it had already been abolished in the two neighboring polities of Canada and Mexico. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tool through which the Union destroyed the economy of the CSA. Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution in 1865 outlawing slavery made the re-creation of the Old South’s political economy impossible.
Over the next twenty years, several Republican presidents and congressional majorities wrestled with the problem we now call democratization. They thought of it as a problem of how to construct republican government. In a world of monarchies and empires, political theorists still thought more about republics rather than democracies as the alternative to autocratic rule. Equally pressing was that the wording of the US constitution permitted the Congress to ensure that the various states had republican not democratic governments.
The fourteenth amendment to the constitution and the civil rights act of 1866 were initial attempts to create political (but not social) equality between black and white citizens. In the mid-19th Century several states of the Deep South had black majorities and thus political equality necessarily transferred power in any fair and free election. Former slaves were solidly Republican voters but the candidates they supported were usually white. Some were from the South and others were immigrants from the North. It is testimony to the continued power of the political vocabulary of southern reaction that the nomenclature to describe these whites, “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers,” has survived into the 21st Century.
To a degree perhaps unprecedented in human history, the racism that structures relationships between black and white Americans is the outcome of conscious human decision-making. Unlike the relationships between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or Armenians and Turks, or Koreans and Japanese, there simply are no historical categories that correspond to white and black as Americans understand them before 1620. Neither the progenitors of Europeans or Africans inhabited the continents that were to be named after the obscure Italian navigator Vespucci. If the children of Europe came largely of their own volition, the children of Africa were brought in chains and suffering and the relationship between the two developed in relatively well-documented historical time.
With the exception of the American Indian peoples, neither the US constitution, ordinary politics, nor American scholarship is in the least at ease with the idea that ours is a multi-ethnic or pluri-national country. There was really no time when black and white in America lived happily together in a paradise riven by colonial machinations. And yet, precisely because this is so it is easier to re-imagine the historical processes of American economic and political history creating two distinct nations and facing, however imperfectly, the necessity of transforming them into one.
It is common today to look with some disdain on movements and thinkers in American history that seriously considered that black and white Americans were separate peoples. Merely to state it in those terms seems to provide the segregationists and slave-owners with a kind of victory. Such a refusal ignores that Abraham Lincoln looked favorably on the idea that freed slaves would be best returned to Africa. Many white people and a number of black people in the 19th Century supported the colonization of West Africa and the creation of the state of Liberia. It is easy to condescend to Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement. With his hats and his bluster and the ultimate collapse of his movement in corruption he is no longer an inspiring figure, but there was a moment when hundreds of thousands of African Americans considered him a beacon of hope in a violent and impoverished time. Garvey, like many earlier figures promoting the return of African Americans to Africa, seems to have thought of them as a people that only required a territory of their own to become truly a nation.
The one theoretical claim that African Americans might be a distinct nation within the US is even more suspect. Harry Haywood, a long-forgotten black Communist, wrote Negro Liberation precisely to propose that the inhabitants of the Black Belt deserved recognition as a separate nation with a separate territory. Uncomfortable as we may be today with the concept of reparations, it is far easier to consider reparations than the idea of a sovereign or semi-sovereign entity on the territory of the United States with an African-American elite. Writing within the framework of Stalin’s definition of nationhood, Haywood proposed to his comrades that the “negro people” were a nation because they shared language, history, economic relations and culture. Haywood realized that the negro people shared many of these characteristics with whites. There is nothing anomalous in Haywood’s argument if we recognize the Irish, Welsh or Scots as nationalities distinct from the English, despite sharing with their former overlords these same presumably primal characteristics. What distinguishes those nations from each other would be either their claim to antiquity — an existence prior to conquest — or a “national project” in modern times. Haywood understood that an African-American people were created by conquest and slavery and thus could not pre-date it, but his work remains of interest if we can see in Garvey, Malcolm X, and other leaders the enunciation of a national project. American academics no longer believe that nations are created by shared structural characteristics and thus Haywood’s argument has long been forgotten.
Seen in these lights, the post-Reconstruction period of American history looks more like the forerunner of later American attempts (and conspicuous failures) to impose democracy on divided societies and less like the halting progress of triumphant liberalism. The Confederacy looks more like an alien society whose autonomous existence, whether within the United States or as an independent entity, posed an existential threat to the liberal, industrial, market-oriented federal republic.
The defeat and occupation of the CSA posed dilemmas for victors and vanquished alike. The radical Republicans were all too aware that they might have won the war only to lose the peace, while the former political and economic elite of the conquered territory sought desperately to prevent the transformation of their loss of status and influence into complete irrelevance and replacement by a new mixed elite of blacks and whites.
Writing in 1935, WEB DuBois in Black Reconstruction described a “singular schism in the South. The white planter endeavored to keep the Negro at work for his own profit on terms that amounted to slavery and which were hardly distinguishable from it … Meanwhile the poor white did not want the Negro put to profitable work. He wanted the Negro beneath the feet of the white worker.” DuBois further described the unease of the victors: “Back of all the enthusiasm and fervor of victory in the North came a wave of reflection that represented the sober after-thought of the nation. It harked back to a time when not one person in ten believed in Negroes, or in emancipation, or in any attempt to conquer the South. This feeling began to arise before the war closed, and after it ended it rose higher and higher into something like dismay.”
DuBois viewed the task of Reconstruction as the revolutionary remaking of the Southern economy. His analysis was as cool as his prose was ardent. He summed up the penultimate chapter of Black Reconstruction with the words, “How the civil war in the South began again — indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt, and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet lives and fights.” As DuBois recognized, “it is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war. Inevitably, when men have long been trained to violence and murder, the habit projects itself into civil life after peace, and there is crime and disorder and social upheaval, as we who live in the backwash of World War [I] know too well … When to all this you add a servile and disadvantaged race, who represent the cause of war and who afterwards are left near naked to their enemies, war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace. This was the case in the South after Lee’s surrender.”
DuBois recognized military dictatorship (his description) as the necessary instrument to transform the South, and that the failure of the revolutionary project of Reconstruction (again, his description) to create a liberal, market-oriented South brought in its wake an even more potent counter-revolution. Americans, DuBois noted, “apparently expected that this social upheaval was going to be accomplished with peace, honesty, and efficiency, and that the planters were going to quietly surrender the right to live on the labor of black folk, after two hundred and fifty years of habitual exploitation.”
DuBois’s Marxist-inflected analysis is predicated on the belief that force and violence necessarily accompany profound social and political transformations. His account therefore highlighted the use of violence to forestall the revolutionary implications of Reconstruction. Political science today is less concerned with violence than was DuBois and this is especially true, as DuBois suggested, of the study of American politics.
DuBois himself, as do many analysts, described the Ku Klux Klan as a major contributor to the violence that overthrew Reconstruction and that sealed the victory of counter-revolution. The Klan, however, was a national organization and had largely been dismantled by 1872, thanks to vigorous federal prosecution. The decade before DuBois wrote Black Reconstruction, a new incarnation of the Klan emerged and the organization was therefore once again on the minds of American progressives. Nevertheless, too great a focus on the Ku Klux Klan places too little emphasis on the degree to which local elites deployed violence not simply against individuals but against even the institutions of the state. Repeated and sometimes successful attempts by terrorists and unofficial militias to overthrow local governments by force were a pervasive feature of life in the South between 1866 and 1900.
The power of DuBois’s analysis is clarified by a closer look at the violence that pervaded the South from 1866 until 1900. The Ku Klux Klan was one, but only one, organizational expression of widespread white resistance to equality for African Americans in the former CSA. Radical republicans and the multi-volume House and Senate investigative reports on the activities of the Klan published in 1872 recognized that opposition to democracy in the South transcended the Klan. The majority report noted that Southern whites would accept no Reconstruction, “so long as it embraced the liberation, the civil and political elevation, of the negro [sic].”
Disrupting the Klan entailed mass arrests and, in one case (South Carolina), the suspension of the right of habeas corpus. If the Klan itself had been broken by aggressive federal military intervention the decentralized and partly spontaneous activity of terrorist groups and local white militias grew. The use of violence to attack democratically elected governments throughout the South continued until at least the end of the 19th Century. This was well beyond 1876, conventionally understood as the end of Reconstruction. Even halting and temporary democratization required the use of the full power of the occupation to forestall counter-democratic coercion.
Violence occurred early in New Orleans. In 1866, a planter-dominated elected legislature voted to restore the pre-Civil War constitution. The governor, a planter named James Madison Wells, vetoed the legislation and called a Constitutional Convention to meet in New Orleans, then the seat of government of Louisiana. Mayor John Monroe, a leader of a secret society, armed the police and local citizens to attack the convention when it opened. What amounted to a pogrom occurred on May 30, 1866 in which between 38 and 48 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded. General Philip Sheridan, who President Grant had appointed as the governor of the Southwest Military District, returned from Texas and called it a massacre. Had it not been for the presence of Federal troops and their willingness to intervene, Reconstruction in New Orleans would have been ended before it began. The Convention that Sheridan enabled finally sat in 1868 and adopted a constitution that guaranteed political rights to the black population and that repealed a repressive labor code although it limited suffrage to men.
Sheridan, for whom a square in Washington DC is named, is not a particularly appealing figure to many modern eyes. He led the Army of Shenandoah, which duplicated Sherman’s more famous March to the Sea in its devastation of the Confederate civil economy. He fought similar campaigns against the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa as well as the Ute War, the Red River War, and the Great Sioux War. He responded with vigor in New Orleans. He summarily dismissed Governor Wells, Mayor Monroe, and stripped much of the white population of their voting rights. He was himself dismissed by President Andrew Johnson, who accused him of being a tyrant.
To accomplish the democratic Reconstruction of Louisiana, the rest of the South would require more than one constitutional convention. In Grant County, armed militias faced each other during a particularly tumultuous and tense conflict over local elections. In April 1873, in the wake of a highly contentious electoral process in which a Republican and Democrat both claimed victory, black and white militias fought a battle for control of the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. Armed whites, led by former Confederate officers, overpowered a black militia led by former Union officers. In addition to horses and guns the white militia also had a four-pound cannon. By the end of the fighting, between 100 and 275 black men, women, and children were dead; many had been executed with shots to the back of the head. The Colfax massacre (as it was then known) became a national scandal but its repercussions were primarily to confirm the efficacy of violence by white militias. In 1950 the state of Louisiana placed a roadside sign at the site of the Colfax massacre justifying it.
It is thus not surprising that the following year in New Orleans white militias again attempted to use violence to decide the issue of political power. This was the Battle of Liberty Place when, in 1874, the White League acting as the “Louisiana State Militia” attacked a meeting of a disputed legislature. Some 5000 members of the League defeated 3500 police and state militiamen and took control of the legislative building for three days until they were driven out by Federal troops. In 1891, in the wake of the formal disenfranchisement of the state’s black population, the New Orleans city council erected a monument to commemorate the 1874 events. The monument was placed in a prominent location on Canal Street and, although it was moved in 1993, it remained on public view until 2015.
The withdrawal of federal troops after the compromise of the 1876 presidential election sealed the end of Reconstruction. The conflict over the political rights of black people continued. In North Carolina, political violence culminated in 1898, in what has been described as the only successful coup d’etat in American history: the legally elected government of a major American city was overthrown by an armed insurrection. Until 1898, Wilmington had been a black majority city, but in the wake of disputed election a secret society of white supremacists organized a group of armed men, including the “Wilmington Light Infantry” to attack black-owned businesses including the newspaper. These men, properly described as a mob, then forced the white Republican mayor and other members of the city council to resign and installed a new one.
By 1898, unlike 1868 and 1873-4, there were no federal troops to reverse the use of violence to overthrow an elected government. Black residents fled and Wilmington became a white-majority city. In modern terms we might describe this as a form of ethnic cleansing as well as a coup. What we call the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South in the twentieth century was a slower process by which refugees sought safety and new beginnings and in which the demographic character of the South was changed. In 1868, nearly 60 percent of the residents of Mississippi were black; today a little less than 40 percent are.
The insurgents who successfully installed a white supremacist government were widely recognized and known by their clothing: red shirts. In the late 19th Century red shirts had a different meaning than today. Garibaldi’s troops wore them in Italy and they were widely associated with the militias of nationalist movements. Throughout Europe and Latin America the wearing of red shirts was understood to reveal the patriotic sentiments and willingness to use force associated with rising nationalism.
There is every reason to believe that we should see Reconstruction more nearly in the light of contemporary nationalisms, state-building, and the suppression of the political rights of minorities than simply as a failed or premature struggle to extend the virtues of American liberal individualism against prejudice. A declining old white Southern elite and a rising new one struggled to subjugate a minority to their control and, in the process, sought to ensure their control over their fellow members of the majority.
They were willing to employ significant violence in the form of terrorism and insurrection as well as all the legal methods at their disposal. They saw themselves as re-creating the nation, whose loss they feared military defeat would bring about. Citizens of the US, having defeated their enemy, lacked the staying power to transform the society they had conquered as DuBois argued. After a decade they gave up. And so the honorable citizens of the South, the religious fundamentalists, the former soldiers of the vanquished regime, and even those who had been educated in the values of US liberalism in its finest schools such as Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, collaborated in the creation of a repressive and authoritarian regime that lasted more than 100 years.