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A Third Reconstruction, or a Second Civil War?

American democracy may perish from the earth.


When Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the office of president upon the death of Abraham Lincoln in mid-April 1865, he initially incurred favor with Republican legislators in Congress, including those identified as “Radical Republicans,” by appointing the “Christian soldier” and Union Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard to head up the newly created Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (later just the Freedmen’s Bureau). Howard, to the satisfaction of Republicans of all stripes, immediately commenced distributing to the freedmen tracts of abandoned and confiscated Confederate lands.

Johnson received a less friendly response from members of Congress at the end of the following month when he issued a proclamation granting amnesty and pardon “to all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion” (with some exceptions). Johnson then issued another proclamation subversive of the goals of Reconstruction, this one authorizing the appointment (by himself) of a civilian provisional governor for North Carolina, a policy that he then extended to other Southern states. Legislators, already unhappy with the first proclamation because of what they saw as its excessive leniency, objected to this second one on the grounds that Johnson had exceeded his constitutional authority. The job of reconstituting the Southern states’ civilian governments, they maintained, belonged to Congress alone.

Johnson’s plan, which the historian Allen C. Guelzo dubbed “self-reconstruction,” left it entirely to the states to write new constitutions and implement them as they saw fit. And soon enough, the Southern states began promulgating the infamous “Black codes,” deliberately designed to deny their newly freed slaves either the franchise or any path toward economic independence. The ultimate result of Johnson’s scheme would have been to create Southern state legislatures and state congressional delegations composed entirely of Southern Democrats, with nary a single representative from the Republican Party, white or Black.

Congress had been in recess while all this was transpiring, and when it convened in December 1865, it went right to work to counter Johnson’s edicts. It extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, created a Joint Committee on Reconstruction, and passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866. Johnson vetoed the measure extending the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil Rights Bill. Congress overrode both vetoes. Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction issued a report arguing that Congress could not “be expected to recognize as valid the election of representatives from disorganized communities.”

“As if on cue,” Guelzo writes in his book Reconstruction: A Very Short Introduction, “white Southerners confirmed every bleak suspicion in the report with an eruption of race riots in Southern cities.” In Memphis, working-class whites slaughtered 46 Black veterans and war fugitives and burned “every negro church and schoolhouse in the city” to the ground, according to a Chicago Tribune account of the riot. A gun battle in Norfolk during a freedmen’s parade produced two white and at least two Black casualties. There were bloody riots in Charleston. Next, riots swept through New Orleans. When Radical Republican sympathizers of both races proposed reassembling the original 1864 Louisiana state constitutional convention at the New Orleans Mechanics Institute on July 30, 1866, a crowd of white police and well-armed white civilian thugs confronted the would-be attendees with deadly violence, and before Gen. Phil Sheridan could arrive with troops to quell the disturbance, blood was running in the streets. It was, said Sheridan (no stranger to massacres), “No riot. It was an absolute massacre by the police.”

The election of 1868, which propelled Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency and an overwhelming majority of Republicans into Congress, seemed a major leap forward in the battle for Reconstruction at the time, maybe even a decisive one. In retrospect, however, it might be viewed as the beginning of the end of the organized effort to achieve Black enfranchisement and a free labor economy in the South. The mobilization of white supremacist vigilante groups, tagged appropriately as “White Jacobins,” of which the most notorious and enduring is the Ku Klux Klan, and their ruthless deployment of night-riding terror, ensured this failure. The suppression of the Black vote in the South eventually scuttled the biracial Republican legislatures that were the glory of Reconstruction, and the triumph of the Southern grandees in reconstituting their prewar estates, and retaining land ownership for the most part in their own hands, enabled them to reduce their former slaves to a state of helpless peonage.

The so-called Compromise of 1877, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to forgo the use of federal troops to enforce voting rights in the South in order to break a deadlock in the Electoral College in his favor, was really beside the point. The Democratic Party, its Southern and Northern branches reunited, had taken control of Congress in the previous election, and was going to put an end to Reconstruction no matter what.

Now, a little more than half a century after the bipartisan Civil Rights victories of the 1960s—the so-called Second Reconstruction—the two political parties have exchanged historic roles, and a white-supremacist, violence-prone, extremist Republican Party now threatens to undo not only those achievements, but the American democratic order itself. Their master plan for doing so involves curtailing or eliminating the easiest and most accessible methods of voting. But the use of intimidation or outright violence, in view of the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021—whose very purpose was to stop the counting of electoral votes—is not outside the boundaries of possibility, or even probability. The right-wing militia involved in that onslaught, by all accounts, stands ready and willing to act on behalf of authoritarian governance again. The concept of a new civil war is not, in fact, a purely notional or hypothetical one.