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Slavery and the Reconstruction Era

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright October 2013


The Reconstruction Era (1865-77) in the US has a lot in common with the post World War One, Treaty of Versailles, era (1918-1939) in western Europe. In both cases the conduct of the preceding war was much longer and more emotional than anyone expected. The conduct of the war was a surprise, and as a result figuring out how to conduct the post war peace making was also very difficult. In both cases leaders were taking their people into unknown social territories, and not surprisingly there were a lot of disappointments.

One big difference between these two eras was slavery. Dealing with how to end slavery was a high priority item in the Reconstruction Era. Simply saying, "It's over." turned out to be far from enough. Ending slavery proved such a difficult challenge that I'm going to devote the first half of this section to the topic of slavery.

Industrial Age Slavery

Slavery has been around since prehistory, and how it is conducted has been different both in different places and different times. The slavery of the ante-bellum South (before the war) stands out for being the newest twist in its day, and different from previous incarnations. The ante-bellum Southerners who called slavery "our peculiar institution" where not being as euphemistic as it sounds today -- this really was a peculiar institution! This was an Industrial Age form of slavery, which was quite different from previous Neolithic Village or Agricultural Age forms of slavery.

This industrial age slavery was different in how it was conducted, and in how difficult it was to "cure" when it was decided to end it. I base this difficulty in ending it on the history of three places that engaged in it: Barbados, Haiti and the US southern states. All three engaged in large scale slavery to operate plantations in the 17- and early 1800's, and all three have had a difficult time migrating from their slave-based plantation societies to prosperous modern economies and societies which effectively use modern agricultural and industrial technologies and techniques. The Southern US didn't really "get over" slavery until the 1960's and 70's. Barbados island took off on sugar and slaves starting in the 1640's, freed the slaves in the 1830's, but the economy didn't fully modernize and prosperize until the 1970's.

Haiti's experience illustrates this issue the most. It was thickly settled by the French in the 1700's, and like Barbados developed a "King Sugar" social system. In Haiti's case we have a historic accident mixing in. While the French in France were having their French Revolution in the 1790's, Haiti was having a related, and spectacular, slave revolt which lead to it becoming an independent nation in 1804, and the first with black leadership. The French Liberté, égalité, fraternité-types of the day were shouting "Three cheers for that!" But sadly, even to this day, modernization hasn't followed. Haiti has been the poorest part of the Western Hemisphere for most of the 20th century, and all the 21st.

Why has it been so hard to follow industrial age slavery with modernization? Here are some Roger Speculations:

o One of the main obstacles is the change in attention-focus. In slavery conditions the focus is on two things: being profitable and avoiding runaways and revolts. Curiosity and diverse thinking are two big casualties of the latter goal. And it's not just the slaves that suffer: The slave tending/guarding people and the owners also suffer. The slave society is an intensely focused one at all levels.

o Ignorance becomes a virtue. If a slave doesn't know where to run, he or she is less likely to. If a slave is unsure about what other ways of living are possible, he or she is less likely to run. And for the system to work well, it's not just the slaves who stay ignorant -- this virtue spreads throughout the system. If the tender and owner don't know any better than their slaves, they can't give hopeful information to the slaves, and they don't have to feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissidence of knowing there are more varied ways of doing things.

The result of these peculiarities is that when the system ends getting the community transitioned into non-slave Industrial Age thinking- and action-modes is tough to do for everyone involved -- no one in the community knows how to do it! In the Barbados and Southern US cases this transition took not just many years but many generations, and in the Haiti case it is still in progress... spooky indeed!

Back to the Reconstruction Era.

The Bitterness Doesn't End

The roots of the acrimony between North and South did not end just because there were Northern soldier boots tramping all over the South. They continued on as strong as ever.

"The South will rise again." was a slogan that began in this era and endured for a hundred years. Basically it was saying that Southerners still felt Northerners were taking cheap shots at their expense, and that the Northerners should mind their own business.

For the Northerners the cause now was making sure the South remained "fixed" -- as in not slavery supporting -- and that it moved on to newer and better ways of doing things.

The Lincoln assassination took a lot of wind out of moderate sails on both sides -- "Live and let live" became a small voice crying in the wilderness. Starting with the election of 1866 congress was for the next decade in the hands of Radical Republicans and the rest of federal government followed their lead. The radicals were interventionist. They supported actively showing the Southerners how to do things right.

Northern Idealism versus Southern Pragmatism

As the war ended the Northerners were definitely in a mood to fix the South. The activists wanted to both root out slavery and replace it with modern techniques that would bless all Southerners. The problem with this thinking was that it was both expensive and there was little agreement on what modern techniques would work well in the various regions and economic conditions of the South. But that didn't stop a lot of enthusiastic Northerners from moving to the South to see how they could lend their hands. Terms from this era include carpetbaggers, scalawags and freedmen.

A lot of change was brought to the South, but the result was not harmony or prosperity. Example: the Klu Klux Klan was spawned in this era. With the Compromise of 1877 the North and the federal government moved on to focus their attention on other problems and issues -- there were many and they were pressing. The Redeemers took over in the South, and what followed was called the Jim Crow era (1876-1965) by those unhappy with the result. In this era "separate but equal" became the slogan for race relations in the South.

Other Disruptive Issues

Technology did not stop marching during or after the war. It stayed constantly exciting and disruptive in both the North and the South. Much of the disruption was adding prosperity. During the war the North actually increased it exporting trade, and in 1867 the US paid the Russians $7.2 million for Alaska. Post-war building of the transcontinental railroads were an optimistic symbol of this disruptive change -- financial booms and busts and violent labor disputes not so much so.

And the other pre-war disputes continued on as well. East-West, immigration, money and tax issues continued to generate a lot of heat.

This was the era when the potato blight and British farming policies brought on famine in Ireland, and the Irish replaced the Germans as the iconic undesirable immigrants east of the Mississippi. In the west the Chinese were flooding in. This was because the Taiping Rebellion -- China's massive civil war that was part of China's coping with the Western Ideas Invasion (my term) -- ended and left hundreds of thousands of Chinese unhappy with their situation. Many came to America and worked on railroads in western US. There they became the iconic undesirable immigrants.

This was when homesteading became a large scale way of settling the Great Plains areas west of the Mississippi. And in technology this was the era of Thomas Edison inventor of hundreds of interesting devices that changed how Americans lived.

Moving West: The Great Social Safety Valve

"You won, right? Why the long face?"

One social phenomenon rarely commented on is that in a case like the Civil War there are a lot of unhappy people on the winning side too. These wars are surprising, and the victors are just as surprised at the outcome as the vanquished. The unhappy winners are looking for relief just as vigorously as the unhappy losers.

This produces a lot of unrest. In the case of the US a lot of that unrest could be worked off by moving west and settling untamed wilderness. Northerners and Southerners both did this. It was sometimes called the Safety Valve Theory.

Harking back to the Treaty of Verseilles era again, there was similar thinking in Europe. One of the programs that Hitler and the Nazis talked about implementing for the Germans was moving east into sparsely settled areas of southern Russia. And in fact there was considerable, but quiet, migration of this nature happening even without a formal program.

Hard-fought civil wars are hard on winners as well as losers, and people on both sides pick up, move, and start over.

--The End--

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