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(Courtesy of Allen Guelzo)

Allen Guelzo, Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College (, is the author of six Civil War histories and his most recent book, Reconstruction: A Concise History, details the problems afflicting the reintegration of the Confederacy into the Union. Optimism in the North was strong at first, he says. While reading John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1866 narrative poem Snowbound, he realized that the poet’s celebrated New England rural life was a template for Reconstruction. Many Northerners believed that creating a capitalist economy in the South was the first priority and felt, naively, that racial and political problems arising from emancipation would solve themselves.

What was the goal of Reconstruction?
There are four options: 1) Occupy large portions of the South, and wipe out whatever was there. The problem is there is absolutely no constitutional authority for that. 2) Territorialization: Reduce the former states of the Confederacy to the level of federal territories, supervise the creation of their new regimes, and then readmit them to the Union. That would have conceded the legitimacy of secession, which Abraham Lincoln opposed until the day he died. 3) Seize the land of those involved in the rebellion and redistribute it to the freed slaves. The Constitution stands in the way of that, and all the legislation and all the jurisprudence after the war marches in the opposite direction. 4) Resettle the freed slaves in the West. The difficulty is that not everybody who was a freed slave wanted to be relocated to the West, and Southern whites wanted the black labor force to stay where it was.

Even the North was divided.
The Northern Democratic Party is dead set against any of these notions because they are thirsting for the return to power and that won’t happen until their Southern Democratic brethren are fully restored to Congress. They’re not going to go along, and they will fight it tooth and nail, which they do.

What are the Democrats’ tools?
After secession, you have a hiatus where Republicans find themselves the majority. They pass all kinds of legislation during the war years—national banking, tariff legislation, and put in place the old American system Henry Clay had been promoting 20 years before as leader of the Whig Party. After the war, the Southern states can come back into the Union, and you have the possibility of a Democratic majority that can repeal all that wartime legislation. Now the war is over, slavery has been abolished and each black is now going to be counted as 5/5ths, not 3/5ths, of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress, without a single one of those Southern states conceding the vote to the freed slaves. So you have the prospect of Southern Democrats coming back more powerful than ever on the basis of a black population—because none of the Southern states will permit them to vote.

What happens then?
When the roll is called in the opening session in December 1865, the clerks of the House and Senate exercise Congress’ right to decide who to seat and omit the names of those who have been elected from Southern states. Lyman Trumbull from Illinois develops a civil rights bill to recognize citizenship and voting rights for freed slaves. You have an attempt to invert the situation. Disenfranchise the ex-Confederate leadership and enfranchise the newly freed slaves. That will be the beginning of a completely new political world. Now does it work? That is what becomes the story of Reconstruction.

Rebuild the South without reinvigorating the Confederacy?
Trumbull’s civil rights bill passes, and a Freedmen’s Bureau is created to give immediate assistance to freed slaves. But something more permanent is needed. That’s when the movement takes place for the 14th and 15th amendments. Together the two amendments establish the definition of citizenship that includes the freed slaves and secures federal voting rights for them. Then there are four Reconstruction Acts in 1867 that Congress passes with new provisions for electing state governments, the first time we create voter registration lists. They exist in the Reconstruction South to identify black slaves who can vote and to bar former Confederates.

Does it have a chance to work?
At first. The optimism in the first several years of Reconstruction is almost palpable, not only political optimism but economic optimism. Here’s a story that has really been missed in Reconstruction. Northerners, these carpetbaggers as they were known by a snarky epithet, really came as investors to re-create capitalism in the South. These bourgeois virtues of competition, of meritocracy, are what the Northerners want to transplant.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]The war’s impact on the south is three or four great depressions put together[/quote]

What happened?
It doesn’t work because of the physical destruction and the elimination of capital. The impact of the Civil War on the South is like three or four Great Depressions put together. But you find that the people who owned property in the South at the beginning of the war own the same amounts of property in the 1870 census. If you can’t budge the economic order, you’re not going to be able to budge the political order.

But there was education reform?
The new Southern regimes formed under the Reconstruction Acts move to create large systems of public education, but unfortunately that requires tax rates that those states have never experienced before and the tax burden falls most heavily on poor whites. The old landowners come to the poor whites and say, ‘See these new regimes are taxing your life away and all for the benefit of blacks.’ That’s what recruits the poor whites to the KKK and the Knights of the White Camelia and the side of the landowners. Otherwise they have everything in common with the poor blacks.

You write that Reconstruction was overthrown. How?
The oligarchs pull the strings, but the poor whites, who see themselves as victims of the taxation needed for schools and public works projects, perform the actual work of terror. Reconstruction doesn’t fail, it is an attempt at a capitalist democratic order overthrown by a oligarchy that consigns the South to yet another 80 years of what amounts to feudal economics. I don’t think abolitionist Wendell Phillips was exaggerating when he said to make Reconstruction work we needed a 40-year military occupation. Ulysses Grant reaches something of the same conclusion. ✯

Interview conducted by Senior Editor Sarah Richardson