The Civil War is the most widely written about event in American history and Reconstruction is the most mis-understood and least appreciated subject within this wider issue. Most people would prefer to escape into the heroic exploits of the battles that were fought than deal with the difficult social problems that the former enslaved population had to deal with. I am offering this essay since I believe that the African-Americans have been done a great disservice by the Nation.
As a people they were forcibly brought to this land, they were enslaved in an illegal and immoral system, and then they were abandoned by that same Nation ostensibly after having their freedom returned. What happened to them was not fair and there is a debt due to them. I hope to show in this paper some of the offenses that I find glaring. What was Reconstruction supposed to accomplish? Was it supposed to provide a new economic start for the freed peoples? Was it supposed to rebuild and reorder the state governments that had seceded?
Was it supposed to prosecute and imprison former Confederate officials? These questions were never fully answered, and for the most part they were never even adequately addressed. Liberals and African-Americans are more sensitive to the burden of the unfulfilled promise of Emancipation and Reconstruction, while so-called “realists” and conservatives proclaim that too much help has already been given (think: “Affirmative Action”). The truth though, does not lie neatly in the middle between these extremes.
Horrific treatment was an unpleasant fact for the enslaved peoples, and they were denied an equal opportunity to enter fully the American body politic. To make matters worse this bitter cup of “denied citizenship” is still too often a fact today. Recently, the folk singer Bob Dylan (Rolling Stone, Sept. 2012) has said “…the country will never be able to rid itself of the shame of being founded on the backs of slaves. ” I would like to rehearse some of the story of Slavery, some critical events in the war and afterwards, and to offer a reasonable suggestion for Restitution.
The introduction of African Slavery to these shores was an unplanned event although the Spanish and the Portuguese had been involved with this trade for almost 100 years in this hemisphere before it appeared here. These are some of the highlights of that practice here: The first African slaves were 19 people, who in 1619 were captured by Dutch sailors from Spanish slave traders. Subsequently they were sold to the colonists at Jamestown for food. Initially, these people worked as indentured servants but they ultimately gained their freedom after completing a “work contract” for the colonists. The phrase “indentured servant” is misleading in this case since its modern usage means someone who works for a fixed period and is then manumitted. This was not the arrangement that was applied to the African captives who arrived later than these initial individuals did, since the practice gradually evolved to treat the adults as well as the children of the female slaves as also enslaved people (partus sequitur ventrum)
2. Another misleading statement is that the term “servant” was widely used in the South, even past 1865, to refer to African people who were actually enslaved. Therefore, not much credence should be put into the seemingly benign phrase of “servant”3 when applied to these unfortunate human beings. The cost of this labor was attractive to the colonists since by 1638 an enslaved African laborer could be purchased for $27 while a European indentured servant cost a planter $255 for one year’s work.
4 The economic appeal of enslaved African laborers became the norm and quickly spread throughout the colonies. After twenty years, ordinances legitimizing enslavement were commonplace in almost every colony and the practice had morphed into bondage for life, or more properly, chattel slavery. 5 These practices were immoral; they had no place in a respectable society. The pernicious tendency to view the Africans through the white supremacist lens quickly became dominant and was a concomitant of this chattel slavery. This was punctuated by the knowledge that Europeans were never enslaved while most enslaved people were Africans. The skin color of the enslaved became a facile marker that fit in well with the culturally supremacist view of the European colonists.
In this section I try to show how the African Slave System, after gaining a foothold went on to become the most important part of the economy of the new Nation: As the profitability of the colonists’ agricultural enterprises quickly rose, it was essential to procure a sufficient number of workers since labor shortages were a constant headache. 7 Enslavement of the Indigenous Peoples had become steadily more problematic and by the 1750’s this practice had ceased altogether. European workers were both expensive and tended to leave their employers to start plantations of their own, or to return home.
Therefore, a more reliable source of economically viable labor became a necessity, and that baleful need coincided with the rise of the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade from Africa. This phenomenon was heaviest during the 16th through the 19th centuries,9 when an estimated 11 million captives from Africa were ultimately landed at Western Hemispheric destinations out of 15 million who had been loaded onto these horror-filled ships. 0 The differences in these numbers were human beings who had died en route through miserable treatment meted out by the slave traders. The attrition rate during these voyages was a startling 0. 36 persons for every person who disembarked in the New World. We should not forget these stark truths. About 650,000 ~ 720,000 apprehended persons of the numbers shown above,11 it is thought, were brought into what was to become the United States. Employing the attrition rate noted before we can estimate that about 245,000 people were lost from the aggregate number of captives bound for these shores.
Given the losses in the war that was to come it’s almost as though the Divine Being had decided to punish this country for these sins at a rate of three-to-one. By 1860, the survivors had increased through natural growth to more than 4. 000,000 enslaved and freed peoples12 and were primarily located in the states that were to become part of the Confederacy (76% there and another 18% in the Border States13). What fueled this enormous increase in the numbers of the enslaved was that starting in the 1790’s the revolution of the cotton gin and the corresponding leap in cotton exports demanded an exponential rise in subservient labor.
So what had started as a straightforward small-scale agricultural experiment, primarily growing foodstuffs, had metastasized into an industrial system practically keeping the Nation afloat with its lucrative revenues. Before the war began the cotton trade – or more realistically “King Cotton” – constituted 2/3 rds of the wealth of the Nation. 14 What motivated these slaveholders to import and retain so many African Laborers besides the economics? Evidently the lure of being a member of an aristocratic leisured-class was appealing.
Most of the apologists for these slaveholders had classical education, and they employed arguments from Greek and Roman Antiquity, which portrayed slavery as a prominent component of the civilizing mission they were engaged in. Their lower income regional compatriots, although not slave owners themselves, were eager to emulate this conduct, which they viewed as valuable and status-filled. The Southern way of life was born: it was profitable for the elite; it was an identity vehicle for the lower classes; but it was hellish for the enslaved.
Further, it was built upon the most cruel and involuntary system imaginable which had as a mainstay the dissolution of the Africans’ families both here and in their original homelands. The American governmental establishment – at all levels -bears the greatest guilt for this outrageous affront. It is important to recall that these slave traders and slaveholders were in many cases prominent members of the various governments that acceded to or promoted this horrific conduct. The enslaved people, it should be remembered, did not voluntarily agree to be forcibly dragged to these shores.
Despite the claims made by the “Slavocracy” that they were performing a civilizing mission by maintaining this obscene practice, the only positive good was that the lives of the slaveholders was being enhanced! EXASPERATION After Slavery had become such an integral component of the Nation, regional differences in the attitudes towards that infernal system began to be felt all around. Exasperation was the order of the day but the African enslaved people were suffering the most: There were three sets of players in this tragedy: the Northern Whites; the Southern Whites (slaveholders and on-slave holders); and the enslaved Africans. It is unequivocally true that the enslaved peoples did not create nor did they benefit from this monstrous catastrophe. The other groups however, either benefited in a direct way or thought their social status was improved through the bacillus of racism. Exasperation however, was shared by all to some degree. The Northerners became progressively more dissatisfied with their impotence following the Revolution while the Southerners were increasingly anxious that the North was lining up new Free Soil states that would nullify their voting majorities in Congress.
The enslaved though, were in anguish since everything that people could cherish was systematically being denied to them after they had been wrenched away from their homes. The enslaved increasingly attempted to build an alternate life, sub-rosa as it were, by fleeing their masters or by engaging in sabotage or willful incoherence. 15 They also constructed a parallel universe of their own by founding separate places of worship (the Whites did not allow the enslaved to be an equal part of their devotional services) and their own systems of less-than-formal education. t was during this period that it could be said that a new genus was born – the “African –American”. What they did not have was any significant power over their futures except as ad hoc combinations that could be assembled, when conditions permitted. They expressed this through manifestations such as the Underground Railroad16 (which saw 6,000~ 30,000 African-American flee; figures are imprecise), various slave rebellions (some bloody), and a general unwillingness to be smothered by enslavement (conduct just short of insurrection).
Another group, though small in numbers, was the Free Blacks. These people became the vanguard of the African-American middle and professional classes that successfully operated between the seams of the larger society. The actions of this sub-group were able to relieve some of the pressures that had built up in the larger body of enslaved African-Americans and help to point the way for a more prosperous life for all.