The Danger of Retreating from the Second Reconstruction
By C. Vann Woodward
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1981, pp. 13-15
The last forty years have been an exciting time for the historian of race and race relations. Exploring the past, I was continually encountering the present—or something strikingly like it—and living in the present, I was constantly running head-on into the past. I never had any trouble in my teaching and writing with the demand for what students used to call “relevance.” The danger was in confusing past with present and committing the offense historians call “presentism.” One such danger lay in the tempting comparison between events of the 1860s and 1870s with events of a century later. I must assume responsibility for giving currency to the term “Second Reconstruction” as applied to events of our own time and for encouraging the development of some aspects of the analogy between the First and the Second Reconstruction. The analogy was almost inescapable, given the new confrontation between North and South, between white and black, between federal and state government and the daily evocation of the constitutional amendments, federal laws, government policies, and court decisions of the 1860s and 1870s.
Historical analogies are notoriously dangerous things. I shall spare you a lecture on the differences between the First and Second Reconstruction, but I do believe that there is one experience of the Reconstruction in the previous century that should be of special interest in deliberations regarding changes in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 1 have in mind the fateful decisions of the federal government that climaxed in 1876-1877 and led to the virtual abandonment of federal efforts to enforce the rights of the freedmen in the Southern states. Those rights, including the right to vote, were guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and federal laws to enforce them. The winning and guarantee of those rights were essential parts of the justification of the bloodiest war in our history that cost the lives of 600,000 Americans as well as the justification of the struggle for reconstruction that followed. Yet the white electorate, North as well as South, was wearied and disillusioned with the struggle and a majority was ready to give it up. In turning their back on promises, commitments, and principles of long standing, Republicans knew that the honor of their party was at stake.
Before taking the final step and turning over to the Southern states, and the opposition party that would control them, the defense of black rights they were abandoning, the Republicans demanded formal pledges from Southern officials and leaders, guarantees that they would assure full protection to the rights of blacks, including the right to vote. All
of the Southern states were deeply involved in these negotiations, but Louisiana and South Carolina, for special reasons, took the lead. They were the last two Southern states under Republican government and under the new policy of the Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes, those governments of those states would collapse and be replaced by governments of the opposition. This in spite of the fact that Hayes’s election as president depended on the assumption of Republican victory in both states.
Guarantees of protection for black rights were requested of Louisiana a few days before the Compromise of 1877 was consummated and Hayes was inaugurated president. The incoming Governor Francis T. Nicholls promptly wired his spokesman in Washington that a joint caucus of his party’s members of both houses had adopted a resolution, “that the guarantees asked for, of order, peace, and protection of law to white and black, no persecution for past political conduct, no immunity for crime, can be freely given.” The spokesman forwarded this resolution to representatives of Hayes together with “The Nicholls government guarantee:” as follows:
“First. The acceptance of the civil and political equality of all men, and agree not to attempt to deprive the colored people of any political or civil right, privilege, or immunity enjoyed by any class of men.
“Second. The enforcement of the laws rigidly and impartially, to the end that violence and crime shall be suppressed and promptly punished, and that the humblest laborer upon the soil of Louisiana, of either color, shall receive full protection of law in person and property.
“Third. The education of the children of white and black citizens with equal advantages.
“Fourth. The promotion of kindly relations between white and colored citizens of the State, upon a basis of justice and mutual confidence.”
The incoming Governor Wade Hampton of South Carolina also waiting to take power after the downfall of the state Republican administration, was already on public record in a pamphlet published in 1876 entitled, Free Men! Free Ballots!! Free Schools!!! The Pledges of Gen. Wade Hampton, Democratic Candidate for Governor to its Colored People of South Carolina, 1865-1876. In this he promised that, “Not one single right enjoyed by the colored people today shall be taken from them. They shall be the equals, under the law, of any man in South Carolina. And we further pledge that we will give better facilities for education than they have ever had before. “ And again,”I pledge my faith, and I pledge it for those gentlemen who are on the ticket with me, that if we are elected, as far as in us lies, we will observe, protect, and defend the rights of the colored man as quickly as (of] any man in South Carolina.”
Comparable promises for the protection of black rights were forthcoming from other Southern states and continued to appear after federal withdrawal. Two years after the compromise of 1877 was closed three of the South’s most prominent leaders, L.Q.C. Lamar, of Mississippi, Alexander Stephens, of Georgia, and Wade Hampton agreed in a public statement that the disfranchisement of blacks was not only impossible but undesired by the whites of the South. Lamar declared that it was “a political impossibility under any circumstances short of revolution,” and that even if it were possible the South would not permit it.
Northern Republican white leaders who had supported the Compromise of 1877 professed complete faith in its workability and trust in the pledges from the South. James G. Blaine wrote in 1879, “there will be no attempt made in the Southern States to disfranchise the Negro by any of those methods which would still be within the power of the State. There is no Southern state that would dare venture on an educational qualification [for the franchise], because by the last census there were more than one million white persons over fifteen years of age, who could not read a word…. Nor would the property test operate with any greater advantage to the whites.” In Atlanta President Hayes told blacks in his audience that “their rights and interests would be safer if this great mass of intelligent white men were let alone by the general government,” safer in fact than if the federal government were still custodian of their rights.
It was not that these Republican leaders were excessively naive nor blind to political realities that were making a farce of their faith all around them. Rather they chose to believe what they wanted to believe, or what was consistent with their policies. Nor was it that the prominent Southern leaders whose solemn promise I have quoted were bald faced and unconscionable liars. I realize that I am somewhat more charitable about the good faith and intentions of these gen-
try than some of my students. But I find other explanations more plausible than the assumption of deliberate falsehood and deception. Actually some of the Southern conservatives, Hampton and Nicholls for example, made efforts to fulfill their promises and for a short time enjoyed a measure of success and white support. But their prestige and popularity—even that of a Hampton—was no substitute for the power and authority of the federal government. And once that authority, or the will to enforce it, was withdrawn a vacuum of permissiveness expanded that the prestige and influence of no leader could fill. The will of the white majority asserted itself or acquiesced in the face of extremists who set out to destroy black rights utterly at the cost of the popular government and democratic principles.
The farcical nature of the 1878 congressional elections in the South should have made plain the bankruptcy of the Compromise of 1877. Coercion, intimidation, and fraud were the means used in ’78, but the more subtle legal devices of attrition to diminish, curtail, and dilute the black votes were quickly developed and imitated. By 1882 Georgia and Virginia had adopted poll taxes and South Carolina had developed the eight-ballot box law. These together with innocent-looking registration and secret-voting laws sharply reduced voting among illiterate and impoverished blacks. Yet a majority of black men continued to vote (or to be counted) in nine of the eleven states through the 80s. It was not until toward the end of the century and the first years of the next that the reactionary revolution, the all-out revolt against democracy was carried out in the South. This resulted in the almost total disfranchisement of blacks, sharp reduction of white voters, reduction of the overall voter turnout by an average of 37 percent (66 percent in Louisiana), the elimination of opposition parties, and the establishment of one-party rule that lasted half a century.
I do not expect so drastic a counterrevolution to end the Second Reconstruction or anything so extreme to result from your decision about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 1 do think it reasonable, however, to warn that a weakening of that Act, especially the preclearance clause, will open the door to a rush of measures to abridge, diminish, and dilute if not emasculate the power of the black vote in Southern states. Previous testimony has shown how persistent and effective such efforts have been even with the preclearance law in effect. Remove that law and the permissiveness will likely become irresistible—in spite of promises to the contrary. The coming reallocation of congressional seats in the South as a consequence of the 1980 census will open many temptations for manipulation of laws affecting voting. I hope that retreat from the Second Reconstruction will not make it necessary for some future generation to face a Third.
C. Vann Woodward presented this testimony before the House Subcommitee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on June 24, 1981.
My name is C. Vann Woodward, and I am a historian by profession. Although I have taught at Yale University for fifteen years and still live and work there, my main identifications have been with the Southern states. Born and reared in Arkansas, educated in Georgia and North Carolina, I taught at Georgia Tech, the University of Florida, and the University of Virginia before joining the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University for fifteen years and then moving to Yale in 1962. The main subject of both my teaching and my books (the first of which appeared in 1938) has always been the history of my native region, especially that of the post-Civil War period. In that period, as in my writings about it, the history of race relations has naturally played an important part.