Best Possible Reconstruction

In my never-ending quest to be prepared in the event I am ever spat like a watermelon seed back into American history …

So what would have been the best possible policy toward (post-US Civil War) Reconstruction?

I was talking about this with friends the other day (what do you talk about at dinner?). His proposal was simply to disenfranchise all persons who held any office or position in the government of the Confederate States, or its states.

That is harsh, but it might just have worked.

I was always partial to relocation. Don’t disenfranchise them, just force all the ex-confederates to move to one state, such as Alabama or Mississippi. Then we would have had only one basket case state to deal with, instead of several. Or course I am now probably giving other people bad ideas. Though even now, I wonder if the best solution for partisan politics is not something similar.

By ex-Confederates, do you just mean former elected officials and such, or those as well as former soldiers? If it’s the latter that’s staggeringly unfeasible. If it’s the former, it’s a bad idea for other reasons, and also an attempt to solve a problem that didn’t really exist. It’s not as if the small number of former high-ranking Confederates were the cause of what problems there were in reconstruction. Secession and the CSA had popular support, you can’t just sweep away the leadership and all of a sudden get a happy, patriotic Mississippi.

Taken literally, “ex-Confederates” would I’d think mean the entire population of the former Confederacy, which is even more extreme than just all the soldiers.

OK, let’s take the opposite tack.

In all the former states of the CSA, all elections, local, state and federal shall be conducted by US officials. All residents permitted to vote shall be required to vote. This requirement shall continue to 1900 and may be extended by Congress after that period.

No, I did not mean the entire populations, just the ex-officials and possibly the slave-owners (which was often one and the same). Not the common soldier who was often fighting to protect his home state which had a greater claim to loyalty than the Union of those states, and continued to do so until the world wars and the Great Depression created a need for a stronger federal government.

Not even the Union soldiers were fighting for a strong federal government, but merely to preserve the union and avoid the disintegration of the states into a European hodgepodge of independent nations as existed at that time, and the problems that brings.

While such a relocation would not have created patriotic Unionists, it would have diminished the support for the southern institutions that led to succession - the plantation system, slavery, etc, and may have enabled new leadership to arise that was more willing to work with northern states. Leaving those ex-officials in place allowed them to recreate those systems (as much as the new laws and amendments would allow - thus Jim Crow laws and the sharecropper system instead of outright slavery) as soon as Reconstruction ended.

As to the question in the OP, I would support very liberal, generous re-admittance criteria, combined with strict enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments. Unfortunately, this last runs into the problem of needing different rulings from the Supreme Court – particularly in the case of U.S. v. Cruikshank, which effectively delegated all enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the states, a job they had no interest in performing. So, I suppose you have to go back to the crafting of the Reconstruction Amendments so that they explicitly endorse federal authority in their enforcement.

Give each ex-slave forty acres and a mule. (Also a house and some money would be nice.)

The big problem was that after the war you had millions of blacks who were nominally free but did not have the property or resources to put themselves on a solid economic foundation. As a result, with a short time most were sucked into the sharecropper system, which was only a minor step up from slavery. There can be no true freedom with economic independence.

But once US occupation was over, Blacks were unable to vote and had whatever capital and rights they did have taken away. Not that I am opposed to a government-provided grubstake to start the Freedmen off.

Yes, there was that problem. Obviously stronger federal intervention to protect the Constitutional rights of blacks would also be part of the equations. I’ve also sometimes wondered it they might have been better off if they’d been encouraged to migrate towards the plains states, thus getting away from the places where racial hatred was deep-seated.

But, could the Federal government have protected the Blacks in each and every state? Perhaps it would have been better to stay in Alabama and make it work.

What if they created a black state? A huge chunk of land, good land rather than crap land, on which to establish a free, agriculture-based state reserved for all of the ex-slaves? In other words, the “forty acres and a mule” suggestion, but on a much larger and more organized scale? The state would have all of the representation of any other state in the union. Could this work?

That would have taken the ethnic cleansing of all Alabama’s white people. Ethnic cleansing of the ethnic majority by the ethnic majority isn’t really politically plausible anywhere, anytime. (Can you think of a single example?)

1 out of three families in the South owned slaves so that would mean disenfranchising the whole upper and most of the middle classes. And SE Morison noted that the Southern white lower class were even more racist than the former slaveowners and it was those who formed the lynch mobs that made the late 19th Century the nadir of racial relations in America.

Ideally the best solution is as others said would be to enforce equal rights for blacks while otherwise being generous toward Southern whites.

Who says it has to be in Alabama? They could have created the black state anywhere in the country.

Perhaps black settlement in the West? That might make some sense-have the black help in fighting the Indians and settle the West.

…that got mixed up somewhere in my head. People had been talking about Alabama. Mea culpa. That said, you would have to ethnically cleanse someone, so I don’t think relocation is a best case scenario anyway.

Well, you don’t need to “cleanse” anywhere; just pick an area with a small existing population and let the newly transplanted overwhelm them with numbers. Pick, say, Colorado.

The problem with this plan is the logistics of several hundred thousand or even a million people relocating to an area without infrastructure or food supply in place. You’re looking at a humanitarian disaster and social upheaval.

Unfortunately we (like everyone else) live in a nation of people and not a nation of laws. If the political will to enforce it is lacking then it just doesn’t matter what the law says. Laws can’t enforce themselves. What was needed for better Reconstruction outcomes was to change the political equation.

The way I would suggest would be to encourage migration of blacks and rather than whites. This would cause less political pushback, particularly in the North. And you just let it occur and not mandate it. If you kept strict control of some states with large black populations, say South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and quickly allowed Democrats to regain control of the the remainder of the former Confederacy you could expect blacks facing deteriorating conditions in those states to look for a better life elsewhere just as the stable Republican administration of Mississippi in attracted “The Black Cloud” of former slaves in 1874.

Huge black majorities in states might make feasible the contemporary hope that former slaves could defend themselves with their votes. Maybe. In any case I think that’s the best hope for maintaining civil rights for African-Americans following the Civil War. It might even mitigate conditions for blacks who are unwilling or unable to move to black states. With fewer blacks they might be seen as less of a social threat by their white neighbors. Certainly their labor would be more valuable.

I’m not sure 4 million newly freed illiterate field workers are going to make for a very successful state. Granted some educated blacks from the north and white abolitionists might move there to, but still, you’d be starting with a pretty large population of people that didn’t know very much beyond picking other peoples crops.