A delegation of blacks, deputized by the largest national convention of freedmen, met President Andrew Johnson for a White House summit in 1866. Reminding His Accidency’s of his disinterest in enforcing federal laws protecting the freedmen from Southern white Democratic marauders, ensuring the enrollment of the children of freedmen in school, and the importance of signing the legislation passed by Congress to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, these men nevertheless behaved with impressive courtesy and showed under the circumstances breathtaking patience. Abraham Lincoln’s successor wasted no time reminding these men what he stood for. Pushing for civil rights, he said, would lead to a race war. He would know! He had owned slaves until recently but, he assured them, never sold one. At any rate, Johnson said, he did not like to be interrogated by men “who can get up handsomely rounded periods and deal in rhetoric.” The interrogator was Frederick Douglass, who endured a dyspeptic Johnson’s contempt for those men “who talk about abstract ideas of liberty, who never periled life, liberty, or property.” I will quote the rest of the exchange:
“When you would look over and see a man who had a large family, struggling hard up on a poor piece of land, you thought a great deal less of him than you did of your own master’s negro, didn’t you? Douglass tried to assure the president that h e never done so, but Johnson overrode him again, proposing a conspiracy between the “the colored man and his master, combined,” to keep the poor white “in slavery” and deny him a share “of the rich land of the country.” If granted the franchise, blacks might once more unite with their former masters against white workers. In any case, Johnson added, “the majority” had the right to decide on the ballot. This time, Douglass cut in and observed that in South Carolina and Mississippi, blacks were the majority. With barely “repressed anger,’ the president rose and called an end to the exchange.” It doesn’t end there. The president , a Democrat and former military governor of Tennessee, fulminated to his secretary about “Those d[amne]d sons of b[itche]s” who “thought they had me in a trap. I know that d[amne]d Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, and would sooner cut a man’s throat than not.”
In the bloodied history of the United States, it’s likely there never existed an uglier, more puerile, and unlettered exchange between a president and his fellow citizens. As a metonym for the history of the black man in America after his putative liberation under Lincoln’s military authority in 1863, the anecdote is one of many cruelties depicted in The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, Douglas R. Egerton’s superb distillation of several decades’ worth of historical rehab of a period whose realities were obscured by magnolia-scented anesthesia and Lost Cause propaganda in films and novels. Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 remains the standard work; The Wars of Reconstruction compresses but doesn’t elide, synthesizes but doesn’t aggregate. His thesis: far from being a failure, Reconstruction ended, or rather, was aborted, and its success self-evident: thousands of acres of public land tilled by freedmen, the expansion of literacy at a geometric rate. Black literacy, Egerton writes, “increased four hundred percent in the thirty-five years after Appomattox, a triumph not witnessed by any other nineteenth-century post-slavery society.” Most impressively and intimated in the Douglass-Johnson excerpt above, blacks held the majorities in legislatures in South Carolina and Mississippi, the latter responsible for sending Blanche Bruce to the Senate in 1875. Abetting the enterprise was the presence of thousands of federal troops, regarded as an invasion by the rebel who still held Democratic seats in state legislatures and Congress thanks to Johnson. “Two years after Appomattox,” Egerton notes, “the reactionary white minority had learned that almost nothing they could do could arouse the wrath of President Johnson.”
Egerton doesn’t let pretty words blind him to political realities. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Military Reconstruction (a response to terrorism that carved the South into territories overseen by military governors), and the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments would not have happened if Republican legislators hadn’t realized the possibility of securing freedmen votes for decades. To schoolchildren who studied the Civil War in the last forty years, the likes of Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, who by all accounts lobbied for the social equality of black men and women when few Northerners did, bore the crude but not unwarranted tag of “Radical Republican.” My high school text book assigned equal blame to the Radical Republicans and Andrew Johnson: the former for impeaching the president, the latter for being intemperate. Egerton swats away some of the cobwebs. The Tenure of Office Act may have been unconstitutional, but Johnson’s refusal to enforce Congress’ civil rights legislation represent as clear an abnegation of responsibility and interference with legislative intent as Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and use of the CIA for domestic purposes. “Had Johnson chosen to share his predecessor’s goal of using the government’s authority to usher in a new birth of freedom, the tools were at his disposal,” Egerton concludes. A far cry from his successor, whose global prestige — ten years later he would still be the world’s most admired man — and inclination to use military power to support federal directives made the late 1860s and early 1870s the best for freedman. On most historians’ lists Ulysses Grant is shorthand for Oval Office corruption; this man with no talent for picking honorable public servants was black America’s best friend until Lyndon Baines Johnson. For the next hundred years, slavery in all but name:
For the next century, the United States legitimized the overthrow of legal governments, the reduction of black people to forced laborers, and the complete alienation—at gunpoint—of black people in the South from the sphere of politics.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debate with Jonathan Chait is proof of what secondhand ideas about race persist:
The notion that black America’s long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant’s-eye view of history. It takes no note of the fact that in 1860, most of this country’s exports were derived from the forced labor of the people it was “allied” with. It takes no note of this country electing senators who, on the Senate floor, openly advocated domestic terrorism. It takes no note of what it means for a country to tolerate the majority of the people living in a state like Mississippi being denied the right to vote. It takes no note of what it means to exclude black people from the housing programs, from the GI Bills, that built the American middle class. Effectively it takes no serious note of African-American history, and thus no serious note of American history.
You see this in Chait’s belief that he lives in a country “whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality.” No. Those soaring ideals don’t sit uncomfortably aside the reality but comfortably on top of it. The “cruel reality” made the “soaring ideals” possible.
And often we can’t see the soaring ideas for the cruel reality.