February 1866 saw the Northern states, and the Republican-led Union government, deep in the trenches of Presidential Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson’s leniency toward the former Confederate states precipitated the enactment of Black Codes that tightly proscribed the lives of former slaves; the election of former Confederates to local, regional, and national offices; and widespread maltreatment of Freedmen, Unionists, and Union officials living and working in the south.
Reconstruction was never billed in any way to be an easy process. Lincoln had not settled on a particular course of action, nor had his cabinet any miraculous insights into a resolution of the problem of rejoining the southern states to the Union. The difficulties were immense. The challenges nearly overwhelming. The dangers of Reconstruction going badly would have rippling consequences.
Arguments in the Union Congress toward the end of the war varied greatly on how best to accomplish the task of Reconstruction. There were moderate views, hard-line views, though no consensus came. Northern legislators feared the defeated South would be unrepentant toward their victors, and like a snake in the grass, strike at those that threatened them. This fear was not unfounded as the initial year post-war came to reveal. No one in the North believed that the South would simply acquiesce to terms, nor were Northern legislators so naive to think there would be no backlash to Northern occupation of the South after the war. But, the extent of the backlash and the utter vengeful quality of the Southern response shocked and angered the North. To better understand Southern rejection of Reconstruction, it helps to revisit the rhetoric of the Secession Crisis.
Lincoln’s election in 1860 sent shock-waves through the South. In response, Secession Commissioners were sent out from several of the slave states to drum up support for the creation of a Southern Confederacy. These commissioners, as Charles B. Dew describes in his book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, were a mix of radical and moderate pro-slavery voices. The commissioners identified as both Democrats and Whigs, but they had in common a consistent Southern message based on white supremacy, and the rejection of the “Black Republican” government of Lincoln based on threat of annihilation of the Southern way of life.
Stephen Hale was a Secession Commissioner from Alabama tasked with bringing Kentucky into the secession fold. Unable to meet with the Kentucky legislature, Hale drafted a letter to Kentucky’s governor Beriah Magoffin, in which he outlined the argument supporting secession. A passionate Southern-rights Whig, Hale’s letter encapsulated the Southern argument, and serves as a perfect example of why Reconstruction would have such difficulties.
…the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed not simply as a change of administration, but as the inauguration of new principles and a new theory of government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans….The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.¹
Hale’s rhetoric was the heart of the Confederate will, and no amount of Reconstruction would erase the entrenched social and cultural views on race held by Southerners, nor would it erase the antagonism toward the “Black Republicans” who forced them into a new political, economic, and social order. Political reconstruction could be possible, but social reconstruction would never be possible when the Southern heart took Hale’s words as sacrosanct.
The views that Hale proffered were generations old, and as the South contemplated its collective losses precipitated by the war, resentment and revenge smoldered in the crucible of the day. Reconstruction would not change the minds of the former slave South on questions of racial equality. Reconstruction would require those members of the Old South who wished to move beyond the war, to proclaim oaths of loyalty to the Union. But these oaths, honestly or fervently given, could not erase the deep seated animosity toward a forced acceptance of a new world order.
It isn’t that Reconstruction failed, or was doomed to fail, but instead that Reconstruction was a necessary process to restore former Confederate states to a functional status in a re-formed Union. The necessity of this restoration or reunification meant only that Southerners had to reject former political organization to an extent believable by the North. Southern acceptance of the new political environment would only go as far as necessary in order to provide political power, with which the South would be positioned to refuse the new economic and social organizations imposed by a Republican government it only grudgingly recognized as legitimate.
Hale’s letter is an excellent example of why Presidential Reconstruction was so fraught with insubordination to Northern victory. The Southern heart would never be swayed by political processes that destroyed the social and economic order of the Old South.
Dew argues that slavery was always at the heart of the secession crisis, and the ultimate cause of the Civil War, and further was precipitated not solely from Northern abolitionist cells, but directly as a result of Southern protectionism of the institution of slavery. Revisiting the writings and speeches of the Secession Commissioners also gives insight into the response of the South to Reconstruction, and further into the rise of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction years.
¹ S.F. Hale to Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky, Frankfort, KY, 27 December 1860, in Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 90-103.