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Democratic Ideal

First Part of this two-part series here.

One cannot study Reconstruction without first frankly facing the facts of universal lying; of deliberately and unbounded attempts to prove a case and win a dispute and preserve economic mastery and political domination by the character, motives, and commonsense of every single person who dared disagree with the dominant philosophy of the white South. - W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880

On May 9, 1865, the Civil War ended. The North won and the South lost. Enslaved Blacks, freed from the plantation economy, were ill-prepared for freedom. Over 110,070 died.

And counting continues.

W. E. B. Du Bois questions what actually ended in 1865. Enslaved Blacks, for the most part, began freeing themselves and continued to do so throughout Reconstruction and beyond, despite the brutal enforcement of legalized segregation. In Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, (1933), Du Bois sets the record straight. Americans knew slavery was inhumane. Would any white American join enslaved Blacks in the fields as fellow chattel? However much gifted historians have labored in an effort to justify the disenfranchisement of Black Americans, there remains the business of “the refusal.”

However much gifted historians have labored in an effort to justify the disenfranchisement of Black Americans, there remains the business of “the refusal.”

“The price of the disaster of slavery and civil war,” left unpaid, writes Du Bois, results in an America that “today… suffers for that refusal” to pay. What did Americans refuse to pay, if not democracy itself. It refused to do “what ‘was humanely’” necessary. The inhumane refusal links this nation’s use of violence toward Black Americans to its insistence on preserving the brutal regime of an economy that can only refuse rather than embrace democracy.

One of the most egregious outrage to happen against the democratic ideal happened on September 7, 1867, when President Andrew Johnson “extended full pardon to Confederates.” As a denial of the brutality and the injustice suffered for generations by enslaved Blacks, the pardon of the Confederacy, Du Bois suggests, the message was heard loud and clear. Particularly by the freed Blacks. Du Bois need only look around in his own time, hear the message behind those “for Colored only” signs in the South. He could hear it in the North whenever “Blacks Need Not Apply” signs barred Blacks from employment. In 1867, America was willing to ignore its own Constitution and deny Blacks justice.

In addition, Du Bois notes, “there was not a single labor voice raised in the Southern post-war clamor.” Johnson, acting as if leader of “the peasant-farmer and the laboring class,” is flattered by the wealthy classes of former slaveholders and merchants and bankers in the South. The economical poor whites look to him, and he looks to the Southern capitalists. To wine and dine with the Southern aristocracy, Johnson pushed on.

Between Western liberalism and Southern reaction and ultra conservatism, Johnson rejects, “in any form,” the right of Blacks to vote. Whether or not the Blacks were freed or enslaved, with the right to vote or confined to Black codes, for Johnson and the capitalists in the North and the South had adjusted to a new America in which it was the “tremendous new and rising power” organizing “wealth and capitalist industry in the North.” As a force to be reckoned with, the Northern capitalist industry had already extended a life raft to former plantation owners.

As Du Bois argues, while capitalists, north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, closed ranks to protect its financial interests, the abolitionists, “not enemies to capital,”were celebrating a victor. In pursuit of their own “freedoms,” white abolitionists left the lecture circuit believing that their “humanitarian causes” of the day, such as “the ‘labor question’; the ‘peace question’; the emancipation of women, temperance, philanthropy,’” would match those “bourgeois revolutionary” movements in Europe. They went about believing freedom focused everyone’s mind; and anti-slavery served as everyone’s rallying cry post-Civil War. In a festival atmosphere of celebration, American abolitionists congratulated themselves for a job well done. Few recognized the predicament of Black people in America.

But, as Du Bois explains, there were two notable exceptions, two former abolitionists worth acknowledging for their pursuit of democracy. Senators Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner met the wrath of those backed by the big capitalists. And it was as vicious as any war with bayonets and cannon balls.

Neither men, writes Du Bois, “could get the aid of industry, commerce, and labor” to support Black suffrage. Deep pockets, Stevens and Sumners believed, could overcome deep-seated animosity towards Black Americans. But something that should have been front and center and accomplished with easy, something that should have been the first thing on the agenda, in fact, had to be forced into the stage. Still front and center. How hard could it be to pretend not to see the newly freed Black people!

Yet, again and again, the issue of Black voting rights is rejected. In 1867, the South refused to hear of it! “They said, in effect,” Du Bois explains, that they would see “no Negro citizens nor voters; no guaranty of civil rights to Negroes; and [that] all political powers based on the counting of the full Negro population” should be ignored.

As Du Bois suggested, the Federal government could have stepped in, calling in the “Federal police” since the South was experiencing “industrial, civil and political anarchy.” Such a plan would certainly have pleased both Stevens and Sumners. Johnson, however, recognizes one class of men—as men. And as president, Johnson lived to refuse assistance to Black Americans.

“The refusal of the nation,” writes Du Bois, “was chiefly because the new industry, the money-making financiers and organizers of a vast economic empire, hesitated at a government guardianship of labor and control of industry on a scale that might embarrass future freedom of exploitation, and certainly would increase present taxation.”

Unlike fellow former abolitionists, sitting back, waiting to see what would happen, Stevens and Sumners began crafting laws to grant Blacks the right to vote.

The laws of March 2, 1867 would have provided Black suffrage, if Johnson had not vetoed the package. Congress overrode the veto, but Johnson, using his executive action, nullified it again. If he were called on to pass anything having to do with Black voting rights, Johnson refused. However, when the Confederates called on him to defend their rights, Johnson ran to their aid.

Johnson ran toward the same population of Southern men, Black Reconstruction argues, who served as Confederates, “precipitating a costly and bloody war.” As Du Bois writes, “There was no reason to suppose that these men had changed their convictions in the slightest or surrendered for a moment their determination to dominate the country, and fight monopoly industry with monopoly in agriculture.” Former slaveholders who had lost the war, nonetheless, demanded “increased political power.”

Had the South really surrendered? The North busily compromising and appeasing the South as if it had lost, together with the Southern wealthy class, had Johnson’s attention. Tyranny of the minority surrounded themselves with new objects of worship. The Southern men when riding atop their horses surveying the ruins of the Southern landscape, looked on at idle plantation fields, they thought, Du Bois argues, of the future in which they could envision the shiniest machines operating productively in newly cropped fields. The former slaveholder, ironically, looked to the North, just as enslaved Blacks had done to escape the injustice of slavery. Just as freed Blacks, looking North, were committing themselves to dreams of a better future…

Stevens and Sumners’ fellow Republicans weren’t thinking in terms of a continuing civil war, without the organized armies battling across skirmished lines. These men in Congress weren’t thinking about war at all. They, writes Du Bois, just wanted “peace.” After all, they were the majority in Congress, and what they wanted should be the law of the land. Shouldn’t it? For the sake of “peace,” the Republicans cajoles Southern capitalists. If the Southern capitalists would just agree to “Johnson’s scheme of Reconstruction [and accept] the Fourteenth Amendment… [just] say that [the South] either would allow the Negro to vote or, in case [the South does not] allow him, [the South] would forego representation based upon his numbers… [T]hen these [Southern] states would be recognized and admitted to Congress.” Pretty please!

And the answer, of course, a resounding—no—from the Southerners! To the applause of the Northerners, looking on. Southern landowners and merchants “yielded to the North’s demands of a plutocracy.”

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Du Bois imagines a Stevens and a Sumners pausing a moment to take in the nightmare of tyranny. The North was “willing to throw over the Negroes.” Thus, the South “accompanied” its demands, within the halls of Congress and on the streets, with “widespread violence.”

When the Reconstruction bill became law, Johnson became even more incensed with Congress. He openly claimed that Blacks didn’t ask for the vote and “the vast majority of them have no idea of what it means.” Besides, he went on, the Black vote would do more harm to economically poor whites. And then Johnson, looking not only to change hearts and minds but also toward how history would record this moment in time, presents to the nation a conjured image of a nightmare: A rising mass of Black labor filling every political position across the country! Is this the “democracy” you want to see in America! Such “‘an untried experiment’”! Such a monstrosity would threaten whites, with “‘even worse wrongs than disenfranchisement for attempted rebellion.’”

While Johnson stirs up fear and hatred from his desk in the White House, over in Congress, a dying Thaddeus Stevens struggles to present to his Confiscation Act of 1867. The Act calls for forfeited land in the South to be confiscated and turned over to Black Southerners. For Johnson, this move on the part of Radical Republicans was the last straw. He pardons the traitors! The anti-democratic cabal of traitors! “‘The pain of traitors,’” Johnson decries, “‘has been wholly ignored by a treacherous executive and a sluggish Congress.’”

By December 1867, Johnson is no longer evasive “as to the relation of the black worker to the white worker,” writes Du Bois. He presents his economic argument, drowned in hateful rhetoric.

“There is no suggestion,” Du Bois writes, “that Negro soldiers or Negro property owners or Negroes who can read and write should have any political rights.” Johnson, he continues, bases his whole argument on a lie—that of Black inferiority. In the meantime, Du Bois writes, despite efforts to impeach Johnson, beginning in December 1866, by February 1867, the Committee on Judiciary refused to do so, arguing that the president is empowered by Northern capitalists.

In turn, the wealthy industrial leaders of the North aren’t one bit concerned that Johnson blocks “the will of the majority of the people.” He is emboldened by their support, enough to declare Congress “illegal.” Why? Because the South is “unrepresented” in Congress. Using his veto power to “oppose the expressed will of the nation,” Johnson, in effect, refuses to cooperate with his own party, (at the time, the Republican party), writes Du Bois.

In his last effort to right the wrongs of America and set it toward justice and equity, Du Bois writes, Stevens declares that the following statement be made into law: No state could deny citizens the right to vote! The Radical Republican senator dies in August 1868, three weeks before he Fourteenth Amendment is ratified. It would seem to signal America was on the road to democracy.

Or maybe, not quite. Black Reconstruction suggests that America is still an experiment in democracy. Between the end of the Civil War and the beginnings of Reconstruction, America presented itself, writes Du Bois, as “a dictatorship backed by the military arm of the United States.” Under this version of “democratic” rule, the government believed the Southern states could be “coerced into accepting a new form of administration, in which the freedman and the poor whites were to hold overwhelming balance of political power.” As Du Bois explains, for such a state to materialize would mean the US become a dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet, the wealth resides with the military arm of the government, for one function of the military at “war” and in “peace” is to protect the interests of the capitalists.

Is this state of affairs in direct contradiction of the true democratic ideal?

Du Bois continues: Want a government different from Europe? Fine. But what of the Northern capitalists in the US, holding the purse strings?

In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois argues that that there is are competing ideas about what a democracy looks like because there two “orbits” of “dissimilar economic systems” coincide in America.

 In the one, democracy reigns and “universal suffrage” establishes a “dictatorship of the proletariat ending in industrial democracy.” In the other, capitalism controls “national resources, wealth and industry of a vast and rich country and through that, of the world.” In the space of this “dissimilarity,” Du Bois argues, is a raging civil war, no less destructive than the one in which the combatants were armed with weapons and ammunition.

The Northern capitalist industry sought to united with the Southern moneyed-class—not the Southern laborers. The latter, writes Du Bois, was never intended to control “wealth and industry.” The Northern capitalist industry was looking pass the nightmare of the Civil War; it had no intention, Du Bois argues in creating a nightmare in which the powerful would be forced to watch as capital flowed down from their coffers to the people! The Civil War shock things up, opened up new opportunities, but this idea of democracy for all… Consolidating power needn’t be so painful!

The masters of exploitation remained focused. On profits!

If anyone suggests that Reconstruction failed, tell them to reconsider understanding the era from the bottom up, from the perspective of the economically poor whites, and above all, the freed Black Americans. Reconstruction “was an economic revolution on a mighty scale and with world-wide reverberations.” Instead of a failed era, Du Bois continues, Reconstruction represented “a tremendous series of efforts to earn a living in new and untried ways, to achieve economic security and to restore fatal losses of capital and investment.” Reconstruction represented the rise of the poor. Blacks and whites. Both previously impoverished.

An opportunity to place freedom front and center, Du Bois suggests, to see it as “God” as did Blacks, rather than as an “opportunity to get rich” as did Northern businessmen, came and went. “Freedom” became the right to elevate the role of greed in American society to a place of worship. Had labor really been freed from the plantation economy? For in new buildings among shiny machines, the masters of exploitation walked among the aisles were seated, cheap labor dared to free themselves from the confines of employment that seemed to mirror the old South’s plantation economy.

The future of American capitalism is global. Empire is on the horizon.

How does one educate the masses, writes Du Bois, when “universal lying,” by the 20th Century, distorts the lessons to be learned from Reconstruction? The Freedman’s Bureau, for one, Du Bois explains, never had a chance to organize and function properly before lies filled reams of historical documents on the era. Reconstruction “was surrounded from the beginning by the spirit which enacted the Black Codes.” When Johnson pardoned the rebels, he effectively declared that the “dictatorship of labor” was a failure. Reconstruction was a failure. Democracy was a failure. Reconstruction, Johnson declared, was led by the corrupt and the blood thirsty. Fermenting disinformation, Johnson points to Reconstruction and fumes, it was this era that “prevented the rise of industry in the South, which was the real solution of the race problem.”

While powerful political, financial, and civic leaders remained vigilant in case anyone dared challenge their consolidation of power, they turned away when organized white mobs attacked Black newspapers, stores, and homes. In the meantime, Johnson, speaking to a Black leadership he found worthless, he argued for the surrender of Black people to a new world order. Suggesting “that the nation ‘has changed its views in regard to the political relation of races and has at last’ virtually accepted the idea of the South upon the subject,” Johnson called for a cease fire. To Southerners, he claimed: “The white men of the South need now have no further fear that the Republican party, or Republican Administration ever again give themselves over to the vain imagination of the political equality of man.”

Black laborers had its “intelligent leadership.” Along with Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Anna Cooper, Frederick Douglass served as a formidable foe to the anti-democratic forces. Blacks were not “simply a mass of densely ignorant toilers” as Johnson proclaimed in one of his hate rants. But, as Du Bois noted that some among the Black leadership took their eyes off the prize, unwillingly or willingly, adopting a distorted definition of democracy, thereby settling for “the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of labor as the normal method of economic development. At times, it reflected “a leadership which was not at all clear in its economic thought.” In other words, Black leadership reflected the nation’s misguided notion about democracy.


On the positive side, Black leadership’s belief “in the right to vote as the bases and defense of economic life” kept the demands of the mass of Black laborers front and center in the national discourse. Black leadership kept the attention of the nation on Black demand for education and land—in short, Du Bois writes, despite its faults, Black leadership sought “economic emancipation” from a plantation-like economy.

In 21st Century America, it’s no wonder democracy struggles to breathe.

Lenore Daniels