Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the prominent speakers scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Andrew Slap, Associate Professor of History at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several books, including The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republican in the Civil War Era (Fordham University Press, 2006). He is also the editor of This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions About the Civil War-Era North (Fordham University Press, 2013) and Reconstructing Appalachia: The Civil War’s Aftermath (The University Press of Kentucky, 2010). Slap serves as the series editor for “Reconstructing America” and “The North’s Civil War,” both published through Fordham University Press.
CWI: How was Reconstruction in the North similar to, and different from, Reconstruction in the South? What challenges or opportunities existed in the North, and for whom, during the era of Reconstruction?
SLAP: Reconstruction in the North was strikingly different than Reconstruction in the South. For the South, Reconstruction meant massive upheaval (including almost four million African American slaves becoming free citizens), an occupying army, and having to rebuild an economy devastated by armies fighting across the South for years. By contrast, Reconstruction in the North was more about opportunities created by the war, and these extended throughout northern society. Economic legislation passed during the Civil War, such as the Homestead Act and the Transcontinental Railroad, helped open the West to new waves of settlers. Many veterans left the army ready to improve their lives with bonus money, new networks of friends, and a sense of optimism. Debates about African American voting rights helped spur the Women’s suffrage movement, including the Wyoming Territory’s women’s suffrage provision in 1870 and Victoria Woodhull becoming the first female candidate for president of the United States in 1872.
CWI: What influences did northern Reconstruction have upon the South, and vice versa? What was the nature of the interaction—political, social, economic—between the North and the South during Reconstruction?
SLAP: Reconstruction in the North and South, though very different, profoundly affected each other. It is easier to see how the North influenced the South during Reconstruction. Northern armies occupied the South. A Northern-dominated Congress passed legislation remaking Southern governments and turning Southern society upside down with civil and political rights for African Americans. Northern businessmen tried remaking the Southern economy to look like the North and loaned money to fund a boom in railroad construction in the South. The South influenced the North in more subtle, though still important, ways. The intransigence of many white Southerners, in the year after the war ended, to accept any consequences of defeat, such as enacting Black Codes and sending prominent former Confederates to Congress, led to the North implementing Radical Reconstruction. African American activism throughout the South—and the response of many white Southerners—forced Southerners to deal with issues like civil and political rights that most would have preferred to ignore. The resistance of many Southerners, both black and white, to a free labor economic model thwarted the plans of northern businessmen. And, ultimately, the persistent resistance of white Southerners exhausted Northern will and led to the end of Reconstruction.
CWI: For whom was Reconstruction successful, and for whom was it a failure? What were the long-term impacts of Northern Reconstruction upon the reconstruction of the nation as a whole?
SLAP: Reconstruction turned out to be a compromise for almost everyone, with most people getting some, but not all, of what they wanted during this turbulent time. The development of share- cropping is good example. Northern businessmen got the cotton they wanted, but not the free labor economic system in the South; southern plantation owners kept their land and a dependent labor force, but not the daily control over African American workers and families. African Americans got control over their labor and families, but not land and economic autonomy. One clear loser in Reconstruction was Native Americans, who faced more vigorous westward expansion spearheaded by a hardened military. Overall, Reconstruction was a success in reuniting the nation without the long simmering violence that bedevils so many other countries after a long civil war.
Northern Reconstruction had long-term effects on the entire nation. A newly invigorated nation expanded westward and flexed its muscles internationally. The Northern economic model was ignored in the South but spread throughout the rest of the country, setting the stage for huge economic expansion in the Gilded Age. Perhaps most importantly, the Constitutional Amendments passed during Reconstruction laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement in the twentieth century.