The Civil War as Revolution – Part V
[Note: This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]
In the last post, I discussed challenges to the revolutionary nature of the American Civil War by historical revisionists. A second challenge was made by historical economists who contended that the Civil War caused an economic slowdown, not acceleration. Historian James McPherson counters that it is inappropriate to examine the economics of the country as a whole during the war because it so utterly devastated the economic resources of the south. He posits that the North saw economic growth during the war and that “after the war the national economy grew at the fastest rate of the century for a couple of decades, a growth that represented a catching-up process from the lag of the 1860s caused by the war’s impact on the South.”[i]
The third challenge to the Civil War as revolution addressed the plight of Southern blacks and contested that they saw little or no change in their circumstances after both emancipation and the Southern surrender.
Some argued that the Republican Party’s commitment to equal rights for freed slaves was superficial, flawed by racism, only partly implemented, and quickly abandoned. Other historians maintained that the policies of the Union occupation army, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the national government operated in the interests of the white landowners rather than the black freedmen, and that they were designed to preserve a docile, dependent, cheap labor force in the South rather than to encourage a revolutionary transformation of land tenure and economic status. And finally another group of scholars asserted that the domination of the southern economy by the old planter class continued unbroken after the Civil War.[ii]
But McPherson considers these arguments flawed suggesting that they reflect “presentism,” “…a tendency to read history backwards, measuring change over time from the point of arrival rather than the point of departure.”[iii] He points out that dramatic change did occur and the statistics prove it out. “When slavery was abolished, about 90 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1880 the rate of black illiteracy had been reduced to 70 percent, and by 1900 to less than 50 percent. Viewed from the standpoint of 1865 the rate of literacy for blacks increased by 200 percent in fifteen years and by 400 percent in thirty-five years.”[iv]
Emancipation had equally dramatic economic impacts. It amounted to nothing less that the “confiscation of about three billion dollars of property – the equivalent as a proportion of the national wealth to at least three trillion dollars in 1990.”[v]
In effect, the government in 1865 confiscated the principal form of property in one-third of the country, without compensation. That was without parallel in American history – it dwarfed the confiscation of Tory property in the American Revolution. When such a massive confiscation of property takes place as a consequence of violent internal upheaval on the scale of the American Civil War, it is quite properly called revolutionary.[vi]
McPherson sites other economic impacts of emancipation including the redistribution of income in the South post war which “was by far the greatest in American history.”[vii] Equally dramatic was the change in political power in the post war South that resulted from the freeing of the slaves. Blacks achieved the vote in 1868 and within a year represented the majority of registered voters. In four years, 15 percent of the officeholders in the South were black. [viii] “In 1870, blacks provided three-fourths of the votes in the South for the Republican party, which controlled the governments of a dozen states in which five years earlier most of these black voters had been slaves. It was this phenomenon, more than anything else, that caused contemporaries to describe the events of those years as a revolution[ix] This fact caused the pendulum of thought to swing back in the 1980s to support of the Civil War and Reconstruction experiences as revolutionary.
Historian Eric Foner calls the post war period in history “Radical Reconstruction” and found it unequaled in history in its support of the black laborer and their political rights. Regrettably, some of the gains made were reversed by the counterrevolution that followed when the Democratic Party was revived in the north and the indifference of the Republicans of the north toward blacks in the south increased. But, as McPherson points out, “the counterrevolution was not as successful as the revolution had been.” Blacks in the south remained free, continued to have the vote, could still own land, and could still go to school.[x]
Note: I highly recommend historian Eric Foner’s website for access to a number of his articles and to his lectures on the Columbia American History Online (CAHO) site. You can register for a free trial subscription to CAHO.
Photos: First: Ruins seen from the capitol, Columbia, S.C., 1865. Photographed by George N. Barnard. National Archives Ref. # 165-SC-53. Second: Several generations of a family are pictured on Smith’s Plantation, South Carolina, ca. 1862. (Library of Congress)
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
[i] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press), 11., [ii] Ibid., 14., [iii] Ibid., 16., [iv] Ibid. [v] Ibid., 17. McPherson sites studies by Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch., [vi] Ibid., 17-18., [vii] Ibid., 18., [viii] Ibid., 19., [ix] Ibid., [x] Ibid., 23.