Liberty Matters

Confronting Our Racial Past

I am grateful to Vernon Burton for covering the United States Supreme Court’s role in undoing Reconstruction, an area of discussion that I, pressed by word limits, could not discuss fully. I endorse his statement that “slavery’s death did not automatically confer any positive rights upon African Americans.” He is certainly correct that, ultimately, most white Southerners failed to accept an “interracial democracy” and “organized, very effectively, an authoritarian coup d’etat.”
Burton emphasizes the gains that African Americans did make under Reconstruction: many became land owners, acquired an education, and—albeit briefly—wielded political power. Both he and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel mention the problem of what Hummel characterizes as “heavy state taxes.” But as Burton points out, the Reconstruction state governments were funding public institutions such as schools and prisons (which replaced the coercive penal structure of the plantations) that simply had not existed before the Civil War. Southern Republicans were well known to have invested hopes in economic growth, especially through railroads. Those hopes proved illusory. Democrats, meanwhile, used taxation as a political issue very effectively against Republicans. Michael W. Fitzgerald points out, however, that, even with the sizable increases in southern state taxation during Reconstruction, the rates were “moderate by national standards.” Southerners correctly perceived their taxes as going up, but the perception that tax rates were onerous perhaps had more to do with the very low pre-war rates and opposition to the public services—including schools for African Americans—those new taxes funded.[1]
I am frankly baffled at Hummel’s connection of Reconstruction’s failure to Progressivism and eugenics. One need not wait until the Progressive period to find the racist language and policies of white supremacy. White North Carolinians dubbed their Reconstruction convention “the gorilla convention,” because fifteen of the delegates were African American.[2] When African American men received the vote and women did not, Elizabeth Cady Stanton burst forth with resentment that “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence” would make laws for educated white women.[3] Segregation predated Progressivism. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper spoke of Harriet Tubman’s ejection from a segregated car in 1866 when she rebuked white women for their focus on the vote.[4] Progressives presented intelligence and educational tests in voting as reform measures, but in so doing they applied to whites, including immigrants and the poor, as well as African Americans anti-democratic measures that had long been used to justify denying black rights.
Erec Smith defends the Constitution as “a liberal and just document,” while blaming those who have bent the document to the needs of white supremacy. He invokes Frederick Douglass’s defense of the Constitution as a “glorious liberty document.” I certainly do not join with those who see the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, as “inherently racist,” but one has to acknowledge their limitations. The framers of the Constitution eschewed the word “slavery,” but accommodated its existence in the three-fifths and fugitive slave clauses. Smith writes that “the Constitution did not fail to protect all of its citizens, those charged to uphold it did.” But the Constitution did not define national citizenship: African Americans were frequently denied passports in the pre-Civil War era and the Dred Scott decision infamously declared that even free-born African Americans were not citizens and “had no rights the white man was bound to respect.” Douglass spoke as he did about the Constitution precisely to counter the abolitionist argument that the Constitution was a proslavery document. Smith states that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments “were simply ignored” and there is some truth to this, but while Smith would like to blame individuals, I argue that structure matters. I fear it is too easy, using Smith’s formulation, to lose sight of how universal white supremacy was in both the North and South. Simply put, the constitutional structure did not enable the federal government to protect minority rights from majorities that were fundamentally hostile to those rights. The question for us today is how to protect those rights against the remaining forces of white supremacy.
[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 413-14; Michael W. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the South (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007), 154.
[2] Mark Elliott, Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 127.
[3] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Manhood Suffrage,” Revolution, Dec. 24, 1868.
[4] Proceedings of the Eleventh National Woman's Rights Convention, Held at the Church of the Puritans, New York, May 10, 1866 (New York: Robert J. Johnston, 1866).