- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Heather Cox Richardson
Harvard University Press, $39.95, 245 pages

In 1866, ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment drove the final legal stake through the heart of slavery, confirming the result of America's four-year-long Civil War. The slaves, North and South, were free.
But were free for what? Old-time slaveholders however demanding, had had an economic interest in keeping their slaves well enough to work. In the wake of the Civil War, however, there was no national program to train the ex-slaves for survival in a free labor market. In Washington, the Republican Party was committed to protecting the freedman in his voting rights, but even here, commitment was often less than total. William H. Seward, who had been one of the most prominent antislavery spokesmen before the war, acknowledged that his priorities had changed. Before the war, the destruction of slavery had been the country's highest priority; now, he believed, reconciliation between the sections was most important.
Compassion fatigue such as Seward's bode ill for the one-time slaves. Convinced that the freedmen were politically incompetent, the states of the former Confederacy moved to exclude them from the political process. Because attempts to bring blacks into the political process were associated with the Republicans and their "carpetbagger" allies, the South turned to the Democratic Party as the guarantor of white supremacy. Heather Cox Richardson believes that the Republican focus on voting rights, however well meant, was damaging to the freedmen, because the emphasis on suffrage "undermined more radical reforms that would have redistributed property in favor of the ex-slaves."
In "The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North," the author's main concern is with attitudes in the North, not in the states of the former Confederacy. She notes that most Northerners had little direct contact with blacks, because only 10 percent of them lived in the North. In the years immediately after the war, the Republican press in the North took a benign view of blacks as a group, portraying them as poor but eager to work their way to prosperity as free labor. The Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized, "The colored people are peaceably disposed, and, unless molested, will labor industriously for an education, and for the means of supporting life."
In 1879, depressed economic conditions in much of the South, together with an end to the protections enjoyed under Reconstruction, stimulated a black migration to the North. One result of the migration was a less sympathetic attitude in the North with regard to the freedmen. As the author notes, President Grover Cleveland, in his 1885 inaugural address, promised to protect the rights of the freedmen, but added that they must improve themselves and accept "the duties, obligations, and responsibilities" of citizenship.
The most interesting aspect of this book is the reminder it affords that the debate over "affirmative action" is not a modern phenomenon but can be traced back to the 19th century. In the 1870s, Yale political scientist William Graham Sumner became a prominent advocate of social Darwinism, arguing that much had been done for the ex-slaves, and that now they should be assured "of nothing but what they earn." Sumner reserved his sympathy for the "Forgotten Man" worthy and industrious, whose tax dollars supported the lazy and unproductive.
For many Americans, the model black was Booker T. Washington, whose autobiography, "Up From Slavery," acknowledged the help he had received from whites in gaining an education, and who demonstrated that rags-to-riches success was not the sole prerogative of whites. Not all blacks shared Washington's attitude, however, and Northern whites became suspicious of blacks who embraced socialist doctrines imported from Europe, and who sought to redistribute existing property rather than create new wealth. Black attempts to increase the role of government in society were viewed with suspicion.
The author concludes that race was important in the latter half of the 19th century, "but it was less important than one's position in the community either as a disaffected worker trying to force himself forward with government help or a prosperous individual who had achieved his own success." Thus, she identifies herself with those who believe class to be the most important leg of the iron triangle of race, gender, and class. Her focus on class conflict is a useful addition to other writings on the Gilded Age, but her conclusions are often predictable.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va. His books in history and biography include "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand," the subject of a new PBS documentary.

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