It goes without saying that the greatest tragedy in the history of the American Republic was the War Between the States by which the industrialized north became the predominant force in the new American Nation while the remnants of true Republicanism were suppressed in the South through an often brutal military occupation called Reconstruction.
You will not read a sentence like that in any text accepted by the current academic establishment. Indeed their leading light, Eric Foner, has argued for a second Reconstruction – probably complete with compulsory re-education camps. If you are looking to Philip Dray for anything to correct Foner you will not find it there by intention but – and here is the trap for all propagandists parading as historians – if you sort through his evidence with reason and discernment you can come to conclusions one hundred and eighty degrees apart from his.
While we as a nation attempt to move forward and restore some sense of the Constitution in order that we may preserve the rights of the many we are continuously dragged backward by those who wish to preserve the rights of only the few – chiefly themselves. We did not get here overnight and it is crucial to know exactly how we got here in order to find the way out.Capitol men : the epic story of Reconstruction through the lives of the first Black congressmen Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008 Philip Dray United States. Congress. House Biography Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xiii, 463 p.: ill.; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -437) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Reconstruction was a time of sweeping change, as the union fabricated never intended citizenship rights for the freed slaves and granted the vote to black men. Sixteen black Southerners, elected to the U.S. Congress, arrived in Washington to advocate reforms such as public education, equal rights – with some more equal than others, and – as their least publicized but most important business – land redistribution to both punish the South and especially to reward the northern opportunists who went from being war profiteers to peace profiteers.
But these men faced astounding odds. They were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and the brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob them of their base of support. Despite their status as congressmen, they were made to endure the worst humiliations of racial prejudice. And they have been largely forgotten — often neglected or maligned by standard histories of the period. In this book, Dray rewrites their story drawing on archival documents, contemporary news accounts, and congressional records, he shows how the efforts of the first black Congressmen revealed their political motives and how their readiness to serve was part of a larger effort.
Among the glaring omissions of the book are that only two of the thirteen States of the Confederacy had majority black populations, South Carolina and Mississippi, and that even with a 41% white population South Carolina would wind up with blacks for five out of six of its Congressmen and Mississippi with a 46% white population would wind up with two black Senators. This latter was a deliberate effort to punish the home state of Jefferson Davis but more importantly since senators were still elected by the legislatures it shows how far the north was willing to go to usurp the legitimate powers of representation of the people.We meet men like Robert Smalls of South Carolina (who had stolen a Confederate vessel), Robert Brown Elliott (who engaged the former vice president of the Confederacy in a bombastic debate on the House floor), and the former slave Blanche K. Bruce who was said to possess “the manners of a Chesterfield” [Yes the same Chesterfield that Dr. Johnson said demonstrated the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore.] Before Lincoln was assassinated he had signed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill into law. Similar to a good deal of current regulation and legislation many of its provisos were directed at overseeing the relations between freed slaves and their former employers in a new labor market. It did not – as is so popularly misconstrued these days – promise every free slave 40 acres and a mule. It did authorized the new bureaucracy to lease confiscated land for a period of three years and to sell it in portions of up to 40 acres per buyer – supposedly irrespective of race no doubt with the intention of bringing poor white farmers into an alliance with poor blacks. This begs the question of where the confiscated land was coming from. Lincoln may have suspended habeas corpus and the Radical Republicans may have perpetuated that suspension throughout Reconstruction however neither was able to suppress the Fifth Amendment rights whereby a citizen could not be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. So how was the north – through their local proxies – going to confiscate land? The oldest trick in the book to turn cupidity into policy – taxation. The property tax rates in South Carolina increase from 5 mills to 12 and in Mississippi from 1 mill to 14 during Reconstruction. Is it any wonder why, in States devastated by war, so many properties – especially the plantations – came under the foreclosure gavel? As John Marshall said, The power to tax is the power to destroy.
As Dray too amply demonstrates, these men were bombastic, original in the worst sense of the term, and ineffective representatives who, as support for Reconstruction faded, were undone by the forces of re-enfranchised Southerners reclaiming their rights at the polls and northern indifference to a burlesque that they had grown tired of.
In a narrative that traces the tragic arc of Reconstruction, Dray follows these black representatives’ struggles, from the end of the war to the end of reconstruction, as they sought opportunism at every turn and made a staple of grievance to cover failure that would foreshadow the modern black efforts in the Congress.