Saturday, July 17, 2021

Punishment and Empowerment as Political Strategies.

Mark Graber

Jamelle Bouie’s criticisms of the American failure to punish leading rebels in the wake of the Civil War (New York Times¸ July 13, 2021) ironically champions the Reconstruction policy advocated by leading Democrats in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.  Andrew Johnson upon taking office and many white supremacist War Democrats in Congress insisted that secession and the Civil War were largely the responsibility of a few traitors.  Once such rebels as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were hung, ordinary southerners would see the error of their ways and again become good Union citizens. 

 Although some Republicans aggressively sought treason trials for leading confederates, most thought criminal punishments marginal to the broader issues of Reconstruction.  The most important radical members of the Republican Party thought the United States would experience a “new birth of freedom” only if the nation passed powerful civil rights laws, empowered former slaves politically by giving them the vote, and empowered former slaves economically by giving them land.  Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the leading radical in the House, put “forty acres and a mule” at the core of his Reconstruction program, not “forty feet of rope and a firing squad.”  Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the leading radical in the Senate, spoke for days (literally) on why African-Americans needed the ballot, but rarely for more than seconds on the need to punish former confederates criminally. 


Stevens, Sumner, and other congressional radicals preferred reconstruction policies that empowered persons of color and their political allies to one that punished leading confederates because they understood secession was the product in part of a mass political movement.  There was not enough rope in the United States to hang even a small percentage of the persons who committed treason from 1860 to 1865.  The postwar south contained numerous ambitious white supremacists eager to assume the reins of racist leadership should existing leaders be executed.  Southern politics could be reformed only if persons committed to reform were empowered.  Radical Republicans recognized that former slaves were by far and away the most important constituency committed to reform in the postwar south.  Their efforts during Reconstruction were directed at providing southern blacks with the political and economic rights necessary to control their destiny.  Reconstruction failed because radical Republicans did not gain the political support in the north necessary to empower persons of color in the south, not because the southern landscape was not sufficiently littered with the executed corpses of confederate leaders. 


Charging Mr. Bouie with advocating the Democratic solution to Reconstruction is in equal parts silly and offensive.  He has been a powerful voice for providing marginalized persons with the political and economic resources they need to become equal citizens in the contemporary United States.  Imputing a belief that criminal punishment would have sufficed for Reconstruction is a gross misreading of his column.  Nevertheless, his column can be read as putting criminal punishment too close to the core of the Reconstruction agenda, both in 1866 and today.  We would be better off emulating Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who understood that the best way to combat a mass movement dedicated to racist and other status hierarchies is by empowering a more massive movement of persons committed to a more egalitarian regime and not by trying to cut off the heads of a few racist traitors. 

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