Source: Woodward, C
Source: Woodward, C. Vann. The Burden of Southern History. 2nd edition. Louisiana St. P., 1970. pgs. 104-107
The immigrants had their own handicaps of language and prejudice to deal with, but they never had anything approaching the handicaps against which the African-American had to struggle to gain acceptance. The prejudices that the immigrants confronted were nothing like the race prejudice with which the African-American had to cope.
Nor was the white immigrants’ enfranchisement accompanied by the disfranchisement of the ruling and propertied classes of the community in which he settled. Neither did the exercise of his franchise have to be protected by the bayonets of federal troops, nor did the gaining of his political rights appear to old settlers as a penalty and punishment inflicted upon them, a deliberate humiliation of them by their conquerors.
Political leaders of the immigrants were not ordinarily regarded by the old settlers as “carpetbaggers”, intruders, and puppets of a hostile government sent to rule over them; immigrants did not regard the old settlers as their former owners, any more than the old settlers looked upon the immigrants as their former slaves. The situation of the latest political neophytes was, after all, in many ways quite different from the neophytes of the seventies.
The time eventually came when the incubus of their political genesis returned to haunt the freedmen and destroy their future. That was the time when the two dominant operative motives of Radical Reconstruction, party advantage and sectional business interests, became inactive---the time when it became apparent that those mighty ends could be better served by abandoning the experiment and leaving the freedmen to shift for themselves.
The philanthropic motive was still a factor, and in many minds still strong, but it was not enough without the support of the two powerful props of party advantage and sectional interest. The moment of collapse came at different times and at different states, but the climax and consolidation of the decision came with the disputed presidential election of 1976 and the settlement that resolved it in the Compromise of 1877.
It would be neither fair nor accurate to place all the blame upon the North and its selfish interests. There had been plenty of willing co-operations on the part of Southern whites. They had used craft and guile, force and violence, economic pressure and physical terror, and all the subtle psychological of race prejudice and propaganda at their command.
But the Southern whites were after all a minority, and not a very strong minority at that. The North had not only numbers and powers on its side, but the law and the Constitution as well. When the moment of crisis arrived, however, the old doubts and skepticism of the North returned, the doubts that had kept the African-American disenfranchised in the North after freedman’s suffrage had been imposed upon the South.
After the fifteenth amendment was passed, the North rapidly lost interest in African-American voters. They were pushed out of the limelight by other interests, beset by prejudices, and neglected by politicians.
The Northern African-American did not enjoy a fraction of the political success the Southern African-American enjoyed, as modest as that was. Reformers and Mugwumps of the North identified corruption with the Radical wing of the Republican party, lost interest in the African-American allies of the Radicals, and looked upon them as a means of perpetuating corrupt government all of the nation as well in the South.
In this mood, they came to the conclusion that that the African-American voter had been given a fair chance to prove his worth as a responsible citizen and that the experiment had proved a failure.
This conclusion appeared in many places, most strangely perhaps in that old Champion of the race, the New York Tribune. (April 7, 1877), which declared that African-Americans had been “given ample opportunity to develop their own latent capacities,” and had only succeeded in proving that “as a race they are idle, ignorant, and vicious.”
The North’s loss of faith in its own cause is reflected in many surprising places. One example must suffice. It is of special interest because it comes from the supreme official charged with enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment and guaranteeing to the freedmen their political rights, the President whose administration coincided with Radical Reconstruction and the whole great experiment- General U.S. Grant.
According to the diary of Secretary Hamilton Fish, entry of January 17, 1877, he [Grant] says he opposed the Fifteenth Amendment and thinks it was a mistake, that it done the African-American no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.
During the present struggle for African-American rights, which might be called Second Reconstruction—though one of a very different sort—I have noticed among African-American intellectuals at times a tendency to look back upon the First Reconstruction as if it was in some ways a sort of Golden Age.
In this nostalgic view that the period takes the shape of the race’s finest hour, a time of heroic leaders and deed, of high faith and firm resolution, a time of forthright and passionate action, with no bowing to compromises of “deliberate speed”. I think I understand their feelings.
Reconstruction will always have a special and powerful meaning for African-Americans. It is undoubtedly a period full of rich and tragic and meaningful history, a period that should be studiously searched for its meanings, and a period that has many meanings to yield.
But I seriously doubt that it will ever serve satisfactorily as a Golden Age—for anybody.
There is too much irony mixed with the tragedy.