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The Confederate Lawyer
September 9, 2008

Reconstruction Sowed Seeds of Corruption and Exploitation
by Charles G. Mills

Despite attempts by contemporary historians such as Eric Foner to put a benign face on it, Reconstruction in truth was one of the most shameful events in American history.

By 1863, it was becoming probable that the North would win the War and that slavery would be abolished. Further, the South’s power in Congress and in presidential elections would be increased because all of its black citizens would be counted as full people in the 1870 census, instead of three-fifths as slaves had been counted. In that year, Lincoln proposed that 10 percent of the electorate of any Southern state could form a new state government as long as it abolished slavery and swore allegiance to the United States. Congress eventually adopted this plan in 1874.

Between March 1867 and March 1868, however, Congress repudiated the Lincoln plan in a series of laws known as Reconstruction Acts. These acts divided 10 Southern states into five districts under the command of Army generals. These generals and their appointees were empowered to remove and replace civil officials, try civilians by military commission, schedule referenda on new state constitutions, register voters for these constitutions, and count the votes. Every male over the age of 21, who was not a felon or not prohibited from voting as a former Confederate, was allowed to vote in these referenda and in subsequent elections under the new state constitutions.

The apologists for Reconstruction justify it on the ground that it gave blacks the right to vote, yet this was a right they often did not have in the North at that time. The truth is that it established military power to conduct rigged elections, and neither white nor black voters had real electoral power. The corruption and violence of this period was a consequence of the lack of real democratic elections.

During Reconstruction, 16 blacks, 53 white Southerners, and 60 Northerners represented the South in Congress. This is a typical example of how Reconstruction elections generally favored Northern candidates in the South and of how rigged these elections were.

The only black to serve as a Southern Reconstruction governor was P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana. Pinchback was Lt. Governor when Louisiana Governor Henry C. Warmouth, who came from Illinois, was impeached in 1872 for his extraordinarily corrupt four years in office. Governor Pinchback replaced Governor Warmouth but an election to replace him was held during Pinchback’s first month in office. This special election was so disputed that the Army had to intervene to make sure that William P. Kellog, also of Illinois, could take office.

The Army was especially diligent at ensuring the election of Northern veterans. In Mississippi, Adelbert Ames, a Northern general from Maine served simultaneously as acting governor and Commanding General of the Fourth District (Mississippi and Arkansas). In 1870, he was appointed as United States Senator from Mississippi before he even had a physical residence in Mississippi. He became disillusioned with Mississippi Governor James L. Alcorn because Alcorn wanted to attract white Southerners to the Republican Party. In 1873 he defeated Alcorn and was elected governor. He resigned in 1876 to avoid impeachment. While governor of Mississippi, he spent most of his summers in the North. His wife never made a secret of her hatred for the South. She was the daughter of Beast Butler, the Northern general most hated by Southerners.

In South Carolina, Northern general Robert K. Scott from Ohio served as governor from 1868 to 1872. In 1874, a Northern colonel from Massachusetts, Daniel H. Chamberlain, was elected to the same office. He was known for his corruption and lost a disputed election in 1876. In Arkansas in1872 another Northern Army veteran, Elisha Baxter, was named governor in an election that was disputed until 1874 and finally settled by the Army.

Reconstruction placed blacks in offices without real power or in places where they were merely reliable votes to support white Radical Republicans. Moreover, it actually betrayed them. For example, white Republican votes were critical to the expulsion of the black members of the Georgia legislature in 1868.

Historians have been unable to determine exactly how many of the black office holders during Reconstruction were former slaves. It appears that the overwhelming majority of the statewide blacks were not. This is not surprising, because only a small minority of rural slaves was even minimally literate. The free blacks from the cities were often qualified for the political offices they held, but the newly freed slaves were in a position that was beyond most of them. At a time when most Northern states did not allow blacks to vote, and even fewer states allowed blacks to vote who could not read, Reconstruction established universal black suffrage. This suffrage never matured into true rural black power. It was simply a mechanism for the election of the likes of Generals Ames and Scott and Colonel Chamberlain.

Reconstruction was the suspension of democracy. Never before nor since has the United States Army had such vast power over the civilian government. Allowing black Southerners who could not even read the names on the ballots to vote for Northerners was far from true emancipation; on the contrary, it was the exploitation of these voters.

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The Confederate Lawyer column by Charles G. Mills is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

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