Who Won Reconstruction?

Long ago I learned the phrase, “The North won the Civil War, but the South won Reconstruction.” The explicit statement is true – Northern Union troops won the American civil war and ended slavery, but a White Southern backlash enshrined another 100 years of racist Jim Crow oppression for Black Americans. However, the phrase also reinforces a Northern narrative of being on the ‘right side of history’ that is not fully justified.

Let’s go back.

European conquest and colonization of the Americas started off as a business. The conquerors’ most profitable business was intensive farming by enslaved Africans. These farms straddled the equator, extending north to the Carolinas and south to Brazil. More temperate zones like the eventual northern U.S. states and Argentina could not support such intensive farming, making importation and enslavement of Africans less profitable in those areas. Slave-supported agriculture was always recognized as a dirty business – evil in its treatment of Africans and (supposedly) contaminating for European-American society.

Against this backdrop, European settlers in temperate zones prized their society’s European ‘racial purity,’ hemmed in as they were by Native Americans, Africans, and even Chinese immigrants who they fought to keep out. Coming up to the Civil War, political opinions about what to do about slavery ranged from doing nothing, to not letting slavery expand, to deporting African Americans to Sierra Leone or another far-off place. Only extremists anticipated an integrated society of Black and White Americans. For example, Indiana’s 1851 constitution (still in force today with amendments) banned free Blacks from entering the state and appropriated money to send the few current Black residents to Africa.

When Lincoln was elected, his campaign platform included containment of slavery, not emancipation – and certainly not integration. Thankfully, war forced the Union into emancipating slaves, and deportation of 3 million Black Americans was a logistical impossibility. But most Lincoln voters were not rooting for a pluralistic multiracial society. We stumbled backward into it.

After the war, Northern states continued to resist Black settlers. Biased government and vigilante violence kept African Americans out of most Northern towns and the richer parts of cities just as they oppressed Blacks who remained in the South. Saying “the South won reconstruction” gives credit to Northern states they do not deserve. Segregation was a consensus policy.

Written on May 24, 2022