Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

December 21, 2015

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Civil wars always wreak utter havoc. Current conflicts in Syria and the Central African Republic are just two in a long line of horrific affairs that have divided communities, devastated economies, destroyed infrastructures, and displaced millions. If that weren’t enough, such catastrophes then leave the survivors with massively complex reconstruction projects. Our own civil war was no different. During the past four years, hundreds of commemorations at battlefields, memorial sites, and town squares have marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of events connected to that bloodiest of all American wars. Surely those moments from Sumter to Gettysburg to Appomatox are worth remembering. But so too are the key events of Reconstruction, the period of rebuilding and national reinvention that followed the war from 1865 to 1877.

December 1865 was a particularly pivotal moment. By that point, President Andrew Johnson was saying that Reconstruction was complete. Former Confederate states had now complied with the lenient rules his administration had established for readmission. From his perspective, that was the only issue a federal program of Reconstruction needed to address. But many Moderate and Radical Republicans in Congress thought otherwise. They refused to seat representatives and senators elected from the restored states, appalled by the prospect of having many of the same men who had led the South out of the Union in 1860-61 back in Congress. Moreover, they were persuaded that Reconstruction needed to address many other issues, most especially the future of the almost four million African American slaves recently emancipated. Southern state governments had already begun to impose so-called “black codes,” laws constraining the freed people’s freedom. Something had to be done lest those who had fought so hard to win the war now lost the peace.

So Congressional Republicans went to work and over the next three-plus years passed a set of monumental bills, among them the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments which re-defined citizenship and voting rights in America. Those Republicans may have concurred with Lincoln’s earlier plea that northerners and southerners alike “bind up the nation’s wounds,” but they also believed that ensuring greater measures of freedom and equality for African Americans couldn’t be sacrificed in the process. Some Radicals such as Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens wanted to go even further and have the federal government confiscate land from large plantations and redistribute it to the freedmen. Such an economic head start might have allowed some of them to escape the appalling poverty that would plague their families for generations to come. But alas that proposal was too radical. So, too, in the minds of most white southerners was everything else connected to Congressional Reconstruction; they fought it with whatever legal and illegal means they could devise and before long, won the day.

The nation retreated from Reconstruction in the 1870s and with it, its commitment to giving African Americans their fair due. In the decades that followed, white Americans, North and South, healed their wounds but at the price of justice. It would take almost another century for a new generation of leaders to muster enough moral and political courage to push the nation towards making good on the constitutional promises of Congressional Reconstruction. Such is a sobering testament to the destructive effects of civil war and the enormous challenges of reconstruction.