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The Reader's Companion to American History

RECONSTRUCTION : II. Economic and Social Aspects

For all Americans, the Civil War and the postwar era of Reconstruction brought far-reaching economic and social changes. As Allan Nevins observed over fifty years ago, the period witnessed the "emergence of modern America." In the victorious North and West, these years saw the completion of the national railroad network, the creation of the modern steel industry, the settlement of the trans-Mississippi West and final subduing of the Plains Indians, and the expansion of the mining frontier. The world of small farms and artisans' shops inexorably gave way to a rapidly industrializing economy, as the wage earner replaced the independent small producer as the typical member of the laboring class. Even though the depression of the 1870s brought an abrupt halt to the heady economic expansion of the immediate postwar years, by the end of Reconstruction in 1877 the nation's industrial production stood 75 percent above its 1865 level. Many issues that galvanized postwar northern politics—from the fate of the greenback currency to labor's demand for the eight-hour day and farmers' calls for railroad regulation—arose from the economic changes unleashed during the war and Reconstruction.

Because of the destruction of slavery, the South's social and economic transformation proved even more far-reaching than the North's. The central institution of antebellum southern life, slavery was simultaneously a system of labor, a form of race relations, and the foundation of a distinctive regional ruling class. Its demise led inevitably to conflict between blacks seeking to breathe substantive meaning into their freedom and planters seeking to retain as much as possible of the old order. Out of this conflict arose new systems of labor and new kinds of relations between black and white southerners. But these developments took place in a context that severely limited the region's prospects for economic growth. A war-torn, capital-scarce region, whose level of per capita income continued to lag far behind the rest of the nation, the South lacked the institutional base for sustained economic development.

To blacks, freedom meant independence from white control, autonomy both as individuals and as members of a community itself being transformed as a result of emancipation. This aspiration was reflected in the consolidation and expansion of the institutions of black life. Under slavery, most blacks had lived in nuclear family units, although they faced the constant threat of separation from loved ones by sale. Reconstruction provided the opportunity for blacks to solidify their family ties. Freedpeople made remarkable efforts to locate loved ones from whom they had been separated under slavery, and many black women, preferring to devote more time to their families, refused to work any longer in the cotton fields. Continuing resistance to planters' efforts to bind black children for involuntary labor through court-ordered apprenticeship revealed that control over their family life was a major preoccupation of the former slaves.

At the same time, blacks withdrew almost entirely from white-controlled religious institutions. On the eve of the war, forty-two thousand black Methodists worshiped in biracial South Carolina churches (where they were excluded from a role in church governance); by the end of Reconstruction only six hundred remained. At the same time, blacks established a network of independent fraternal, benevolent, and mutual aid societies. And although aided by northern reform societies and the federal government, the freedmen often took the initiative in establishing schools, pooling their meager resources to construct buildings and hire teachers.

Thus, race relations during Reconstruction had a contradictory quality. In social life, there was separation, as both races retreated into their own institutions. Despite Reconstruction civil rights laws, segregation was also the rule in many public facilities and private businesses. Almost all the new public school systems educated black and white children in separate schools, and many railroads, hotels, and theaters either excluded blacks altogether or relegated them to inferior accommodations. But the polity was color-blind. Blacks and whites sat together on juries, school boards, and city councils, and the Republican party provided a meeting ground for like-minded men of both races. Politics and government were the most integrated institutions in southern life during Reconstruction.

The appalling loss of life in the Civil War, and the widespread destruction of work animals, farm buildings, and machinery, ensured that the South's economic revival would be slow and painful. Between 1860 and 1870, while farm output expanded in the rest of the nation, the South experienced precipitous declines in the value of farm land, the number of farm animals, and the amount of acreage under cultivation. But economic reconstruction required more than rebuilding shattered farms and repairing broken bridges. An entire social order had been swept away, and on its ruins a new one had to be constructed.

In the postwar South, as in every nineteenth-century society that abolished slavery, emancipation was followed by a comprehensive struggle over access to the land and the forging of a new labor system. The conflict between former masters aiming to re-create a disciplined labor force and blacks seeking to carve out the greatest degree of economic autonomy helped shape the transition from slave to free labor. Planters were convinced that their own survival and the region's prosperity depended on their ability to resume production using disciplined gang labor, as under slavery. It was an article of faith that the freedmen, naturally indolent, would work only under compulsion. When they found that their personal authority over black laborers had vanished, planters turned to the new state governments of Presidential Reconstruction, which enacted the Black Codes in an unsuccessful attempt to stabilize the plantation labor force.

To blacks, economic autonomy rested on ownership of land. Many freedmen in 1865 and 1866 refused to sign labor contracts, expecting the federal government to provide them with farms of their own, to which their past labor, they believed, entitled them. In some localities, as an Alabama overseer reported, they "set up claims to the plantation and all on it." But President Andrew Johnson in the summer of 1865 ordered land in federal hands to be returned to its former owners. Most rural blacks remained propertyless and poor, as did those who flocked to southern towns and cities after the Civil War in an unsuccessful search for better employment opportunities.

Most blacks were thus compelled to go to work as laborers on white-owned farms and plantations, although they continued to resist white supervision of their work routines and daily lives. Nearly all former slaves refused to work in gangs under an overseer's direction, and most preferred to rent land for a fixed payment rather than work for wages. Out of the conflict on the plantations, new systems of labor emerged in the different regions of the South. Sharecropping came to dominate the cotton South. A compromise between blacks' desire for land and planters' for labor discipline, sharecropping allowed each black family to work its own plot, with the crop divided with the landowner at year's end. In the rice kingdom of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, planters were unable to acquire the large amounts of capital necessary to repair irrigation systems and threshing machinery destroyed by the war, and blacks clung tenaciously to land they had occupied in 1865. In the end, the great plantations fell to pieces, and blacks were able to acquire small parcels of land and take up self-sufficient farming. In the Louisiana sugar region, gang labor survived the end of slavery, with blacks paid wages and allowed access to garden plots to grow their own food.

In all these cases, blacks' economic opportunities were limited by whites' control of credit and by the vagaries of a world market in which the price of agricultural goods suffered a prolonged decline. In the late 1860s, some blacks managed to accumulate enough money to move from sharecropper to renter, and a few purchased land of their own. But many farmers who obtained supplies on credit from merchants found themselves still mired in debt after their portion of the crop was marketed at year's end.

The South's postwar economic transformation also affected the position of the white yeomanry. Wartime devastation set in motion a train of events that permanently altered their previous self-sufficient way of life. Plunged into poverty by the war, many yeomen in up-country areas saw their plight exacerbated by successive crop failures in early Reconstruction. In the face of this economic disaster, yeomen clung tenaciously to their farms. But needing to borrow money for the seed, implements, and livestock required to resume farming, many fell into debt and were forced to take up the growing of cotton, a process accelerated as new railroads linked yeomen areas to the national market. By the mid-1870s, white farmers, who cultivated only one-tenth of the South's cotton crop in 1860, were growing 40 percent of the crop, and a region in which a majority of small farmers had once owned their land was increasingly trapped in a cycle of tenancy and cotton overproduction, and unable to feed itself.

The rise of up-country cotton farming was only one part of a wholesale reorientation of southern trading patterns and a shift in regional economic power. As railroads penetrated the interior, they enabled merchants in rapidly developing market towns like Atlanta to trade directly with the North, bypassing the coastal cities that had traditionally monopolized southern commerce. In the up-country emerged a new bourgeoisie composed of merchants, railroad promoters, and bankers. Nationally, this class wielded little economic power, for it depended for credit and supplies on northern financiers and merchants. But within the South, it reaped the benefit of the spread of cotton agriculture.

In the plantation belt, the planter still stood atop the social pyramid. In a few areas, such as the sugar region, large numbers of planters saw their lands pass into the hands of northern investors. Generally, however, the majority of planter families managed to retain control of their land. Yet Reconstruction altered their world. Stripped of political influence at Washington and often at the state level, and lacking the ability to control their volatile labor force, many planters found themselves reduced to poverty.

The South's economic problems were exacerbated by the depression that began in 1873. Within four years, the price of cotton fell by nearly 50 percent, plunging farmers into poverty and drying up the region's already inadequate sources of credit. The depression shattered what hopes remained for the early emergence of a modernizing New South, and forced long-established businesses into bankruptcy. It facilitated the penetration of northern capital, as outside corporations bought up bankrupt southern railroads and other enterprises. Hard times accelerated the spread of tenancy among white farmers, ruined many planters, and reversed much of the modest economic progress blacks had made in the postemancipation years.

By 1877, the contours of the South's new social order were apparent. A new class structure was well on its way to being consolidated, with a rural proletariat composed of the descendants of the former slaves and white yeomen and a new owning class of planters and merchants, itself subordinate to northern financiers and industrialists. And the end of Reconstruction sharply reduced blacks' bargaining power and opportunities for organization. Laws limiting the options of plantation laborers, impossible to enact while blacks retained a significant role in politics, now appeared on southern statute books. Planters succeeded in stabilizing the plantation system, but only by blocking the growth of alternative enterprises, like factories, that might draw off black laborers, thus locking the region further into a pattern of economic underdevelopment. Long into the twentieth century, the South would remain the nation's foremost economic problem—a legacy not only of slavery but of the social and economic changes that began during Reconstruction, and of Reconstruction's political failure.

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988; abridged edition, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1990); Gerald D. Jaynes, Branches without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1882 (1986); Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979).

See also Black Codes; Bruce, Blanche K.; Carpetbaggers; Civil War; Cotton; Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment; Freedmen's Bureau; Grant, Ulysses S.; Johnson, Andrew; Ku Klux Klan; Lynching; Plantation System; Redeemers; Republican Party; Scalawags; Slavery; Stevens, Thaddeus; Suffrage; Sumner, Charles; Truth, Sojourner; Wade-Davis Bill; Washington, Booker T.

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