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Post Civil War Years
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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.










Post Civil War Years

The Post War Years

Free At Last

With the conclusion of the war, emancipation became a reality, but the place of African-Americans in society was far from resolved. The exigencies of military conflict gave way to equally difficult questions of race. Should freedmen be given parcels of land, or grants with which to buy it? How far should the right to vote be extended? Could the Northern philosophy of wage labor degenerate into a system that resembled slavery in all but name? And could blacks and whites peacefully coexist in the first place?

Despite the ominous implications of these issues, liberal Northerners generally regarded the arrival of emancipation with high spirits. The following print, drawn by a young Thomas Nast, captures that sense of optimism. The central scene depicts an idealized version of African-American family life; they enjoy the material comforts of a decent home and appear to be living in harmony. One portrait of Lincoln hangs on the family's wall, while another gazes out past the viewer. On the left are three scenes depicting the horrors of slave life in the South: the hunting of fugitives in a swamp (top), the public sale of a slave away from his family (middle), and the flogging of a black woman and branding of a black man (bottom).

On the right are three contrasting images of emancipation: a freedman singing outside his cottage (top), a woman sending her children off to public school (middle), and a black employee receiving his due wages from a cashier (bottom). Reigning over the entire image is Thomas Crawford's Statue of Freedom, framed against the glorious sunburst of "EMANCIPATION."

An entirely different, and possibly self-fulfilling, view of freedom was the harsh anti-abolitionism captured in the next image, "Northern Coat of Arms." Black feet emerge from beneath a Phrygian liberty cap-- which was worn by newly freed slaves in Ancient Rome. The cap is faintly embroidered with several stars, an eagle with an olive branch, and the word "Liberty." At first glance, this may seem a fairly humorous image, but the underlying message is unmistakable: freedom is too great a responsibility for African-Americans. The print forces the viewer to concentrate on the literal and symbolically lowest portion of the human form, while seeming to deny any presence of higher faculties in the person hiding inside the cap.

Both of the above images represent prevalent views of emancipation, but of course the reality of post-war life for African-Americans lay somewhere between the two extremes.

                                        Racial Reconstruction

In the wake of the Civil War, the Southern states lay in political and economic ruins. Several arduous decades of reconstructing a still-proud society lay ahead. In the short term, the Federal and state governments needed to plan for the adoption of new state constitutions, new land policies, and new rights of suffrage. The reform of these institutional structures proved easier to accomplish than those of racial attitudes or justice.

The story of reconstruction is in large measure a story of the tension between expanding the rights of freedmen and the unabated racism of Southerners and Northerners alike. A corollary tension also developed between the so-called radical re-constructionists, who sought a complete overhaul of Southern society in the image of the North, and the moderates, who urged reconciliation and the cession of reconstruction responsibilities to the Southern states.

Re-constructionists discovered that efforts to expand suffrage rights could easily run aground. With the abolition of slavery, the "three-fifths clause" in the Constitution effectively became null and void, since blacks were now counted as whole citizens. Paradoxically, this change meant that the South might actually gain power in Congress, since their proportionate representation would be based on a larger population. To help counterbalance this gain, President Johnson-- under fire from abolitionists for his slow and reluctant steps toward racial reconciliation-- proposed extending the vote to literate blacks worth at least 250 dollars. Southern states rejected the idea, and blacks remained disenfranchised.

But debates over suffrage bedeviled the North as well. Discriminatory voting qualifications were standard operating procedure in those six Northern states that even allowed African-Americans to vote at all. Referendums in 1865 to expand the black vote in three states failed. The 1866 gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania serves as a good example of the rhetoric employed to defeat black enfranchisement. Pitting Democrat Hiester Clymer against Republican James Geary, the contest was literally framed by the Democrats as a contest between sensible advocates of white power and the raving radicals who would dare to extend the vote to freedmen, as shown in the following campaign poster, "The Two Platforms":


Beneath the banner title, the poster reads, "Every radical in Congress voted for Negro Suffrage. Every Radical in the Pennsylvania Senate Voted for Negro Suffrage. [Thaddeus] Stevens, [John] Forney & [Simon] Cameron are for Negro Suffrage; they are all Candidates for the United States Senate. No radical newspaper opposes Negro Suffrage. Geary said in a Speech, at Harrisburg, 11th of August, 1866-- 'There can be no possible objection to Negro Suffrage'." Beneath the idealized portrait of a white voter and the thick-lipped, wide-nosed caricature of a black voter, the poster bluntly asserts, "Clymer's platform is for the White Man" while "Geary's platform is for the Negro." It concludes: "Congress says, The Negro must be allowed to vote, or the states be punished."

Racist opposition to the expanding role of African-Americans in society also took the form of "black codes." Following emancipation, Southern legislatures undertook the business of determining the status of freedmen in society; as the legislators operated under certain obligations, not all of the black codes were oppressive. Some laws extended to freedmen such legal protections as recognized marriages, the right to own and sell property, and the ability to enter into contractual relationships.

However, in most cases the black codes also prohibited African-Americans from serving on juries and providing legal testimony. In addition, the codes outlawed interracial marriage and created segregated public facilities. Harsher aspects of the codes included vagrancy laws, under which unemployed blacks were often fined and then sent to prison to work off their fine, as well as licensing requirements for non-agricultural occupations.

In the face of such formidable institutional obstacles and deeply entrenched prejudice, the Federal government sought to gain a tighter grip on Southern reconstruction by creating the Freedmen's Bureau. The Freedmen's Bureau was a Federal agency charged with helping to manage and ease the transition from slavery to freedom. As Union troops began to occupy the South, the Bureau set up offices in each of the former Confederate states. Eventually, 550 local agents, most of them Northerners sympathetic to the plight of former slaves, worked toward the elusive goal of racial reconstruction.

The Bureau took on daunting responsibilities. One of its foremost was to provide legal guidance for freed persons. This duty included the adjudication of disputes between blacks and whites, observation of trials, and the arrangement of contractual labor relationships between former slaves and owners. As part of this process, through a newly created category of freedmen's courts that could override local authority, the Bureau managed to overturn some of the harsher aspects of the black codes.

Also under the Bureau's purview was the thankless task of trying to reorganize land ownership, which would prove minimally effective in the end. For a while at least, the Bureau gave a boost to thousands of freedmen by settling families on abandoned land, arranging land sales at cheap prices, and providing livestock and equipment. As a last resort, the agency simply gave food rations to large numbers of poor and unemployed African-Americans.

Predictably, the Freedmen's Bureau had its detractors, many of whom charged that the agency instilled a kind of welfare ethic in its benefactors. Since Bureau offices were often located in cities, they tended to draw African-Americans away from the countryside, exacerbating an agricultural labor shortage. More significantly, the fact that the offices provided assistance to the unemployed was seen as encouragement to be "idle." The following 1866 poster plays up the "welfare" theme:

The caption reads, "THE FREEDMAN'S BUREAU! An Agency to keep the NEGRO in idleness at the EXPENSE of the white man. Twice vetoed by the PRESIDENT, and made a law by CONGRESS. Support Congress & you support the negro. Sustain the President and you protect the white man." A barefooted black man lounges in the foreground, asking himself, "What is de use for me to work as long as dey make dese appropriations."

The left-side background presents contrasting scenes of industrious white men chopping wood and plowing fields. In the background above the languishing freedman is the U.S. Capitol, with rays of light streaming from the Statue of Freedom. Appealing both to the visual imagery and shrill logic of white supremacy, prints such as these contributed to the gradual decline and eventual elimination of the Freedmen's Bureau. Proving once again that the artist's crayon is more powerful than either the pen or the sword, this print presents a depressing example of the immense power of political cartoons in domestic policy.


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