Hidden Connections: "A Revolution Half Accomplished"

Slave emancipation in the United States

Early in the summer of 1865, Lincoln’s successor President Andrew Johnson dispatched former Union Major General Carl Schurz on a tour of the South to compile a report on conditions there. Between the time of Schurz’s departure from Washington and his return to Johnson’s office less than four months later, developments had taken a dramatic turn. In the South, former Confederates seemed determined to regain the upper hand, undertaking a campaign of brutal intimidation against those set free by the war. “[T]he prevalent desire among the whites seemed to be,” Schurz wrote, “if they could not retain their negroes as slaves, to get rid of them entirely.” 

Among the exslaves, emancipation seemed to mark a beginning and not the end to their pursuit of freedom: wherever they could they refused to go back to work under their old masters, beseeching the federal government to grant them land of their own. But in Washington things had taken an unexpected turn as well. President Johnson, who many Republicans had expected to implement a program of root-and-branch reconstruction, seemed more inclined to hand power back to those influential whites who had led the region into secession. Johnson offered the ex-Confederates states lenient terms for re-entering the Union—terms that did not include substantive change for freedpeople. Though the majority of white landowners accepted that slavery as an institution could not be revived, many hoped to retain as much as possible of their former mastery. 

Under Johnson’s direction, they embedded a series of laws (known as ‘Black Codes’) in the new state constitutions, aimed at keeping the former slaves landless, immobile and politically powerless. In some states children were “apprenticed out” to work in the fields and the labour of petty offenders could be sold at auction for failure to pay debts. Left to their own devices, only Tennessee among the eleven former Confederate states ratified the 14th Amendment granting blacks equal rights of citizenship. 

In his report—which Johnson would in the end attempt to suppress—Schurz captured the deep gulf that separated freedpeople and their former masters, and the challenge facing the federal government: “Nothing renders society more restless than a social revolution but half accomplished…. All classes of society are intensely dissatisfied with things as they are. General explosions may be prevented, but they are always imminent…the South will have to suffer the evils of [disorder] until means are found to effect a final settlement of the labor question in accordance with the logic of the great revolution.” 

On the ground across the plantation South and in the halls of Congress, Johnson’s willingness to squander the results of such a hard-fought war rebounded against him, bringing an early end to the limited plan of Reconstruction favoured by southern whites. In 1867 Radicals in Congress assumed control, dramatically expanding the rights of former slaves (including granting the franchise to adult males), committing the federal government to the protection of those rights, and galvanizing freedpeople in their remarkable attempts to remake the South from the bottom up.

An outdoor mass meeting in Richmond, Virginia, 1869

An outdoor mass meeting in Richmond, Virginia, 1869

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

A Freed Family near the Richmond Canal, 1865

A Freed Family near the Richmond Canal, 1865

U.S Library of Congress

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