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Modern Voices
Noel Ignatiev on the Civil War and emancipation
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Q: What kinds of changes came about during the Civil War and Reconstruction?
Noel Ignatiev

A: Now, that period from 1863 through the period of Reconstruction was a period in which traditional race lines were broken down in America. That before the war, the difference between black and white had roughly corresponded to the difference between slavery and freedom. Now, the abolition of slavery transformed that eliminated that distinction. And the country faced, for the first time in its history, the possibility of moving beyond being a white republic to being a universal republic, and what that might mean for the possibility of progress for all its citizens. That was a very frightening prospect to a number of people. Black people, of course, faced the problem of how to adjust to the requirements of being independent actors in an economy. And there's a tremendous literature on how they adjusted to that. And white folks faced the possibility of how they would live without the special protections of the white skin, what a colorless American democracy might mean.

Now, that's not what happened. The overthrow of Reconstruction meant the restoration of the white republic on a new basis. No longer corresponding to the difference between freedom and slavery, it now corresponded to the difference between those who essentially had the rights of citizenship and the rights to work in a general economy, and those who were condemned to peonage, debt slavery, and disenfranchisement in the South. The result of that was that railroads and banks and large corporations replaced the slaveholders as the dominant group in American society after 1877.

The aftermath of the Civil War... brought black folk into political power in a number of places in the South. The first South Carolina state convention, 60 [out of] 125 delegates to the convention were former slaves. Another 30 owned no property and paid no taxes. In other words, there was never a purer working class parliament in the history of the planet than this constitutional convention of the state of South Carolina in 1868. And the government that was set up out of that was a government that had important black representation. Black people did not dominate the government, but they certainly exercised an important influence within it. And as a result, South Carolina passed the most progressive legislative measures that it had ever passed before or since: measures for public school system, for roads, for asylums for the aged, the infirm, the insane, women's rights to own property, to participate publicly. A number of measures were passed during that period that indicated in a small way what the possibilities of a genuinely free republic might have been. There was talk about seizing the plantations and dividing them among the laborers, black and white. Now, that was not carried out. They were not strong enough to do that. But that indicated some of the possibilities of what an American republic might have meant.
Noel Ignatiev
Writer and Historian
Du Bois Institute, Harvard University
Visiting Associate Professor
Bowdoin College

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