The Case for a Third Reconstruction

tags: racism, Reconstruction, democracy, political violence

Manisha Sinha, a professor and the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000) and The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016). 

Since the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, it is clear that our democracy is at a turning point. The first order of business of the Biden-Harris administration will necessarily be to undo the damage done by the Trump regime’s criminal incompetence and assault on our democratic institutions over the past four years. The Biden White House has proceeded to do that at a rapid clip, with new appointments to federal posts and a stream of executive orders designed to restore faith in government. President Biden is fond of saying that our country is facing a series of grave crises—the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, systemic racism, and economic inequality—but perhaps the biggest issue he will have to confront is the political crisis caused by the failed attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election.

American democracy is once again at a crossroads, as it was during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the postwar period when the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union. Like the secessionist slaveholders who would break the republic rather than accept the election of an antislavery president, Trump and his enablers tried to disrupt the electoral process rather than accept his decisive defeat in the election. One of the main inciters of the failed Capitol Hill putsch, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, is reminiscent of another politician from that state: the rabidly proslavery David Atchison, whose “Border Ruffians” regularly stole elections in Kansas in the 1850s through a campaign of terror and intimidation. “Bleeding Kansas” was a dress rehearsal for the Civil War that came soon after.

It is not a coincidence that the Capitol Hill rioters carried the battle flag of the Confederacy. The last large-scale instances of domestic insurrection in American history were the slaveholders’ rebellion of 1861 and the racist Draft Riots of 1863 in New York City. Both were quelled by the armed might of the federal government.

The history of Reconstruction reveals that moments of crisis can also provide opportunities to strengthen our experiment in democracy. With a Democratic-controlled Congress, the new administration has just such a chance to inaugurate a much needed “third reconstruction” of American democracy. Trump’s “Big Lie” parroted by large sections of the Republican Party and his attempts to interfere with the certifying of votes in several states expose how vulnerable our complicated electoral system is to illegal meddling. During the original Reconstruction, the republic rid itself of another faithless president, Andrew Johnson. As I have argued elsewhere, Trump’s true antecedent is not the oft-compared Andrew Jackson, who threatened to hang secessionists, but Andrew Johnson, who humored traitors and peddled racial bigotry. Like Johnson, Trump and his followers are fond of Confederate generals and their rebel rag of treason.

Johnson threatened the hard-won gains of the Civil War by opposing the rights of freed people in the South and encouraging violent resistance to emancipation by former Confederates. And he has the dishonor of becoming the first president impeached in American history, though his conviction in the Senate fell short by just one vote. Trump now has the dishonor of becoming the first president in American history to be impeached twice.

The Reconstruction Congress enacted the first civil rights laws in the nation’s history and expanded the role of the federal government in protecting the rights of citizens. Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments abolished slavery, established national birthright citizenship (which Trump imagined he could overturn through an executive order), decreed equality before the law for all American citizens (an ideal we still struggle to achieve), and enacted adult manhood suffrage regardless of race or previous condition of servitude. Historians often refer to the far-reaching political and constitutional changes of the first Reconstruction as “the second American Revolution” or “the second founding” of the American republic, even though its reforms still excluded women. Since then, disfranchised groups, including women, have successfully invoked “the equal protection of the laws” of the Fourteenth Amendment to establish the right to privacy, to bar discrimination on the basis of sex, and more recently, to enshrine full marriage equality.

Reconstruction also provides us with a roadmap for how to deal with racist domestic terrorism, which now looms as the greatest danger to American democracy. The last time in US history violent white mobs systematically disrupted elections, invaded government buildings, and attacked democratically elected governments was during Reconstruction. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, White Liners, the White League, and the Red Shirts in the Carolinas (a precursor paramilitary organization to the Nazi Brownshirts and Mussolini’s Blackshirts), assassinated, assaulted, and intimidated black voters and Reconstruction politicians. Periodic riots and massacres in the postwar South upended the rule of law and democracy itself by overturning interracial state governments. Small wonder that Hitler bemoaned the defeat of the Confederacy and held up the Jim Crow South, as well as the violent dispossession of Native Americans in the West, as historical role models for the Third Reich. 

Read entire article at New York Review of Books

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