‘A White Man’s Government’: Readex Introduces “African Americans and Reconstruction: Hope and Struggle, 1865-1883”

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Curated from the Library Company of Philadelphia’s acclaimed African American history archive, African Americans and Reconstruction: Hope and Struggle, 1865-1883, is a newly released digital collection of searchable books, pamphlets, and speeches. Its coverage begins with the conclusion of the Civil War and spans eighteen of the most formative years in African American history.

Reconstruction marked an end to slavery and a beginning to the enfranchisement of African Americans. Full citizenship, voting rights, land ownership, employment opportunities, and political participation were only some of the significant gains enjoyed, in theory, by African Americans during this period. Although these rights were granted by amendments to the U.S. Constitution and federal legislation, they were not, in practice, universally protected at local levels.


Using this new collection’s “Suggested Searches” feature, students and other researchers can explore these revealing primary source materials with ease.

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A search begun by selecting “Politics, Economics, and Civil Rights” and narrowed to “Constitutional Amendments” leads to results such as this letter from the president of the New York Union League Club, Francis Lieber, to U.S. Senator from New York Edwin Dennison Morgan.

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Lieber draws attention to an unintended consequence of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment.

If, then, “all other persons,” that is slaves, are declared free….we simply add two fifths to the basis of apportionment of Representatives in the Southern States—in other words, the number of Representatives in Congress from the States in which Slavery has existed will be increased by the present amendment. As, however, these States, and especially those in which the colored citizens exceed in number the whites, will not give the common suffrage to the citizens of African extraction….the result of the amendment as now proposed….would be an increased number of Southern Representatives in Congress of the same number of white citizens. In this case the Rebellion, though ultimately subdued at the cost of torrents of our blood and streams of our wealth, would be rewarded with an enlarged representation.

Two years after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified and less than six months before the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Senator from New Hampshire Aaron Harrison Cragin argued against delaying the expansion of suffrage.

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In his speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate, found by searching “Reconstruction Politics,” also within the Suggested Search of “Politics, Economics, and Civil Rights,” Cragin counters a colleague’s position, saying:

But the Senator from Wisconsin says they are “ignorant and half-civilized Africans,” and but a few generations removed from “cannibals,” and to allow them to vote would degrade the ballot. Ignorance is not the worst disqualification; disloyalty and treason are more dangerous. But who made them ignorant? The very men with whom the Senator now cooperates. They were bound in cruel bonds and denied the means of education. To accuse them now is to add insult to injury.

They are leaning fast, and the time is not far distant when they will compare favorably with, if they do not outstrip, the mass of white people [in the] South in point of intelligence, as I believe they do now in moral worth.

Later, echoing Lieber’s concerns on apportionment, Cragin contends:

We hear much said about this being a “white man’s Government.” I am for equal rights for all; for “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” But if we are to have a white man’s Government, I shall most emphatically insist upon equality among white men. I am not for having white men in the rebel States, with black shadows by their sides, made equal to two or three good men in the other States.

When he continues his tone evidences the freshness and depth of the national wound that was the Civil War. Savaging the opposition party and its supporters, he makes several accusations:

I charge the south wing of the Democratic party with being the prime movers in the rebellion, and the northern wing with giving them aid and comfort. I charge the Democratic party generally with having caused the war, and brought all the expense, suffering, woe, and death upon the country. I charge that every man who opposed the recruitment of our armies during the war, who denounced the draft, who encouraged desertions, and who in any way aided the rebellion, is now a supporter of the Democratic party and opposed to loyal supremacy. I charge that all the fossils, who had no sympathy and no money for our own suffering soldiers, and whose bloodless hearts, during the long struggle for national existence, were never animated by one pulsation of love and commiseration for our imperiled country, are supporters of the Democratic party, and opposed to loyal reconstruction. I charge that all the rebels who tried to destroy the Republic who murdered our wounded soldiers on the battle-field and starved our brave men in prison-pens, who sought to poison the water we drank, who sought to introduce the germs of yellow-fever and pestilence among our people, and tried to burn peaceful and defenseless cities, are supporters of the Democratic party, and opposed to loyal reconstruction.

Found by searching “Political Restoration of the South,” this piece of 1876 Republican Party campaign literature is more tempered than Cragin’s speech and addresses some of the long-term obstacles to the success of Reconstruction.

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’Tis true, slavery and secession, the primal causes of Southern alienation, are dead and buried, but it is equally true that their authors and advocates, and terrible consequences, still survive. The Hills, Gordons, and Lamars who led the Confederates into rebellion with enthusiastic ardor continue to be their chosen leaders, and are supported with all the zeal and devotion of former days. The loss of thousands of their bravest sons and millions of treasure, with ruined homes and universal impoverishment and sorrow inflicted upon them, has not taken a scintilla of their confidence from the authors of their misfortunes; and why? Simply for the reason that they still believe the “Lost Cause” to have been just and righteous, and hold it in affectionate remembrance as the palladium of their lost liberties.

The politician who seeks their favor and has exhausted every other expedient without success, can appeal to this fond sentiment with unerring assurance. It is the sentiment of the hustings, the church and the school, and unites society in its tender ties as the only remaining emblem of common sufferings in a common cause. Every idea of human liberty, every principle by which they would govern the State and the Nation, every sense of justice toward their fellow men, every conception of their duty as citizens, and every hope they have for themselves or for the nation, is limited by the traditions, teachings, and prejudices of the Past; and to dissent from these and adopt the more enlightened and progressive views of the North meets with a visitation of calumny, denunciation, and proscription that the most courageous men will shrink from encountering.


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