With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
-Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins. -Frederick Douglas
The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.
-W.E.B. Du Bois
What happens to a dream deferred? -Langston Hughes
American society was drastically reshaped, often in unpredictable ways, during the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction in the southern states, lasting roughly from 1865 to 1877. The victorious North grappled with a conflict between moral ideals and competing political and economic motivations as it considered how to reabsorb the South and its leaders after a bloody war of attempted secession. The widely held desire to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as Lincoln put it, after the war that pitted brother against brother, was complicated by the question of how to assure that the South returned properly, repentant and committed to a united vision of America. Unexpectedly, that reconciliation was to be the battlefield for a new fight over the question of how over 4.4 million African-Americans – an almost universally disenfranchised 14 percent of the population, most newly freed from enslavement – fit into an irrevocably changed nation. Blacks themselves, both freedmen and already free, pushed forward a strong vision of a country that lived up to the ideals of its founding documents. Racial animus both South and North, a lack of inclusion, and brutal violence obstructed their demands for equality. Radical efforts to remold the South into a society governed in partnership by both races saw brief successes. After a few short years, however, the recapture of Southern governments by a Democratic party running on a white supremacy agenda, facilitated by Northern ambivalence and changing political tides, led to retrenchment and reinstatement of a system perpetuating racial oppression. It would be another century before social foment rose once again to begin to undo the new system of discrimination and oppression put in place after the enslaved were freed.
American Reconstruction may be one of the first prominent modern examples of post-conflict peacebuilding – an unprecedented and ambitious experiment in societal transformation that was ultimately abandoned half-finished. 150 years on, we can see how the United States emerged from the period as an industrial powerhouse and rising world power. At the same time, even as initial efforts to protect America’s largest minority group defined the debates over the role of the state and prompted debates over new freedoms and protections, we can trace how the nation’s socioeconomic structure and government institutions evolved from a foundation of systematic hatred of and discrimination against its largest minority population. Historians have illustrated this crucial period in American history in extensive detail, while scholars such as David Crocker have begun the process of applying modern theories of reconciliation to Reconstruction’s successes and failures. In this essay, I seek to conduct a more thorough analysis of the Reconstruction period through a peacebuilding lens, begin to elucidate the impact of its successes and failures on succeeding generations, and consider possible lessons for modern peacebuilders looking at conflicts elsewhere in the world and at home.
One Conflict Begets Another
To explore a war’s end, one must start with its beginnings. Even today, the reasons behind the Civil War are disputed along geographic, racial, and ideological lines – despite ample historical evidence of the antecedents of the conflict. In his definitive work on the Reconstruction period, Eric Foner summarizes how politics over the expansion of slavery and concurrent worries over the balance of power between slave and non- slave states divided the nation ahead of Abraham Lincoln’s election, at the same time as the institution of slavery created a unique political system in the South that influenced every aspect of daily life. Confederate officials made their reasons for secession clear. In his March 21, 1861 “Cornerstone Address,” Vice-President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens declared that “the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization… was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
While Southern motivations are relatively clear, however, the North itself was not focused on ending slavery, but ending the insurrection. Lincoln wrote pointedly in 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.” As the war progressed and enslaved people fled for Union lines and enlisted in the fight, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the North found itself actually freeing slaves before it had the slightest intention of doing so, indeed when it had every intention not to.” Lincoln tread carefully on the question even after the Emancipation Proclamation, which only ended slavery in the seceding states, not the border states he sought to avoid alienating. As encampments of escaped enslaved persons followed Union armies and tens of thousands of black men took up arms for their nation and were greeted as liberators in the territory they occupied, it was clear slavery would die. Congress officialized its demise, with the House approving the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865.
Even as the war drew to a close, however, Lincoln remained ambivalent over how best to reconcile the divided country, with the principal question being the extent of rights and status of former slaves, including compensation for freed slaves. According to Foner, he encouraged Republicans to “think of Reconstruction as a practical rather than a theoretical matter.” In his last recorded public remarks on April 11, 1865, Lincoln cautiously endorsed suffrage of “very intelligent” blacks in Louisiana, as well as those who had fought for the Union, but simultaneously described the whole of Reconstruction as “fraught with difficulty.” It was necessary, he said, to “begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements.” Unfortunately, Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, not five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, left the country with a limited blueprint for how to handle that jumble.
Disarming the Rebel Armies
As John Paul Lederach write, the first step in reestablishing peace, is to end the shooting war and “demilitarize the society,” returning ex-combatants to civilian life, and avoiding any possible revival of armed conflict. Southern soldiers feared the punishment they might suffer as they faced defeat. To their surprise, Lincoln’s instructions guided the Union military towards an almost exaggerated policy of mercy. “Let them all go, officers and all, I want submission, and no more bloodshed…I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around,” he told his generals, insisting he would not ‘take part in hanging or killing these men, even the worst of them.’” General Ulysses S. Grant followed this policy of leniency to the letter at Appomattox, providing parole letters for Confederate soldiers to return to their homes, and even allowing officers to keep their side arms and private horses. From the opposing side, Lee reciprocated by pledging to give “his whole efforts to pacifying the country and bringing the people back to the Union,” and even wrote President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis to urge him to end hostilities. His entreaty to Davis was unsuccessful, but other Confederate generals did follow suit, including even Nathan Bedford Forrest – who later participated in and may have even helped found the Ku Klux Klan.
Though Davis himself was imprisoned after his capture, he was ultimately let out on bail in 1867 and never faced prosecution for his leadership in the rebellion, possibly to avoid a messy trial on the legality of secession. Historian Jay Winik claims that the astonishing degree of mercy displayed in April 1865, after a war that killed over 600,000 people, “saved the nation” and ensured national reconciliation. In his critique of Winik’s analysis, however, Corker notes that mercy without a form of transitional justice “revealing the truth about the past” and the evils of Southern slavery in particular does not and did not end the conflict.
A Battle for the Future, Not a Dialogue
Lederach describes reconciliation as a place “for the acknowledging of the past and envisioning of the future,” based on four concepts in internal tension with each other: truth, mercy, justice, and peace. With the fighting over, the more complex work of tying the nation back together had to begin, and the various and the future of blacks in the South was front and center in the debates over next steps. At the time of Lincoln’s death, the South was a hodgepodge of already-Reconstructed state governments that had been put in place by Washington and an assortment of military administrators with varying degrees of involvement and authority. For his part, Lincoln had been ready to be flexible with how the states returned, and believed the leaders of the South should be part of rebuilding, but had some minimal requirements. According to Corker, Lincoln was clear that there must be an acceptance of a “new normal” – each state must revise its constitution to end slavery, and must cooperate with Union officials to help blacks, both already free and newly freed, transition to a new life as free laborers. With regards to Southern leaders, however, his approach towards reconciliation appears close to that put forward by Verdeja, namely “a condition of mutual respect among former enemies, which requires the reciprocal recognition of the moral worth and dignity of others.” Recriminations over the past were not on the table.
The black community, 90 percent of whom were newly freed, pushed their own agenda, even as they were largely relegated to the sidelines of political deliberations. The mobilization of the black community in the South was swift and powerful, a seed in fallow ground suddenly provided water and nutrients. Existing networks of schools, churches, and benefit societies in free black communities were expanded, including by black soldiers who built new schools and orphanages, and organized debating societies and political gatherings. Freedmen traveled hundreds of miles to reunite families split apart by slavery, attended schools, negotiated their own contracts, and went on strike for better wages. They also attended political conventions in every state to push for their rights, condemn violence against their communities, and above all press for suffrage for black men. While anger at former slaveowners and the institutions that had perpetuated their suffering remained hot, this political awakening was focused on a positive, future-oriented vision of their community.
Unfortunately, the final decisions shaping that future were largely out of their hands. In the struggle to determine how the new South would be reconstructed, Northern Republicans were in the best position to dictate terms, with control of three quarters of the House and Senate, and the White House. Republicans were divided on the question, however. On one side, there were the Radicals, many of whom supported a strong federal effort to educate freedmen, provide them with land, and grant them the rights and suffrage of all other men (women’s suffrage still a dead letter at the time), and supported tougher conditions for Southern states to rejoin the Union. They advocated for an active Freedmen’s Bureau, established in March 1865 “to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services, and land to displaced Southerners, including newly freed African Americans.” On the other side of the Republican coin were moderates more ambivalent about the future role for blacks in American society, often in part due to persistent racist perceptions of their intelligence, morality, and work ethic. Moderates were furthermore hesitant to support a vigorous federal intervention to ensure the labor rights of blacks, lest they be seen as overly trampling the autonomy for individual states. While abolishing slavery was a widely accepted viewpoint among Republicans, most moderates focused on promoting a “free labor” ideology that encouraged freedmen to be subject to the same market forces as everyone else in the rapidly industrializing nation, preferably remaining agricultural laborers to feed material to northern factories.
Moderates initially appeared to have their leader in Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, a former Democrat from Tennessee who sought not only to reintegrate the South as quickly as possible, but also to build a dominant Republican party coalition there. Johnson, previously a strong abolitionist, increasingly demonstrated racist views and a particular fear of miscegenation. He strenuously opposed black suffrage, focusing instead on empowering poor whites in the South and building alliances with some former planters, including but not exclusively pro-Union ones. Johnson starved the Freedmen’s Bureau of resources – they only ever had 900 agents for the entire South – and appointed agents and military administrators who would apply a light tough against former Confederates and a firmer hand to push former slaves into regular labor contracts, often with former slaveowners. After having set a high bar for restoring citizenship and voting rights for top Confederate officials, Johnson later issued sweeping pardons for many of them through 1865. Southern leaders, allowed back into power at little cost, would take advantage of Johnson’s leniency to attempt to build a system that maintained the power of the planters and continued to subjugate freed blacks. Freedmen, meanwhile, experienced severe backlash as some were granted seized land of Confederate sympathizers as a form of reparations in 1865, but were then abruptly ordered to vacate it or work for the original property-holders – sometimes their former masters.
White Southerners, particularly those from the former ruling elite, resented both black freedoms and federal intervention and evinced little interest in building a harmonious, interracial society. Carl Schurz, a German immigrant sent by Andrew Johnson to report on social conditions in the South, acknowledged he met some planters who "expressed their determination to adopt the course which best accords with the spirit of free labor.” In most circumstances, though, he discovered intense racial hatred on the part of whites of all classes. “Men who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors, will cheat a Negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor. To kill a Negro, they do not deem murder; to debauch a Negro woman, they do not think fornication; to take the property away from a Negro, they do not consider robbery. The people boast that when they get freedmen's affairs in their own hands, to use their own expression, 'the n------ will catch hell.'” The level of virulent hatred of blacks is evident from writings of the period, but also from the actions that whites took in reaction to the blossoming of black freedom all around them. Blacks were left in a deeply vulnerable position, with unclear rights whose guarantors often doubted whether they deserved the same protections and prerogatives of citizenship as whites.
White supremacists filled that gap with new laws specifically targeted at limiting the freedoms of freedmen, in what came to be known as the Black Codes. In Mississippi and South Carolina, for example, workers were tied to plantations by requiring evidence of employment for the coming year in January, or else face imprisonment. Florida allowed “disrespect” to an employer a crime. In Georgia, anyone charged with being “idle” could be arrested and contracted out to work. State militias and local police and courts often staffed by ex-confederates harassed and coerced black communities, sometimes while still wearing their Confederate grey uniforms. The Ku Klux Klan, formed in Tennessee in 1866, quickly spread across the South, unleashing terror against blacks and Republican politicians. Little was done to protect black communities. Foner writes that 500 white men were indicted in 1856 and 1866 for killing blacks in Texas alone, but none were convicted. Some of the Black Codes were ultimately blocked by military commanders, or vetoed by governors fearful of a counterreaction from the North, but Foner writes that laws not explicitly based on race were still enforced discriminatorily against blacks in a system where they had no representation whatsoever. President Johnson preferred to take little action, even as southern white defiance against what was seen as the greatest imposition of their vanquishers – ending slavery – demonstrated that early moves at reconciliation had made no lasting impact on the views and behaviors of the former rebels.
The Backlash and Move Towards Radical Reconstruction
As many of the more prescient Southern leaders feared, Southern irredentism brought more restrictive federal measures, particularly as Republicans lost faith in President Johnson and overruled his efforts to limit national intervention. Moderates, balancing their concerns over overly aggressive federal intervention, joined with Radical Republicans to respond to Southern intransigence. The final nail in the coffin of what was known as “Presidential Reconstruction” came after President Johnson vetoed both a bill reauthorizing the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 that defined all non-Indian persons born in the United States as citizens and enumerated specific rights and protections, including for life and property. The Civil Rights Bill ultimately passed into law over the President’s veto, redefined relations between the federal government and the states, and limited ability of Southern states to legislate discrimination. It was followed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which further enshrined those protections and limited a state’s proportional representation if it denied the vote to any male over the age of 21, while placing additional restrictions on former rebels. The amendment, a product of compromise, did not fully meet Radicals’ desires for immediate suffrage. Still, noted Radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens announced his support in 1866 for “so imperfect a proposition…because I live among men and not among angels.” The Johnson-appointed provisional governor of Alabama lamented, “We had, in 1865, a white man’s government in Alabama…but we lost it.”
The die having been cast by Congress, the reaction of politicians and voters determined next steps. Legislatures across the South refused to ratify the amendment, with only 33 lawmakers across the entire region daring to vote for it. Congressional elections became “a referendum” on the Amendment, and Republicans won resoundingly, further strengthening their hand to implement harsher measures. Military rule was imposed on the South in the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which also required new state constitutions include suffrage for all men regardless of race and made ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment a condition for readmission to the Union. Foner notes the Act, which was once again passed over a Johnson veto, was a “somewhat incongruous mixture of idealism and political expediency,” to win both Radical and moderate votes. Black suffrage became accepted Republican policy, though seemingly in part due to political calculations that black votes were needed to reduce the influence of ex-Confederates. Black civil and political rights were protected, but not economic ones after centuries of enslavement or other marginalization. Those Acts were later followed by the Enforcement Acts of 1870 to ensure Klansmen and other aggressors were prosecuted, while the Fifteenth Amendment formally enfranchised black men throughout the country.
Radical Reconstruction dramatically reshaped the Southern political landscape, leading to greater inclusion of new groups, but also to the reduced influence of those long accustomed to ruling. Black political activity expanded throughout the South following enfranchisement, and with it the rise of divergent Republican coalitions. Some Southern states like South Carolina and Mississippi had black majorities, while in others they were a plurality or minority, impacting their degree of influence. Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Republicans and sought elected office as Republicans, often in coalition with “carpetbaggers” from the North and Southern-born “scalawags” who threw in their destiny with the freedmen, often in the face of insult and injury from Southern Democrats maintaining a white supremacy platform. Not all scalawags, who ended up in prominent government roles throughout the South, were necessarily committed to a new order and hoped to direct the votes of freedmen. Their participation nevertheless contributed to Republican takeovers of governments across the South, the upending of traditional economic systems, and experiments with new progressive policies such as state-sponsored education for all citizens.
While blacks in the South at first didn’t obtain proportional representation in the new governments, Foner writes that by 1870 they had demanded, and often received, more power in state and local government, though still not in as great of numbers as would be expected from proper representation of their role in southern Republicanism. In 1870, a former preacher named Hiram Revels was appointed the first black senator from Mississippi. Charles Sumner predicted his appointment would change everything – “Doors will open, exclusions will give way, intolerance will cease, and the great truth will manifest in a thousand examples.” Revels supported efforts to return the right to vote to former confederates, while pushing in his first floor speech for blacks to be viewed as equals. By the end of Reconstruction, Foner counts 18 blacks who served in state elected offices, and many others occupied positions as judges, school superintendents, and over 600 state lawmakers. In South Carolina, blacks dominated the state House of Representatives. In 1874, a total of seven blacks had been elected to the national House of Representatives, including three former slaves.
The former Southern “aristocracy,” meanwhile, saw their fortunes diminished, as the results of political and social changes that struck at the heart of their identities and views of formerly enslaved blacks. Du Bois writes that “the planters died as a class,” though uncertain of “just how quickly and in what manner the transformation was made” by which “a portion” of poor whites rose “into the dominant portion of landholders and capitalists.” Through that time, federal interventionism and black agency appeared to merge into a combined grievance in the minds of many southerners. Foner note that “Blacks’ quest for economic independence…threatened the very foundations of the Southern political economy.” Taxes against plantation owners, who had in the past avoided paying much of anything to the state, particularly rankled. Psychological resentments seemed to hit just as hard, such as one white lawyer who chafed at being forced to refer to blacks as “gentlemen of the jury” in a courtroom. Those who refused to accept the new order bided their time for a chance to restore the old one.
While bold in some areas, such as increased taxation to fund social programs like schools and hospitals, the new governments and supporters themselves rarely attempted revolutionary efforts to create a truly integrated society. Measures ensuring black access to public transportation, restaurants, and theaters were advocated for throughout the South (though not all succeeded), but even many blacks were accepting or at least resigned to a degree of social segregation, including in schools. Experiments in land redistribution and labor laws were seen here and there, but often didn’t command support amongst white Republicans, even as blacks were highly supportive of what, especially for the time, was a progressive agenda that would have benefited more than just themselves. The South remained plagued by economic difficulties throughout the period, and corruption was a facet of public life as it was everywhere in the era of patronage politics. But as Foner writes, “Biracial democratic government, a thing unknown in American history, was functioning effectively in many parts of the South.”
The Experiment Unravels
Radical Reconstruction was never fully consolidated, however, and never achieved buy-in from most Southern whites. Even at the peak of its influence, cracks were evident in the reform program. Violence against blacks and their allies never truly disappeared. Though they were better protected in areas with strong local Republican governments, enforcement overall was weak. Some Southern Democratic whites, whose grievances over black empowerment went beyond what could be handled through political process, would murder political opponents and intimidate voters. A dispute over 1872 state elections in Louisiana led to a standoff between freedmen and whites in the town of Colfax, ultimately leading to the massacre of two whites and fifty blacks who had attempted to surrender. Republicans, and blacks in particular, rarely instigated such violence, seeking only “to live under the law.” As Foner wrote, “No Republicans rode at night to murder their political foes.” In the early 1870s Congress took some measures to protect freedmen, including the Enforcement Act of 1871, which allowed federal courts to prosecute certain crimes if states refused to act. Hundreds were indicted under this act, and even though in the end punishments were mild, its actual implementation achieved objectives of protecting black rights.
The days for such robust national intervention, however, were numbered. A national economic depression that began in 1873 led to massive turnover in Congress, with the House switching from an overwhelming Republican majority to a Democratic one. At the same time, Republican support for freedmen’s rights began to fade. Prominent Northerners began to declare that Reconstruction had “failed,” citing racist reasons regarding black competence. Increasingly constrained by the turning of the political tide, the federal government reduced prosecutions in the South, and the Supreme Court issued drastically limited interpretations of federally-protected rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. A new Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination was passed by a lame duck session in 1874, but was rarely implemented before ultimately being overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883.
At the same time as support faded in the North for guaranteeing the rights of the black minority, Southern Democrats began retaking power in state capitals. In what became known as the Redemption movement, Democrats ran on a platform of “white supremacy, low taxes, and control of the black labor force.” At the same time, their supporters unleashed campaigns of terror and violence against blacks and Republicans. Hundreds appeared to have died in violence leading up to the 1876 campaign, primarily but not exclusively instigated against blacks. The contested presidential election led to an agreement by eventual president Rutherford B. Hayes to allow the Southern states to rule themselves, leading one black observer in the South to comment, “The whole South – every state in the South had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.”
As federal troops departed the South, “Redeemers” began putting in place the “patchwork of laws, codes, and constitutional provisions” known as Jim Crow, which “revived the doctrine of white supremacy and imposed segregation in public and private life.” Socially, Reconstruction had failed at promoting widespread opportunity for black mobility – by 1880, still 70 percent of blacks remained illiterate. These political changes ensured that even as the nation’s economy roared, opportunities for blacks would remain restricted for generations. Even those who migrated North would discover similar formal and informal measures taken to suppress black influence and prevent integration. It would not be until the Civil Rights Movement more than 80 years later that the conflict over black lives and rights was once more a national issue.
Analysis – Lofty Ambitions for Reconciliation Fail Amidst Peacebuilding Deficits
The Reconstruction period was in many respects an unprecedented effort at societal transformation, incredibly ambitious even looking at modern conflicts from Iraq to Myanmar, and predating contemporary theories of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. While ultimately this revolutionary effort ended only half-finished, and subsided into obscurity for decades after, the Reconstruction offers many opportunities of comparison with contemporary peacebuilding contexts – more than can be dealt with within this article. It also raises hard questions about the difficulties achieving societal transformation in an environment suffused with hatred, the balance between imposition and negotiation, and the challenges to applying Lederach’s “moral imagination” to deep-rooted conflicts.
Compared to many internal conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, the U.S. Civil War ended fairly quickly and efficiently. After the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, the destruction of homes and families, and the upending of the national social fabric, the mercy shown to the losing side was a remarkable attempt to begin restoring political and social bonds that had previously tied the country together. In doing so, however, U.S. leaders ignored two key needs in the aftermath of conflict. One is for a public accounting of the impact of the violence that occurred – research in other conflicts has shown that individuals in North nor South could likely not easily let go of the trauma of loss and grief of war. Du Bois observed, “When a right and just cause loses, men suffer. But men also suffer when a wrong cause loses.” The United States, both North and South, never really came to terms with the war or its outcome. Even now we participate in “dialogues of the deaf” as Lederach would have it, as the Civil War continue to be relitigated in the language of the “Lost Cause” and disagreements over whether slavery or states’ rights motivated the conflict.
Secondly, there were no formal negotiations as to the political reintegration of the South. In the terms of surrender, even as U.S. leaders showed magnanimity and restraint, they seemed focused only on restoring bonds that had held white America together. They did not, however, seek to negotiate terms that could have managed the inevitable conflict over ending the systematic subjugation of slavery. Even as Northern Republicans and their southern allies looked towards remolding the Southern political economy, they failed to consider the context in which terms were dictated to both the losers of the conflict and to the oppressed ethnic minority newly freed over the course of the conflict. Lincoln claimed in his final speech that there was no group that could speak for the South, and it doesn’t seem like there was a real effort to seek such a group. In terms of governance, the United States checked off standard boxes of disarmament, restoring governments, and organizing elections, but they implemented them mostly by diktat rather than dialogue. Lederach writes that in order to sustain peaceful transformation in a violent context, it is necessary to build “durable and flexible processes” that serve as a platform for an ongoing conversation of change. Nothing of the sort was ever created during Reconstruction. Instead national policy ricocheted from lenient to more proscriptive, but never particularly inclusive.
White Southerners were not the only ones largely excluded from Reconstruction-era discussions about their future. Even as efforts were being made for their welfare, it took several years of reconstruction for blacks to achieve a seat at the table, and even then they struggled to be heard, being seen as political pawns. More is the pity because while black communities demonstrated wariness about fully integrating with their former oppressors, they were rarely vengeful and extended their support of equality even to ex-rebels. It is unclear whether such positions could have presented the basis for confidence-building in a more comprehensive dialogue. As Lederach has said, “conflict transformation views peace as centered and rooted in the quality of relationships.” According to some of the most comprehensive scholarship on the period available, it appears those relationships were not truly given a chance.
Within the context of Reconstruction’s political dynamics, it is remarkable that for a time the United States made a principled, fairly comprehensive effort to achieve dramatic societal transformation that, at least for some, reimagined the role of a long-oppressed minority group as equal partners in the society. The attempts to reform the Southern socioeconomic system were akin to what Galtung describes as positive peace, moving beyond the end of personal violence (negative peace) towards addressing structural violence as well. Keyes would qualify the Radical reform program as an effort moving towards “deliberative” reconciliation, which sought to ensure the rights of the minority and institutional reforms for safeguard them. Radical ambitions achieved some of their goals in this space, but often fought their battles in a space more akin to “minimalist” reconciliation seeking to ensure the rule of law and political equality.
While the nation would remain largely at peace along the geographic lines of the Civil War, however, the Radical blueprint to lasting peace failed in the face of persistent, racially-motivated hatred against black Americans and the lack of sufficient national stamina to maintain what became a political conflict to protect them in the South. The structural reforms established – voting rights, economic rights, federal intervention to ensure law enforcement and equality – lacked any glue to keep them in place for the long term. Ricigliano describes that glue as the attitudinal and transactional elements needed to effect “lasting, systemic change” in a social system. While Du Bois asserts that white antebellum theories of black inferiority were in large part a construct to justify the economic system of chattel slavery, it may be that the Civil War – motivated as it was by the waning ability of slave states to protect that institution – led to the hardening of these views into a mutated, vengeful violence that plagued the South during and after Reconstruction. One can see many of the aspects of Bar-Tal’s “conflict ethos” in the Southern attitude towards blacks during Reconstruction, from an escalation of already dehumanizing imaging to concerns about security and self-victimization. The lack of any concerted effort to change that frame, as difficult as it might be, was likely the main guarantee that the battle for reconciliation could never be truly won in the South.
A typical peacebuilding lens focuses on restoring relationships, encouraging dialogue, and encouraging societies to address their past while envisioning a brighter, common future. Sometimes circumstances, however, impede the effectiveness of such short-term efforts. It is worth asking whether the virulence of Southern white hatred for blacks and commitment to relegating them to subservience precluded the possibility of a productively negotiated peace process that assured equality for former enslaved and free blacks? Could a lawyer sickened by the presence of black juror be ready to sit down and negotiate a state constitution, preferably alongside said juror, that enshrined equality of laws? Given the popularity of this irredentist strain in white society, extensive peacebuilding activity would likely have been necessary before inclusive dialogue was possible. In the meantime, how would the rights of the black minority be protected? Constitutional amendments would be seen as an imposition without negotiation. Perhaps extended military rule or a provisional U.S. plan – they were victorious, after all – might have provided political space to manage those contradictions. As it was, military rule was undermined by lax enforcement. Yet the few times when the force of law was brought to bear, scattering the Klan in 1871, for example, the potential value of such protection was obvious. It was not sustainable, however, without systemic changes that were never realized.
Conclusions – What Might Have Been
In Forever Free, Eric Foner writes that ‘‘For a brief moment, the country experimented with genuine interracial democracy. Then Reconstruction was overturned by a violent racist reaction.” The nation never truly recovered from that brief moment’s feeble flickering. In an essay, historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. poses the question: “Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been,” had the former enslaved been given a chance to establish new, economically self-sufficient lives for themselves. One must wonder how different the United States would be today if a comprehensive peace process had transformed societal relations.
There are numerous lessons we can draw from looking back at America’s attempted reconciliation, for both understanding America’s history and for peacebuilding scholarship. 143 years after the unofficial end of Reconstruction, many flaws in our current society can be traced back to the era and its messy aftermath - structural inequalities in economic opportunity and justice; persistent discrimination and racism, and even racism that has evolved towards other minority groups; the lack of a shared version of history; and a political divide that continues to almost perfectly trace the fault lines from the post-war era.
It is no innovation to assert that the United States has never truly reconciled itself to its painful history, which despite some important societal transformations since the Civil Rights era, has persisted into a painful present. Understanding the history of our failings and placing them in the context of modern theories of peacebuilding and reconciliation, however, can provide some perspective as to how to address the root causes of entrenched racial divides in our society. Ideas that are fundamental to reconciliation, including questions of justice and truth, or the idea of reparations, remain a third rail in American politics that few dare touch. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comprehensive illustration of the ways structural violence have compounded systematic injustices for blacks in America, despite its lack of a specific proscriptive measures such as financial settlements, was met with sharply divergent reactions because of that polarizing word. A dialogue on race has been all but impossible. Bill Clinton initiated a dialogue on race in 1997, but ruled out an apology for slavery, an essential step in reconciliation that to this day remains unrealized. Barack Obama, as the first African-American president, had to tiptoe around the issue, and was rarely able to address it head on, even as disproportionate police violence and white supremacy continued to fill the headlines. While the nation has undoubtedly made progress since the last days of Reconstruction and the dawning of Jim Crow, our national fabric has festered like a sore, as Langston Hughes might say, as the underlying conflict remains unreconciled.
Reconstruction also holds lessons for international peacebuilding. Firstly, it provides some validation of the importance of a systemic approach that takes into account relationships and attitudinal elements as well as structural reforms. Second, it affirms the potential value of international oversight organizations that can provide accountability to actors in a conflict resolution process, particularly when the rights of a minority are in question. Third, it shows that while in some cases, the use of – or demonstration of the willingness to use – force can help with short-term implementation, to implement a Responsibility to Protect policy for example. In most circumstances, however, force cannot be a sufficient substitute for political will for the prevention of atrocities. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the immensity of what was actually accomplished by the United States over a decade – with lasting and often positive impact on American society – only to have the ultimate transformative objectives fall short, should be an object lesson of the manifest difficulty of this task.
Lastly, this analysis should further serve to demonstrate that while substantial energy has been devoted to exploring the practice of reconciliation as part of systemic peacebuilding, there has been limited scholarship on the effects of reconciliation efforts on societies on a generational timescale. Reconciliation between states, as well as the impact of truth and reconciliation commissions of the 1990s, have received ample treatment. There are valuable lessons to learn, however, in examining and understanding the long-term healing process for societies traumatized by internal conflict, both those that may have found some measure of resolution and those where reconciliation stalled or failed. While most relevant intractable civil conflicts have occurred within the last 30-40 years, there are some like the U.S. Civil War that allow us to demonstrate the importance of peacebuilding practice and learn how to improve it. Transforming a society is not a sprint, and it is not even a marathon. It is a journey of a thousand miles whose ultimate destination may only be evident long after we are gone.
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"The author is an employee of the United States Department of State. The views in this paper are not necessarily reflective of U.S. government policy."