Another Perspective

The Lessons of Reconstruction

Iraq and America’s post-Civil War South have much in common.

By 2.1.05

Send to Kindle

Exposing left-wing hypocrisy on Iraq is as easy as uttering three little words: "What about Reconstruction?"

Despite the obvious success of Sunday's election, the anti-war left is sticking to its script, which says the election is illegitimate because it was conducted under American "occupation" and because the group most closely associated with the old ruling class (the Sunnis) did not fully participate.

But precisely the same thing can be said about the American South during Reconstruction. Yet as the left calls the Iraq election a "sham" and a "farce," you would be hard pressed to find a liberal anywhere who would use the same terms to describe the election of America's first black legislators, congressmen, senators and governors.

The Nation's John Nichols wrote of "this weekend's so-called 'election' in Iraq" and complained that it "effectively denied the Iraqi people an honest choice" because candidates did not offer a timetable for American withdrawal. He went on to explain that the election was a "farce" and a "charade" because it was "played out against a backdrop of violence so unchecked that a substantial portion of the electorate -- particularly Sunni Muslims -- avoided the polls for reasons of personal safety," contained candidates who kept a low profile for fear of violence, and was characterized by "stilted" debate.

The left-wing complaint can be summed up by a Gaza City resident interviewed by the Associated Press. "You can't have free and fair elections under occupation. They simply don't mean anything," he said.

Hiram Revels would disagree. In 1870, Revels became the first black U.S. senator when the Mississippi legislature, full of Republicans elected in the early period of Reconstruction, sent him to fill the seat previously held by Jefferson Davis. In 1867, Mississippi's government had been put under the control of Union Gen. E.O.C. Ord, who appointed an interim government and oversaw the election of delegates to a state constitutional convention. The ratification of that constitution was prevented by a Democratic Party boycott and the threat of widespread violence. But Republicans regrouped, modified the constitution and held a new election, which ushered in a new Republican government that sent Revels to the Senate.

In the Reconstruction South, a war of liberation (in which national security, not liberation, was originally the primary justification) had resulted in the toppling of an oppressive power structure and the quick installment into office of a previously subjugated people with little or no governing experience.

In 1867 the federal government divided the South (except Tennessee) into military districts and gave military governors the authority to remove people already in office and disenfranchise large chunks of the population. Many whites not barred from voting expressed their displeasure with these events by refusing to participate in elections.

With much of the old guard forcibly or voluntarily removed from political participation, Republicans started winning elections, and blacks gained their first real political power in the old Confederacy. Though federal troops were gradually being removed from the South, some remained or were sent back down to deter or defend against terrorist attacks from "unreconstructed" whites.

In the South, as in Iraq, remnants of the former regime launched a ruthless campaign of terror to try to regain power. Just a few examples: In 1866, whites killed 46 blacks in three days of street violence in Memphis and followed that up with the slaughter of 40 black and white Republicans in an attack on a black suffrage convention in New Orleans. In 1872, two men claimed to be the rightfully elected governor of Louisiana, and President Grant sent troops to seat the Republican, which prompted more violence. The following year a group called The White League massacred about 100 black Louisiana militiamen.

This repression was curbed by Union troops and the Department of Justice. But only for a while. When Reconstruction collapsed because the government lost the will to continue it, whites ushered in the era of Jim Crow, which lasted for nearly a century. No liberal would defend Jim Crow, yet many would gladly consign Iraqis to an even worse fate under the mantra: Support our troops: Bring them home now!

Reconstruction in the South and Reconstruction in Iraq are not identical, of course. But the similarities are strong. Take this quote from Yale historian David Blight, author of the widely praised book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory; substitute the word "Iraq" for the word "Reconstruction," and the parallel is clear:

"There was no script for Reconstruction. If anything, winning the war, by comparison, was easier than that agonizing, statesmanlike political process of planning what to do about Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a massive logistical, political, Constitutional, economic challenge like the country had never faced."

If the anti-war left wants to deny the legitimacy of Sunday's election because Sunnis stayed home and American troops patrolled the streets, fine. Then let them explain how Southern elections under the same conditions were valid.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.