On February 25 of 1870 Hiram Revels became the first black member of the United States Congress as, of all things, a Republican Senator from Mississippi. It was a great achievement, and also a dead end.
Revels himself thoroughly deserved to be a Senator, in a positive sense. As an individual, he was not merely intelligent but wise, principled and reasonable, and an advocate of generosity in putting the Civil War behind Americans. And as a member of a long-oppressed race, he belonged in the Senate as part of a long-overdue extension of full citizenship to blacks including unfettered participation in the political community.
Nor is the problem that he was not democratically elected. Mississippi was at the time occupied by federal troops, who dictated election results dramatically at odds with the wishes of the locals. Or rather, the white locals. Mississippi was a die-hard white supremacist pro-Confederate state in a region where it was hard to stand out in that regard. And it is problematic to say that it is justified in dictating election results by force because the majority is wrong on an important issue, even a vital moral one. But whites were not a majority in Mississippi in those days.
In fact Mississippi was a majority black state from well before the Civil War into the 1930s. So the result of full, fair, free adult suffrage would have been the election of large numbers of blacks at every level, and the indignant rejection of segregation and race hate. That a bitter white minority would control Mississippi politics in the absence of armed outsiders was horribly unjust and federal troops were right to intervene even if the result was not precisely what would have happened in a genuinely free and fair election in which blacks were neither disenfranchised outright or terrorized into not voting.
So here’s the problem. Slavery had such a negative impact on the literacy, prosperity and social organization of blacks in Mississippi that in the absence of external force they were not going to prevail at the polls or anywhere else despite being a majority until the hearts of whites were changed. And the federal government, and voters in the American north, were not prepared to continue policing Mississippi elections until that happened. By 1877, following the corrupt bargain that secured Rutherford B. Hayes a single term as president by falsifying election results in three southern states, the North pulled out and left southern blacks at the mercy of their white neighbours.
Given this reality, the result of a punitive, in-your-face Reconstruction was further to entrench race hatred and make anything vaguely resembling an open mind on the subject seem treasonous to those who, once federal troops left, would be in charge for the foreseeable future. And that is what happened.
Revels himself warned against this approach, including a very pointed letter to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, after he had left the Senate to become the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. In that letter he exaggerated the willingness of white Mississippians to let go of “the bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife”. But he did warn that punitive Reconstruction was calculated to keep it alive.
What, then, should have been done? No conceivable Reconstruction policy would have brought a quick end to bigotry in white hearts or key political institutions of Mississippi and its neighbours, not even a generous one. Under the actual circumstances, there was a long legal battle against seating Revels in the Senate based on all sorts of arguments including that the awful 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision meant he was not a citizen before ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and thus did not meet the nine-year-citizenship requirement.
Republicans answered with all sorts of arguments of their own, from the narrowly legal to hey we won the war. And by straight party vote, Revels was seated. It seems the right thing to do even knowing the sorry long-term outcome. And I greatly admire Revels himself for speaking so wisely about reconciliation. But he was seated at gunpoint and as soon as white voters in Mississippi and other southern states were left to their own devices, they were able to oust blacks from Congress and local legislatures using the same device and did so.
So what would you have done? Not to seat Hiram Revels and his various black colleagues in Southern legislatures in the 1870s would have been to be complicit in injustice. But to seat them, deepening white bitterness, and then leave, did neither southern blacks nor southern whites any good.
Clearly the only solution was to stay until hearts were changed. But that solution is deeply ahistorical. In fact between 1901 and 1929 there was not a single black in Congress. And I don’t just mean in the South. (They began to be reelected in the New Deal, and this time as Democrats from northern cities.)
There’s the core of the problem. Northerners may have disliked, even despised, slavery and then former slave-owners. But they did not love the slaves or ex-slaves. They did not put blacks into southern legislatures to help blacks but to hurt whites. And it ended up hurting everyone.
So if you’d been there in 1870, with modern attitudes, the only policy you could conceivably have supported without reservation would have been for northerners to insist on genuine protection of civil rights in the south. Not just for a season to annoy defeated Confederates but for as long as it took out of genuine commitment to equality for blacks and compassion for the closed minds of most white southerners. And there’s no way you could have found anything like sufficient support for this plan.
It is because of dilemmas like this one that I am convinced that, in our own day, we should take what we can get when it seems to constitute genuine progress toward a worthy goal. But we should never be afraid to speak up, charitably if we can manage it, in defence of radical goals when all so-called practical, prudent and moderate courses point clearly toward dishonourable disaster. As they surprisingly often do, and did in 1870 in the American South.
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