RECONSTRUCTING AMERICA: LINCOLN’S LEGACY

An enduring myth of American history is that federal policy in the conquered South after the war was aimed at binding the nation’s wounds. In reality, Southerners became more and more embittered over being treated as second class citizens, while the Republican Party set up puppet governments that seemed to perpetually raise taxes with very little to show for the taxes in terms of public benefits. The so-called Reconstruction only poured salt into “the nations wounds,” an inevitable consequence of the precedents established by Lincoln in disregarding constitutional liberties and law for the sake of politics.

The post war Republican Party was emboldened by Lincoln’s blatant disregard for constitutional liberties in the north during the war. Because he had become a martyr, party members invoked Lincoln to engage in more of the same kinds of conduct after the war. Lincoln laid the political groundwork for the disastrous Reconstruction policies of 1865-1877. There was certainly lasting peace, few Southerners would have characterized it as “just.” Shortly before General Robert E. Lee’s death in the year 1870, Lee told former Texas Governer Fletcher Stockdale that in light of how the Republican Party was treating the people of the South, he would have never surrendered at Appomattox, but would have rather died there with his men in one last battle.

“Governer, if I had forseen the use those people designed to make for their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I forseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”

The primary effect, if not the intent, of the “Reconstruction” policies of 1865-1877 was to centralize and consolidate state power in Washington D.C. and to establish Republican political hegemony that would last for over seventy years. Even when the Republican Party did not control the White House during those years, its mercantilist policies generally prevailed until the Franklin Roosevelt administration of the 1930s, at which time the government became even more interventionist. The federal government did not totally succeed in centralizing all power in Washington after the war, thanks to Southern political resistance and a still vibrant support for constitutionally limited government. Nevertheless, by the year 1890 the federal government was vastly larger than the founding fathers ever envisioned, and its purpose had changed from the protection of individual liberty to the quest for empire.

This was all the inevitable consequence of the lincoln administration and its policies. Indeed, we have seen, some historians celebrate this outcome.
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