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Aftermath of slavery

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Interviewer: Chapter 15 includes a new comparative discussion on the aftermath of slavery in various Western Hemisphere societies. You see important commonalities in the struggle over land and labor in post-Emancipation societies. How do you situate the experiences of former slaves in the United States in this borrowed content.

Eric Foner: Well, just as slavery was a hemispheric institution, so was emancipation. It’s useful for us in thinking about the aftermath of slavery in the United States, the Reconstruction era and after to see what happened to other slaves in places where slavery was abolished. What you see is a similar set of issues and conquests taking place everywhere slaves desire land of their own—this is the No. 1 thing, they want autonomy, they want independence from white control. All of these regions are agricultural, everywhere former slaves demand land. In some places they get land fairly effectively, like in Jamaica, West Indies, where there’s a lot of unoccupied land they can take. In some places they don’t, but that battle to who’s going to have access to land and economic resources is a commonality in the aftermath of slavery. So too is the effort of local plantation owners trying to get the plantation going again and to force slaves to work back on the plantations, or if not, to bring labor from somewhere else—in the West Indies they bring workers from China, from India, from southeast Asia to replace slaves who were moving off on land of their own. They can’t quite do that in the United States—they tried to bring in a few Chinese, but the national government here prevents it; they say, no, you’ve got to deal with these former slaves equitably, fairly, and then you won’t need foreign labor. What’s different in the United States, and I think it shows the difference between this country and others, is how the right to vote becomes so critical to former slaves. This is a democracy that prides itself on being a democracy and freedom in the United States includes the right to vote. That’s why the women’s movement made the right to vote such a key demand, even though the issues facing women were not political, there were social, economic, etc. In the United States if you are denied the right to vote, you are stigmatized as being outside the boundary of freedom. That’s not true in places where the right to vote is not as restricted for everybody like in the West Indies where you have to own a lot of property to vote. So here the issue of black political power and black political participation immediately comes to the fore in the aftermath of slavery in a way that it doesn’t in other parts of the Western Hemisphere that abolished slavery.

Reconstruction, pt 1: freedmen

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Interviewer: What were the understandings of freedom held by the freed men after the war, and how did the freed men go about remaking their lives during Reconstruction?

Eric Foner: African-Americans brought out of slavery complex ideas about freedom. Slaves thought about freedom a great deal. They didn't come out ignorant of freedom or without any ideas about freedom. It's probably like prisoners think about freedom a great deal also. People who don't have it value it the most. To African-Americans, freedom meant, of course first of all, simply not being subjected to the punishments, inequalities, and restrictions of slavery. They could get education now, they could move about without a pass, they could wear whatever clothing they wanted, which was restricted in many places, they could carry a gun, they could own dogs—things like that. But more than that, freedom for them meant empowerment, it meant enjoying the rights that whites did in a democratic society: the right to vote, the right to go before a court and be treated equally. And it also meant increasing economic independence, the right to land; freedmen felt that ownership of land, or "forty acres and a mule," in the phrase of the day, was essential to guaranteeing their substantive freedom in the aftermath of slavery.

Reconstruction, pt 2: amendments

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Interviewer: In what sense were the Reconstruction amendments a great constitutional revolution for America? How did they change the role of the national government?

Eric Foner: The Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—really brought a radical change in the Constitution. These are the most important changes in the Constitution since the adoption of the Bill of Rights seventy years before that. What they did first of all, of course, was to abolish slavery, but more than that to shift power in the federal systems away from the states and toward the national government. The national government now became the definer and the protector of the citizens' rights. The Fourteenth Amendment declares that anybody born in the United States is a citizen, that all citizens regardless of race are to enjoy the same basic rights, and that no state can deprive a citizen of those rights; and it empowers the federal government to override and oversee the actions of the states that might interfere with the privileges and immunities of American citizens. So instead of the federal government being seen, as it was before the Civil War, as a danger to liberty, now a strong federal government is seen as the protector of liberty, or the "custodian of freedom," as Charles Sumner, the senator from Massachusetts, put it. So this represents a shift in power between states and the national government, and also a shift in the conception of what the role of the federal government is. For the first time, the federal government takes on the role of protecting the basic rights of the American citizens.

Reconstruction, pt 3: legacy

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Interviewer: How do you assess the successes and failures of Reconstruction and its overall legacy to the country?

Eric Foner: Reconstruction did not succeed, at least certainly in its broad aims. The aim was to create a functioning, interracial democracy in the South. Its aim was to entrench the notion of equal rights, equal civil rights, and equal political rights for blacks in the society. Well, it didn't work; those rights were eventually taken away and for a long time they were violated. On the other hand, Reconstruction created a window of opportunity in which many forms of progress took place. Blacks were able to create their own institutions, churches, families; many of them did acquire land, eventually, although another failure of Reconstruction was that a large majority of blacks were left in a status of dependence, economic poverty, and dependence on whites, so Reconstruction lays the groundwork, you might say, for future struggle. You know, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is called sometimes the "Second Reconstruction." It built upon the aspirations, the tactics, and the legal doctrines of the first Reconstruction, but it took a full century for the country to again try to live up to these ideals.

Reconstruction, pt 4: Johnson

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Interviewer: And why did Andrew Johnson veto the bill?

Eric Foner: Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill because he did not approve of the principle of black equality. Johnson was deeply racist; he also was a strong believer in states' rights, and he did not think Congress had a right to tell the states how to deal with individual citizens within the states. If a state wanted to discriminate between black and white citizens, that was up to them, it wasn't Congress's job to tell them how to do that. Johnson basically felt that Reconstruction should be in the hands of white people; black people should just go back to work on the plantations and not seek to take part in the public sphere. Most Republicans in Congress, at this point, were uncertain whether blacks should have the right to vote; they would give it to them a little later on. But they certainly believed that the basic legal protections of citizenship should apply equally to white and black Americans.

Reconstruction, pt 5:14th Amendment

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Interviewer: You say that the Fourteenth Amendment made the most important change in the Constitution since the Bill of Rights. What was that change, and why was it so significant?

Eric Foner: The Fourteenth Amendment, which was passed through Congress in 1866 and then ratified by the states a couple of years later, changes the Constitution in a couple of fundamental ways.

The Bill of Rights had protected our basic liberties against interference by the federal government. It begins with the words "Congress shall make no law" abridging freedom of speech, the press, etc. The Fourteenth Amendment is directed at the states, not at the federal government. The states now have to recognize the equality before the law of all citizens, equal protection of the law, and due process of law, and states cannot deprive any individual of life, liberty, or property. So now, instead of the Bill of Rights, which restricts Congress, the Fourteenth Amendment empowers Congress to oversee and override measures of the state governments that interfere with the basic equal rights of American citizens. So it's a fundamental shift in the American system; it makes the national government the basic protector of the rights of citizens, not the state governments.

Also, it introduces this notion of equality for the first time into the Constitution. The word "equality" does not exist in the original Constitution. It's the Fourteenth Amendment which makes the Constitution what it has been ever since: a document to which groups of Americans who feel aggrieved, who feel their rights have been violated, can go; they can claim their constitutional rights in court. So it really makes the Constitution a vehicle for groups that feel aggrieved, which it really hadn't been before the Civil War.

Reconstruction, pt 6: reconstruction amendments

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Interviewer: Overall, can you comment on the Reconstruction amendments and the way in which they re-envisioned the role of the federal government?

Eric Foner: The three Reconstruction amendments—Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth—the Thirteenth abolished slavery, the Fourteenth established equal citizenship, the Fifteenth tried to give black men the right to vote; these are all things which the federal government couldn't have conceived of doing before the Civil War. But the war itself empowers the national government, and the abolition of slavery leads, after a terrible political struggle, to the incorporation of black Americans as equal citizens of the society. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments each end with a clause saying, "Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment." In other words, it gives Congress the right to protect the basic rights of American citizens. And even though those basic rights of blacks were soon violated and taken away, really, in many of the southern states, nonetheless those amendments remain in the Constitution, and a century later, they would be the basis, the legal constitutional basis, for the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. A hundred years later, those amendments, Charles Sumner—the senator from Massachusetts during Reconstruction—said were "sleeping giants" in the Constitution. And they did sleep for a long time, but then they were reawakened by the civil rights movement and became the basis for the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.