The years immediately following the Civil War are referred to as the Reconstruction period in U.S. history. It was during this time that freed slaves were given citizenship and voting rights. Southern states that had seceded from the Union were gradually readmitted. However, President Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, sympathized with the Southern interests, decreased the North’s influence in the South to protect rights, and tried to roll back gains by freed slaves. His overt actions created a vacuum that was filled by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups, which brutally fomented violence against Blacks, intimidated voters who supported Reconstruction, and manipulated elections to eke out wins. They also intimidated or outright killed witnesses in cases that were brought against the Klan.
It was through these tactics that racist Southern interests tried to steal back the losses suffered during the Civil War and relegated freed slaves to little more than indentured servitude. Winning Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, arguably the most popular man in the U.S. for not only defeating Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but also for the way he treated the defeated South with fairness and dignity, won the presidency and served from 1869 to 1877.
In almost a no-win situation, Grant took giant steps to put the country back together again and restore the country’s standing in the world community. He supported Black citizenship and voting rights. When the Klan brutalized Black citizens in the South to subjugate them, he and his Attorney General Amos Akerman set up federal juries to protect witnesses in Klan cases and sent federal troops to the South to prevent Klan violence, eventually ending this group’s terrorism in its first incarnation (the modern clan was reformed in the 20th Century).
Grant also was the presidential pioneer of modern diplomacy and arbitration. During the war, ships built in the United Kingdom, most famously the CSS Alabama, had wreaked havoc on Union maritime shipments. After the war, many politicians demanded monetary reparation from the U.K. for damages suffered and lives lost at the hands of these Confederate ships built across the Atlantic. The U.K. balked at these demands and many in the U.S. were calling for a war against this country. Grant, known as a level-headed man, wanted no more conflicts and instead was instrumental in forming an international arbitration council that eventually resolved the issue to everybody’s satisfaction. The U.S. and the U.K. restored their friendship and for several decades afterward, U.K. banks provided the financing necessary for the U.S.’s Industrial Revolution that made our country a world economic power.
Sadly, Rutherford B. Hayes, who succeeded Grant, felt that the nation had tired for Reconstruction and the activities in the South. He essentially pulled funding from this program and federal troops from the South. This led to nearly 100 years of Jim Crow laws restricting Blacks’ voting rights and rights in general.
Although the Reconstruction era was certainly a more severe period in American history, doesn’t some of this history sound eerily like what is happening before our eyes today? Many mistakes were made during Reconstruction, namely not protecting Black citizens’ rights – they were freed, but terrorized into not voting and made second -class citizens for 100 years until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Our mistakes during Reconstruction can provide us a road map as we go forward from the recent bitterly contested presidential elections and divided country. President-elect Joe Biden faces a situation of rebuilding unity in our country, much like the situation faced by Grant. Because the world is so much more interconnected than it was 150 years ago, the stakes are even higher. As with Reconstruction, the world is again watching with interest what will occur during the next four years.
We have the opportunity to show the world that the U.S. is a just nation where all citizens have rights and are afforded respect. We can also repair the frayed relations with our traditional allies such as Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Europe. After the Civil War, the U.S. became a major nation on the world stage and accepted this responsibility. It is time we accept it again. There has never been a greater need for fair-handed diplomacy to sort out issues involving trade, immigration, climate change, and human rights, among others. Indeed, our traditional allies will probably jump at the opportunity to again work closely with our country for the benefit of all of our citizens.
We have the opportunity to pull the country together and pull ourselves out of the economic malaise brought on by the pandemic by investing in infrastructure, so that our economy can thrive – as was done after the Civil War. Modern infrastructure to expand our economy and to increase our exports will keep us competitive in the global market.
It is important that President-elect Biden pursues opportunities to mend this country. We have done this before under more trying circumstances. And it is up to every American to put our country first, ahead of our own personal interests, as has been done by countless ancestors before us.