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Reconstruction Reconstructed

December 3rd, 2020 by dk

What’s worse than the Black Lives Matter movement showing us racism that we’ve never reckoned with? It’s learning how we were getting it right and then gave up. I’ve been reading about the Reconstruction Era and its demise. It’s a sad, sad story. What it’s not — what history almost never is — is an old story. It’s occurring now.

In some significant and terrifying ways, we’re reliving the Reconstruction Era’s demise today. What happened in the mid-19th century took decades to unfold. We’re experiencing similar political, social, and economic tremors, but much more quickly.

Speaking of quickly, I have 440 words remaining in this space to sum up similarities that rolled out over decades, then and now. I can give you only the start, the end, and the middle. The rest you’ll have to find on your own.

The Reconstruction Era cannot be well understood without going back two decades to the implosion of the Whigs, unable to reconcile the social and economic dynamics of an increasingly urban nation.

Lincoln’s new Republican Party cobbled together a new coalition of voters. Then there was a war, an assassination, and an impeachment-filled Andrew Johnson administration.

The middle of the story features a media star becoming president, political incompetence leading to corruption and public dismay, and the bright prospects of a new technology that promised riches and comfort for all (until it didn’t.)

Lincoln’s plan for the South was to empower former slaves with individual autonomy — “40 acres and a mule.” Johnson failed to follow through on this promise. Chaos was always near.

Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign promised to “Keep the Peace.” Name familiarity swept him into an office for which he was not well suited. Lacking administrative skills, scandals broke out regularly, often involving his own family members.

Grant needed to rebuild the South’s infrastructure that his troops had only recently destroyed to win the war. The railroads promised more efficiency and connectedness. In return, all they needed was public land and unfettered access — not unlike Internet moguls today.

Railroads promised efficiencies that would bring prosperity to all. The original idea of private sustenance was supplanted by public subsidies. But the promise of a rising tide didn’t lift the boats — it drowned the mule and flooded the proverbial 40 acres.

Ku Klux Klan started as a social club, wearing silly hats. It dabbled in politics, but succeeded only where leaders already preferred their policies. It resisted change best with vigilantism. The hats became hoods.

Then came the 1876 presidential election, and the end of the Reconstruction Era. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden gathered 184 electoral votes, one short of the required majority, thanks to one contested elector in Oregon.

The decision was thrown to Congress. A commission was formed and a deal was struck. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president. As part of the deal, Hayes pulled federal troops out of the South, effectively ending the Reconstruction Era.

Sharecropping was formalized. The Klan continued terrorizing. Jim Crow laws replicated the pre-Civil War status quo. The South had lost the war, but won everything back another way.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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