In the period between 1860 and 1890, the government and society of the United States experienced what some historians call “The Second American Revolution” (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 417). The Civil War and Reconstruction transformed a “union” into a “nation,” shifted an agrarian society toward an industrial society in the North, and reinterpreted the definition of freedom for both white and black men. For a brief period, it seemed possible for blacks to achieve equal status with whites, and though the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments granted them political equality under the law, the ideal of social equality fell short as the nation succumbed to the rush for capital and material goods characteristized by the Gilded Age. The net outcome of Reconstruction, in practice, hardly even afforded the political liberties outlined in the Constitution, these issues failing to capture national attention because most white abolitionists never envisioned civil equality as the end goal. Slavery was predominantly a labor issue rather than a civil rights issue, and in the rapidly growing industrial economy of the Gilded Age, conflicts with the working class quickly eclipsed those of race in the national scene.
Before the Civil War, the North and South held very different points of view regarding slavery. As a slave society, the South’s economy depended on the slave labor in plantations, and even though only one fourth of all white families in the South owned slaves, “most small farmers believed their economic and personal freedom rested on slavery” (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 316, 317). On the other hand, society in the North gradually aspired toward the ideal of “free labor” because they feared the rigid social order of slave society, a system which left “poor whites with no hope of advancement” (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 387). In fact, opposition to the spread of slavery represented the key platform of the Republican Party, and the election of its presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln ultimately incited the secession of the Southern states. Congressman W.W. Boyce said this about the Republican Party in a speech days after the election: “It is a party filled with animosity to the South… a party founded upon a principle destructive to our social system. A party that destroys our whole social fabric, which reduces the beautiful South to a howling wilderness. Shall we submit to such a party? In my opinion we should not” (The Sun, 10 Nov 1860).
Thus, the Civil War began over divided ideals on the spread of slavery. However, until 1862 the Union government staunchly opposed general abolition in the South. In February of 1861, the House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution stating that “neither Congress, nor the people, nor governments of the non-slaveholding States have a constitutional right to legislate upon or interfere with slavery in any slaveholding State of the Union” (New York Herald, 14 Oct 1861). The North continued to emphasize their anti-abolitionist position well into 1862, but even before the Emancipation Proclamation, some Northerners foresaw the end of the war as the end of slavery as well. “The most natural way to put an end to a controversy,” writes the New York Times, “is to remove the cause of it, and since the war has resulted from the refusal of the Slavery propagandists to submit to the laws, the obvious and certain cure for the political malady is the abolition of slavery” (New York Times, 29 Jul 1861). By the summer of 1862, the drive for abolition drastically changed the trajectory of the war and forever instilled the ideal of free labor in the United States.
When Lincoln formulated the Emancipation Proclamation, he drafted it on the principle of “military necessity,” understanding the Confederacy’s dependence on slave labor and using the Proclamation to threaten the economy of the Southern states (Memphis Daily Appeal, 25 April 1864). Although Lincoln deliberately excluded Union-controlled areas and provided a deadline for which emancipation would take place, which allowed “the States involved in this rebellion to save themselves and their domestic institutions,” the momentum of this action quickly led to the conclusion that abolition represented the only stable future for the Union (The New York Herald, 27 Sep 1862). Within a year, society widely accepted that “human bondage and human freedom cannot dwell together in peace under the same constitutional Government; that there is in their very nature irreconcilable hate and eternal war” (Chicago Tribune, 11 Sep 1863). Most Northerners still limited the implications of abolition as the destruction of a labor institution, but within the faction of Radical Republicans, some officials expanded the meaning of abolition to include that of social and political rights for African Americans.
Many leaders, however, still opposed the radical sense of abolition following the Civil War, and none more prominent than President Andrew Johnson. A Southerner himself before the war, Johnson abhorred the Southern planter class and endorsed the abolition of slavery only as a means to reduce the power this “damnable aristocracy” (Chicago Tribune, 20 Apr 1865). Though he openly rejected black equality, he expressed that “the necessity for work would bring about an understanding between the two races” for a new system of labor in the South which would be “applicable to both white and black” (The New York Herald, 15 Oct 1865). It remains unsaid what such a system would actually look like in his vision, but in any case, this limited view of Reconstruction ultimately foreshadowed its failure. Only the bare definition of free labor seemed reasonable to citizens of a former slave society, much less social equality between the races.
However, when the Northern Radical Republicans wrested power from President Johnson over Reconstruction, they moved to establish legal equality among whites and blacks at an unprecedented rate in history. Congress passed the 14th, and 15th Amendments guaranteeing the right to vote and equal protection under the law for African Americans, extending the notion of abolition far beyond the question of labor. However, the ideals of Radical Reconstruction quickly lost many of its supporters in the North. As one paper states, “The white masses of the North do not like to see the national government aiding and assisting in the disenfranchisement of their white brethren in the South” (Daily Courier, 29 Jul 1868). Also, the Freedmen’s Bureau, tasked with executing the new rights of freedmen, came under criticism as an organization “basely perverted to partisan uses,” with the majority of whites opposing the attention toward African Americans over white men (Republican Banner, 9 Jul 1868). Despite the achievement of abolition in the Civil War, the ideology of blacks as inferior hardly changed or was even addressed in the struggle for emancipation. Thus, the idea of “guarding the interests of a class of people mentally unable to take care of themselves” seemed “too ridiculous for serious contemplation” at the time of Radical Reconstruction (The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, 28 Sep 1868).
Radical Reconstruction failed because it pursued goals beyond those supported by the majority of white Americans. For Northerners, abolition never entailed equal rights for African Americans, but rather the elimination of a threatening labor institution and disposal of a “relic of barbarism” (New – York Tribune, 10 Nov 1869). Labor, however, shifted drastically in the North following the Civil War as the Second Industrial Revolution rapidly developed and flourished. Miles of railroad track tripled between 1860 and 1880 due to government land grants and subsidies during the Civil War, “opening vast new areas to commercial farming and creating a truly national market for manufactured goods” (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 478). The labor question thus also shifted drastically, the focus changing from the instillation of free labor in the agrarian South to issues of working class industrial workers in the North. Rights for African Americans sunk down in the national scene as the hype of industrial power and materialism took hold in the Gilded Age. “I am convinced that America will make iron and steel for mankind in the long future,” declared Abram S. Hewitt, “we have the iron, coal, capital, skill, and energy necessary to do it” (Daily American, 20 May 1889).
Despite the shift in attention for labor in the United States, however, the foundation for labor conflict developed in a different form. Though not necessarily debating the institution of labor itself, or explicitly the rights of workers as citizens, the arising topic of labor rights in the Gilded Age took the first steps in consolidating the freedom that Reconstruction failed to achieve for blacks. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877–“the year of both the end of Reconstruction and also the first national labor walkout”–workers across the country brought industry to a standstill in protest of wage cuts and other exploitation from their employers (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 501). The workers garnered great support from common people across the country, and even many prominent newspapers sympathized on the side of workers during the strike. The New York Times and The Sun, for example, used validating language such as “the people along the line of the road are thoroughly in sympathy with the strikers,” and phrases like “[the strikers] have complete control” of the railway lines (New York Times, 18 Jul 1877) (The Sun, 20 Jul 1877). They even praised the workers’ courtesy for allowing passenger cars to travel uninhibited. The rising question of labor rights signalled a change in national consciousness toward a broad sense of personal liberty, and America seemed open explore this notion.
However, the outbreak of violence between workers and officials proved to be the nature of labor conflicts to come. In the aftermath of the railroad strike, in which a confrontation between workers the police resulted in several deaths and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property, “the federal government constructed armories in major cities” to protect against labor uprisings (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 502). Newspapers often sided with the interests of capital, and old issues of abolition and civil rights for African Americans fell to the prevailing issues industrial labor conflicts in the North. Before civil rights for African Americans could be accepted by American society, the more limited view of liberty in terms of labor rights would have to be accepted first. Unfortunately, the failure of consolidating racial equality proved an inevitable outcome for American society at the time, which up to the period of Reconstruction hardly ever considered equality among the races and viewed slavery rather as an institution that held no place in the emerging free labor economy. In fact, abolition always represented a labor issue rather than a civil rights issue to the majority of white Americans, and as such, only one logical outcome of Reconstruction could last into the Gilded Age, and that was the consolidation of the free labor ideal.