The Civil War is one of the defining moments in American history. The great nation of North America split itself in two, North versus South. When the battlefields fell silent after General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the newly restored Union began its long road back to re-unification. It is in this hectic period of American history that the "Second American Revolution" took place. With the defeat of the Southern states rightists by the North, the age-old debate between the sovereignty of the states and the powers of the federal government was finally resolved, changing America's political landscape forever. The Reconstruction of the South further cemented the central government's power over the states, with Congress arbitrarily deciding the future of each Southern state. The emancipation of the slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, on the other hand, caused less of an impact on society than the ending of the Southern-separatist movement did to American political life, at least at the outset. Though the 13th Amendment along with its companion 14th and 15th Amendments did theoretically guarantee black and white equality, technically ending hundreds of years of racial domination by whites, the Supreme Court and Southern states quickly reversed the trend, allowing blacks to fall back into second-class citizenship for another generation.
The Supremacy of the Federal Government
The defeat of the states rightists by the Union marked a watershed moment for American constitutional law. The War was, to some extent, fought over longstanding Southern traditions of nullification sparked by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions penned by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Backed by these theories, Southerners believed that each state had the right to "nullify" a federal law that they disagreed with. In addition, under the compact theory, each state had willingly joined the Union and therefore could withdraw when it felt its livelihood (such as the right to own slaves) threatened.
However, when the Confederacy lost the war, these traditions died with it. The Union had shown that it would not tolerate insubordination by the states and could enforce its will by force. From this point on, a more loose interpretation of the Constitution would be the norm, with the elastic clause (Article I Section VIII paragraph XVIII of the Constitution) giving more power to Congress than the 9th and 10th Amendments reserved for the states.
Southern Reconstruction by the Radical-Republican-dominated Congress further consolidated federalist gains. Attempting to punish the South while completely transforming its way of life, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act and the Civil Rights Bill of 1866. The first, which divided up most of the former Confederacy into five "military districts" headed by a Union general, took federal power to a whole new level; Washington was able to occupy a state at gunpoint and force it to comply with federal demands. The Civil Rights Bill further steamrolled over states rights by repealing the discriminatory Black Codes, showing that the federal government could negate state laws that conflicted with its wishes. The power of the central government grew so much that it actually forced the Southern states to ratify the new Civil Rights Amendments before they could be re-admitted into the Union.
Two Steps Forward
The most dramatic event to occur in the parallel postbellum social revolution was the emancipation of the black slaves s first secured (in part) by the Emancipation Proclamation and then welded into the Constitution by the 13th Amendment. The end of slavery turned Southern society on its head, ending hundreds of years of an agrarian economy virtually overnight and challenging its deeply embedded notions of racial superiority.
Further turning the South on its head was the passage of the Civil Rights Bill over President Andrew Johnson's veto by a Republican Congress. Seeking to give former slaves political and racial equality and to overturn the segregationist Jim Crowe Laws passed in the occupied South, the Bill:
- conferred citizenship on the former slaves,
- struck down the Black Codes and Jim Crowe Laws,
- guaranteed equal rights between black and white citizens.
Under the Bill and the later 14th Amendment
, Southern practices of racism and discrimination that had existed for generations were suddenly declared illegal. White Southerners faced the end of their precious Dixieland
with the full integration of blacks into white society and the destruction of their economic working base.
Even more damaging to the defeated Southern gentry was the 15th Amendment rammed down their throats by the Northern Republican-dominated states. The Amendment, which finally gave black males suffrage, held the promise of true equality between blacks and whites through a black voice in government. With the vote, blacks would be able to make their views known and gain true political power for the first time. Unfortunately, the South, tired of bowing to Northern domination, decided to strike back.
One-and-a-half Steps Back
Southerners, seeing their lives threatened by the social revolution taking place, began fighting Washington's edicts. Secret societies, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia were formed, whose sole purposes were to keep blacks "in their place." They organized midnight rides, beat "upstarts," and even resorted to lynching. Such scare tactics terrified freed blacks away from the polls, reversing recent strides towards racial equality in reality, if not technically.
The South was not content to reverse the recent gains just in fact, however. Planters legally wanted to take back their "property" and put it in its place. The chance came when the Supreme Court legalized segregation in the Plessey v. Ferguson decision, allowing "separate but equal" facilities to exist serving blacks and whites (though the equality requirements were ignored by the South). Southerners also instituted voting requirements such as literacy tests and poll taxes that, though professing to be racially neutral, were slanted against the impoverished and illiterate ex-slaves. Unfortunately, the social revolution was a "revolution" in the truest sense of the word. Unlike the progressive political revolution experienced at the time, the societal advancement the South experienced "revolved" almost back to the beginning; the ex-slaves were little better off than before and most even ended up as landless tenant farmers on their former-master's plantation. The South succeeded in circumventing the forward march of social progress for another century in its attempt to bring back the Land of Moonlight and Magnolias.
Though two parallel revolutions occurred while the larger War Between the States was taking place, only one succeeded immediately. Under a regime of Radical Republicans eager to punish the South, America experienced a revolution in political thought with the death of the dangerous twin demons: nullification and secession. Though states rights exist today in the Republican Party, the federal government retains primacy in most matters. On the other hand, the Republican Party failed to bring about a successful social revolution in the South. The laws elevating former slaves out of their squalor, while guaranteeing equality on paper, were not actually effective in the real world. Unfortunately, the United States would have to wait 100 years before the American Social Revolution was completed.