A new book argues that the American right emerged out of a backlash to multiracial democracy following the Civil War. This is only partly true: reactionaries did not just fear democracy, they feared the economic redistribution former slaves associated with it.
Matthew E. Stanley teaches in the department of history at the University of Arkansas.
The Civil War and Reconstruction–era Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens understood far better than most of his contemporaries that fully uprooting slavery meant overthrowing the South’s economic system and challenging property rights — first the right of some human beings to own others, but also beyond it.
Throughout the 1860 election, the Wide Awakes, a novel paramilitary-style organization, held mass rallies, marches, and demonstrations to combat slave power. These “young working-men for Lincoln” successfully combined new media and unrepentant partisanship to mobilize hundreds of thousands against the Southern planter class.
Ron Chernow’s new biography rehabilitates the great Civil War general and champion of Reconstruction. But it glosses over the central issues of labor and property that would stifle black equality for a century.