Conservative Republicans began to echo some of the earlier Democratic warnings about Reconstruction, in less flagrantly racist terms. Whereas Democratic newspapers once warned that the “poor whites of the country are to be taxed—bled of all their little earnings—in order to fatten the vagabondish negroes,” Richardson writes that “some Northern Republicans were willing to accept Southern Democrats’ opposition to African-American rights so long as their complaints were framed in terms of a conflict over political economy rather than race.”
But there could be no freedom for the freedmen without state intervention. White bankers withheld credit from black entrepreneurs, white landowners refused to sell or rent land to black farmers, and white labor organizations largely excluded black workers. It was not, as their Northern and Southern critics charged, that black people did not want to work, earn, and build their own lives. It was that they were not allowed to.
And so the emancipated turned to the government for the resources and freedom the market denied them, although the extent to which they did so was greatly exaggerated by their critics. As Richardson writes, a disproportionate number of black legislators in Reconstruction governments were drawn from the nation’s small black elite, not from among former field hands. The intervention they proposed was most often correspondingly moderate, if radical to the old planter class and its acolytes.
Nevertheless, in response, white men who had long benefited from a government that defended their freedom to prosper flew into rage over the belief that, as the Tribune correspondent wrote, “they were robbed to support the extravagance of the ‘Nigger Government.’” Incapable of seeing the freedmen as full human beings with their own aspirations, their own beliefs, and their own idea of freedom, men like Greeley concluded that because they were black, they were simply too dumb to know better than to seek to rise above their station.
Greeley would lead an unsuccessful revolt against President Ulysses S. Grant, on the Liberal Republican ticket. Although Greeley’s run for president, in which he was also the Democratic Party’s nominee, ended in failure, the critique of the freedmen’s ability to govern that he embraced would outlast him, as Richardson writes. It would provide the North with a rationale for retreating from Reconstruction that was not a betrayal of the Civil War, it would justify the violent disenfranchisement and dispossession of black Americans in the aftermath of Reconstruction, and it would allow for reconciliation between the white North and white South on the basis of a bipartisan, white-supremacist consensus.
The ideological belief that black people were simply unfit for self-government, and therefore justifiably excluded from politics, would linger much longer. The persistence of that conviction was so great that, a century after the Tribune published its attack on the Reconstruction governments, it would emerge in a private conversation between the 37th president of the United States and the 40th president of the United States, both members of the Party of Lincoln—or perhaps, more accurately, the Party of Greeley.