History Of The U.S. Since Reconstruction


The midterm on Thursday will consist of an essay based on the video-lectures and assigned readings. Students should have completed the videos/readings prior to the midterm. Students will have all day to complete and submit the essay. The midterm will begin at 9:00am and students will have till 11:30pm to submit the PDF or Word document to Turnitin.


  • Interwar Period: Society/Economy of the 1920s, the Great Depression and New Deal Give Me Liberty, Chapters 20 and 21
  • World War II at Home and Abroad Give Me Liberty, Chapter 22

For my mother, Liza Foner (1909–2005), an accomplished artist who lived through most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first



CONTENTS List of Maps, Tables, and Figures xii About the Author xv Preface xvi Acknowledgments xxii

15 “WHAT IS FREEDOM?”: RECONSTRUCTION, 1865–1877 563 The Meaning of Freedom 565 Voices of Freedom From Petition of Committee in Behalf of the Freedmen to Andrew Johnson (1865), and From A Sharecropping Contract (1866) 576 The Making of Radical Reconstruction 578 Who Is an American? From Frederick Douglass, “The Composite Nation” (1869) 588 Radical Reconstruction in the South 591 The Overthrow of Reconstruction 595 16 AMERICA’S GILDED AGE, 1870–1890 603 The Second Industrial Revolution 605 Freedom in the Gilded Age 613 Labor and the Republic 618 The Transformation of the West 626 Voices of Freedom From Speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé Indians, in Washington, D.C. (1879), and From Letter by Saum Song Bo, American Missionary (October 1885) 636 Politics in a Gilded Age 642 17 FREEDOM’S BOUNDARIES, AT HOME AND ABROAD, 1890–1900 648 The Populist Challenge 650 The Segregated South 658 Voices of Freedom From Ida B. Wells, Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1893), and From W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) 666 Redrawing the Boundaries 669 Who Is an American? From William Birney, “Deporting Mohammedans” (1897) 674 Becoming a World Power 676 18 THE PROGRESSIVE ERA, 1900–1916 689 An Urban Age and a Consumer Society 692 Varieties of Progressivism 701 Voices of Freedom From Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (1898), and From John Mitchell, “The Workingman’s Conception of Industrial Liberty” (1910) 708 The Politics of Progressivism 713 The Progressive Presidents 723 Who Is an American? From Mary Church Terrell, “What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States” (1906) 731 19 SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY: THE UNITED STATES AND WORLD WAR Ⅰ, 1916– 1920 734 An Era of Intervention 737 America and the Great War 742 The War at Home 746 Voices of Freedom From Woodrow Wilson, War Message to Congress (1917), and From Eugene V. Debs, Speech to the Jury before Sentencing under the Espionage Act (1918) 754 Who Is an American? 756 Who Is an American? From Randolph S. Bourne, “Trans- National America” (1916) 759 1919 768 20 FROM BUSINESS CULTURE TO GREAT DEPRESSION: THE TWENTIES, 1920– 1932 779 The Business of America 782 Business and Government 789 The Birth of Civil Liberties 793 Voices of Freedom From Lucian W. Parrish, Speech in Congress on Immigration (1921), and From Majority Opinion, Justice James C. McReynolds, in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) 794 The Culture Wars 799 Who Is an American? Immigration Quotas under the Johnson-Reed Act (1924) 805 The Great Depression 810 21 THE NEW DEAL, 1932–1940 818 The First New Deal 821 The Grassroots Revolt 830 The Second New Deal 835 A Reckoning with Liberty 838 Voices of Freedom From Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Fireside Chat” (1934), and From John Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of



Wrath (1938) 840 The Limits of Change 845 A New Conception of America 851 22 FIGHTING FOR THE FOUR FREEDOMS: WORLD WAR Ⅱ, 1941–1945 861 Fighting World War Ⅱ 864 The Home Front 873 Visions of Postwar Freedom 880 The American Dilemma 884 Voices of Freedom From League of United Latin American Citizens, “World War Ⅱ and Mexican Americans” (1945), and From Charles H. Wesley, “The Negro Has Always Wanted the Four Freedoms,” in What the Negro Wants (1944) 888 Who Is an American? From Justice Robert A. Jackson, dissent in Korematsu v. United States (1944) 893 The End of the War 899 23 THE UNITED STATES AND THE COLD WAR, 1945–1953 906 Origins of the Cold War 908 The Cold War and the Idea of Freedom 918 The Truman Presidency 923 The Anticommunist Crusade 928 Who Is an American? From Oscar Handlin, “The Immigration Fight Has Only Begun” (1952) 931 Voices of Freedom From Joseph R. McCarthy, Speech at Wheeling (1950), and From Margaret Chase Smith, Speech in the Senate (1950) 936 24 AN AFFLUENT SOCIETY, 1953–1960 942 The Golden Age 944 The Eisenhower Era 959 The Freedom Movement 970 Voices of Freedom From Martin Luther King Jr., Speech at Montgomery, Alabama (December 5, 1955), and From The Southern Manifesto (1956) 978 The Election of 1960 981 25 THE SIXTIES, 1960–1968 985 The Civil Rights Revolution 987 The Kennedy Years 990 Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency 994 The Changing Black Movement 1002 Vietnam and the New Left 1005 The New Movements and the Rights Revolution 1014 Voices of Freedom From Barry Goldwater, Speech at Republican National Convention (1964), and From Statement of Purpose, National Organization for Women (1966) 1016 1968 1026 26 THE CONSERVATIVE TURN, 1969–1988 1032 President Nixon 1033 Vietnam and Watergate 1041 The End of the Golden Age 1047 The Rising Tide of Conservatism 1055 Who Is an American? Brochure on the Equal Rights Amendment (1970s) 1059 The Reagan Revolution 1063 Voices of Freedom From Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (1971), and From Richard E. Blakemore, Report on the Sagebrush Rebellion (1979) 1064 27 FROM TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY, 1989–2004 1076 The Post–Cold War World 1078 Voices of Freedom From Bill Clinton, Speech on Signing of NAFTA (1993), and From Global Exchange, Seattle, Declaration for Global Democracy (December 1999) 1084 Globalization and its Discontents 1087 Culture Wars 1092 Who Is an American? Los Tigres del Norte, “Jaula de Oro” (1984) 1094 Impeachment and the Election of 2000 1105 The Attacks of September 11 1108 The War on Terrorism 1109 An American Empire? 1110 The Aftermath of September 11 at Home 1114 28 A DIVIDED NATION 1119 The Winds of Change 1120 The Great Recession 1127 Obama in Office 1134 Voices of Freedom From Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and From Barack Obama, Eulogy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (2015) 1136 The Obama Presidency 1140 Who Is an American? From Khizr Khan, Speech at Democratic National Convention (2016) 1149 President Trump 1150 Freedom in the Twenty-First Century 1159

Suggested Reading A-1 The Declaration of Independence (1776) A-15 The Constitution of the United States (1787) A-19 Glossary A-39 Credits A-75



Index A-79






MAPS CHAPTER 15 The Barrow Plantation 569 Sharecropping in the South, 1880 573 Reconstruction in the South, 1867–1877 599 The Presidential Election of 1876 600 CHAPTER 16 The Railroad Network, 1880 607 U.S. Steel: A Vertically Integrated Corporation 610 The Industrial West 631 Indian Reservations, ca. 1890 639 Political Stalemate, 1876–1892 643 CHAPTER 17 Populist Strength, 1892 654 The Presidential Election of 1896 657 The Spanish-American War: The Pacific 680 The Spanish-American War: The Caribbean 680 American Empire, 1898 682 CHAPTER 18 Socialist Towns and Cities, 1900–1920 703 CHAPTER 19 The Panama Canal Zone 737 The United States in the Caribbean, 1898–1941 738 Colonial Possessions, 1900 740 World War Ⅰ: The Western Front 745 Prohibition, 1915: Counties and States That Banned Liquor before the Eighteenth Amendment (Ratified 1919, Repealed 1933) 751 Europe in 1914 773 Europe in 1919 774 CHAPTER 21 Columbia River Basin Project, 1949 820 The Tennessee Valley Authority 826 The Dust Bowl, 1935–1940 828 CHAPTER 22 World War Ⅱ in the Pacific, 1941–1945 870 World War Ⅱ in Europe, 1942–1945 872 Wartime Army and Navy Bases and Airfields 875 Japanese-American Internment, 1942–1945 891 CHAPTER 23 Cold War Europe, 1956 914 The Korean War, 1950–1953 916 CHAPTER 24 The Interstate Highway System 950 The Presidential Election of 1960 982 CHAPTER 25 The Vietnam War, 1964–1975 1009



CHAPTER 26 Center of Population, 1790–2010 1035 The Presidential Election of 1980 1062 The United States in the Caribbean and Central America, 1954–2004 1071 CHAPTER 27 Eastern Europe after the Cold War 1083 Immigrant Populations in Cities and States, 1900 and 2010 1096 Origin of Largest Immigrant Populations by State, 1910 and 2013 1098 The Presidential Election of 2000 1106 U.S. Presence in the Middle East, 1947–2019 1112 Israel, the West, and Gaza Strip 1113 CHAPTER 28 Percentage of Population below the Poverty Line, 2014 1141



Tables and Figures CHAPTER 16 Table 16.1 Indicators of Economic Change, 1870–1920 606 CHAPTER 17 Table 17.1 States with Over 200 Lynchings, 1889–1918 665 CHAPTER 18 Table 18.1 Immigrants and Their Children as Percentage of Population, Ten Major Cities, 1920 696 Table 18.2 Percentage of Women 14 Years and Older in the Labor Force, 1900–1930 698 CHAPTER 19 Table 19.1 The Great Migration 766 CHAPTER 21 Figure 21.1 Unemployment, 1925–1945 844 CHAPTER 22 Table 22.1 Labor Union Membership 876 CHAPTER 25 Figure 25.1 Percentage of Population below Poverty Level, by Race, 1959–1969 1000 CHAPTER 26 Table 26.1 Rate of Divorce: Divorces of Existing Marriages per 1,000 New Marriages, 1950– 1980 1040 Table 26.2 The Misery Index, 1970–1980 1048 Figure 26.1 Real Average Weekly Wages, 1955–1990 1050 CHAPTER 27 Figure 27.1 Incarceration Rates, 1970s–2010s 1100 Figure 27.2 Adult Men and Women in the Labor Force, 1950–2019 1104 CHAPTER 28 Figure 28.1 Portrait of a Recession 1128






ERIC FONER is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, he focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. Professor Foner’s publications include Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy;



Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877; The Story of American Freedom; and Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. His history of Reconstruction won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Parkman Prize. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. In 2006 he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University. His most recent books are The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, winner of the Bancroft and Lincoln Prizes and the Pulitzer Prize for History, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, winner of the New York Historical Society Book Prize, and The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.



PREFACE Give Me Liberty! An American History is a survey of American history from the earliest days of European exploration and conquest of the New World to the first decades of the twenty-first century. It offers students a clear, concise narrative whose central theme is the changing contours of American freedom.

I am extremely gratified by the response to the first five editions of Give Me Liberty!, which have been used in survey courses at many hundreds of two- and four-year colleges and universities throughout the country. The comments I have received from instructors and students encourage me to think that Give Me Liberty! has worked well in their classrooms. Their comments have also included many valuable suggestions for revisions, which I greatly appreciate. These have ranged from corrections of typographical and factual errors to thoughts about subjects that needed more extensive treatment. In making revisions for this Sixth Edition, I have tried to take these suggestions into account. I have also incorporated the findings and insights of new scholarship that has appeared since the original edition was written.

The most significant changes in this Sixth Edition involve heightened emphasis on a question as old as the republic and as current as today’s newspapers: Who is an American?

Difference and commonality are both intrinsic parts of the American experience. Our national creed emphasizes democracy and freedom as universal rights, but these rights have frequently been limited to particular groups of people. The United States has long prided itself on being an “asylum for mankind,” as Thomas Paine put it in Common Sense, his great pamphlet calling for American independence. Yet we as a people have long been divided by clashing definitions of “Americanness.” The first Naturalization Act, adopted in 1790, limited the right to become a citizen when immigrating from abroad to white persons. And the right to vote was long denied to many Americans because of race, gender, property holding, a criminal record, or other reasons. Today, in debates over immigration and voting rights, the question of “Who is an American?” continues to roil our society.

In a nation resting, rhetorically at least, on the ideal of equality, the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion take on extreme significance. The greater the rights of American citizenship, the more important the definition of belonging. Groups like African-Americans and women, shut out from full equality from the beginning of the nation’s history, have struggled to gain recognition as full and equal members of the society. The definition of citizenship itself and the rights that come with it have been subject to intense debate throughout American history. And the cry of “second-class citizenship” has provided a powerful language of social protest for those who feel themselves excluded. To be sure, not all groups have made demands for inclusion. In the colonial era and for much of the history of the American nation, many Native Americans have demanded recognition of their own national sovereignty.

There is stronger coverage of this theme throughout the book, and it is reinforced by a new primary- source feature, “Who Is an American?” The sixteen such features, distributed fairly evenly through the text, address the nature of American identity, the definition of citizenship, and controversies over inclusion and exclusion. These documents range from J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s reflections on Americanness toward the end of the War of Independence and the Declaration of Sentiments of the Seneca Falls Convention to Frederick Douglass’s great speech of 1869 in defense of Chinese immigration, “The Composite Nation,” and Mary Church Terrell’s poignant complaint about being



treated as a stranger in her own country.

In the body of the text itself, the major additions that illuminate the history of this theme are as follows:

Chapter 3 contains a new discussion of the formation in colonial America of a British identity linked to a sense of difference from “others”—French and Spanish Catholics, Africans, and Native Americans. Chapter 4 discusses the development of a pan-Indian identity transcending the traditional rivalries between separate Native American nations. In Chapter 7 , I have added an examination of how the U.S. Constitution deals with citizenship and how the lack of a clear definition made disagreement about its boundaries inevitable. A new subsection in Chapter 12 deals with claims by African-Americans before the Civil War to “birthright citizenship,” the principle that anyone born in the country, regardless of race, national origin, or other characteristics, is entitled to full and equal citizenship. Chapter 15 expands the existing discussion of the constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction era to examine how they redrew the definition and boundaries of American citizenship.

In Chapter 17, I have expanded the section on the movement to restrict immigration. Chapter 18 contains a new discussion of Theodore Roosevelt’s understanding of “Americanism” and whom it excluded. Chapter 19 examines the “science” of eugenics, which proposed various ways to “improve” the quality of the American population. Chapter 23 contains a new subsection on how the Cold War and the effort to root out “subversion” affected definitions of loyalty, disloyalty, and American identity. Immigration reform during the administration of Ronald Reagan receives additional attention in Chapter 26. Finally, Chapter 28 discusses the heated debates over immigration that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, and how his administration in its first two years addressed the issue.

Other revisions, not directly related to the “Who Is an American?” theme, include a reorganization of the chapter on the Gilded Age (16) to give it greater clarity, a new subsection in Chapter 17 discussing the political and philosophical school known as pragmatism, and significant changes in Chapter 26 to take advantage of recent scholarship on modern conservatism. The final chapter (28) has been updated to discuss the election of 2016 and the first two years of the administration of Donald Trump. I have also added a number of new selections to Voices of Freedom to sharpen the juxtaposition of divergent concepts of freedom at particular moments in American history. And this edition contains many new images—paintings, photographs, broadsides, lithographs, and others.

Americans have always had a divided attitude toward history. On the one hand, they tend to be remarkably future-oriented, dismissing events of even the recent past as “ancient history” and sometimes seeing history as a burden to be overcome, a prison from which to escape. On the other hand, like many other peoples, Americans have always looked to history for a sense of personal or group identity and of national cohesiveness. This is why so many Americans devote time and energy to tracing their family trees and why they visit historical museums and National Park Service historical sites in ever-increasing numbers. My hope is that this book will convince readers with all degrees of interest that history does matter to them.

The novelist and essayist James Baldwin once observed that history “does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, . . . [that] history is literally present in all that we do.” As Baldwin recognized, the force of history is evident in our own world. Especially in a political democracy like the United States, whose government is designed to rest on the consent of informed citizens, knowledge of the past is essential



—not only for those of us whose profession is the teaching and writing of history, but for everyone. History, to be sure, does not offer simple lessons or immediate answers to current questions. Knowing the history of immigration to the United States, and all of the tensions, turmoil, and aspirations associated with it, for example, does not tell us what current immigration policy ought to be. But without that knowledge, we have no way of understanding which approaches have worked and which have not—essential information for the formulation of future public policy.

History, it has been said, is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Rather than a fixed collection of facts, or a group of interpretations that cannot be challenged, our understanding of history is constantly changing. There is nothing unusual in the fact that each generation rewrites history to meet its own needs, or that scholars disagree among themselves on basic questions like the causes of the Civil War or the reasons for the Great Depression. Precisely because each generation asks different questions of the past, each generation formulates different answers. The past thirty years have witnessed a remarkable expansion of the scope of historical study. The experiences of groups neglected by earlier scholars, including women, African-Americans, working people, and others, have received unprecedented attention from historians. New subfields—social history, cultural history, and family history among them—have taken their place alongside traditional political and diplomatic history.

Give Me Liberty! draws on this voluminous historical literature to present an up-to-date and inclusive account of the American past, paying due attention to the experience of diverse groups of Americans while in no way neglecting the events and processes Americans have experienced in common. It devotes serious attention to political, social, cultural, and economic history, and to their interconnections. The narrative brings together major events and prominent leaders with the many groups of ordinary people who make up American society. Give Me Liberty! has a rich cast of characters, from Thomas Jefferson to campaigners for woman suffrage, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to former slaves seeking to breathe meaning into emancipation during and after the Civil War.

Aimed at an audience of undergraduate students with little or no detailed knowledge of American history, Give Me Liberty! guides readers through the complexities of the subject without overwhelming them with excessive detail. The unifying theme of freedom that runs through the text gives shape to the narrative and integrates the numerous strands that make up the American experience. This approach builds on that of my earlier book, The Story of American Freedom (1998), although Give Me Liberty! places events and personalities in the foreground and is more geared to the structure of the introductory survey course.

Freedom, and the battles to define its meaning, have long been central to my own scholarship and undergraduate teaching, which focuses on the nineteenth century and especially the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction (1850–1877). This was a time when the future of slavery tore the nation apart and emancipation produced a national debate over what rights the former slaves, and all Americans, should enjoy as free citizens. I have found that attention to clashing definitions of freedom and the struggles of different groups to achieve freedom as they understood it offers a way of making sense of the bitter battles and vast transformations of that pivotal era. I believe that the same is true for American history as a whole.

No idea is more fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom. The central term in our political language, freedom—or liberty, with which it is almost always used interchangeably—is deeply embedded in the record of our history and the language of everyday life. The Declaration of Independence lists liberty among mankind’s inalienable rights; the Constitution announces its purpose as securing liberty’s blessings. The United States fought the Civil



War to bring about a new birth of freedom, World War Ⅱ for the Four Freedoms, and the Cold War to defend the Free World. Americans’ love of liberty has been represented by liberty poles, liberty caps, and statues of liberty, and acted out by burning stamps and burning draft cards, by running away from slavery, and by demonstrating for the right to vote. “Every man in the street, white, black, red, or yellow,” wrote the educator and statesman Ralph Bunche in 1940, “knows that this is ‘the land of the free’ . . . ‘the cradle of liberty.’ ”

The very universality of the idea of freedom, however, can be misleading. Freedom is not a fixed, timeless category with a single unchanging definition. Indeed, the history of the United States is, in part, a story of debates, disagreements, and struggles over freedom. Crises like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Cold War have permanently transformed the idea of freedom. So too have demands by various groups of Americans to enjoy greater freedom. The meaning of freedom has been constructed not only in congressional debates and political treatises, but on plantations and picket lines, in parlors and even bedrooms.

Over the course of our history, American freedom has been both a reality and a mythic ideal—a living truth for millions of Americans, a cruel mockery for others. For some, freedom has been what some scholars call a “habit of the heart,” an ideal so taken for granted that it is lived out but rarely analyzed. For others, freedom is not a birthright but a distant goal that has inspired great sacrifice.

Give Me Liberty! draws attention to three dimensions of freedom that have been critical in American history: (1) the meanings of freedom; (2) the social conditions that make freedom possible; and (3) the boundaries of freedom that determine who is entitled to enjoy freedom and who is not. All have changed over time.

In the era of the American Revolution, for example, freedom was primarily a set of rights enjoyed in public activity—the right of a community to be governed by laws to which its representatives had consented and of individuals to engage in religious worship without governmental interference. In the nineteenth century, freedom came to be closely identified with each person’s opportunity to develop to the fullest his or her innate talents. In the twentieth, the “ability to choose,” in both public and private life, became perhaps the dominant understanding of freedom. This development was encouraged by the explosive growth of the consumer marketplace (a development that receives considerable attention in Give Me Liberty!), which offered Americans an unprecedented array of goods with which to satisfy their needs and desires. During the 1960s, a crucial chapter in the history of American freedom, the idea of personal freedom was extended into virtually every realm, from attire and “lifestyle” to relations between the sexes. Thus, over time, more and more areas of life have been drawn into Americans’ debates about the meaning of freedom.

A second important dimension of freedom focuses on the social conditions necessary to allow freedom to flourish. What kinds of economic institutions and relationships best encourage individual freedom? In the colonial era and for more than a century after independence, the answer centered on economic autonomy, enshrined in the glorification of the independent small producer—the farmer, skilled craftsman, or shopkeeper—who did not have to depend on another person for his livelihood. As the industrial economy matured, new conceptions of economic freedom came to the fore: “liberty of contract” in the Gilded Age, “industrial freedom” (a say in corporate decision-making) in the Progressive era, economic security during the New Deal, and, more recently, the ability to enjoy mass consumption within a market economy.

The boundaries of freedom, the third dimension of this theme, have inspired some of the most intense struggles in American history. Although founded on the premise that liberty is an entitlement



of all humanity, the United States for much of its history deprived many of its own people of freedom. Non-whites have rarely enjoyed the same access to freedom as white Americans. The belief in equal opportunity as the birthright of all Americans has coexisted with persistent efforts to limit freedom by race, gender, and class and in other ways.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that one person’s freedom has frequently been linked to another’s servitude. In the colonial era and nineteenth century, expanding freedom for many Americans rested on the lack of freedom—slavery, indentured servitude, the subordinate position of women—for others. By the same token, it has been through battles at the boundaries—the efforts of racial minorities, women, and others to secure greater freedom—that the meaning and experience of freedom have been deepened and the concept extended into new realms.

Time and again in American history, freedom has been transformed by the demands of excluded groups for inclusion. The idea of freedom as a universal birthright owes much both to abolitionists who sought to extend the blessings of liberty to blacks and to immigrant groups who insisted on full recognition as American citizens. The principle of equal protection of the law without regard to race, which became a central element of American freedom, arose from the antislavery struggle and the Civil War and was reinvigorated by the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which called itself the “freedom movement.” The battle for the right of free speech by labor radicals and birth-control advocates in the first part of the twentieth century helped to make civil liberties an essential element of freedom for all Americans.

Although concentrating on events within the United States, Give Me Liberty! also situates American history in the context of developments in other parts of the world. Many of the forces that shaped American history, including the international migration of peoples, the development of slavery, the spread of democracy, and the expansion of capitalism, were worldwide processes not confined to the United States. Today, American ideas, culture, and economic and military power exert unprecedented influence throughout the world. But beginning with the earliest days of settlement, when European empires competed to colonize North America and enrich themselves from its trade, American history cannot be understood in isolation from its global setting.

Freedom is the oldest of clichés and the most modern of aspirations. At various times in our history, it has served as the rallying cry of the powerless and as a justification of the status quo. Freedom helps to bind our culture together and exposes the contradictions between what America claims to be and what it sometimes has been. American history is not a narrative of continual progress toward greater and greater freedom. As the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted after the Civil War, “revolutions may go backward.” Though freedom can be achieved, it may also be taken away. This happened, for example, when the equal rights granted to former slaves immediately after the Civil War were essentially nullified during the era of segregation. As was said in the eighteenth century, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

In the early twenty-first century, freedom continues to play a central role in American political and social life and thought. It is invoked by individuals and groups of all kinds, from critics of economic globalization to those who seek to secure American freedom at home and export it abroad. I hope that Give Me Liberty! will offer beginning students a clear account of the course of American history, and of its central theme, freedom, which today remains as varied, contentious, and ever-changing as America itself. And I hope that it also enables students to understand the connections between past and current events, the historical context and antecedents of the social, political, cultural, and economic issues that the American people confront today.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS All works of history are, to a considerable extent, collaborative books, in that every writer builds on the research and writing of previous scholars. This is especially true of a textbook that covers the entire American experience, over more than five centuries. My greatest debt is to the innumerable historians on whose work I have drawn in preparing this volume. The Suggested Reading list at the end of the book offers only a brief introduction to the vast body of historical scholarship that has influenced and informed this book. More specifically, however, I wish to thank the following scholars, who offered valuable comments, criticisms, and suggestions after generously reading portions of this work, or using it in their classes.

Jennifer Hudson Allen, Brookhaven College

Joel Benson, Northwest Missouri State University

Lori Bramson, Clark College

Andrea Brinton-Sanches, Cedar Valley College

Monica L. Butler, Motlow State Community College

Tonia Compton, Columbia College

Adam Costanzo, Texas A&M University

Carl Creasman Jr., Valencia College

Ashley Cruseturner, McLennan Community College

Richard Driver, Northwest Vista College

Laura Dunn, Eastern Florida State College

Kathleen DuVal, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Blake Ellis, Lone Star College–CyFair

Carla Falkner, Northeast Mississippi Community College

Robert Glen Findley, Odessa College

Amy L. Fluker, University of Mississippi

Van Forsyth, Clark College

Yvonne Frear, San Jacinto College

Beverly Gage, Yale University



Michael A. Gonzalez, El Paso Community College

Aram Goudsouzian, University of Memphis

Michael Harkins, Harper College

Peter D. Haro, San Diego City College

Sandra Harvey, Lone Star College–CyFair

Robert Hines, Palo Alto College

Traci Hodgson, Chemeketa Community College

Tamora Hoskisson, Salt Lake Community College

William Jackson, Salt Lake Community College

Alfred H. Jones, State College of Florida

Junko Isono Kato, Waseda University

David Kiracofe, Tidewater Community College

Jeremy Lehman, McLennan Community College

Brad Lookingbill, Columbia College

Jennifer Macias, Salt Lake Community College

Scott P. Marler, University of Memphis

Thomas Massey, Cape Fear Community College

Derek Maxfield, Genesee Community College

Lisa McGirr, Harvard University

Marianne McKnight, Salt Lake Community College

Jonson Miller, Drexel University

Ted Moore, Salt Lake Community College

Laura Murphy, Dutchess Community College

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, University of Southern California

Christopher Phelps, University of Nottingham

Robert Pierce, Foothills College



Ernst Pinjing, Minot State University

Harvey N. Plaunt, El Paso Community College

Steve Porter, University of Cincinnati

John Putman, San Diego State University

R. Lynn Rainard, Tidewater Community College, Chesapeake Campus

Janet Rankin, Sierra College

Nicole Ribianszky, Georgia Gwinnett College

Nancy Marie Robertson, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Anderson Rouse, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Horacio Salinas Jr., Laredo Community College

John Shaw, Portland Community College

Christina Snyder, Pennsylvania State University

Wendy Soltz, Purdue University Fort Wayne

Danielle Swiontek, Santa Barbara Community College

Chris Tingle, Northwest Mississippi Community College

Richard M. Trimble, Ocean County College

Alan Vangroll, Central Texas College

Karine Walther, Georgetown University

Eddie Weller, San Jacinto College

Ashli White, Miami University

Andrew Wiese, San Diego State University

Matthew Zembo, Hudson Valley Community College

I am particularly grateful to my colleagues in the Columbia University Department of History: Pablo Piccato, for his advice on Latin American history; Evan Haefeli and Ellen Baker, who read and made many suggestions for improvements in their areas of expertise (colonial America and the history of the West, respectively); and Sarah Phillips, who offered advice on treating the history of the environment.

I am also deeply indebted to the graduate students at Columbia University’s Department of History who helped with this project. For this edition, Michael “Mookie” Kideckel offered invaluable



assistance in gathering material related to borderlands and Western history for the Fifth Edition and on citizenship and identity for the current one. For previous editions, Theresa Ventura assisted in locating material for new sections placing American history in a global context, April Holm did the same for new coverage of the history of American religion and debates over religious freedom, James Delbourgo conducted research for the chapters on the colonial era, and Beverly Gage did the same for the twentieth century. In addition, Daniel Freund provided all-around research assistance. Victoria Cain did a superb job of locating images. I also want to thank my colleagues Elizabeth Blackmar and the late Alan Brinkley for offering advice and encouragement throughout the writing of this book. I am also grateful to the numerous students who, while using the textbook, pointed out to me errors or omissions that I have corrected.

Many thanks to Joshua Brown, director of the American Social History Project, whose website, History Matters, lists innumerable online resources for the study of American history. Thanks also to the instructors who helped build our robust digital resource and ancillary package. InQuizitive for History was revised by Cornelia Lambert (University of North Georgia), Jodie Steeley (Fresno City College), Jen Murray (Oklahoma State University), and Joel Tannenbaum (Community College of Philadelphia). The Coursepack Quizzes and Instructor’s Manual were thoroughly updated by Jason Newman (Cosumnes River College). Allison Faber (Texas A&M University) revised the Lecture PowerPoint slides. And our Test Bank was revised to include new questions authored by Robert O’Brien (Lone Star College–CyFair), Emily Pecora, and Carolina Zumaglini, with accuracy checking help from Matt Zembo (Hudson Valley Community College) and Jim Dudlo (Brookhaven College).

At W. W. Norton & Company, Steve Forman was an ideal editor—patient, encouraging, and always ready to offer sage advice. I would also like to thank Steve’s assistant editor Lily Gellman for her indispensable and always cheerful help on all aspects of the project; Ellen Lohman and Mary Kanable for their careful copyediting and proofreading work; Stephanie Romeo and Donna Ranieri for their resourceful attention to the illustrations program; Leah Clark, Ted Szczepanski, and Debra Morton-Hoyt for splendid work on the covers for the Sixth Edition; Jennifer Barnhardt for keeping the many threads of the project aligned and then tying them together; Sean Mintus for his efficiency and care in book production; Carson Russell for orchestrating the rich media package that accompanies the textbook and his colleagues Sarah Rose Aquilina and Alexandra Malakhoff; Sarah England Bartley, Steve Dunn, and Mike Wright for their alert reads of the U.S. survey market and their hard work in helping establish Give Me Liberty! within it; and Drake McFeely, Roby Harrington, and Julia Reidhead for maintaining Norton as an independent, employee-owned publisher dedicated to excellence in its work.

Many students may have heard stories of how publishing companies alter the language and content of textbooks in an attempt to maximize sales and avoid alienating any potential reader. In this case, I can honestly say that W. W. Norton allowed me a free hand in writing the book and, apart from the usual editorial corrections, did not try to influence its content at all. For this I thank them, while I accept full responsibility for the interpretations presented and for any errors the book may contain. Since no book of this length can be entirely free of mistakes, I welcome readers to send me corrections at ef17@columbia.edu.

My greatest debt, as always, is to my family—my wife, Lynn Garafola, for her good-natured support while I was preoccupied by a project that consumed more than its fair share of my time and energy, and my daughter, Daria, who while a ninth and tenth grader read every chapter of the First Edition as it was written, for a modest payment, and offered invaluable suggestions about improving the book’s clarity, logic, and grammar.



Eric Foner

New York City

March 2019



GIVE ME LIBERTY! DIGITAL RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND INSTRUCTORS W. W. Norton offers a robust digital package to support teaching and learning with Give Me Liberty! These resources are designed to make students more effective textbook readers, while at the same time developing their critical thinking and history skills.



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FOCUS QUESTIONS What visions of freedom did the former slaves and slaveholders pursue in the postwar South? What were the sources, goals, and competing visions for Reconstruction? What were the social and political effects of Radical Reconstruction in the South? What were the main factors, in both the North and South, for the overthrow of Reconstruction?

On the evening of January 12, 1865, less than a month after Union forces captured Savannah, Georgia, twenty leaders of the city’s black community gathered for a discussion with General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, the group included several men who within a few years would assume prominent positions during the era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. Ulysses S. Houston, pastor of the city’s Third African Baptist Church, and James Porter, an Episcopal religious leader who had operated a secret school for black children before the war, in a few years would win election to the Georgia legislature. James D. Lynch, who had been born free in Baltimore and educated in New Hampshire, went on to serve as secretary of state of Mississippi.

The conversation revealed that the black leaders brought out of slavery a clear definition of freedom. Asked what he understood by slavery, Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister chosen as the group’s spokesman, responded that it meant one person’s “receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.” Freedom he defined as “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves.” The way to accomplish this was “to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.” Frazier insisted that blacks possessed “sufficient intelligence” to maintain themselves in freedom and enjoy the equal protection of the laws.

Sherman’s meeting with the black leaders foreshadowed some of the radical changes that would take place during the era known as Reconstruction (meaning, literally, the rebuilding of the shattered nation). In the years following the Civil War, former slaves and their white allies, North and South, would seek to redefine the meaning and boundaries of American freedom and citizenship. Previously an entitlement of whites, these would be expanded to include black Americans. The laws and Constitution would be rewritten to guarantee African-Americans, for the first time in the nation’s history, recognition as citizens and equality before the law. Black men would be granted the right to vote, ushering in a period of interracial democracy throughout the South. Black schools, churches, and other institutions would flourish, laying the foundation for the modern African-American community. Many of the advances of Reconstruction would prove temporary, swept away during a campaign of violence in the South and the North’s retreat from the ideal of equality. But Reconstruction laid the foundation for future struggles to extend freedom to all Americans.

All this, however, lay in the future in January 1865. Four days after the meeting, Sherman responded to the black delegation by issuing Special Field Order 15. This set aside the Sea Islands and a large area along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts for the settlement of black families on forty-acre plots of land. He also offered them broken-down mules that the army could no longer use. In Sherman’s order lay the origins of the phrase “forty acres and a mule,” which would reverberate across the South in the next few years. By June, some 40,000 freed slaves had been settled on “Sherman land.” Among the emancipated slaves, Sherman’s order raised hopes that the end of slavery would be accompanied by the economic independence that they, like other Americans, believed essential to genuine freedom.



• CHRONOLOGY • 1865 Special Field Order 15

Freedmen’s Bureau established

Lincoln assassinated; Andrew Johnson becomes president

1865–1867 Presidential Reconstruction

Black Codes

1866 Civil Rights Bill

Ku Klux Klan established

1867 Reconstruction Act of 1867

Tenure of Office Act

1867–1877 Radical Reconstruction of 1867

1868 Impeachment and trial of President Johnson

Fourteenth Amendment ratified

1869 Inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant

Women’s rights organization splits into two groups

1870 Hiram Revels, first black U.S. senator

Fifteenth Amendment ratified

1870–1871 Enforcement Acts

1872 Liberal Republicans established

1873 Colfax Massacre

Slaughterhouse Cases

National economic depression begins

1876 United States v. Cruikshank

1877 Bargain of 1877



THE MEANING OF FREEDOM With the end of the Civil War, declared an Illinois congressman in 1865, the United States was a “new nation,” for the first time “wholly free.” The destruction of slavery, however, made the definition of freedom the central question on the nation’s agenda. “What is freedom?” asked Congressman James A. Garfield in 1865. “Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion.” Did freedom mean simply the absence of slavery, or did it imply other rights for the former slaves, and if so, which ones: equal civil rights, the vote, ownership of property? During Reconstruction, freedom became a terrain of conflict, its substance open to different, often contradictory interpretations. Out of the conflict over the meaning of freedom arose new kinds of relations between black and white southerners, and a new definition of the rights of all Americans.



Blacks and the Meaning of Freedom African-Americans’ understanding of freedom was shaped by their experiences as slaves and their observation of the free society around them. To begin with, freedom meant escaping the numerous injustices of slavery—punishment by the lash, the separation of families, denial of access to education, the sexual exploitation of black women by their owners—and sharing in the rights and opportunities of American citizens. “If I cannot do like a white man,” Henry Adams, an emancipated slave in Louisiana, told his former master in 1865, “I am not free.”

Blacks relished the opportunity to demonstrate their liberation from the regulations, significant and trivial, associated with slavery. They openly held mass meetings and religious services free of white supervision, and they acquired dogs, guns, and liquor, all barred to them under slavery. No longer required to obtain a pass from their owners to travel, former slaves throughout the South left the plantations in search of better jobs, family members, or simply a taste of personal liberty. Many moved to southern towns and cities, where, it seemed, “freedom was free-er.”



Families in Freedom With slavery dead, institutions that had existed before the war, like the black family, free blacks’ churches and schools, and the secret slave church, were strengthened, expanded, and freed from white supervision. The family was central to the postemancipation black community. Former slaves made remarkable efforts to locate loved ones from whom they had been separated under slavery. One northern reporter in 1865 encountered a freedman who had walked more than 600 miles from Georgia to North Carolina, searching for the wife and children from whom he had been sold away before the war. Meanwhile, widows of black soldiers successfully claimed survivors’ pensions, forcing the federal government to acknowledge the validity of prewar relationships that slavery had attempted to deny.

But while Reconstruction witnessed the stabilization of family life, freedom subtly altered relationships within the family. Emancipation increased the power of black men and brought to many black families the nineteenth-century notion that men and women should inhabit separate “spheres.” Immediately after the Civil War, planters complained that freedwomen had “withdrawn” from field labor and work as house servants. Many black women preferred to devote more time to their families than had been possible under slavery, and men considered it a badge of honor to see their wives remain at home. Eventually, the dire poverty of the black community would compel a far higher proportion of black women than white women to go to work for wages.



Church and School At the same time, blacks abandoned white-controlled religious institutions to create churches of their own. On the eve of the Civil War, 42,000 black Methodists worshiped in biracial South Carolina churches; by the end of Reconstruction, only 600 remained. The rise of the independent black church, with Methodists and Baptists commanding the largest followings, redrew the religious map of the South. As the major institution independent of white control, the church played a central role in the black community. A place of worship, it also housed schools, social events, and political gatherings. Black ministers came to play a major role in politics. Some 250 held public office during Reconstruction.



Marriage of a Colored Soldier at Vicksburg, a sketch of a wedding ceremony by Alfred R. Waud soon after the end of the Civil War.

Another striking example of the freedpeople’s quest for individual and community improvement was their desire for education. Education, declared a Mississippi freedman, was “the next best thing to liberty.” The thirst for learning sprang from many sources—a desire to read the Bible, the need to prepare for the economic marketplace, and the opportunity, which arose in 1867, to take part in politics. Blacks of all ages flocked to the schools established by northern missionary societies, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and groups of ex-slaves. Northern journalist Sidney Andrews, who toured the South in 1865, was impressed by how much education also took place outside of the classroom: “I had occasion very frequently to notice that porters in stores and laboring men in warehouses, and cart drivers on the streets, had spelling books with them, and were studying them during the time they were not occupied with their work.” Reconstruction also witnessed the creation of the nation’s first black colleges, including Fisk University in Tennessee, Hampton Institute in Virginia, and Howard University in the nation’s capital.



Political Freedom In a society that had made political participation a core element of freedom, the right to vote inevitably became central to the former slaves’ desire for empowerment and equality. As Frederick Douglass put it soon after the South’s surrender in 1865, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” In a “monarchial government,” Douglass explained, no “special” disgrace applied to those denied the right to vote. But in a democracy, “where universal suffrage is the rule,” excluding any group meant branding them with “the stigma of inferiority.” As soon as the Civil War ended, and in some parts of the South even earlier, free blacks and emancipated slaves claimed a place in the public sphere. They came together in conventions, parades, and petition drives to demand the right to vote and, on occasion, to organize their own “freedom ballots.” Anything less than full citizenship, black spokesmen insisted, would betray the nation’s democratic promise and the war’s meaning.



Land, Labor, and Freedom Former slaves’ ideas of freedom, like those of rural people throughout the world, were directly related to landownership. Only land, wrote Merrimon Howard, a freedman from Mississippi, would enable “the poor class to enjoy the sweet boon of freedom.” On the land they would develop independent communities free of white control. Many former slaves insisted that through their unpaid labor, they had acquired a right to the land. “The property which they hold,” declared an Alabama black convention, “was nearly all earned by the sweat of our brows.” In some parts of the South, blacks in 1865 seized property, insisting that it belonged to them. On one Tennessee plantation, former slaves claimed to be “joint heirs” to the estate and, the owner complained, took up residence “in the rooms of my house.”

In its individual elements and much of its language, former slaves’ definition of freedom resembled that of white Americans—self-ownership, family stability, religious liberty, political participation, and economic autonomy. But these elements combined to form a vision very much their own. For whites, freedom, no matter how defined, was a given, a birthright to be defended. For African- Americans, it was an open-ended process, a transformation of every aspect of their lives and of the society and culture that had sustained slavery in the first place. Although the freedpeople failed to achieve full freedom as they understood it, their definition did much to shape national debate during the turbulent era of Reconstruction.



Masters without Slaves Most white southerners reacted to military defeat and emancipation with dismay, not only because of the widespread devastation but also because they must now submit to northern demands. “The demoralization is complete,” wrote a Georgia girl. “We are whipped, there is no doubt about it.” The appalling loss of life, a disaster without parallel in the American experience, affected all classes of southerners. Nearly 260,000 men died for the Confederacy—more than one-fifth of the South’s adult male white population. The wholesale destruction of work animals, farm buildings, and machinery ensured that economic revival would be slow and painful. In 1870, the value of property in the South, not counting that represented by slaves, was 30 percent lower than before the war.


Two maps of the Barrow plantation illustrate the effects of emancipation on rural life in the South. In 1860, slaves lived in communal quarters near the owner’s house. Twenty-one years later, former slaves working as sharecroppers lived scattered across the plantation and had their own church and school.

Planter families faced profound changes in the war’s aftermath. Many lost not only their slaves but also their life savings, which they had patriotically invested in now-worthless Confederate bonds. Some, whose slaves departed the plantation, for the first time found themselves compelled to do



physical labor. General Braxton Bragg returned to his “once prosperous” Alabama home to find “all, all was lost, except my debts.” Bragg and his wife, a woman “raised in affluence,” lived for a time in a slave cabin.

Southern planters sought to implement an understanding of freedom quite different from that of the former slaves. As they struggled to accept the reality of emancipation, most planters defined black freedom in the narrowest manner. As journalist Sidney Andrews discovered late in 1865, “The whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the negro means the same thing as freedom for them. They readily enough admit that the government has made him free, but appear to believe that they have the right to exercise the same old control.” To southern leaders, freedom still meant hierarchy and mastery; it was a privilege not a right, a carefully defined legal status rather than an open-ended entitlement. Certainly, it implied neither economic autonomy nor civil and political equality. A Kentucky newspaper summed up the stance of much of the white South: the former slave was “free, but free only to labor.”



The Free Labor Vision Along with former slaves and former masters, the victorious Republican North tried to implement its own vision of freedom. Central to its definition was the antebellum principle of free labor, now further strengthened as a definition of the good society by the Union’s triumph. In the free labor vision of a reconstructed South, emancipated blacks, enjoying the same opportunities for advancement as northern workers, would labor more productively than they had as slaves. At the same time, northern capital and migrants would energize the economy. The South would eventually come to resemble the “free society” of the North, complete with public schools, small towns, and independent farmers. Unified on the basis of free labor, proclaimed Carl Schurz, a refugee from the failed German revolution of 1848 who rose to become a leader of the Republican Party, America would become “a republic, greater, more populous, freer, more prosperous, and more powerful” than any in history.

With planters seeking to establish a labor system as close to slavery as possible, and former slaves demanding economic autonomy and access to land, a long period of conflict over the organization and control of labor followed on plantations throughout the South. It fell to the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency established by Congress in March 1865, to attempt to establish a working free labor system.



The Freedmen’s Bureau Under the direction of O. O. Howard, a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine and a veteran of the Civil War, the Bureau took on responsibilities that can only be described as daunting. The Bureau was an experiment in government social policy that seems to belong more comfortably to the New Deal of the 1930s or the Great Society of the 1960s (see Chapters 21 and 25, respectively) than to nineteenth-century America. Bureau agents were supposed to establish schools, provide aid to the poor and aged, settle disputes between whites and blacks and among the freedpeople, and secure for former slaves and white Unionists equal treatment before the courts. “It is not . . . in your power to fulfill one-tenth of the expectations of those who framed the Bureau,” General William T. Sherman wrote to Howard. “I fear you have Hercules’ task.”



Winslow Homer’s 1876 painting The Cotton Pickers, one of a series of studies of rural life in Virginia, portrays two black women as dignified figures, without a trace of the stereotyping so common in the era’s representations of former slaves. The expressions on their faces are ambiguous, perhaps conveying disappointment that eleven years after the end of slavery they are still at work in the fields.

The Bureau lasted from 1865 to 1870. Even at its peak, there were fewer than 1,000 agents in the entire South. Nonetheless, the Bureau’s achievements in some areas, notably education and health care, were striking. While the Bureau did not establish schools itself, it coordinated and helped to finance the activities of northern societies committed to black education. By 1869, nearly 3,000 schools, serving more than 150,000 pupils in the South, reported to the Bureau. Bureau agents also assumed control of hospitals established by the army during the war, and expanded the system into new communities. They provided medical care to both black and white southerners. In economic relations, however, the Bureau’s activities proved far more problematic.



The Failure of Land Reform The idea of free labor, wrote one Bureau agent, was “the noblest principle on earth.” All that was required to harmonize race relations in the South was fair wages, good working conditions, and the opportunity to improve the laborer’s situation in life. But blacks wanted land of their own, not jobs on plantations. One provision of the law establishing the Bureau gave it the authority to divide abandoned and confiscated land into forty-acre plots for rental and eventual sale to the former slaves.

In the summer of 1865, however, President Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Lincoln, ordered nearly all land in federal hands returned to its former owners. A series of confrontations followed, notably in South Carolina and Georgia, where the army forcibly evicted blacks who had settled on “Sherman land.” When O. O. Howard, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, traveled to the Sea Islands to inform blacks of the new policy, he was greeted with disbelief and protest. A committee of former slaves drew up petitions to Howard and President Johnson. “We want Homesteads,” they declared, “we were promised Homesteads by the government.” Land, the freedmen insisted, was essential to the meaning of freedom. Without it, they declared, “we have not bettered our condition” from the days of slavery—“you will see, this is not the condition of really free men.”

Because no land distribution took place, the vast majority of rural freedpeople remained poor and without property during Reconstruction. They had no alternative but to work on white-owned plantations, often for their former owners. Far from being able to rise in the social scale through hard work, black men were largely confined to farm work, unskilled labor, and service jobs, and black women to positions in private homes as cooks and maids. Their wages remained too low to allow for any accumulation. By the turn of the century, a significant number of southern African-Americans had managed to acquire small parcels of land. But the failure of land reform produced a deep sense of betrayal that survived among the former slaves and their descendants long after the end of Reconstruction. “No sir,” Mary Gaffney, an elderly ex-slave, recalled in the 1930s, “we were not given a thing but freedom.”



Toward a New South Out of the conflict on the plantations, new systems of labor emerged in the different regions of the South. The task system, under which workers were assigned daily tasks, completion of which ended their responsibilities for that day, survived in the rice kingdom of South Carolina and Georgia. Closely supervised wage labor predominated on the sugar plantations of southern Louisiana. Sharecropping came to dominate the Cotton Belt and much of the Tobacco Belt of Virginia and North Carolina.


By 1880, sharecropping had become the dominant form of agricultural labor in large parts of the South. The system involved both white and black farmers.

Sharecropping initially arose as a compromise between blacks’ desire for land and planters’ demand for labor discipline. The system allowed each black family to rent a part of a plantation, with the crop divided between worker and owner at the end of the year. Sharecropping guaranteed the planters a stable resident labor force. Former slaves preferred it to gang labor because it offered them the prospect of working without day-to-day white supervision. But as the years went on, sharecropping became more and more oppressive. Sharecroppers’ economic opportunities were severely limited by a world market in which the price of farm products suffered a prolonged decline.



The White Farmer The plight of the small farmer was not confined to blacks in the postwar South. Wartime devastation set in motion a train of events that permanently altered the independent way of life of white yeomen, leading to what they considered a loss of freedom. Before the war, most small farmers had concentrated on raising food for their families and grew little cotton. With much of their property destroyed, many yeomen saw their economic condition worsened by successive crop failures after the war. To obtain supplies from merchants, farmers were forced to take up the growing of cotton and pledge a part of the crop as collateral (property the creditor can seize if a debt is not paid). This system became known as the crop lien. Since interest rates were extremely high and the price of cotton fell steadily, many farmers found themselves still in debt after marketing their portion of the crop at year’s end. They had no choice but to continue to plant cotton to obtain new loans. By the mid-1870s, white farmers, who cultivated only 10 percent of the South’s cotton crop in 1860, were growing 40 percent, and many who had owned their land had fallen into dependency as sharecroppers, who now rented land owned by others.

Both black and white farmers found themselves caught in the sharecropping and crop-lien systems. A far higher percentage of black than white farmers in the South rented land rather than owned it. But every census from 1880 to 1940 counted more white than black sharecroppers. The workings of sharecropping and the crop-lien system are illustrated by the case of Matt Brown, a Mississippi farmer who borrowed money each year from a local merchant. He began 1892 with a debt of $226 held over from the previous year. By 1893, although he produced cotton worth $171, Brown’s debt had increased to $402, because he had borrowed $33 for food, $29 for clothing, $173 for supplies, and $112 for other items. Brown never succeeded in getting out of debt. He died in 1905; the last entry under his name in the merchant’s account book is a coffin.



The Urban South Even as the rural South stagnated economically, southern cities experienced remarkable growth after the Civil War. As railroads penetrated the interior, they enabled merchants in market centers like Atlanta to trade directly with the North, bypassing coastal cities that had traditionally monopolized southern commerce. A new urban middle class of merchants, railroad promoters, and bankers reaped the benefits of the spread of cotton production in the postwar South.

Thus, Reconstruction brought about profound changes in the lives of southerners, black and white, rich and poor. In place of the prewar world of master, slave, and self-sufficient yeoman, the postwar South was peopled by new social classes—landowning employers, black and white sharecroppers, cotton-producing white farmers, wage-earning black laborers, and urban entrepreneurs. Each of these groups turned to Reconstruction politics in an attempt to shape to its own advantage the aftermath of emancipation.



Aftermath of Slavery The United States, of course, was not the only society to confront the transition from slavery to freedom. Indeed, many parallels exist between the debates during Reconstruction and struggles that followed slavery in other parts of the Western Hemisphere over the same issues of land, control of labor, and political power. In every case, former planters (or, in Haiti, where the planter class had been destroyed, the government itself) tried to encourage or require former slaves to go back to work on plantations to grow the same crops as under slavery. Planters elsewhere held the same stereotypical views of black laborers as were voiced by their counterparts in the United States— former slaves were supposedly lazy, were lacking in ambition, and thought that freedom meant an absence of labor.

Chinese laborers at work on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction.

For their part, former slaves throughout the hemisphere tried to carve out as much independence as possible, both in their daily lives and in their labor. They attempted to reconstruct family life by withdrawing women and children from field labor (in the West Indies, women turned to marketing their families’ crops to earn income). Wherever possible, former slaves acquired land of their own and devoted more time to growing food for their families than to growing crops for the international market. In many places, the plantations either fell to pieces, as in Haiti, or continued operating with a new labor force composed of indentured servants from India and China, as in Jamaica, Trinidad, and



British Guiana. Southern planters in the United States brought in a few Chinese laborers in an attempt to replace freedmen, but since the federal government opposed such efforts, the Chinese remained only a tiny proportion of the southern workforce.





In the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered land that had been distributed to freed slaves in South Carolina and Georgia returned to its former owners. A committee of freedmen drafted a petition asking for the right to obtain land. Johnson did not, however, change his policy.

We the freedmen of Edisto Island, South Carolina, have learned from you through Major General O. O. Howard . . . with deep sorrow and painful hearts of the possibility of [the] government restoring these lands to the former owners. We are well aware of the many perplexing and trying questions that burden your mind, and therefore pray to god (the preserver of all, and who has through our late and beloved President [Lincoln’s] proclamation and the war made us a free people) that he may guide you in making your decisions and give you that wisdom that cometh from above to settle these great and important questions for the best interests of the country and the colored race.

Here is where secession was born and nurtured. Here is where we have toiled nearly all our lives as slaves and treated like dumb driven cattle. This is our home, we have made these lands what they were, we are the only true and loyal people that were found in possession of these lands. We have been always ready to strike for liberty and humanity, yea to fight if need be to preserve this glorious Union. Shall not we who are freedmen and have always been true to this Union have the same rights as are enjoyed by others? . . . Are not our rights as a free people and good citizens of these United States to be considered before those who were found in rebellion against this good and just government? . . .

[Are] we who have been abused and oppressed for many long years not to be allowed the privilege of purchasing land but be subject to the will of these large land owners? God forbid. Land monopoly is injurious to the advancement of the course of freedom, and if government does not make some provision by which we as freedmen can obtain a homestead, we have not bettered our condition. . . .

We look to you . . . for protection and equal rights with the privilege of purchasing a homestead—a homestead right here in the heart of South Carolina.


Few former slaves were able to acquire land in the post–Civil War South. Most ended up as sharecroppers, working on white-owned land for a share of the crop at the end of the growing season. This contract, typical of thousands of others, originated in Tennessee. The laborers signed with an X, as they were illiter