Political Reconstruction in the State of Florida after the Civil War
Florida like other Southern States was affected and devastated by the civil war. This war resulted in death of war veterans, injury of people and destruction of property. Having lost the war, the federal government in 1868 declared the congressional program of “reconstruction” in all Southern States, including Florida, in the aftermath of the civil war. In this period of reconstruction in Florida, the Republicans, who were in charge of office then introduced different changes in legislation in an attempt to ensure better living and working conditions for the African-Americans. However, this objective of reconstruction did not realize the anticipated goals, instead, the end of reconstruction resulted in the denial of civil rights to all African-Americans in the Southern States, including Florida. This era of reconstruction is significant, as it has shaped the history of the United States. Different people today have different views about the events in this era. Similarly, different authors have written their varying opinions and facts concerning the reconstruction period, bringing out their personal convictions about the period. Nonetheless, this essay focuses on the different views by various authors on the political reconstruction in the United States, and specifically, the State of Florida.
Ayers in his book, A History of the American South 1877-1906, notes that, between the end of reconstruction in 1877 and the 1906 Atlanta race riot, the American South was marked with significant changes in its social, economic, and political spheres. Economically, the South witnessed intensive industrialization and urbanization, and the domination of the railroad, while socially, pop culture emerged, including music and modern literature, and the emergence of new religious groups. However, Ayers notes that politically, the South was characterized by the elements of segregation, disfranchisement, the populist revolt, and the start of progressivism. Power was based on either persuasion or coercion (3).
Florida experienced a myriad of political changes. Ayers traces the beginning of the new era in the South to the 1870s, when the conservative democrats took power in Southern states, including Florida. Florida played an equal role as other Southern states in redrawing political boundaries between the South and whole nation. However, in early 1890s, there was witnessed the greatest revolt of populism, which played a significant role in political reconstruction of Florida. Farmers in Florida were affected negatively and were plunged in an economic depression. Although Florida experienced slight industrial growth, its farmers lived with many uncertainties.
Ayer notes that after the Republicans’ succession in the South, they aimed at forming a political alliance that would include former slaves and a few white people that were influential (5). However, their opinions and preferences on issues such as land redistribution, elections, civil rights, and educational policies varied. They later established an alliance comprising former slaves, former Northerners, and former unionists, with an objective of ensuring the economic prosperity and equal rights for the Southerners. However, this diversity became a major challenge to this alliance as most members and the voters defected with instances of unjust treatment. Eventually, the North dissociated itself from the South and this slimmed down the probability of successful reconstruction in both the North and South, without external intervention (5). Later, the conservative Democrats “redeemed” many Southern States, including Florida, therefore displacing the Republicans out of power. However, in 1877, the elections in Florida saw Democrats pronounced winners, and this brought a new meaning to the reconstruction in the South.
In Florida and other Southern States, the influential, educated, and wealthy, white people rose to demand for power, which they thought they were the rightful owners. They promised to end political bloodshed, racism, improve economy, and sustain honor in governance. The Democratic redeemers were against biracial alliances, unlike the Republicans. These therefore were most likely not to consider the blacks for political positions nor fight racism in Florida (Ayers 6). Rivalry between Democrats and Republicans continued, with Democrats laughing off the policies employed by the Republicans in state renewal. Ayers greatly feels that the Democrats were not capable of using the state government as an initiator of positive change. The Republicans highly invested in the railroad in Florida, and in business, and developed schools, asylums, and prisons. However, the Democrats considered the Republicans’ effort as nothing but corrupted and thought they would perform better, with their policies based on tax reductions and less restrictions. By 1890, there were tremendous changes starting from the railroads development in Florida, among others. This resulted in an increased rate of employment for thousands of people. Nonetheless, the railroad building was a source of income for many people who lived near (Ayers 7-8).
Canter in his book, Ossian Bingley Hart: Florida’s Loyalist Reconstruction Governor takes a different perspective in addressing the political reconstruction in Florida after the civil war. Unlike Ayers who gives a comprehensive history of the events in the South after the civil war, Canter, in his book gives a comprehensive study of the Loyalists in Florida, who were popularly known as Scalawags. In this book, Canter gives the biography of “Ossian Bingley Hart,” one of the unionists in Florida during the reconstruction period in Florida after the civil war. The influence of Hart in Florida during the reconstruction period is exclusively elaborated by Canter in this book.
First, Canter traces the history of Ossian’s family. He describes their migration from New Jersey to Virginia, then to Georgia before finally settling in East Florida in 1801. Ossian’s father, “Isaiah David Hart (1792-1861) is depicted as a having risen to become a wealthy owner of slaves, an entrepreneur, a Unionist, and a Whig politician, in addition to being the founder of Jacksonville in Florida (18-20). When East Florida became part of the United States in July 1821, Ossian gained US residency, from his Spaniard nationality. Canter presents Ossian as a man who remained loyal to the US, all his life. In addition to loyalty, Ossian was honest, tolerant, and showed a high level of commitment to the US law, in pursuit of a just society. According to Canter, Ossian drew this influence from his family, the crackers, the slaves he interacted with, and above all, his belief in Protestantism ideologies. He loved Florida, and lived in various places of the Southern states, where he formed different political alliances (23).
Canter does not dwell on the life of Ossian only, but also explains the evolution of Florida that lasted approximately fifty years from a Spanish Florida to reconstruction (25). During the civil war, Ossian remained a Unionist. However, during the reconstruction period in Florida, he founded the Florida Republican Party, in addition to a voter registrar, Supreme Court of Justice, and governor (35). Canter depicts the political reconstruction as having been highly influenced and effected by the Republican alliance of Scalawags (Southern Unionists), whom he portrays as weak; and the Northern Unionists (Carpetbaggers), together with the Negroes, and their internecine fighting (44). Canter also exposes the levels of corruption of both the Republicans and the conservative Democrats, and how they used their Machiavellian legislative systems to propagate this in Florida and other Southern states. However, the period between January 1873 – March 1874, Florida experienced a sweep of change in the state government. This was because of Ossian’s tenure as the governor (60). With him came integrity in governance, in addition to achievements in education, financial issues, and civil rights. Therefore, Ossian played an essential role during the restricting period in Florida.
Cobb, in his book Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity reflects on what the identity of the South constitutes. The main aim of Cobb was “to come to terms with the South’s role as both a real and imagined cultural entity separate and distinct from the rest of the country” (8). However, Cobb is uncertain and does not explain if the South still exists as a separate region of the United States. However, he notes that this depends on the person asking, the time they are asking this, and the reasons as to why they are asking. From this book, it is also clear that religion played an important role during the reconstruction period in Florida. However, religion played a significant role in the justification of slavery in the South, as well as compelling the Civil Rights Movements in Florida, although Cobb does not explain this. In his explanation, Cobb identifies Florida with the confederate States, but does not include the other states such as Kentucky and Missouri, which remained in the Union and were influenced by the Southern culture. Nonetheless, Cobb brings out significant ambivalence in the Southern identity. For instance, he brings this out in the context of globalization, where the Sicilian regionalists adopt the Confederate flag, with Italy being a country with a North-South divide (Cobb 329). Cobb however, notes that, “qualities long attributed to the South as special possessions are, in truth, American qualities” (326).
In the book Globalization and the American South by Cobb and Stueck, globalization is regarded as the key element contributing to the political reconstruction of Florida and the whole South, due to the impact it had on this region. The authors note that globalization resulted in a new era of the South, thus influencing the Southern history (66). They also argue that globalization is still at work in Florida and the whole South today, and has resulted in the immigration of many people toward the South. This has considerably transformed the traditional biracial system of the South. However, Cobb and Stueck blame globalization on the Southern low-wage, non-union, and focus on “economic development at the expense of human development” (2). In Florida, the railroad played a significant role with regard to transport and globalization. Nonetheless, this, according to the authors, has enhanced the commodification of the Southern identity of Florida and the flourishing of “a divisive and ultimately dangerous kind of identity politics” (15).
In Franklin’s Reconstruction after the Civil War, there is a great historical contribution to the reconstruction. Franklin mainly bases on key elements of race, politics, and ideology in addressing the events of the reconstruction period in Florida and the whole South. In the period after the civil war, Lincoln pressed for the passing of bills to restore Union. According to Franklin, the president “worked hard to gain acceptance of his plan of restoration” and “wrote letters to military leaders and civil authorities, making suggestions but no demands” (33). After the defeat of the South, people anticipated for the invasion of the North and a resistance to the new law. However, Franklin thinks that it is during the war period and not the postwar period, that reconstruction realized its achievements in Florida (40).
Franklin has a rather negative perception of reconstruction, claiming that it was a disastrous period, as it led to the destruction of the South, including Florida, and did not result in any positive changes. Reconstruction, according to Franklin, resulted in perpetual immobility. The state of Florida changed due to inability to undergo political transformation. New policies resulted in different negative consequences such as expulsion of blacks from politics, among others. Race played an important role in perpetuating negative events in Florida. For instance, Franklin argues that “the violence directed against blacks on almost every hand indicated how determined the former Confederates were to maintain this white supremacy” (67). Additionally, Franklin notes that racial segregation was still evident even in the Radical Reconstruction, which involved new leaders and new laws, as white Southerners only characterized this. Franklin asserted that, “far from entering into any conspiracy to degrade and destroy the Southern way of life,” African Americans, carpetbaggers and native whites, despite their differences, “frequently worked at cross purposes” (89).
Nonetheless, Franklin notes that at the end of reconstruction, “the South was back in the Union, with a leadership strikingly like that if the South which had seceded in 1860” (112). Therefore, “The period had brought changes, to be sure, but most of them had taken place in the north” (113). Franklin means that, Reconstruction resulted in both negative and positive effects in Florida, as well as other Southern states. Nonetheless, the changes experienced were not significant. Therefore, Florida, like other Southerners, experienced exceptionalism, racism, and a failed system. However, this era was an important period in the African American’s fight for equality.
In Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1869-1877, reconstruction is viewed as an important historical event that is mostly disregarded today. According to Foner, it is during this period that attempts were made to address the evils of the civil war, and slavery. Foner gives an account of the reconstruction, beginning 1863 to 1877, in the redemption period that saw Democrats and Republicans strike a deal, including details of women movements, fighting for their rights. Foner commends the role played by blacks in the reconstruction period in Florida and other Southern states (32).
Unlike Franklin, Foner thinks reconstruction in Florida resulted in beneficial changes in public health, education, and welfare. The only failure according to Foner is how the Redeemers detested the black rule and fought to regain power (50). Therefore, racism played a negative role in the political reconstruction of Florida. Additionally, Foner uses different scenarios in his book to show that the former slaves in Florida and the larger South were committed to reconstruction, hoping it was the only way they would regain their long-denied freedom. However, Foner condemns some of the “incompetent” black Southerners and corrupt Northerners who ganged up to deny virtuous and influential white Southerners leadership positions. Nonetheless, Foner views this period as one characterized by injustices and evils. However, he commends the positive role played by former slaves in the reconstruction period, and denies the notion that whites were instrumental agents in reconstruction (77).
Foner notes that the division between the Blackbelt farmers and the upcountry farmers was retrogressive to political reconstruction in Florida, so was the reluctance of the Southern elites to give up total control over their former slaves. However, he argues that the peak of violence in reconstruction period was witnessed in the way the white Southerners unleashed violence on the former slaves, through the Ku Klux Klan (79). It was severe and the congress had to intervene. However, this persisted and resulted in more black codes and killings of the blacks. Foner describes reconstruction as a failure as it did not achieve the objective of freedom in society. The freedmen in Florida were not able to exercise their rights and freedom, even despite the numerous amendments in law and the legislation provided (86).
A Short History of Reconstruction by Foner is yet another expression of Foner’s belief that reconstruction was a failure, even worse for blacks. Foner notes that initially, reconstruction was purposed for nation building, to eradicate capitalism, stabilize the South, and transform the rebels. However, Florida as well as other states experienced problems emanating from restructuring. More blacks than whites were victims of racism and violence during this period (29).
Foner however, observes that the only significant change of this period was the freeing of the slaves. Unfortunately, these were taken into a different kind of slavery when they became sharecroppers in plantations in Florida. This resulted in social classes. Both the whites and blacks fought to manipulate the local government to take care of their race needs. The link between race and class in Florida was an impediment to social and political change. Foner also notes that at the end of reconstruction, many blacks lost their freedom and suffrage (128).
In William’s The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, he addresses the social, political, and cultural effects of reconstruction on the state of Florida. First, there was a prevailing notion from Lincoln, that United States was not divisible, and so this made secession illegal. The Southern governments according to Lincoln were illegal, and not part of the Union (35). Reconstruction, in Lincoln’s view, was meant for reunification of these states, without punishing the Southern states. However, the assassination of Lincoln made it possible for the Radical Republicans to influence the process of reconstruction (42). Florida experienced clashes over the core issues of civil rights for former slaves. However, on the positive, restructuring saw different amendments put in place, mainly for abolishment of trade, voting rights for slaves and blacks, and equal laws for all blacks and whites. At the end of reconstruction, compromise of 1877 was reached, which ushered in the “Jim Crow Era,” that marked the start of a long period, where blacks in the South were not granted their rights as American citizens (50).
Conclusively, the authors share their opinions on reconstruction era. These differ basing on their perspectives and perceptions of the reconstruction. Narrowing these views down to the state of Florida, most agree that reconstruction was a failure, as it did not lead to the freedom of people; instead, it resulted in more evils and injustices. This is quite true; however, political reconstruction in Florida and other Southern states too had its positive side. This period, I consider it vital in the American history, and specifically in the state of Florida. This was a learning process for both whites and blacks in Florida. Reconstruction boosted industrialization in Florida and other states. This was an era of realization, which led to Western expansionism, and helped the South; including Florida discover their natural resources. All the problems witnessed during this period can only be thought of as learning experience and not failure for the state. Reconstruction resulted in lasting effects such as the amendments of the constitution, which are highly valued today as they were then. Therefore, although political reconstruction in Florida did not achieve its objectives, it still counts today as an important historical period, which has shaped the state of Florida to its current state.
Ayers, Edward. “Southern Crossing: A History of the American South 1877-1906.” New York:
Oxford University Press, 1995.
Canter, Brown. “Ossian Bingley Hart: Florida’s Loyalist Reconstruction Governor.” Baton
Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Cobb, James. “Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity.” New York: Oxford
University Press, 2005.
Cobb, James and Stueck, William. “Globalization and the American South.” ed. Athens. GA:
University of Georgia Press, 2005.
William, Davis. “The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida.” New York: Columbia
University Press, 1913.
Foner, Eric. “A Short History of Reconstruction.” New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990.
Foner, Eric. “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1869-1877.” New York: Harper
Franklin, John. “Reconstruction after the Civil War.” Second Edition. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press. 1994.
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