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Review of Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy by Jeremi Suri (PublicAffairs, 2022)
By Matthew E. Stanley
A new book argues that the American right emerged out of a backlash to multiracial democracy following the Civil War. This is only partly true: reactionaries did not just fear democracy, they feared the economic redistribution former slaves associated with it.
In August, a poll conducted by YouGov revealed that 40 percent of Americans believe it likely that a civil war will take place within the next decade. That same poll showed that an even larger number, 62 percent, think that levels of political violence will increase within the next few years. Undeniably, there seems to be a sense among Americans that our democratic system is not robust enough to deal with the conflicts it generates. Moments of episodic crises, such as the January 6 insurrection, would then seem to be symptomatic of the broader structural problems with American democracy. But what is their cause?
In Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, historian Jeremi Suri argues that the failure of Reconstruction, the ambitious post–Civil War project to create a new social order in the US South, explains not only the existence of a conspiratorial right but the January 6 insurrection too. Suri maintains that the world’s first experiment in genuine multiracial democracy inspired a long, violent resistance, not only against the progressive state governments of the 1860s and 1870s but against the very idea of a multiracial body politic. The effects of that backlash have reverberated for a century and a half, Suri argues, culminating with the ransacking of the US Capitol.
Suri’s study is thoughtful and deftly written. Its premise — that the January 6 attack, like Donald Trump himself, was far less a sudden, singular rupture than the predictable culmination of long-standing political currents — is indisputable. But by limiting its understanding of democracy to struggles for the franchise, Civil War by Other Means obscures what was at stake for former slaves and working-class whites during the Reconstruction era. Both groups were not simply concerned with the right to vote but in securing economic freedom for themselves after the dispossession of the planter class.
Ignoring these facts leads Suri to wrongly identify culture and constitutional encumbrances, rather than concentrated wealth under capitalism, as the primary obstacles to political self-determination.
A Splendid Failure
Suri begins by excavating the roots of white Southern anti-government resistance after slavery. In one chapter, he explores the power of martyrdom, including how the memory of John Wilkes Booth bolstered defenses of local white power, as anti-black collective violence surged throughout the former Confederacy. In another, he recounts how roughly fifty thousand white Southerners, mostly Confederate officers and Southern gentry, went into self-exile after Appomattox in the hopes of recreating their slave empire in Latin America.
These exiles, whom Ulysses S. Grant considered “a part of the Rebellion itself,” developed identities of resistance to multiracial democracy on both sides of the Rio Grande: against liberal reformers in Mexico and Radical Republicans in the United States. Suri views all of them — Lincoln’s assassins, Klansmen, and Confederate expatriates — as ideological ancestors of the January 6 insurrectionists.
Meanwhile, ex-slaves worked to realize their own understandings of democracy in the postwar South. The governments they created along with their allies, white Southern Unionists and black and white Northern “carpetbaggers,” were some of the most progressive in US history. In addition to universal male suffrage, the most reform-minded of those governments championed public education and infrastructure, women’s property rights, child labor laws, and new systems of credit that allowed poor people to buy land.
The result was, according to Suri, a “Second American Revolution” that made good on the promises of the Declaration of Independence. In some cases, Southern Republicanism was even more radical than Suri acknowledges. In New Orleans, for instance, the Republic Club sent a message of solidarity to the Paris Commune and applied for membership in the First International.
The book’s primary focus, however, is not grassroots radicalism but high politics. And it is here, in examining the nuances and limitations of the Republican Party, that Suri’s analysis is strongest. Considering how the party legislated and implemented policy to protect (or not) multiracial democracy in the South, he views Northern Republicans as necessary but cautious allies who were pushed from below.
Suri’s narrative is insightful but familiar: Andrew Johnson’s intransigence expanded and emboldened the Radicals in Congress; the Civil Rights Act of 1867, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Reconstruction Acts opened democratic possibility in the South. Believing the Fifteenth Amendment to be “the most important event” in the nation’s history, President Grant proved an ardent defender of civil rights laws, and his use of military occupation largely worked against rising white violence. However, time, expense, political fatigue, and economic panic fed growing indifference in the North. With no popular base to support them, the gains of Reconstruction teetered on collapse.
The Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield presidencies had their opportunities to protect multiracial democracy, Suri argues, but were plagued by tepid leadership, constitutional crisis, corruption, and assassination. By the summer of 1877, Northern Republicans had acquiesced to “local self-government” (white rule) in the South while deploying federal forces against striking industrial workers in the North, facilitating their turn from “a party of money rather than a party of morals,” as Frederick Douglass put it. Associating “big government” with black rights, white reactionaries fomented a violent overthrow of what W. E. B. Du Bois termed the “abolition democracy,” ushering in home rule and eight decades of Jim Crow. The death of Reconstruction was the dawn of a new tradition of racialized anti-government activism.
Suri’s version of Reconstruction celebrates the inclusive, democratic possibilities of US politics while offering a broader critique of the US election system. Its riveting narrative offers a powerful warning against Whiggish conceptions of the past. Suri convincingly argues, for instance, that the presidential election of 1872 was the fairest and freest election in the nation’s history until the 1960s. This is a story of revolutionary conditions and remarkable multiracial advances leading to backlash, violence, and the deterioration of political and social rights. Rather than a march of progress, this analysis of American democracy is that of an ongoing project — one that is long, arduous, uneven, and woefully incomplete.
A Flawed Democracy
Suri maintains that the problems of Reconstruction and of Republican efforts to protect multiracial democracy are the problems of our time, too. Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, mass democracy in the United States has always been contested, its expansion predicated on hard-fought struggles for rights. There was never a golden age of American democracy. Indeed, the scope of disenfranchisement is even wider than Suri lets on. Enormous blocs of should-be voters have been — and in many cases continue to be — restricted by gender, race, servitude, the absence of property, age, ethnicity, literacy, criminal record, ability, or national origin. In many ways, the American ballot box has merely registered political outcomes that were largely determined before voting even began.
We still carry the US election system that Suri characterizes as arbitrary and contentious, and it has contributed to the nation’s current status as a “flawed democracy,” according to the Democracy Index. As Suri notes, the Constitution’s minoritarian elements — including the document’s strong protection of property rights, emphasis on capital mobility, and relative difficulty to amend — were designed by slaveholders and an ownership class that was deeply suspicious of, if not actively hostile to, popular democracy. Even for white male property owners, the system was mediated through a convoluted network of electors and representatives. Other features of US politics that structurally assist the forces of white democracy, according to Suri, include rampant gerrymandering, various forms of voter suppression, the nondemocratic nature of the US Senate and the Supreme Court, and the disenfranchisement of US citizens in the non-state territories of Washington, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands (whose residents are principally, and not coincidentally, non-white people).
It was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status.
Suri reserves his greatest ire, however, for the Electoral College, which he identifies as an archaic, elitist, antidemocratic, and deeply unpopular relic of the eighteenth century. To be sure, Reconstruction-era Republicans benefited from that outmoded system, as Hayes won the Electoral College but not the popular vote in 1876. At the same time, white Southern fears of government unleashed during Reconstruction have helped sustain this undemocratic system ever since. Further, the Electoral College would for decades afford disproportionate power to the segregationist South, since black people counted as full persons for purposes of electoral representation after the Fifteenth Amendment but were disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws.
These weaknesses in our constitutional system and the absence of a direct popular vote continue to enable right-wing authoritarianism, Suri contends. Today’s Republicans are generally hostile to voting rights because they view them, understandably, as more likely to check than augment their power. Some party leaders, including senator Mike Lee of Utah, have gone so far as to openly celebrate the Constitution’s lack of democracy. In his book’s final chapter, Suri makes several recommendations about how to stave off this antidemocratic momentum and ostensibly “save our democracy.” He proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, the abolition of the Electoral College, the legal prohibition of partisan gerrymandering, and a new and more democratic presidential line of succession.
This focus on formal politics, intriguing though it is, nevertheless offers an incomplete portrait of the Reconstruction era. And Suri’s emphasis on technocratic fixes also skirts vital questions about securing, maintaining, and leveraging power. (How will these laws come to pass without a mass movement?) In other words, Civil War by Other Means falls short not in its diagnosis of problems but in its identification of causes and solutions. In Suri’s telling, Radical Reconstruction was hindered by anti-black violence, shifting public opinion, and the constraints of the political system. It was not hindered by class conditions. Similar to the mono-causal “whitelash” theory that gained traction after the 2016 election, Suri views racial resentment, rather than white supremacy bound to political economy, as the principal explanatory factor for Reconstruction’s failure — and for the precarious state of US democracy.
In truth, it was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status. Anti-black collective violence was not identical to class violence, but the two were inseparable. Suri too often overlooks this fact. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan was not just a violent hate group; it was also effectively, as Chad Pearson argues in the book Capital’s Terrorists, a business owners’ organization. The white counterrevolution was not merely a racial project; it was also, as Du Bois argued, a conflict among classes, with former slaveholders using race hatred to “achieve economic security and restore fatal losses of capital and investment.”
Suri’s misapplication of class begins in the book’s introduction, which profiles insurrectionist Kevin Seefried as emblematic of those who stormed the US Capitol. A white worker and Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Sussex County, Delaware, Seefried supports Suri’s long Civil War thesis. After all, Seefried is an avowed anti-government white nationalist who forced a Confederate flag into the congressional chambers. But while Suri explains that the grievances of insurrectionists like Seefried may have stemmed in part from being “left behind” by the nation’s move toward a “multiracial meritocracy,” he marshals no evidence that Seefried was representative of the pro-Trump mob.
In reality, Seefried was a typical rioter only in that he is a white male who holds far-right political views (the January 6 insurrectionists were roughly 86 percent men and 93 percent non-Hispanic white). Few (about 14 percent) were members of militias or other hate or extremist groups. Far more (around 20 percent) were former military, offering further evidence that “the bombs explode at home.” Nor did the insurrectionists simply hail from rural America. They also came from the nation’s largest metro areas: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston. Rather than urbanity or rurality, the common-origin denominator among the rioters involved demographic trends. Most came from counties that are trending rapidly toward racial pluralism and majority-minority status, and where the share of the white population is declining at rates well above the national average. This, no doubt, speaks to the valence within their ranks of a “Great Replacement” theory, one promulgated by conservative media personalities.
Most critically, the January 6 insurrectionists were not downtrodden workers, unemployed and uneducated, as Suri’s portrait of Seefried suggests. The vast majority were, like Trump’s base, professional-class, with disproportionate numbers of deeply conservative provincial elites from midsize cities, small towns, and retirement enclaves. Some were the bourgeoise that Patrick Wyman terms the “American gentry” — business and property owners who sit atop local hierarchies, and who “see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.” Fearful of wavering influence in their own (typically racially and socioeconomically segregated) communities, they equated Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with protection of both their financial assets and racial identities.
In fact, the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats obtained employment data for 501 of the 716 people arrested or charged for their role in January 6. The vast majority were either business owners, self-employed, or white-collar professionals, including doctors, lawyers, bankers, architects, and accountants. Only 22 percent of the sample held what the compilers described as “blue collar” jobs, as either wage-earning or salaried workers. Only 7 percent were unemployed. Even relative to other right-wing extremist groups as compiled by the FBI, the January 6 insurrectionists were strikingly well-off. After all, partaking in a prearranged government takeover in one of the nation’s most expensive cities requires time off work, as well as travel, airfare, and hotel expense. Many of the rioters dined in gourmet restaurants the night of January 5. Others stayed at the posh Willard Hotel, where rooms will cost you over $300 per night. Some even flew to the “Stop the Steal” rally on private jets.
Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including ‘better classes,’ ‘most respectable,’ and ‘best men’ were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves.
The depiction of Kevin Seefried as a typical insurrectionist reinforces Suri’s idea of the roots of racial repression as primarily cultural, based on “habit and tradition,” rather than material, in the service of profit and class hegemony. However, belief in the Big lie, and the willingness to act violently on its behalf, is dangerous not because it holds sway among relatively powerless citizens like Seefried. It is dangerous because it is mainstream among relatively affluent members of a particular social class, the vast majority of whom, yes, are white, and who wield white nationalism in the service of class politics, as well as class power in the service of white nationalism. This is not to downplay the obvious role that white identity played in both Trump’s election and January 6, only to highlight that it is not fringe bands of neo-Confederates but acute inequality, engendered by the basic machinations of capitalism, that poses the greatest threat to American democracy.
Democracy on the Land
For a book about the long struggle for democracy, Suri’s study contains surprisingly little about contests over the meaning of democracy. His emphasis is on electoral democracy, or the processes by which enfranchised people vote for political representatives in periodically held elections. Yet more than any period of US history, Reconstruction demonstrates how this definition of democracy is necessary but insufficient. Although Suri characterizes Reconstruction as “a struggle over conflicting conceptions of democracy,” his core question is “democracy for whom?” and not “democracy of what kind?” Put another way, Suri’s notion of democracy pivots entirely on race — white man’s democracy vs. multiracial democracy — while obscuring intraracial distinctions and calls for economic democracy.
Former slaves did indeed see voting rights and ballot inclusion as fundamental rights. However, Suri’s claim that blacks recognized “representation in politics” as “the basic foundation of democracy” requires further context, and the book’s fixation on voting rights gives the impression that land ownership was of secondary importance to former slaves. It was not.
Although Suri’s flattening of critical class differences prevents him from exploring such issues, countless ex-slaves prioritized rights in land as equal to or above voting. This was especially true of newly emancipated people in rural areas, most of them landless and illiterate, whose demands tended to be more material than their free counterparts in the urban South. One freedman prefigured Martin Luther King Jr’s pithy critique of civil rights devoid of economic justice: “What’s the use of being free if you don’t own enough land to be buried in?”
The story of “Forty acres and a mule” as a dream deferred, though largely absent from Suri’s account, is essential to any materialist interpretation of Reconstruction — or of US history for that matter. Eager to kickstart the South’s cash crop economy, Southern planters and Northern capitalists each had a vested interest in opposing both communitarianism (democratically owned property) and independent proprietorship (small-scale privately owned property) for former slaves. Some of the latter feared that land redistribution in the South would lead industrial workers in the North to challenge other forms of property. Countless Northern industrialists, philanthropists, and politicians supported black political rights out of either sincere egalitarian impulses or an opportunity to grow their political party in the South. But many also feared alliances between former slaves and poor and middling white agrarians in the North and West. Even free blacks, white reformers, and Freedmen’s Bureau agents, most of them well-meaning, sincerely believed that the dependency of wage labor was the surest way to self-sufficiency for former slaves.
While Reconstruction represented an exceptional — and in many ways revolutionary — reallocation of power toward working people, property confiscation constituted what historian Michael Fitzgerald calls a “wartime vogue,” far less a result of ideology than of military necessity. By 1866, the idea of land redistribution for ex-slaves was a nonstarter. Allies of the former slaves, including the Freedmen’s Aid Association, the American Missionary Association, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, called for education, thrift, and land purchase through savings as substitutes for land reform. As time wore on, Southern state governments and most congressional Republicans exhibited what historian Claude Oubre terms only a “meager effort” to provide economic security for blacks. The democratic visions of these institutions were limited somewhat by the economic concepts of the time and the political constraints of the moment. But they were also limited by their class positions.
Of course, there were also black intraracial class tensions, particularly in urban centers. While the postwar South held a broad range of black voters, leaders, and convention delegates, contested definitions of democracy, including which of its elements should be emphasized, tended to break along class lines. Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including “better classes,” “most respectable,” and “best men” were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves — and also served as indicators of democratic prerogatives. In his study of Reconstruction-era Mobile, Alabama, historian Michael Fitzgerald argues that “class divisions within the black community were so urgent that factional conflict could not be contained.”
As early as the state black conventions of 1865, Eric Foner observes a striking divide between more prominent leaders who pushed “political equality and self-help formulas,” and rural freedmen who possessed above all a “thirst for land.” Demanding “land or blood,” ex-slaves in the countryside decisively favored assembly delegates who called for plantations to be broken up. Yet convention leaders rarely highlighted such views. “By and large,” Foner contends, “economic concerns figured only marginally in the proceedings, and the addresses and resolutions offered no economic program, apart from stressing the ‘mutual interest’ of capital and labor, and urging self-improvement as the route to personal advancement.” Describing this gulf between ex-slaves and free blacks (the self-described men of “intelligence and wealth”), historian Ted Tunnell argues that the type of civic rights prioritized by free blacks, notably equal access to public spaces such as theaters, saloons, and steamboats, were “remote from the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of ex-slaves who lived hard lives on toil and ceaseless anxiety.”
In his 1935 Marxist masterwork, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois characterizes Radical Reconstruction as a “dictatorship of labor” and acknowledges that the failure of land reform had far more to do with white than black opposition. Yet he also maintains that black leadership during Reconstruction skewed petite bourgeois, its members steeped in an individualistic, capitalist ideology (which was by no means unique to the black middle class).
In other words, former slaves who desperately needed land were too often represented by conservative white Unionists and free blacks whose class statuses and interests disinclined them from supporting large-scale material redistribution, which raises the question: Were Reconstruction governments truly a “dictatorship of labor,” or were they liberal and multiracial bourgeois alliances sustained by the votes of black and a minority of poor whites?
The book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict.
In either case, former slaves constituted a distinct and especially radical social class. They envisioned self-ownership as a right, viewing it not as apart from, but essential to and often ahead of, voting. Most understood that political democracy would be limited — and even be turned back altogether — without control over the land that their labor had made productive. And they perceived this issue as both a matter of justice and, in many cases, precedent. As Du Bois points out, “The German and English and French serf, the Italian and Russian serf, were, on emancipation, given definite rights in the land. Only the American negro slave was emancipated without such rights and in the end this spelled for him the continuation of slavery.” Writing on Louisiana’s 1867 Radical convention, Tunnell explained that although civil rights were a monumental achievement, they did not directly address “fundamental economic problems.” “More than anything else,” he insists, “ex-slaves needed land.”
Democracy, in other words, was a contested concept in the Reconstruction South, not only between black and white but within the Radical movement. While Radicals shared common commitments to civil rights and state building, they were not a class coalition. And when the interests of Northern capital, the Northern voting public, and former slaves no longer intersected, as was the case by 1874, the coalition broke down. Despite populist economic programs and the workerist orientation of some party leaders, the absence of a working-class movement rendered social democracy unachievable, and the lack of social democracy in the South — the failure of land reform specifically — made the counterrevolution of property almost inevitable.
Beyond Political Democracy
As a history of Reconstruction, Civil War by Other Means is a brisk, engaging, and often penetrating read. Suri imposes a degree of continuity sure to give some historians pause — drawing a rather straight line between the Union Leagues and Black Lives Matter, between the Klan and QAnon, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman and Donald Trump, white hoods and red hats. Yet the book’s premise, that “the Civil War never fully ended” and that its pronounced divisions related to race and anti-statism have been festering in US politics since Reconstruction, is unquestionable. Although his frequent use of Trump-era media language — “disinformation,” “white privilege,” “treason,” and “insurrection” — seems like an appeal to the incrementalist MSNBC crowd, Suri makes bold constitutional proposals and shows an uncommon commitment to representative government, multiracial political democracy, and majority rule, which he views as the solutions to the stubborn problem of white nationalism. In that regard, Civil War by Other Means is superior to other post-2016 studies of race in America that paint whiteness more as a timeless feature to be condemned morally and “worked through” by self-help-oriented individuals than a manifestation of social conditions to be overcome through mass politics.
But the book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict. Suri hopes Americans will safeguard their democracy by digging up the roots to “remove the rot,” but his vision, which would no doubt remake US politics for the better, never transcends technocratic proceduralism. Skipping over the vital question of movement building, Suri is most concerned with what to do with power once achieved rather than how to achieve it. Accordingly, he views white nationalism as a cultural and political problem to be curbed through constitutional change rather than a question rooted in material relations to be solved through social transformation. In other words, Suri’s “democracy” is neither social democracy nor economic democracy. It is certainly not democratic socialism, with its emphasis on democratic participation beyond the political arena and a more equal distribution of resources through worker control.
Ultimately, Suri fails to answer a basic question: Is it even possible to possess and express equal political rights — to, in effect, “do” political democracy — in a profoundly materially unequal society devoid of economic rights? That question, too, is a legacy of Reconstruction, and part of our long and unfinished fight.
Matthew E. Stanley teaches in the department of history and political science at Albany State University.