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Emancipation in Comparative Perspective Previous Next
Digital History ID 3099


The American South was the only region in the world, except for Haiti, in which slavery was overthrown by force of arms. It was the only area in which formerly prosperous slaveowners were deprived of the right to hold public office. It was also the only place in which slave owners received no compensation for the loss of their slave property. Altogether, slaveowners lost $2.5 billion in slave property.

Most important of all, the American South was the only region in which former slaves received civil and political rights, including full citizenship rights as well as the right to vote and hold elective office. The South was also the only post-emancipation society in which former slaves formed successful political alliances with whites.

Yet for all of its uniqueness, reconstruction in the South ultimately followed many of the same patterns found elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. In the end, southern planters managed to hold onto their land, which formed the basis of their economic and political power. By 1877, the Democratic Party, the party of white supremacy, had regained political control over each of the former Confederate states.

Throughout the western hemisphere, the end of slavery was followed by a period of reconstruction in which race relations were redefined and new systems of labor emerged. In former slave societies throughout the Americas, ex-slaves sought to free themselves from the gang system of labor on plantations and establish small, self-sufficient farms. Meanwhile, planters and local governments tried to restore the plantation system. The outcome, in almost all former slave societies, was the emergence of a caste system of race relations and a system of involuntary labor such as peonage, debt bondage, apprenticeship, contract labor, tenant farming, and sharecropping.

In every post-emancipation society, the abolition of slavery resulted in acute labor shortages and declining productivity, spurring efforts to restore plantation discipline. Even in Haiti, where black revolution had overthrown slavery, repeated attempts were made to restore the plantation system. On Caribbean islands like Barbados, where land was totally controlled by whites, the plantation system was re-imposed. In other areas like Jamaica, where former slaves were able to squat on unsettled land and set up subsistence farms, staple production fell sharply.

To counteract a sharp decline in sugar production, the British government imported thousands of "coolie" laborers from Asia into the Caribbean. To force former slaves to work on plantations, Caribbean governments imposed heavy taxes and enforced strict vagrancy laws.

Similar efforts to re-impose forced labor under new names also occurred in the post-Civil War South, but with a crucial difference. Having defeated the Confederacy and emancipated the slaves, many northern Republicans were convinced that securing the peace and protecting the civil rights of former slaves required unprecedented extensions of federal power. A titanic struggle took place between President Johnson -- who permitted the establishment in 1865 of all-white governments that restricted the rights of ex-slaves -- and Republican Congress that was determined to protect the basic rights of former slaves.

The Republican commitment to free labor would prevent the planters from re-imposing slavery in a new guise. But if the freedmen were not reduced to servitude, neither would many become independent landowners. Instead, landlords and laborers would compromise their differences by adopting a system of sharecropping that would perpetuate southern poverty for decades.

Reconstruction also had a more positive legacy. It was during this period that African Americans in the South established churches and schools that would provide the institutional basis for later challenges to inequality. And the constitutional amendments ratified during Reconstruction would provide the legal basis for the attack on racial segregation during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

Like an earthquake that shakes the ground and then subsides, Reconstruction came and went. But it did fundamentally alter the nation's landscape.

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