The Public Education “Culture Wars” of the Reconstruction Era

The historiography of the Reconstruction era has and continues to be overwhelmingly focused on questions of race, citizenship, and equal protection under the law in the years after the American Civil War. For an era of remarkable constitutional change and the dramatic transition of four million formerly enslaved people into citizens (and, for some, into voters and elected leaders), this focus is understandable. Reconstruction-era scholars almost unanimously agree today that Reconstruction was a noble but “unfinished revolution” undone by an end to military rule in the South in 1877 and an apathetic white North no longer interested in protecting black rights, which in turn allowed unrepentant, racist white Southern Democrats to overtake their state governments and impose Jim Crow laws that ushered in a long era of white political supremacy throughout the region.

The “unfinished revolution” thesis is undoubtedly true, but there is more to the story of Reconstruction than the question of Black Civil Rights (although the importance of that story cannot be overstated). The country’s finances were in shambles and questions emerged about the best way to pay down the federal deficit and establish sound credit; women fought for the right to vote but were denied this right when the 15th amendment limited suffrage to men only; Indian tribes throughout the west faced the prospect of rapid white westward expansion and a federal government that simultaneously preached peace with the tribes but also did little to stop white encroachment of their lands; and immigrants from mostly Southern and Eastern Europe began to settle in the United States, causing a great deal of consternation among political leaders about how to best assimilate these people into American culture.

Regarding the latter issue, historian Ward McAfee’s 1998 publication Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s is a masterful treatment of the role of public education during the Reconstruction era. I just finished reading the book and I learned a ton from it.

McAfee’s thesis is essentially three-pronged. The first argument is that increasing numbers of immigrants to the U.S. during Reconstruction raised a great deal of concern within the Republican Party, especially those who had flirted with Know-Nothingism in the 1850s and held anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudices. Republicans feared that these immigrants held their allegiance to the Pope above their allegiance to the U.S. and that the Catholic church kept their parishioners illiterate, superstitious, and ignorant of the larger world. These immigrants would attempt to subvert the country’s republican institutions and make America a bulwark of the Vatican. The emergence of public education during Reconstruction, therefore, was not just an effort to educate the formerly enslaved but also an effort to promote (Protestant) morals, good citizenship, and obedience to republican institutions among immigrant children ostensibly being raised on Catholic principles.

The second argument relates to the division of taxpayer funds for public schools during Reconstruction. These emerging public schools during the era often incorporated Bible readings in class without much complaint. Republicans argued that Bible readings would teach good morals to students and that these teachings were appropriate as long as they took a “nonsectarian” approach that didn’t cater to any particular denomination. Most of these readings were done out of King James Bibles originally translated by the Church of England, however, and Catholics accused public school teachers of engaging in pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic teachings. To remedy this issue, Catholics established their own private, parochial schools and called upon the federal government to ensure that state tax funds for education be equally distributed between public “Protestant” schools and private Catholic schools. Republicans led the charge against splitting these funds and undertook an effort to ban public funding for “sectarian” schools. Towards the end of Reconstruction the Republicans made this issue a centerpiece of their party platform, and in 1875 Congressman James Blaine led an unsuccessful effort to pass an amendment banning public funding for sectarian schools (although “nonsectarian” religious instruction and Bible readings could still hypothetically take place in the public school classroom). While this amendment failed, 38 of 50 states today still have their own state “Blaine amendments” banning the funding of sectarian schools.

The third and arguably most provocative argument from McAfee is his contention that Reconstruction failed largely because of an initiative by the radical wing of the Republican party to mandate racially integrated “mixed-race” schooling in 1874. Most Republicans were skeptical if not outright hostile to racially integrated public schools (in stark contrast to their desire to have children from Protestant, Catholic, and other religious backgrounds intermingled together in public schools). Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, however, was a dedicated proponent of racial integration in the schools and refused to compromise on the issue. When Congress began debating the merits of a new Civil Rights bill in 1874 that would mandate equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and jury service, Sumner insisted on including a clause on racially integrated public schools. When news of Sumner’s demands became public, Democrats and conservative Republicans in both the North and South responded with outrage. Conservative Republicans in particular stated that while equal treatment in public facilities was acceptable, mandating mixed schools was a bridge too far. Republicans lost control of Congress after the 1874 midterm elections, and, according to McAfee, the cause of this loss was the insistence of Radical Republicans to mandate racial integration in schools.

Prior to reading McAfee I was of the belief that the devastating Panic of 1873 was the primary reason why Republicans lost the 1874 midterms, but McAfee presents convincing evidence that the mixed-schools initiative also contributed to those losses in a significant way. With Democratic control of Congress now assured, Reconstruction’s future was doomed. A Civil Rights Act was passed in 1875–largely in tribute to Sumner after he died in 1874–that mandated equal treatment in public facilities and jury service, but the clause mandating racial integration of public schools was removed. In any case, the Supreme Court in 1883 determined in Civil Rights Cases that parts of the Civil Rights of Act of 1875 were unconstitutional because, according to the court, the 14th amendment requiring equal protection of the laws only applied to the actions of the state and not the actions of private individuals and organizations.

Religion, Race, and Reconstruction is a fine piece of intellectual history that brings life to a long-forgotten element of Reconstruction history, and I highly recommend the book to readers of this blog.

Cheers

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2 responses

  1. The Republican public school program during the Grant administration was a definite part of the Culture War of the Reconstruction Era and a further reminder to immigrants that many Know Nothings of the 1850s were incorporated into the Party of Grant. James G. Blaine happily exploited bigotry to rally Northern Protestants to the cause of starving the Catholic schools, even though many “public schools” offered Protestant religious instruction.

    1. The ironic thing with Blaine is that his mother and that side of the family were Irish Catholics! When personal ambition and politics get in the way I guess you’ll do and say anything to get to the top, eh?

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