Reconstruction Era

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What did Howell Cobb believe was the real motivation behind Reconstruction, according to "An Unreconstructed Southerner"?

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Born in Georgia in 1815, Howell Cobb was an important politician who held a number of state and federal offices before the Civil War (1861–1865). He was a Democrat whose political career was often frustrated; Cobb had numerous political foes because of his moderate position vis-a-vis the North before the...

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war. His efforts at conciliation were evident with his support of the Compromise of 1850; at the time, he was Speaker of the 31st Congress. Finally, he gave up on compromise after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

Cobb then joined the South's army and rose to the rank of major general. He commanded Georgia's troops until the end of the war, surrendering in April 1865.

When the war ended, Cobb remained quiet. His silence lasted for three years. After he had received a pardon in 1868, he publicly denounced Reconstruction (1865–1877). The Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 had divided the South into five military districts, so Cobb sent a letter of protest to the Northern commander of his district. He decried the North for trying to bring about "negro supremacy." He accused the North of wanting freed blacks to dominate the South. Cobb also condemned "taxation without representation." He claimed the South had been "wronged."

Cobb personified the views of most Southerners after the Civil War. For the most part, the South did not wish to cooperate with the North. Southerners wanted to perpetuate slavery under another guise—such as sharecropping. Cobb died a few months after his protest; he passed away while on vacation in New York in October 1868. Much of what Cobb wanted eventually became a reality after Reconstruction ended, but he did not live to see it.

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Cobb believed that the Reconstruction was a vengeful and retaliatory tactic to oppress and destroy Southerners and the entire Confederacy. Essentially, Cobb, along with other Southern white landowners, believed that the North was acting unscrupulously toward hardworking Southerners and that the North wanted to punish them for rebelling.

In addition to this, he believed that the overall design of Reconstruction was to enslave the former slave owners, turning the old system on its head and giving undue power to the former slaves. His argument was that the former slaves were being given rights and beneficial "gifts" that were denied to white Southerners. This empowered the former slaves and, in Cobb's mind, would lead to them overthrowing and enslaving their former masters.

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In short, Cobb makes it clear that he sees reconstruction as a plot to create a system in which freed slaves would rule over their former masters with the same kind of cruelty that slave owners had used in ruling over them. This kind of vision seems completely detached from reality but is similar to the cries of "reverse discrimination" that have been constants in the US in response to nearly every major step taken to counter racism—thus I consider them worth exploring.

One interpretation is that for someone who was comfortable and familiar with the system of racial domination in place in the confederacy, it was easier to imagine an inverted system with the same roles than to imagine a society not built on racial domination. Imagining the kinds of changes needed to create a system that would not be built on inequality and oppression requires a certain kind of imagination, to be sure, but this explanation on its own is unconvincing to me.

It also seems likely that for someone used to being on top in society, any kind of move towards equality feels like injustice. We can think along these lines of how slavery normalized white entitlement to black labor and white entitlement to the wealth created by black labor. And end to racism necessarily requires the end to this entitlement, but to those for whom racism has become completely normalized, this would seem like taking from white people in order to give to freed slaves.

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As with your previous question, this one appears to be taken from For the Record, edited by Shi and Mayer.  My answer comes from the excerpt of Howell Cobb’s letter that is printed in that volume.

This excerpt is a series of complaints from a Southerner about how poorly the North is treating the South during Reconstruction.  It portrays the South as honest victims of vengeful Northerners.  It repeatedly says that the Southerners are honest and trustworthy.  The author is also very unhappy with the North’s attitude towards the South and their lack of understanding of the Southern position.

Cobb argues that this mistreatment has only one purpose.  He argues that the North wants to create a system of black supremacy in the South.  He believes that Northerners hate the South so much that they want to do this.  Cobb says that the North is willing to do anything, no matter how unconstitutional, to

Make our former slaves our masters, bringing those Southern states under the power of negro supremacy.  (The italics are in the text as presented by Shi and Mayer.)

In short, then, the real motivation is to give the freed slaves complete domination of the white Southerners.

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