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Image Regional Cultures in Reconstruction, 1865-77

After the War, old regional patterns briefly disappeared from voting maps of national elections, but in no period of American history was regional consciousness more intense, or regional hegemony more complete. The Republican coalition dominated national politics by its electoral majorities in the north, and by military occupation of the south. Radical reconstruction was an attempt to impose by force the cultures of New England and the midlands upon the coastal and highland south. The southern states were compelled to accept Yankee constitutions and Yankee judges, Yankee politics and Yankee politicians, Yankee schools and Yankee schoolma’ams, Yankee capitalists and a Yankee labor system.

This cultural revolution continued in some parts of the south until 1876. It succeeded for a time in modifying many southern institutions—its labor system, its politics and its schools. But with the exception of slavery itself, most of these effects lasted only as long as they were supported by northern bayonets. In the end, Radical Reconstruction was a revolution that failed.6

Some historians believe that this failure occurred primarily because freedmen were not given land. This materialist explanation is very much mistaken. The fundamental cause of failure was not narrowly material but broadly cultural. Reconstruction regimes collapsed because they were unable to change southern folkways. Such a truly radical reconstruction of southern culture was impossible in 1868, for it would have required acts of a sort that were forbidden by the culture of the north. And as long as the old folkways survived in the south, it was inevitable that the material and institutional order of southern life would rapidly revive when Yankee soldiers went home.

The experiment of reconstruction continued for a decade. After the elections of 1876, a weary north finally gave up its attempt to transform the south, and Union troops were withdrawn. Southern whites quickly recovered control of their regions and rapidly undid the reforms of Reconstruction. Yankee school systems were abolished; Yankee schoolma’ams were shipped back to New England; Yankee constitutions were rewritten. Former slaves were rapidly reduced to a condition of economic exploitation, political dependency and social degradation which was only one step removed from slavery. Despite talk of a “new South” after 1876, young southerners (both white and black) continued to learn the old folkways. Material differences between American regions grew greater than ever before—as great as the disparities between the richest and poorest European nations. Historian C. Vann Woodward discovered that in 1880 the relative difference in per capita wealth of the southern states ($376) and the northeastern states ($1,353) was almost exactly that of Russia and Germany.7

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