Reconstructing the West and North

Certification of New York State's resolution ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, January 11, 1867. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC04556)In 1865 the Radicals of the Republican Party regarded the Northern victory in the Civil War as a “golden moment” to remake the Republic. The Republicans controlled Congress, the Supreme Court, and, so they thought until Andrew Johnson turned against them, the presidency. In a reconstructed United States the federal government, not the states, would define citizenship. Citizenship would be homogeneous, meaning all citizens would enjoy identical rights—including those that would eventually be expressed in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The newly powerful federal government—the Yankee Leviathan that had won the war—would guarantee those rights. The Republicans crafted Reconstruction to integrate the South into the Union on new terms, but they also anticipated a “Greater Reconstruction” that included the West and North.

When the Republicans took the concept of homogeneous citizenship and applied it to Indian Country in the West and to the North, particularly to the immigrants living in the North, the concept took on a second meaning. Not only would citizenship be homogeneous, so too would the citizens. Northern Republicans thought that all Americans—North, West, and South—would come to reflect what they regarded as the values of the North. By North, they rarely meant the urban North—New York, Chicago, and the other great cities; it was the rural and particularly the small town North—the “heartland”—that would serve as a model for a new nation.

Springfield, Illinois, was as close as any actual place could be to the template for the reconstructed nation. Springfield and its surrounding farms were the world of Abraham Lincoln: the land of free labor, with few rich and few poor. Although the town contained immigrants, it was largely Protestant. Some people worked for wages, but this was expected only to be a stop on life's road, not a destination. If men worked hard, and did not encounter disaster, they would become independent farmers, businesspeople, or craftsmen. Most of all, Springfield was the world of homes.

Most nineteenth-century Americans sought to establish homes, and they imagined the country less as a collection of individuals than as a collection of homes. The nineteenth-century home stood for a gendered world in which men supported and protected the family; women nurtured, sustained, and to a considerable degree ruled the family; and children grew up to perpetuate these values and create homes of their own. Home provided the frame within which ordinary nineteenth-century Americans understood their own lives, the economy, and the national goals of Reconstruction. The expansion of the free-labor home into the West, the South, and northern cities became the measure of the success of Reconstruction. A reconstructed United States would be a progressive nation of small producers, each of whom could support a home. The country would have no slaves, no hereditary elite, and few rich or poor.

Radical Republicans imagined Reconstruction as extending the democratic possibilities contained in the home across the color line and across ethnic divisions, but it became more and more apparent that the two senses of homogeneous citizenship did not easily cohere. Looking at the Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Cherokees of Indian Territory, Republicans saw not just Indian peoples but a striving class, many of them Protestant, whose economic ambitions seemed to mirror those of whites, demonstrating the possibilities of integration. But they also saw slaveholders, since some of these Indians had sided with the Confederacy, so here Reconstruction would resemble that of the South. Other Indian peoples posed a different challenge. They had, whether they wanted to or not, to cede their lands and eventually, after a period of tutelage, be integrated into the United States as Christian farmers.

The ideal American home—North, East, West, and South—continued to be the farm. The Republicans poured their devotion to the farm home into a single powerful political package: the Homestead Act (1863). Those who invested five years of their labor in improving a tract of land on the public domain—usually 160 acres—would at the end of five years get title. The Homestead Act was open to men and women, black people and white people, citizens and non-citizens (as long as the applicant intended to become a citizen and had not taken up arms against the United States). It would replicate the Midwest in the West. The Homestead Act had its greatest success in the Middle Border, the area between the Mississippi River and the 100th meridian. In the arid West and the heavily forested Pacific Northwest it was largely a failure.

The Homestead Act’s citizenship clause bared the tension between the two versions of homogeneous citizenship. The clause imposed a racial test. Under the 1798 Naturalization Act, only a white person could become a citizen. The Fourteenth Amendment added black people, but the courts ruled that Chinese and other Asian immigrants could not become citizens. They also ruled that Indian peoples who remained members of tribes could not become citizens. Thus neither Asian immigrants nor Indians could homestead without special legislation.

California refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, because Californians feared Chinese and Indians might eventually find a way to use the amendment to become citizens and enjoy its benefits. Most Indians, considering themselves independent nations, remained uninterested in citizenship and resisted incorporation.

President Ulysses S. Grant made his Peace Policy the centerpiece of Western Reconstruction. It stressed cultural homogeneity over equal rights or, for that matter, treaty rights. As Francis Walker, Grant's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, explained, Indian wars were unnecessary, “useless and expensive.” In the short run, the vulnerability of white settlers necessitated “temporizing with hostile savages,” preserving for them large reservations, and providing them with annuities as a way to protect both the railroads and settlers. A “reasonable policy of concession” would conciliate Indians until “the advance of population shall render them incapable of mischief.”[1]

When Indians ceased to present a danger to American expansion, the second stage of the Peace Policy would kick in. The government would treat Indians as “wards.” Its right to do this sprang from the “supreme law of public safety” that allowed it to discipline paupers and imprison criminals. Indian treaty rights would be ignored and the government would impose “a rigid reformatory control,” requiring them “to learn and practice the arts of industry." [2]

The Peace Policy brought neither peace nor assimilation. Wars of conquest continued even as the government turned the management of reservations over to the churches. Coercive policies stripped Indians of control of their children, changed how they organized their families, suppressed their religious practices, and destroyed their governments. This was the dark side of homogeneous citizenship. A policy designed to secure freedom and progress for black people in the South achieved the opposite among Indian peoples in the West.

The justification of the treatment of Indians was their supposed savagery and their threat to the white home, but savagery was also a word applied to immigrants in the cities, particularly New York City. Homogeneous citizenry aimed at integrating freedpeople in the South played out differently in northern cities. Patrick Ford, himself an Irish immigrant and editor of the Irish World, was a fervent advocate of equal rights, but he insisted: “This people are not one. In blood, in religion, in traditions, in social and domestic habits, they are many.”[3]

To many northern Protestants, including Scots-Irish immigrants, this cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity presented a danger. As early as 1866, The Nation had denounced the “swarm of foreigners . . . ignorant, credulous, newly emancipated, brutalized by oppression, and bred in the habit of regarding the law as their enemy.”[4] The bloody “Orange Riots” in New York in 1871 pitted immigrant Catholics against immigrant and native-born Protestants. Nativists argued the riots demonstrated the savagery of immigrants, particularly immigrant Catholics. The riots helped unite opponents of Reconstruction equating savage immigrants with freedpeople, while arguing Indians were not ready for assimilation until they underwent a harsh curriculum in assimilation.

In the West and North, Reconstruction with its noble goal of equal political rights crashed against its other ambition of cultural homogeneity.

[1] F. A. Walker, “The Indian Question,” North American Review 116, no. 239 (April 1873): 329−388. See pp. 345, 349, and 353.

[2] Walker, “The Indian Question,” pp. 375 and 376.

[3] Irish World , June 24, 1871.

[4] “The Government of Our Great Cities,” The Nation, October 18, 1866, p. 312.

Richard White is Margaret Byrne Professor of American History emeritus at Stanford University. He is the author of  The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865−1896 (2017), part of the Oxford History of the United States.