Believing in racial equality in the abstract and supporting policies that would make it a reality are two different things. Most white Americans have long professed the former, and pointedly declined to do the latter. This paradox has shown up so many times in American history that social scientists have a name for it: the principle-implementation gap. This gap is what ultimately doomed the Reconstruction project.
One of the ways the principle-implementation gap manifests itself is in the distinction between civic equality and economic justice. After the Civil War, Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican, urged the federal government to seize the estates of wealthy former Confederates and use them in part to provide freedmen with some small compensation for centuries of forced labor. Stevens warned that without economic empowerment, freedmen would eventually find themselves at the mercy of their former masters.
“It is impossible that any practical equality of rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the whole landed property,” Stevens wrote in 1865. “The whole fabric of Southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. Without this, this government can never be, as it never has been, a true republic.”
Even in his own party, Stevens’s idea was viewed as extreme. Nineteenth-century Republicans believed in an ideology of “free labor,” in which the interests of labor and capital were the same, and all workers could elevate themselves into a life of plenty through diligence and entrepreneurship. By arming Black men with the ballot, most Republicans believed they had set the stage for a free-labor society. They did not see what the emancipated saw: a world of state-sanctioned and informal coercion in which simply elevating oneself through hard work was impossible.
As the freedmen sought to secure their rights through state intervention—nondiscrimination laws in business and education, government jobs, and federal protection of voting rights—many Republicans recoiled. As the historian Heather Cox Richardson has written, these white Republicans began to see freedmen not as ideal free-laborers but as a corrupt labor interest, committed to securing through government largesse what they could not earn through hard work. “When the majority of the Southern African-Americans could not overcome the overwhelming obstacles in their path to economic security,” she wrote in The Death of Reconstruction, “Northerners saw their failure as a rejection of free-labor ideals, accused them of being deficient workers, and willingly read them out of American society.”
Retreating from Reconstruction, these Republicans cast their objections to the project as advocacy for honest, limited government, rather than racism. But the results would ultimately be the same: an abandonment of the freedmen to their fate. Men like Carl Schurz, who had been briefly radicalized by the violence in the South and the extremism of Andrew Johnson, began to see federal intervention on behalf of the freedmen as its own kind of tyranny.