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Rise of the Robber Barons

Good Friday
14 April 1865

The Civil War is won. It’s just five days after Confederate General Lee surrendered his sword and people are already returning to their civilian routines. The hit comedy ‘Our American Cousin’ plays to packed audiences. In the audience is President Lincoln. Because Lincoln freed the slaves, an actor (but not from the play) assassinates him.

This single event overshadows the decades to come but, initially, there are reasons to be optimistic.

"During ...Reconstruction, an extraordinary flowering took place...African Americans flocked to the polls. The first African American governor was elected in Louisiana; Congressman and senators followed. Turnout was in the order of 70%...But among the defeated white population of the South ... this was viewed as ...the enforcement of an occupation; the blacks as puppets of sinister northern carpetbaggers" Simon Schama

The chance to bring the South willingly along with the new peace isn’t helped by some in the victorious North.

“We have the right to treat them as we would any other provinces that we might conquer.” Thaddeus Stevens (Republican Northener)

The country needs a great unifying President. Instead, it gets Lincoln’s successor Vice President Andrew Johnson who creates ‘one of the biggest political rows in American history’ over how to rebuild America. Historian Brogan dubs him ‘slightly less flexible than granite.’

In 1867, The Military Reconstruction Act divides the South into five military districts governed by a US army general. Johnson needs to seize the moment and make the South acknowledge the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. He doesn’t. Instead, the South swaps the black slave for the black second class citizen via piecemeal laws, the ‘Black Codes’. But the broken promises of civil liberty might be overcome as long as there is economic equality.

“What’s the point of being free if you don’t own enough land to be buried in?” Freedman

The slogan of the time is to give ‘forty acres and a mule’ to the freedmen. These remains just words for many blacks. For the South, indebted by war, and now without slavery, has lost a third of its labour force and a third of its economic output. Food production is down 50%. By failing to give civil and economic equality, the South replaces their slaves with dependent black servants. For those blacks who dare to demand the vote or workplace equality, there’s the Ku Klux Klan. By 1867, whites, hidden in hoods, burn and lynch any black opposition. There is little redress in the courts.

And Northern politicians do little. The North is complicit by stopping blacks joining the emerging labour unions and its focus and fear is on the new waves of European immigrants than the fate of the blacks. And corruption is infecting politics. The 1877 election of President Hayes is rigged. Corruption is endemic in business. The foundations are laid for the rise of the ‘robber barons’.

“until at least the turn of the century the state government was owned by Carnegie (steel), Frick (coal), Rockefeller (oil) and the Pennsylvania Railroad which united their interests.” Hugh Brogan