This is an excerpt from the chapter "Who Needs 40 Acres and a Mule?"
One of President Lincoln’s least heralded actions was the push for legislation to increase immigration. The reason? To meet the growing demands for labor in an industrializing nation and to replace slave agriculture labor in the post-Civil War South. (Silverman, 2016)…
The Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, also supported Lincoln’s efforts and said, “labor has special wants in every department of industry; vacancies caused by recruiting calls for a large increase in foreign immigration to make up the deficiency at home. Furthermore, the South, after the war is over, will present a wide field for voluntary white labor and it must look to the immigrant for its supply.” (Silverman, 2016)
Senator Sherman makes a striking point; the labor needed to rebuild the South must be “white.” This distinction is key because there weren’t enough white laborers in America to fulfill the demand. If the perquisite was that they be white, then the only solution was to bring in more white people from overseas—increase immigration from countries with white populations.
Despite the great need for labor to build post-Civil War America, it was clear that even under President Lincoln, that this rebuilding was to be done by white immigrant labor vs. Asians, Indians, or the newly freed slaves…
...the great tragedy here is that the leadership of post-Civil War America, leaders such as Lincoln, that put an end to slavery, fell short of providing what could have been the most impactful reparation of all.
Instead of enacting the most sweeping legislation in American history to promote immigration to fill American jobs, America’s post-Civil War leaders could have encouraged the employment of the newly freed slaves from the South.
Understandably, freed slaves would not be the first choice of employers in the South, but what about the North? Wasn’t the North the champion that freed the slaves and cared about them to the point of committing the ultimate sacrifice to free them? What would be the economic state of African-Americans today if their freed slave ancestors had been allowed to work in the mines or build America’s railroads?...
The Civil War cost of over 620,000 American lives. (American Battlefield Trust, n.d.) The emancipation proclamation freed an estimated 3 to 4 million slaves. (History.com Editors, 2019)
In a sense, then, 3 to 4 million people instantly became unemployed and homeless. Also, these 3 to 4 million people, even though emancipated, now encountered a new government that openly preferred white immigrants for the many jobs needed to build a great America. (Harris, 2012)
The laborers who irrefutably had made the American South great were cast aside when America looked to make the North and the West great.
If there is any dispute over the notion that slave labor made the American South or the American economy great, consider this quote by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export…The enslaved…were people turned to fuel for the American machine.” (Coates, n.d.)
If you consider that these 3 to 4 million emancipated slaves instantly became unemployed and homeless, under a new government that was not looking to employ them, you can see why sharecropping became the only option for many. For those not familiar with sharecropping, here is a very simple definition “a type of farming in which families rent small plots of land from a landowner in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year.” (Harris, 2012)
This definition, however, falls far short of describing the terrible system of sharecropping that the emancipated slaves, the hundreds of thousands or millions of newly unemployed and homeless people who remained in the South, had to endure…
Downs has collected numerous shocking accounts of the lives of freed slaves. He came across accounts of deplorable conditions in hospitals and refugee camps, where doctors often had racist theories about how black Americans reacted to disease. Things were so bad that one military official in Tennessee in 1865 wrote that former slaves were: ‘dying by scores – that sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagonloads without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench.’
So bad were the health problems suffered by freed slaves, and so high the death rates, that some observers of the time even wondered if they would all die out. One white religious leader in 1863 expected black Americans to vanish. ‘Like his brother, the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us,’ the man wrote.” (Harris, 2012)
When I think of the challenges that unemployed and homeless people face in 2020, I can understand why some of the same things befell the freed slaves. The freed slaves encountered hunger, disease, despair, in addition to racism on a scale that I cannot imagine. Truly this post-Civil War era decision to choose immigrant labor over the freed slaves, after enduring generations of suffering and unimaginable cruelty, is one where Founding Fathers like President Lincoln fell short.
I don’t imagine that President Lincoln envisioned the plight of the freed slave as being what has been previously described, but the fact is that the legislation he championed to bring immigrant labor to America, helped cause it…
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