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From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction
by Forrest A. Nabors
University of Missouri Press, 2017
Cloth: 978-0-8262-2135-3 | eISBN: 978-0-8262-7391-8

On December 4, 1865, members of the 39th United States Congress walked into the Capitol Building to begin their first session after the end of the Civil War. They understood their responsibility to put the nation back on the path established by the American Founding Fathers. The moment when the Republicans in the Reconstruction Congress remade the nation and renewed the law is in a class of rare events. The Civil War should be seen in this light.

In From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, Forrest A. Nabors shows that the ultimate goal of the Republican Party, the war, and Reconstruction was the same. This goal was to preserve and advance republicanism as the American founders understood it, against its natural, existential enemy: oligarchy. The principle of natural equality justified American republicanism and required abolition and equal citizenship. Likewise, slavery and discrimination on the basis of color stand on the competing moral foundation of oligarchy, the principle of natural inequality, which requires ranks.

The effect of slavery and the division of the nation into two “opposite systems of civilization” are causally linked. Charles Devens, a lawyer who served as a general in the Union Army, and his contemporaries understood that slavery’s existence transformed the character of political society.

One of those dramatic effects was the increased power of slaveowners over those who did not have slaves. When the slave state constitutions enumerated slaves in apportioning representation using the federal three-fifths ratio or by other formulae, intra-state sections where slaves were concentrated would receive a substantial grant of political power for slave ownership. In contrast, low slave-owning sections of the state would lose political representation and political influence over the state. This contributed to the non-slaveholders’ loss of political liberty in the slave states and provided a direct means by which the slaveholders acquired and maintained their rule over non-slaveholders.

This book presents a shared analysis of the slave South, synthesized from the writings and speeches of the Republicans who served in the Thirty-Eighth, Thirty-Ninth or Fortieth Congress from 1863-1869. The account draws from their writings and speeches dated before, during, and after their service in Congress. Nabors shows how the Republican majority, charged with the responsibility of reconstructing the South, understood the South.

Republicans in Congress were generally united around the fundamental problem and goal of Reconstruction. They regarded their work in the same way as they regarded the work of the American founders. Both they and the founders were engaged in regime change, from monarchy in the one case, and from oligarchy in the other, to republicanism. The insurrectionary states’ governments had to be reconstructed at their foundations, from oligarchic to republican. The sharp differences within Congress pertained to how to achieve that higher goal.

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