The Solution for The Blacks in The Reconstruction Period in Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy

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About this sample


Words: 2051 |

Pages: 5|

11 min read

Published: Oct 17, 2018

Words: 2051|Pages: 5|11 min read

Published: Oct 17, 2018

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Radical Republicans wanted to finish what Emancipation started—more rights for Southern blacks—through Reconstruction. At the same time in the North, the working class faced many difficulties. Edward Bellamy tried providing a solution to the workers’ strife and class conflict in the North through a utopian system he presents in his novel Looking Backward. The Radical Republicans did not want a pseudo-slavery system to gain hold in the postbellum South, and they wanted freedmen to have more rights to prevent renewed oppression under whites. Both Bellamy and the Radicals had expanding national power through the federal government in their plans to help their respective groups. The Radicals—compelled by belief in laissez-faire economics—only wanted to use national power to secure legal and political rights for freedmen, instead of economic help, to prevent renewed oppression; history proves this approach did not work as well as the Radicals hoped. Bellamy in contrast wanted to use national power to remake the country along the lines of a company to erase injustices to the working class, with an amoral corporate, but egalitarian, and economic apparatus indistinguishable from political and legal apparatus.

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Some Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens did want to give freedmen in the South economic help to level the playing field, but most did not believe in economic help. Radicals generally did not believe in economic help for blacks because they believed in laissez-faire economics, and viewed economic concessions to blacks as violations of laissez-faire principles and as politically unfeasible[1]. Radicals supported laissez-faire economics because of the success of “rapidly growing communities of family farms and small towns”[2] in their constituencies where the superiority of free labor and markets “appeared self-evident”[3]. The Radicals as a result promoted fiscal and monetary policies “geared to the needs of aspiring entrepreneurs,”[4] or what is known in this century as conservative economic policy with limited government intervention. Even Sumner—one of the more determined Radicals—was “attuned to orthodox laissez-faire economic theory,”[5] showing why the Radicals did not want to use national power to interfere economically. The Radicals’ hesitance to offer economic support through national power was not only ideological; they also saw using the government to give economic help as politically unpopular among whites, citing it is more than what is done for Whites[6], and feared losing the white vote if they went ahead with economic intervention. However, by refusing to use national power to help the blacks economically, the Radicals’ plans for helping Southern blacks gain greater rights and opportunities failed when freedmen simply were still under the economic control of Whites[7], with sharecropping and economic blackmail like blocking credit access to blacks who voted prevalent. Blacks, who did not have capital after emancipation, simply could not compete in a capitalist economy without the Radicals giving them economic help in the form of capital, like homesteads, via national power. The Radicals, refusing to use national power to help freedmen economically, stayed true to their values of laissez-faire economics, but also significantly damaged blacks’ prospects.

Bellamy, in contrast, stood opposite to the Radicals’ views of laissez-faire economics, instead wanting the entire country, in a vast expansion of national power, to remake itself along the lines of a company where everyone makes the same. Bellamy believed government intervention into the economy by becoming the economy itself would equally redistribute the wealth among all the nation’s employees, solving the problem of class divisions. The nation became “one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in place of all other capitalists,”[8] producing all products needed by its citizens, based on the precise knowledge of consumption[9]. The government in Looking Backward also expanded to become a monopoly encompassing all employment. In this system, “the nation became the sole employers”[10], and all citizens, became its employees, across all industries of mostly the employees’ choosing. However, while the employees can choose their industry, they could not choose their employer, as the nation was the only one, a striking contrast to the Radicals’ principle of free labor. By becoming the sole company and employer, the nation used drastic expansions of national power to control every aspect of the economy in Bellamy’s vision of solving economic inequality, an act that would in modern terms lie in the economic spectrum opposite of the Radicals’ laissez-faire economic principles. Even the consumption of goods is regulated by the government, with government deciding what to do with “a large surplus on hand”[11], as opposed to letting the market decide. Property and labor becomes “common stock”[12], as opposed to private property of his family, changing the concept of ownership. The government in Looking Backward used its power to shape a somewhat freely competitive market economy into a controlled economy of only one company where all employees are paid equally—the very antithesis of the Radicals’ free labor and free market economy.

The Radicals may not have believed in using national power to intervene in the economy; however, they hoped to use national power in giving freedmen political rights, hoping those rights would lead to greater overall opportunity. To help freedmen protect themselves against Southern whites’ desire to replicate the Antebellum racial order, Radicals decided that in the South “a powerful national state must guarantee blacks equal political standing”[13]. To do so, Radicals attempted to “commit Congress to black suffrage”[14]. Radicals sought using national power through amendments to the Constitution and other legislative devices to force Southern states to recognize freedmen’s full citizenship, which led to the ability to vote and other direct political rights. The first of those legislative devices proposed was the Civil Rights Bill, which made all persons born in the United States except Indians citizens regardless of race[15], granting citizenship to freedmen. This direct use of national legislative power helped freedmen gain political equity through citizenship. Another legislative device of national power, the second clause of the fourteenth amendment, forcefully encouraged Southern states to grant black suffrage by providing “for a reduction in a state’s representation proportional to the number of male citizens denied suffrage”[16]. To explicitly guarantee Black enfranchisement, Republicans spearheaded by the Radicals passed the Fifteenth Amendment, “prohibiting the federal and state governments from depriving any citizen of the vote on racial grounds”[17]. While White Democrats saw a “Radical conspiracy”[18], Radicals demonstrated their use of federal legislation as national power helped blacks gain some degree of direct political rights and power, and a “pattern of black influence appeared in state legislatures”[19] and at the local level. The Radicals used national power to expand political rights for Blacks under the belief that “with civil and political equality secured, black and white would find their own level”[20] economically and in other aspects of society. However, Southern Democrats soon began to exploit the blacks’ economic situation to bar them from polls through poll taxes or simple economic blackmail, rendering political rights virtually useless.

Bellamy, meanwhile, envisioned using national power to replace traditional political rights and power with a corporate leadership structure, instead of giving individual citizens many rights. Bellamy proposed a meritocracy to decide who would be promoted, claiming “while as to demagoguery or intrigue for office, the conditions of promotion render them out of the question”[21]. The President of the United States— “general-in-chief” of the nation’s industrial army—rises through the ranks of his trade, becoming general of his guild. The honorary members of all the guilds—retired workers—vote for the President from the generals[22]. Current workers in Bellamy’s system are not allowed to vote, as “that would be perilous to its discipline”[23]. Restricting the number of politicians and voters stood opposite of what the Radicals wanted; Bellamy’s system used national power in a different way when it came to political rights, showing how he wanted national power to produce a corporate meritocratic system rather than producing greater individual rights.

The Radicals also used national power to expand basic legal rights in a way that again would be contrasted by Bellamy’s corporate structure. The Radicals ensured national power would guarantee freedmen legal equality, again under the mostly false assumption that legal equality would lead to economic equality. Southern whites “still barred blacks from testifying in court”[24], as late as 1872 in Kentucky’s case, giving freedmen “a general inability to obtain justice”[25]. The Radicals sought to use national power to ensure legal equality through the Constitution, legislation, and federal court and legal systems as a way to help the freedmen. Most Radicals saw the Constitution’s clause “guaranteeing to each state a republican form of government”[26] as an advantageous federal power arguing that a state government which denied citizens—which Freedmen were by the Civil Rights Act—equality in the judicial system was not republican, and should not exist. The Radicals used national power through the Constitution to advance their goal of legal equality, but it was not the only tool of national power Radicals used to advance legal equality.

Radicals also took more direct, legislative action to guarantee this right. The proposed bill extending the Freedmen’s Bureau “authorized agents to take jurisdiction of cases involving blacks”[27]. By placing the law within the hands of a federal agency, the Radicals in their plans used national power to ensure blacks legal equality. The Radicals also “placed the burden of enforcement on the federal courts”[28] when it came to protecting rights against “discriminatory state laws”[29]. Using national power via the federal court system, the Radicals hoped freedmen would achieve equality in a legal system less discriminatory than local court systems, while also expanding national power by “creating a latent federal presence”[30]. The Radicals also used national legislative power through the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit “the states from abridging equality before the law”[31]. However, with the 1876 Compromise and a return to Democrat power in the South, de jure legal rights meant nothing when blacks were de facto second-class citizens. The Radical use national power via federal legal systems was aimed at ensuring freedmen equality before the law in a bid to help level the overall socioeconomic playing field for freedmen, but inability to sustain federal legal control in the South stripped blacks of legal equality.

Bellamy again contrasts this direct use of national power for legal guarantees with his corporate economics-based system. Firstly, Bellamy disputed the need for explicit legal systems, claiming that economic equality erased the vast majority of crimes, which were based on “idea of gain”[32]. Because all are “social equals”[33], and private ownership made antique, national power as a guarantee of legal equity—like Freedmen’s Bureau agents—is no longer necessary; the system is fair to all, and criminal motivations few. Bellamy’s system operated much more like a corporate workmen’s compensation and complaints ruling system, indicated by how “the claim of the workman to just and considerate treatment is backed by the whole power of the nation”[34] when referring to workmen’s complaints. Bellamy’s use of national power, converting the entire nation into a large corporation, would theoretically eliminate the need for a formal court system, instead relying on wise men in the communities to arbitrate disputes, declaring “the law as a special science is obsolete”[35]. By relying on economic equality to negate the lack of formal courts, Bellamy again demonstrates how his use of national power, by turning the country into a corporation, reshapes political and legal system along the corporate management and justice system as well.

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The Radical Republicans, bound by their belief in the laissez-faire economic system, believed using national power to secure political and legal rights rather than economic help for freedmen would level the socioeconomic playing field, with was quickly proven false in the South. Bellamy, on the other hand, envisioned using national power to secure total economic equality by reshaping the country in the form of an egalitarian corporation, altering the political and legal systems towards a more corporate structure as well. Although Radicals’ plans failed due to a shaky coalition, lack of enforcement, and economic domination over freedmen by whites, Bellamy’s emphasis on economic equality may have very well worked. Even today, blacks—although having equal political and legal rights as whites on paper—severely lack behind on the overall socioeconomic chain because of a lack of economic rights, started by the Radicals’ refusal to provide capital for newly-freed slaves. After all, succeeding in a capitalist economy without capital to begin with is difficult.

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The Solution for the Blacks in the Reconstruction Period in Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. (2018, October 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
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