THE BLACK CODES

But what aroused the most opposition to Johnson’s Reconstruction policy were the Black Codes, laws passed by the new southern governments that attempted to regulate the lives of the former slaves. These laws granted blacks certain rights, such as legalized marriage, ownership of property, and limited access to the courts. But they denied them the rights to testify against whites, to serve on juries or in state militias, or to vote. And in response to planters’ demands that the freedpeople be required to work on the plantations, the Black Codes declared that those who failed to sign yearly labor contracts could be arrested and hired out to white landowners. Some states limited the occupations open to blacks and barred them from acquiring land, and others provided that judges could assign black children to work for their former owners without the consent of the parents. “We are not permitted to own the land whereon to build a schoolhouse or a church,” complained a black convention in Mississippi. “Where is justice? Where is freedom?”

Clearly, the death of slavery did not automatically mean the birth of freedom. But the Black Codes so completely violated free labor principles that they called forth a vigorous response from the Republican North. Wars— especially civil wars—often generate hostility and bitterness. But few groups of rebels in history have been treated more leniently than the defeated Confederates. A handful of southern leaders were arrested but most were quickly released. Only one was executed—Henry Wirz, the commander of Andersonville prison, where thousands of Union prisoners of war had died. Most of the Union army was swiftly demobilized. What motivated the North’s turn against Johnson’s policies was not a desire to “punish” the white South, but the inability of the South’s political leaders to accept the reality of emancipation. “We must see to it,” announced Republican senator William Stewart of Nevada, “that the man-made free by the Constitution of the United States is a freeman indeed.”

Selling a Freeman to Pay His Fine at Monticello, Florida, an engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 19, 1867. Under the Black Codes enacted by southern legislatures immediately after the Civil War, blacks convicted of “vagrancy”—often because they refused to sign contracts to work on plantations—were fined and, if unable to pay, auctioned off to work for the person who paid the fine.

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