- Gold and Freedom: The Political Economy of Reconstruction by Nicolas Barreyre
Nicolas Barreyre’s work is an exploratory look into how the money question affected political alignments and policies during Reconstruction. The economic debate of the post‒Civil War era rested more on the question of currency than tariffs. When many politicians believed that gold (and, to a lesser extent, silver) was a God-ordained basis for the money supply, the continuing presence of “greenbacks” brought unhealthy inflation. Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch therefore set the nation on the path of contracting the greenback supply until the available paper money matched convertibility to gold. Not only did this spark a debate between inflationists and deflationists, but it also reignited the nation’s long-standing question of local versus federal control.
Barreyre does a wonderful job of explaining how economic concerns inevitably led to a West versus Northeast battle, but he does so with an eye toward nuance. It is not just that farmers were out West and industrial businessmen were in the Northeast; each section had varying interests in the money question that led to unique compromises regarding Reconstruction that were not always confined within party ideology. In fact, he deftly shows how these sectional concerns over the money issue led to a surprisingly potent northern Democratic contingent despite the affiliation of that party with the Confederate rebellion. This is where Ohio becomes a battleground in Barreyre’s work. Ohioan George H. Pendleton used the money question in 1867 to swing a local election in Ohio toward the Democrats by connecting antiblack suffrage sentiment with antifederalism since, in his estimate, Mc-Culloch autocratically deflated the currency. After this successful campaign, northern Democrats teamed with southern Democrats to pass the Suspension Act, forbidding McCulloch from further greenback contraction.
This momentary victory for the Democrats opened the door to a new development in the Republican Party that would have far-reaching consequences. A group of northeastern Republicans supported McCulloch while opposing the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, a move they made because of Johnson’s support of McCulloch. Although this was a minority within the Republican Party, it showed the beginning of a trend that would subvert Reconstruction to currency concerns since these Republicans willingly accepted Johnson’s roadblocks toward Reconstruction in hopes of maintaining McCulloch in the Treasury. [End Page 89]
Barreyre’s work is so thorough and well researched that I found my only annoyance was with his tendency to overexplain his point. For example, in Chapter 4 he repetitively explains that the Military Reconstruction Act (MRA) allowed Congress to manipulate southern policy without causing ruptures between midwestern and northeastern Republicans. Although this detracts slightly from the experience of reading his work, it does not detract from the major points he makes. Using the Bankruptcy Act of 1867 as an example, he deftly explains how northeastern Republicans found a way to seize southern lands to settle debts through the MRA without passing a bill that might be used to do the same in the West.
After years of slowly dismantling the Reconstruction effort during the Grant years, the election of Rutherford B. Hayes brought a dramatic finale to federal attempts at upholding black rights in the South. Hayes’s ascendancy into the national spotlight came while running for an unprecedented third term as Ohio’s governor. Since the money question divided Ohio, Hayes diverted attention from his belief in the gold standard by pointing to New York Democrats allowing public assistance for parochial schools. Ohio had no such controversy outside of allowing Catholic priests to serve in prisons and mental hospitals, but Hayes won the gubernatorial race by exploiting this issue. When Republicans met to nominate their candidate for the general election, Hayes’s campaign showed the party could overcome a divisive hard-money stance.
Although Washington slowly ended Reconstruction efforts throughout Grant’s administration, its official end with regard to federal intervention came with the election in 1876. At that point the Republican...