Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 1: Keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible”

Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Is. [i.e. Island], S.C. 2a
Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Island, S.C.; circa 1863-mid 1866; Hubbard & Mix, photographers; a group of African Americans gathered outside of their living quarters, possibly on Thomas James Fripp place on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.
Note: Edmund Rhett, Jr’s post-Civil War proposal for the “preservation of… our social system,” as described below, would prohibit African Americans from owning land and restrict their ability to move. Thus, they would be forced to live in housing quarters like this into perpetuity, if their master so desired.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s03955 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s03955 (digital file from original item, back)

What, exactly, was freedom supposed to look like? This was a subject of much debate in late 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War (and for some time after that, as it turned out). The Union promised that slavery would end, and ongoing efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, whose ratification at the end of the year constitutionally abolished slavery, gave good reason to believe that the peculiar institution was truly in its death throes.

But it was still an open question as to how far freedom would go. Emancipation did not necessarily mean economic independence, or political or social equality. Over the course of the Reconstruction era – when the former Confederate States were re-integrated into the United States – there would be a battle between blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, and Republicans and Democrats, about the rights, privileges, and opportunities that African Americans would have in the South.

Edmund Rhett, Jr, had his own vision of emancipation: keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” Rhett, from the prominent Rhett family of South Carolina, was an editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper, and served as an officer in Confederate Army. In mid-October, 1865, he wrote a letter to former U.S. Representative Armistead Burke, which detailed his ideas for dealing with the freepeople in the post-war South. [1] These are excerpts:

Edmund Rhett, Jr, letter to Armistead Burt, October 14, 1865.

Dear Sir:

With great diffidence and some hesitation I venture to enclose you certain propositions relative to the negro-discipline and negro-labor questions, Which have occurred to me, and impressed me as essential to the preservation of our labor system, and, indeed, our social system. As one of the Commission Appointed to suggest such laws as are advisable for the regulation and the protection of the Negro, I venture to submit these propositions to your consideration.

…[T]he sudden and entire overthrow of that system which has taken place is unwise, injurious, and dangerous to our whole system, pecuniary and social… it must follow as a natural sequence, it appears to me, that, sudden and abrupt abolition having taken place by force of arms, it should be to the utmost extent practicable be limited, controlled, and surrounded with such safeguards, as will make the change as slight as possible both to the white man and the negro, the planter and of the workmen, the capitalist and the laborer.

In other words, that the general interest of both the white man and the Negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable.

If you agree with me in these premises, I trust too we shall not differ much in the conclusion-namely, as to what Laws are necessary to affect this end.

I know that there are those who look to getting rid of the Negro entirely, and of resorting to white labor. I regard this idea as the mere infatuation of men who are at their wits’ end. For in all of the cotton states all of the  good lands are so malarious in the fall of the year as to render it impracticable for white men to labor under our suns. We must face the question-negroes must be made to work, or else cotton and rice must cease to be raised for export.

Your obedient servant
Edmund Rhett


1st An Act prohibiting all Freedmen.. from ever holding or owning real estate in South Carolina or their posterity after them. An act of this sort is essential in order to uproot the idea which has now run the Negroes crazy all over this state – namely that they all to have 40 acre lots of their own. Let the idea of there ever owning land pervade amongst them, and they will never work for the white man, or upon any land but their own. The act is essential because it will at once cut off all competition between the white and the black man. The black man must then forever labor under the capital of the white man, and the white man must take care of him or else he will soon have no labor. I regard it as the most vital Law that can be made for our future prospering.

2nd a stringent act against vagrancy on the part of the Freedmen of African descent. A Law requiring each negro, in each district to have a recorded domicile which it shall be unlawful for him to leave without due notice given to some appointed magistrate; or without twelve months notice of the fact, and the place to which he intends to move; or some other restriction as to the method of his movements. Also requiring him to show that he is in the lawful employ of some white man.

For the violation of such restrictions as these, or such other restrictions as may be deemed expedient, let the vagrant negro be taken up and put to hard labor upon public works in chain gangs… for not less than 60 days at a time; and then returned to his locality…

4th an act to regulate discipline. It is essential that there be should be some system of discipline on a late plantation. Both under the apprentice system, and under the coolie system some corporal punishment is found necessary on the part of the employer…

…Here, under these… propositions, we have the Negro, first, put upon the footing of a denizen. He can own no real estate – the soil is out of his reach then we have him located, and prevented from vagrandizing. Then we compel him to keep his contracts. Then we control him, and keep him under good discipline. Under these laws, he must labor faithfully according to the laws of demand and supply or else he must leave the state.

I do not conceive it is impracticable to pass such laws. Of course this is not the time to do it. The question should not be broached until we are back into the Union. If it is broached now, it will only strengthen the Black Republican Party and render the admission of the State difficult. After we are admitted, I believe it will be little difficulty. The [Andrew Johnson] administration will support us.​

This was Rhett’s version of freedom: prohibit the freedpeople from ever owning land, restrict “the method of (their) movements,” prevent Negroes from “competing with white men,” “control him, and keep him under good discipline,” and otherwise keep negroes “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” He notes that some whites would like to just “get rid of the Negro entirely,” but Rhett says that negroes were needed to keep white men from working under the “malarious” conditions associated with the growth of cotton and rice. Basically, Rhett was saying, if you can’t beat them via war, just re-enslave them via law. These types of discriminatory laws would be dubbed “Black Codes.”

Of note is that that Rhett had no doubt that President Andrew Johnson would support these plans. And in fact, President Johnson did veto numerous acts of Congress that would have provided equal rights to African Americans. The US Congress would pass several of these laws over his veto, and this set the stage for what some have called Radical Reconstruction.

African Americans were well aware of efforts to restrict their rights and liberties. I will discuss their response to the question of “what should freedom look like?” in the next post.

[1] Source: From Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt,  p 23-26

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