What impact did Black politicians have during the Reconstruction? In episode 77, Trevon Logan from The Ohio State University’s Department of Economics discusses his research into the election of Black politicians after the Civil War ended in 1865, which led to increased tax revenues that were put toward public schools and land ownership reform. White Southerners, however, reversed that progress just 12 years later, augmenting the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans that remains today. His open-access article “Do Black politicians matter? Evidence from Reconstruction,” was published in March of 2020 in The Journal of Economic History.
Websites and other resources
- Trevon’s website and Twitter
- Thread on Reddit’s r/science forum regarding this research
- Interview with Trevon on Question Lane podcast about this study
- Article in OSU’s student paper The Lantern on Trevon’s NBER paper
- Columbia University & Slavery project’s “William Archibald Dunning: Father of historiographic racism Columbia’s legacy of academic Jim Crow“
- Trevon’s TEDxColumbus discussion on residential segregation:
🔊 Access bonus content here.
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Hosts / Producers
Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins
How to Cite
What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers
Trevon Logan: There was a racialization of anti-poverty policy that made whites really resistant to it, even though they themselves would benefit from those policies.
Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science, the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.
Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today in episode 77 of Parsing Science we’ll talk with Trevon Logan from the Ohio State University’s Department of Economics. His research finds that the election of Black politicians after the end of the Civil War in 1865, led to increased tax revenues that were put toward public schooling and land ownership reforms – until white Southerners reverse that progress just 12 years later – resulting in the systematic disenfranchisement of these illegally elected office holders and their constituents. Here’s Trevon Logan.
Logan: I’m Trevon Logan. Currently, I’m a Professor of Economics at The Ohio State University, also research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Originally, I’m from St. Paul, Minnesota. So a place that is recently in the news. Went to the oldest high school in the state of Minnesota – Central High School – and then to the University of Wisconsin. Really became interested in economics, actually, through Herbert Hill, who was the former National Labor director for the NAACP, and became very interested in labor history. Decided to go to graduate school and went to the University of California Berkeley. And after completing my PhD, I have been at Ohio State since 2004.
Watkins: Upon the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, serious efforts were undertaken to reintegrate the devastated South into the Union. This period of time – known as the Reconstruction – required that the ex-Confederate states’ Constitutions permanently ended slavery. And to ensure that these requirements were carried out, federal troops were deployed. But with their removal in 1877, Reconstruction ended, ushering in the Redemption era. In it, Southern whites said about systematically disenfranchising Blacks, enacting measures aimed at reinstating the white supremacy which characterize the Antebellum South prior to the onset of the Civil War. While short lived, the history of the Reconstruction era is much deeper, more informative, and at times, much darker than many of us may realize. To begin our conversation, we asked Trevon to describe his journey of becoming an economic historian with a specialization in the period.
Economic history of Reconstruction
Logan: Reconstruction probably continues to be one of the least-researched areas in American history. Everyone loves everything up to the Civil War, and there’s a huge literature on the Civil War and presidential leadership, for example. And then we sort of skip the late 19th century; we get perhaps to the Gilded Age, and we move to the Progressive Era, etc. And there’s much more history there. But if you look at America 1865 to 1900, there is a relative dearth of literature there. So there isn’t a lot of interest in history there. There isn’t a lot of interest in Reconstruction. The interest has grown substantially in the last couple of years, given some recent events. And certainly, as people have turned attention to the growth, for example, of Confederate monuments and other sorts of things that have their birth in the late 19th century. But for the most part, it really is a relatively under researched area.
So I began really a concerted effort to read extensively about Reconstruction and to really understand what it was, how it failed and why it failed. And then thinking about how that historical knowledge could inform the way that I approach this as an economic historian. It led me to really a very simple relationship just to see if having more Black politicians in an area actually was related to higher tax receipts and higher government revenues. Because Black politicians, I was finding from the historical narrative, really did have a policy agenda that they wanted to push. But the really cool thing about Reconstruction is that we had a truly exogenous event that no one – say, circa 1863, or even 1864 – would have predicted, which is the enfranchisement of African American men – over a million of them in the South – and then the immediate move into holding political office. And that’s unprecedented. That’s a true shock to the electorate, and then to the base and the composition of the local political leadership. And so that’s what I really could exploit there in the paper to find out these effects.
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Revisionist history and Reconstruction
Leigh: William Dunning was a historian and a political scientist at Columbia University, whose 1907 book on the Reconstruction painted white Southerners as the primary recipients of injustice during the era. In it, he wrote that “freed blacks were not, and in the nature of the case could not for generations be, on the same social, moral and intellectual plane with whites.” This rewriting of history of the Reconstruction according to the willful prejudices and biases of white historians, epitomize revisionist history, which became an important foundation of the edifice of the Jim Crow system.
Logan: One of the big things that I learned from reading the history is that there has been a lot of revision of Reconstruction history. So the original Reconstruction history coming out of the Dunning tradition, is that Reconstruction is just a massive failure. It was a waste of time. That the politicians in the Reconstruction era in particular, the Black politician in the Reconstruction Era, were corrupt. And not only were they corrupt, they were also inept, and I don’t find that from my reading of the history. The revision of that really racist narrative begins with Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, which still probably to me is the best history of Reconstruction. And it’s amazing because that history is not based upon primary sources. Du Bois did not have extensive access to primary sources at that time. But it convinced me to really think about this topic in a very general way of thinking about what is the relationship between the race of a politician and the public policy, and whether we can sort of pick that up. If you’re thinking in terms of political theory, you wouldn’t expect the race of a politician to actually matter. Everything about the politician is simply going to reflect the preferences of the electorate. And so once you control for sort of electoral preferences, the politician is sort of just the handmaiden of the electorate. But sometimes, you know, if you’re going to a sort of citizen candidate model, people are voting for someone who’s going to act a certain way, even though they might not themselves agree with everything that the politician does. And so that would give some way in which the race of a politician could potentially matter.
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Enfranchising the Black vote
Watkins: Many of us think about the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1870 as establishing African Americans’ right to vote. But in fact, by the time the amendment formally enfranchising these former slaves was enacted, some Southern Blacks were already able to vote. And there were also substantial attacks aimed at suppressing it, both in the South and the North.
Logan: Blacks really began to vote in the Reconstruction Acts, because it immediately after the Civil War, the former states of the Confederacy must repatriate to the United States. And the condition of doing so is to renounce slavery, ban slavery, and adopt a new state Constitution. So these states went back, adopt a state Constitution that outlawed slavery, elected a lot of formerly Confederate officers – including electing officers to Congress who were former Confederate. Some of them literally showed up in Washington DC in their former Confederate uniforms to be seated in Congress. And this created a problem with, you know, places like the Ohio delegation and the Minnesota delegation, literally months after the end of the Civil War. They told these states, “Absolutely not, we will not seat your representatives. You must go back and adopt new state Constitutions that must be ratified by the residents of your state. And you must have open elections, and not have any racial restrictions on voting.”
The Reconstruction Acts are what actually enfranchise African Americans for the first time, large scale. So it is not the case that you had large numbers of African Americans voting in any state. In fact, in Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota, they were trying to, in fact, legislate African American enfranchisement, but it was being rejected by white voters. So African American enfranchisement really begins with the Reconstruction Acts. That is what enfranchised African Americans initially, in a broad sense in the United States. Then later this was codified into the US Constitution. For Black politicians, immediately after you ratified the state Constitution, you have to fill the offices that are established by the state Constitution. And that’s when African Americans are first elected to office.
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Black politicians’ tax policies
Leigh: It’s not often that people cast votes for a politician who runs on a platform of increasing taxation. But it is the case that people do vote for candidates who propose to invest that money in public goods that benefit all and exclude none, such as education and infrastructure. And the Reconstruction gave Black politicians their first opportunity to shape public policy, including land taxation policy. This made Ryan and me curious to learn what the political ideology of Black policymakers during the era involved.
Logan: We know that that Black politicians were intimately involved in the establishment of the public school system in the South. And in terms of the development of its financial infrastructure. before the Civil War. Many people don’t realize the South did not provide a large range of public goods, and certainly not relative to the north. So while you did not in the South have large scale public schools, if you were in your little town in Iowa, you had a public school system. But one of the first things that changed in the South institutionally was the establishment of public schools. They were segregated public schools, but they were actually funded quite equally. And they were advocated for particularly by Black politicians. Now, Du Bois covered this extensively in Black Reconstruction.
What I also found searching through the narrative evidence was that Black politicians in particular, sought to use tax policy – in particular property tax policy – to increase wealth holding among African Americans, and in one particular way. The South is very productive in agriculture in the antebellum era. The South also had more land in inventory than the North. Which is really strange when you think about sort of agricultural productivity, you’d think that the South are using every piece of arable land, and they weren’t. They actually had a lot of land in inventory. And of course, the people who knew that lots of land was held in inventory are the people who were formerly enslaved, who were working that land. And so the South also had a relatively lax property tax system, and low levels of property taxes. So what African American politicians wanted to do was increase taxes on land. And so, if I tax your land at a high rate, essentially encouraging you to sell the land, that is an inventory – that land is not productive, it doesn’t bring you any, any rents from that land – so you’d sell that land, and in selling that land, you would largely leave that land to belong to someone else. And African American politicians believed that that would lead to large-scale African American land ownership. It did not happen that way, but that’s what they believed would happen if they actually raise taxes on land, that it would take land that was not in production and move it into the market. And therefore put it into production. And they were really explicit about this goal: that they wanted to make African Americans landholders. And that they wanted to have a class of Yeoman farmers who were African American. And they wanted to use tax policy to that purpose. So I find that there were two broad areas of agreement among Black politicians, and the first is to use taxes to finance [the] public school system. And the second is to use tax policy to try to encourage African American land ownership.
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Watkins: Trevon’s study sought to estimate the effect of a politician’s race on the investment of public finances into land tenancy and literacy. But since Black office-holding could be correlated with the local electoral preferences for such redistribution, this factor could have limited his ability to ascribe effects to Black political leadership, as opposed to voter preferences or other factors. To overcome this problem, Trevon incorporated what economists called an “instrumental variable” into his statistical model. As neither Doug nor I were previously familiar with the concept, we were eager to hear more about their use.
Logan: It’s something that’s related to my outcome of interest, and driven by outcome of interest. And, in fact, related to this factor – in my case, Black politicians – but could not be driven by something that would potentially be driving the relationship between both simultaneously. So what it breaks is the endogeneity that might exist between Black politicians and taxes. And so, I want to estimate the impact of Black politicians on local public finance. In particular, and thinking about what is the effect an additional Black politician has on say, per capita tax receipts in a particular area? And you could think about doing this just looking at the correlation between by politicians and the per capita tax rates. [That] would answer that question. But there’s a problem, theoretically, because it could be the case that the places that he elect more Black politicians have underlying preferences for higher taxes. And so then the the correlation that you estimate between Black politicians and per capita tax rates is the correlation. But it does not have a causal interpretation. It’s spurious, right? It’s partially driven by the fact that these places have higher preferences for higher tax rates for more redistributive public policy.
So, I don’t really have something that tells me that Black politicians cause there to be higher per capita taxes. So I need something that’s going to actually give me the experimental or causal estimate. And what we do in economics is we have to think about something that would give us an instrumental variable. And what really it does is it drives a wedge between this spurious correlation. So what I do in the study of Black politicians is I use the antebellum distribution of free Blacks as my instrumental variable, for the following reasons. A lot of the politicians who held office were themselves free African Americans. And the distribution of free Blacks in 1860 is not due to the fact that people thought, “You know, in 1860, we’re going to fight a Civil War. The Civil War is going to end slavery. And at the end of the Civil War that ends slavery, we’re going to have broad enfranchisement of African Americans. And these free Blacks are now going to disproportionately hold office relative to those who are enslaved.” So what this does is, it’s something that is related to free Blacks. So it’s related to the propensity to which areas area going to have Black politicians, but it certainly can’t be related to people’s preferences for redistribution. So what I’m going to get is something that’s going to tell me whether places have more or fewer Black politicians, but for reasons that are going to be completely unrelated to this omitted factor that would drive a spurious correlation. And that’s what an instrumental variable is.
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Impacts on public schooling and land ownership
Leigh: Trevon found that each additional Black office-holder increased per capita county tax revenue by 20 cents: more than than ours wage at the time. And the both were undone by the redemption, Black politicians goals – land and school reform – had different levels of success during the Reconstruction. We’ll hear how effective these policies were after this short break.
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Leigh: Here again is Trevon Logan, discussing the extent to which Black politicians’ goals during the Reconstruction were realized.
Logan: In terms of schooling, we had ample evidence that the schools were established, and they were funded, certainly with high levels of funding up until Southern redemption. And in some work that eventually was cut from what was published, I find that if you actually look in census records and can trace African Americans back to the counties in which they were likely schooled, Black politicians were really instrumental in closing Black-White literacy gaps. And eventually this effect went away after the school funding was broken up, or actually lead to higher levels of inequality after Southern redemption. But for land policy, one reason it didn’t work is that, you know, these Black politicians were in power, or had power, for a very small amount of time. Reconstruction lasts at best about 15 years, and so they didn’t have enough time to really see dramatic large-scale redistribution. What I do find are sort of small scale effects on land tenancy and tenure type. So, African Americans are much more likely to be tenant farmers if there were Black politicians in their county than sharecroppers. So that would be consistent with this wanting to have improvement in African American socio-economic standing, that might be related to land policy, but it did not result in large scale transfers of land.
And so, I think they were remarkably effective at conceptually understanding what it was that they wanted to do, in terms of having tax policy be used to help to redistribute wealth to African Americans. The fact that they were not able to achieve that as a goal is a function of a lot of things that are happening, not only economically, but also socially. So Reconstruction really comes to an end after the Panic of 1873, which really takes the nation in into a completely different direction, and where they’re not as interested in seeing African American equality – certainly politically and not even economically – as the nation sort of deals with this large-scale economic panic. And so they were successful in trying to get as much as they could. And they really had a sharp understanding of – at that time – the tax system. They were remarkably astute politicians, I find overall. Were some are not up to the task? Certainly. Are some politicians not up to the task in 2020? Certainly. So I don’t think relatively they were unscrupulous or that they were corrupt – more so than politicians that we would see other periods of time – and certainly not due to their race.
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Whites’ retaliatory punishment
Watkins: In Episode 11 of Parsing Science, we talked with Adam Morris from Harvard University about retaliatory punishment: the tendency some people have to punish others for perceived transgressions, even to their own detriment. As Trevon discusses next, by rolling back the policies of their Black predecessors during the Southern redemption, White politicians engaged in similar practices … with similar results.
Logan: When Redemption came, some white politicians wanted to move back to antebellum sort of public goods provisions, which would be essentially the elimination of public schools: for whites and Blacks. And what they found was that whites – poor whites in particular – had strong preferences. They like the public schools that had been established. And so, the one thing that they could pursue was racially disparate funding of education. And in addition to that, lowering the level of funding overall. They found that they could get away with that politically. They could decline and decrease the funding for public education, but as long as they decreased it more for Blacks and for whites, it was politically tenable for them to do so. Same happen during President Johnson’s war on poverty, for example. Areas were seeing poverty alleviation, but that there was a racialization of anti-poverty policy that made whites really resistant to it, even though they themselves would benefit from those policies. If we think about what I would call, the willingness to pay for whiteness, it’s quite high. In other words, as long as there’s a perception that African Americans suffer more, it’s amazing what some politicians hewing to these racial lines are able to get away with: with their white constituents. In other words, it’s amazing how punitive whites are willing to be towards themselves, as long as there’s a perception that there’s a greater amount of punitive policy being attached and meted out to Blacks.
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Racial violence against African Americans
Leigh: The Ku Klux Klan’s torches, burning crosses and lynchings are among the most striking visuals from the period after the South’s loss of the Civil War. Indeed, far too many these same images are being captured even today. But, then as now, the KKK was only one of the many hate groups that metes out racial violence against African Americans.
Logan: It’s not just the KKK. So I want to talk about the sort of racial violence in general. So, there were what were literally called – contemporaneously at the time – white Men’s clubs that would go about walking in front of polling locations on Election Day, fully armed. There are estimates from the historical record, that about one third of all of the racial violence that was occurring at that time, happened the week before an election. So there were a lot of coordinated efforts to try to get African Americans to not vote, to be intimidated from voting. And then there were other sort of massacres. So one particular example is the Colfax Massacre, which occurred after an election in which an African American was elected Sheriff. And whites look literally brought in a cannon from a neighboring town to launch it at the courthouse where the African Americans had assembled. And even after the Blacks had waved the white flag of surrender, they were massacred. Well over 100 African Americans were killed in that massacre. And whites then assumed the office that Blacks had been elected to, because they had killed the person who had been elected to the office. This eventually reached the Supreme Court, who ruled that this type of voter intimidation did not violate the Enforcement Acts. And so this had to be settled, and could only be a state issue. In other words, the state attorney general, the local law enforcement, had to view this as a violation of state law. And so, by the time that that decision comes down and in the 1870s, you basically – at the federal level – are letting there be open season on African American voters, on African American politicians, and widespread voter intimidation takes place. And so, this not only emboldens your local Ku Klux Klan, but other aligned white organizations, to intimidate Black voters. Drive African Americans from the polls. And once you do that, it’s easy to write into new state Constitutions disenfranchisement, which is exactly what was happening in the South at that time.
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Lessons for economists and political scientists to apply
Watkins: Trevon’s research on Black politicians during Reconstruction offers valuable insights into a period of time which has led to a legacy of segregation and disenfranchisement for African Americans. Doug and I wondered what lessons he feels that economic and political researchers can glean from his study’s methods and findings.
Logan: I think that what we can learn as economists is we shouldn’t overlook these, what I call, “blips” in enfranchisement, that would potentially have really large effects that actually vanish. So in the political economy literature – and certainly the one that’s been advanced by economists; contemporary economists, not economic historians, necessarily – is that you have these extensions of the franchise and they lead you into these, essentially, game theoretic lock-ins in which you can never sort of scale those things back. I think that that literature really overlooks, in particular, the American experience in which there are franchise extensions – particularly to African Americans – and always this fight back to try to have retrenchment ,and to renege on those promises. We see that even in the most recent scaling back – or state enactments in a lot of states, for example – to put up voter suppression. And the federal court saying you know, “The things that you’re doing in this state have surgical precision in trying to exclude African Americans from the franchise.” So this idea that we extended the franchise, and it’s always this beneficial, and there’s this sort of arc that moves in one direction. I think the American case shows that there’s a lot more turbulence about that sort of story than we might wish. For a political scientists, I think, they have been interested in these issues. But I don’t think they’ve been as interested in this public finance aspect of this. Right? So they’ve been interested in what happens in Reconstruction. They’ve certainly been interested in issues of enfranchisement and representation and the demographics of politicians. But I think the particulars of how that works with public finance has not been explored.
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Racism and violence today
Leigh: The legacy of the Reconstruction in the Jim Crow era that followed continue to influence American society in real and disheartening ways. Our conversation with Trevon was set within the context of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent worldwide protests against police violence and racial injustice. So we ended our conversation by asking Trevon, how he reflects on America’s historical struggle with racism, and how it might stand to inform our ongoing efforts to overcome it as a nation.
Logan: I’m struck – as I look at protest, and look at this current moment in America’s racial history – struck by something a lot of historians would talk about, which is just continuity and change. And we can think about the continuity in two ways. One, if we’re thinking in particular about George Floyd, this is not the first video that we’ve seen of an African American, and an African American man in particular, being brutalized by the police. It’s not the first video that we’ve seen in the last year. And it’s not the first video, certainly, that we’ve seen in the last several years. We’ve seen many of these. This is something that we continue knew as a nation to consume.
So why was this particular case so prominent? And this is another aspect of continuity, which is that the pandemic has certainly – economically, socially, etc. – shut the United States down. So everything is canceled, right? ESPN has almost no sporting events to show because everything has been canceled. The campuses of our universities are now shuttered. Everything in America – to a first approximation – other than essential services, has been closed. And so the world, and certainly the United States, you know, pressed the pause button. And in the middle of that pause, one thing that continues is videotaped evidence of police brutality against African Americans. So that even though we’re putting everything on pause, the one thing that is still pressed play on his racialized brutality against Black people. So I think that was a really salient moment.
But the protests that we see all over the nation are really operating on two levels. It’s not just the response to George Floyd. It’s the response to the fact that an African American is killed at police hands, literally every day in the United States. So all of these communities have not just a case that is similar to George Floyd’s case. They have several. So these communities, in this time in which we’re playing pressing pause, have to reflect on the fact that they themselves have several instances in their own local history which speak to this as well.
But ultimately, the protest – while I do think they highlight these issues for me personally – give me some hope. I don’t think – I don’t believe – that people would take to the streets, in a pandemic, to protest to raise their voices to demand this change, unless they believe that it was possible. So on the other side of this protest, or what’s operating and guiding this protest, I believe, is hope. I think the biggest lesson that I personally take from that time period – Reconstruction – is we cannot take these rights and our freedoms and the franchise for granted. We simply cannot. And certainly African Americans cannot go to the bank, as it were, on America’s promise. We have to continue to fight and assert our right to be included in that promise. I want to say that it is worth the fight. But I think it’s necessary to understand that it is always a fight.
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Links to manuscript, bonus audio and other materials
Leigh: That was Trevon Logan discussing his open-access article “Do black politicians matter? Evidence from Reconstruction,” which was published in March 2020. In The Journal of Economic History. You’ll find a link to his paper at parsing science.org/e77 along with transcripts, bonus audio clips, and other materials that we discussed during the episode.
Watkins: If you like what you’ve been hearing, then head over to Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever else you might get your podcasts, and subscribe to Parsing Science. And if you do already subscribe, consider leaving a review on iTunes. It’s not only a great way for others to learn about the show, it’s also a great way to help spread word of the work of the scientists on the show.
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Preview of next episode
Leigh: Next time, in Episode 78 of Parsing Science, we’ll talk with Richard Bomphrey, from the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College about how mosquitoes can use modulations in airflow fields caused by movement of their own wings to detect surfaces in the dark. And how drones might be engineered to mimic this ability to avoid crashing into walls or other surfaces.
Bomphrey: We think that the mosquitoes can detect this surface by monitoring fluctuations in their own flow that they’re generating themselves. But it would be nice to prove that concept on some sort of flying device.
Leigh: We hope that you’ll join us again.
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