When the Tsar Out-planned the President

Reconstruction historian Eric Foner once noted at a guest lecture in London how the “USA is exceptional in our vehement insistence that we are exceptional”.[1]Foner is not wrong; John Winthrop, one of the first Europeans to descend on America, called the to be nation a city upon a hill. At core to our moral authority over global democracy and order is our insistence that America is the champion of individual rights and civil liberties. This type of rhetoric was constantly espoused during the Cold War as an excuse for America meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations across the world: for, as politicians of both parties argued, Soviet influence would cripple countries as they became imbued through a suppression of rights. Soviet leaders, in turn, presented back to the American public a history framing our democracy as the perverse distorter of individual liberties, bloodied by incomprehensible racial violence. Though American leaders refused to entertain Russia’s counternarrative, one that Vladimir Putin repeated in a recent interview with Chris Wallace, it is time to listen, because they are right.[2]And nothing better exemplifies the veracity of the Russian historiography than the shockingly parallel histories of both countries in the early 1860s. 

Though both American and Russia were increasingly scrutinized by the 19thcentury global community as backwards for their wanton institutions of slavery, their drastically different responses at this crucial crossroads would help chart the countries on incredibly different paths. Tsar Alexander II emancipated some 20 million Russian serfs (souls) in 1861, with President Abraham Lincoln following suit in freeing America’s four million slaves in 1863. Both men would see the two years following their proclamations serve as transition years before implementation, be assassinated years later due to their actions, and have successors try to undermine their incontrovertible decisions. 

However, both data and country historiographies look back on the decades following serf emancipation as a success which spurred even further social progress, while American reconstruction lead to another 70 years of de facto slavery for millions and would require 100 years for meaningful social advancements for former slaves. Clearly, race is the incredibly large elephant in the room: the majority of Russian serfs were ethnically Russian, while the racial hatred that white American Southerners and Northerners alike harbored toward black slaves was undoubtedly the driving cause of Southern resistance to, and Northern complicity in allowing social mobility for former slaves. This racism resulted in American Reconstruction focusing on political rights for former slaves, as opposed to their economic mobility. This reconstruction method stood in stark contrast to a more cerebral Russian effort, which after years of planning by multiple levels of government, realized that freeing serfs required adjoining economic reforms centered around land. In comparing these two confrontations with mass social change, Russia’s success in its national emancipation efforts suggests that economic improvements can empower people in politics, while political rights alone can often be stripped away by the true ruling class.   

Russian serfdom was just as big a part of Russian social fabric as slavery was in America; from a sheer statistical perspective, it was an institution even larger in size. Serfdom became a commonplace system at the dawn of the Romanov dynasty family rule in the 16thcentury, becoming officially codified into law in 1649. In Larisa Zakharova Cambridge History’s chapter on the Reign of Alexander II, historian Terrence Emmons advises “The view that serfdom was the ‘cornerstone’ of the state structure… has been increasingly corroborated in the historiography and is virtually undisputed”.[3]It is difficult to underscore how massive serfdom was: in addition to the 22 million privately owned serfs that were legally freed in 1861, there were an additional 23 million state owned serfs who the Proclamation did not effect. Though like in the United States, most nobles did not individually own a prodigious amount of serfs—who could be flogged, restricted in movement, effectively unpaid, and faced threat of exile to more brutal conditions in Siberia (the Deep South of Romanov Russia)—there were clearly salient differences between serfdom and American slavery. Most serf-owning nobles lived in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and therefore rarely saw their human chattel. Combined with the fact that serfs were comprised of the same ethnic and racial makeup as fellow Russians, nobles demonstrated less animosity towards their serfs than American masters did to their slaves. Additionally, serfs, unlike American slaves, lived on massive communes with fellow serfs, and from 1837 onwards had a form of self-government on these mirs.[4]However, on whole, it seems quite fair to say serfdom was at least as synonymous to Russian life as slavery to the ways of the Antebellum South. 

Unlike his contemporary Abe Lincoln, who would need to fundamentally shift American public and political opinion to arrive at the mere possibility of his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Tsar Alexander II’s 1861 Emancipation manifesto was decades in the making. Russian advancement toward abolishing serfdom began in 1816, with its fate cemented in the nation’s loss in the Crimean War in 1856. It was Alexander I, the grandfather of Alexander II, who emancipated serfs in the Baltic provinces of Livonia, Estonia, and Kurland between 1816-1819. This first flirtation with universal freedom from bondage was widely viewed as a failure as a result of the central government’s inability to pass needed accompanying land reform, a lesson bureaucrat would not forget in 1861.[5]The Ukraine province was the next guinea pig of serf reform, as Russia imposed mandatory inventories on nobles, essentially official records on land plots that the peasants would own.[6]Though the central state’s lack of unequivocal control of the periphery is a constant plague throughout Russian history, there were still once again lessons to be derived from this very different experiment. 

Two social trends in the first half of the 19thcentury also helped to set the stage for eventual serfdom emancipation: the rise of so-called enlightened bureaucrats and the creation of diverse government ministries. In the decades before 1861, enlightened bureaucrats started to study Western Europe, and began to pontificate on the idea of universal freedom amongst each other. By the 1850s multiple members of this sect of thinking became close advisors to Alexander II, which spurred a series of institutional reforms. Their gains in influence should not be underestimated: a leading scholar on the peasant reforms of 1861, Terrence Emmons, firmly believes that the rise of enlightened bureaucrats, starting during the reign of Nicholas I, “can undoubtedly be considered one of the preconditions of the 1860 reforms”.[7]Another key reform in this time period was the creation of ministries, where future reform leading cadres studied. But it is almost universally agreed upon by historians that it was the humiliating loss at the hands of the Ottomans in the Crimean War which would be the final element needed to push the arms of Russian Government to proceed with emancipation. 

On the eve of losing a war fought with techniques of the past, Russian Tsar Alexander II adroitly set off on one of the biggest social restructuring projects in European history with eyes to the future. Alexander and other politicians of the time realized it was best not to sit on the stirring of discontent within the country in the fallout to the Crimean War. N.A. Miliutin, who was Alexander’s Minister of War along with being a main author of the Great Reforms of 1861, wrote in an 1856 memorandum that the delaying of direly-needed economic reforms at the behest of maintaining serfdom “could lead to an uprising of the peasantry within fifteen years”.[8]Alexander echoed this sentiment in his speech to the nobility that same year, where he emphatically stated that it is “much better that [serf emancipation] be carried out from above, resident and from below”.[9]A.F. Tiutcheva, lady-in-waiting for the Empress, remarked reform was not Alexander’s natural demeanor, but rather that “his character, upbringing and world outlook equipped him with a sufficient understanding of the given situation to take non-traditional decisions”.[10]Alexander’s pragmatism at this watershed moment showed in his working with multiple affected parties, as well as political leaders in the lead up to the 1861 Great Reform. Furthermore, in discussion of the most controversial topic, land reform, the Editing Commissions which were scripting the laws, released 3,000 copies of proposals from meetings to gauge public reaction. By making the process relatively tansparent, Alexander was able to usher in his reforms with less public discontent than one would expect.

            1861 emancipation framers understood that freeing the serfs without additional reforms would be almost pointless. D.A. Miliutan, encapsulated this notion brilliantly in his memoirs in the 1880s, writing ‘The Law of 19 February 1861 could not have been a separate, isolated act, it was the foundation-stone of the restructuring of the entire state system”. Miliutan continued by noting that it was also imperative to constantly re-examine “the course of the three main reforms—the peasant reform, the zemstvo reform, and the judicial reform,” in order to ensure that if peasant reform was the starting point, that it was far from the final transformation the state should and would see.[11]

And so, when February 19 1861 finally saw the official emancipation of serfs, the state had already planned a gradual implementation of further reforms to successfully transition some 22 million souls into society. Serfs had the ability to claim a small plot of land, or have the government purchase them a larger plot, with the serf being able to repay the government through a redemption payment over the ensuing decades. The state used the two years following emancipation to allow serfs to negotiate regulated charters fixing the exact amount of land to be acquired. Following those two years, serfs were largely bound to their village for an additional seven years to afford a gradual integration into more rights. Despite these restrictions, serfs immediately underwent a dramatic legal transformation where they acquired a civic status, were given full self-government at the volost(village) level, ability to marry, and ability to vote and serve in the zemstvo(local assembly) and courts.[12]Education reform gave serfs the ability to attend schools, an option incentivized by military reform which not only required all classes to serve (the defeated army in the Crimean War was largely composed of poorly trained peasants), but also reduced service time from six to two years for serfs who completed basic education. What is perhaps most impressive about these sweeping reforms is the lack of national opposition they faced. While the Nobility was clearly displeased, and there is documented occasional violence in 1861, the country seemed to accept the political reforms and civil rights given to serfs. This is an unbelievably far cry from the near million lives lost in the United States Civil War just to enable the possibility of political rights to be given to the formerly enslaved. So, while Russia was able to pass political reform before encountering controversy to the more consequential land reform, the USA was unable to even get through political reform without it leading to violence. 

            Having learned from the negative results of Baltic peasant emancipation without land reform and having studied successes from French-creation privately owned small land plots and Austrian peasant land reclamation, Alexander II audaciously yet calculatingly set about his perhaps greatest reform of 1861: land reform. Zakharova remarks that the reformers believed land reform would be able to resolve questions of “abolition of serfdom and the future arrangement of land relations in one legislative act”.[13]Knowing that this reform would hurt the nobility the most, Alexander worked hard at attaining the highest degree of mutual consent between all parties as possible. That is why in hindsight, the land reform—eventually indisputable plots requiring eventual redemption payment in conjunction with 9 years of being bound to the land—may seem draconian. However, it is clear from the written plans of key reformers such as M.D. Dolbilov that the state planned, when it got the finances, to further help the serfs in their gradual transition. In fact, Cambridge History finds state finances as “the weakest link in the chain of reforms”, with Alexander’s government finally doubling down after the War of 1877-78 with economic reforms linking back to ’61, such as a reduction in redemption payments, abolition of the salt tax, and adapting of the passport system to allow for easier movement.[14]In some, if Russia were a wealthier country they likely would have done more for peasants, but nonetheless the country did give ample effort to improve former serf mobility. 

Though the proletariat did not, as the nobility feared, become the bourgeoise, by the 19thcentury it would be nearly impossible to not declare the emancipation of Russian serfs and ensuing reforms an unmitigated success. 21stcentury tools for statistical analysis of peasant outcomes using big data show that the Great Reforms lead to “the creation of self-sufficient peasant farming and the prospect of the predominance of the peasant family farm in Russian agriculture”.[15]This may sound like modest progress, but it is quite an accomplishment to transition some 40 million souls from de facto objects to real, contributing members of society within a half a century. 

One such example of modern survey tools helps to answer the biggest potential counterpoint one may consider in the declaration of Alexander’s reform as successful: the assassination of Alexander in 1881, the toppling of the Tsar in 1905, and the destruction of known Russian society in 1917 with the Bolshevik revolution. A study by Evgeny Finkel, Scott Gelbach, and Trcia D. Olsen compared the approximately 22 million privately owned serfs freed in 1861 to a perfect counterfactual: the 23 million state serfs still in bondage after 1861. They found a dramatic increase in peasant uprisings and disturbances among the freed serfs in the transition years of ’61-’62, which would decrease to levels still higher than pre-1861 and post-1861 control group levels[16]. Between 1862-1905, Noble land ownership decreased by more than 1/3—falling from some 85% to 50%, while peasant land share quadrupled from five to 20%. While riots and rebellions might indicate the former serfs’ dissatisfaction with life after emancipation, these historical incidents actually indicate how successful Alexander’s methods were. Having the political ability to stage a protest without mass retribution, and the economic knowledge to attempt a fundamental change of systems, demonstrates that Alexander truly liberated 22 million souls in 1861. 

            While Alexander II was freeing 22 million people from involuntary servitude as the first reform in a multi-pronged plan for economic restoration, the United States was in the midst of a devastating Civil War because of how afraid the agrarian South was of seeing slave political reform cross the Atlantic. While since 1817, Russia had slowly been paving a path to emancipation, American politics had only found ways to continually postpone such a decision. And though slavery was only operational in the South, it impacted the entire American economy. The Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act are all examples of the United States working to control the spread of slavery westward. The years of 1836-1844 saw the United States Congress place a gag rule on debating slavery. The Confederate Constitution states that they fought the Civil War to keep slavery, while Lincoln would say that he had no intention in interfering with slavery in the states in which it already existed if that would preserve the Union. Unlike in Russia, slave emancipation seemed anything but inevitable in America on February 19, 1861. 

Slavery was not part of the social fabric of the Antebellum South: it was the entire way of life in a society defined by race. While serfs in Russia were of the same ethnic composition as the nobles (they rarely saw), the dark skin of African American slaves was used by Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson to justify their personal possession of slaves, and the institution of slavery as a whole. The Slaves provided free labor to make the South the land of King Cotton; by 1840, the south produced two-thirds of the world’s cotton, an endeavor which made the export worth more than all other American exports by 1840.[17]Russian writers in the 1850s compared the practice of owning serfs to being in possession of souls; American slaveholders in the 1850s would have insisted they were doing slaves a favor, arguing that slavery was actually to the benefit of what they saw as an inferior race—the two countries viewed the issue through diabolically different lenses. This combination of vitriolic racism and economic theory led to half the country refusing to entertain changing a system that most of the contemporary industrializing world had long found obsolete. 

            Abraham Lincoln was admittedly hindered by the checks and balances that Tsar Alexander II obviously did not confront due to his nearly unlimited power. For the Constitution to which Lincoln was confined is by all accounts a pro-slavery document which has explicit sections seemingly in protection of slavery. As such, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1 1863, it was a legally dubious war time executive order which did not even free all four million American slaves, let alone come with a mass of other reforms that accompanied Alexander’s emancipation decree. While Alexander presented reform to the nobility as a needed progression in a society nearing moral bankruptcy, the Emancipation Proclamation declares itself “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing [Southern] rebellion”.[18]The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in states that were in open rebellion against the Union; in reality, it had a bigger impact on Lincoln’s re-election campaign messaging—which now shifted to telling Northerners that hundreds of thousands of lives were lost for the larger cause of ending slavery—than it did on slaves in states which were directly disregarding D.C. in order to maintain slavery. And so, the Northern, Republican-controlled congress would pass the 13thAmendment to ban slavery and require the defeated Confederate states to ratify such amendment in order to apply for re-admission. [19]Unfortunately for the slaves, while Alexander’s manifesto said serfs would receive “the full rights of free rural inhabitants” in due time after some temporary restrictions, the 13thAmendment had a massive loophole which the South would soon learn to exploit.[20]

            In fact, while Russia’s 1861 Great Reforms were written in an inconvertible fashion, America’s 13thAmendment would permit an astonishing eight hundred thousand blacks to be enslaved between 1865 and 1942. For, the 13thAmendment banned slavery “except as a punishment for crime”.[21]Undoubtedly, the writers of the 13thcould not have expected such an outcome. However, such a result can arise when, unlike in Russia, essentially none of the involved parties participate in constructing the legal framework for its end. While Russia fought no war to emancipate the serfs, the South emerged from the Civil War utterly decimated—both morally, but more importantly, economically. Slaves represented half of the invested capital in the South at the dawn of the Civil War, and their free labor allowed the South to not face immediate economic ramifications from not industrializing during the first half of the 19thcentury. As such, the South believed that in order to rebuild its agrarian society, it would need to find a route back to free labor. And so, new legal codes barely stopped short at defining it a crime to be born black.  

            Black codes painted the laws which would shape the Jim Crow-Era in the South and find ways to get back to as close to pre-Civil War Southern society as possible. Black individuals could be arrested for the extremely vague term of vagrancy or for walking along a train track, with two-thirds of arrests the result of accused theft of anything worth more than one dollar. Further, any child under 18 without suitable upbringing—whatever the state determined that to be—could be taken and rented out as an apprentice “to some suitable and competent person, on such terms as the court may direct”.[22]Labor contracts were structured to bound supposedly free blacks to former masters. Workers were required to sign a labor contract by the start of each year and would not be paid until the end of each year. If they sought out other work or ran away, they would have committed a crime, and would not get paid any wage from the year. Often, these crimes resulted in fines—vagrancy for example would result in a $50 fee—that the destitute former slaves could obviously not pay. And, of course, “in default of payment, he must commit such statement to the house of correction” where “the use of chain games, putting in stocks, if necessary” was permissible by law.[23]Thus, convict labor replaced slave labor. Over 90% of convict laborers were black men, and as many of a third of whom were under 16. Often, these convicts were worked even harsher than when they were slaves, as private employers only purchased their labor contracts from the state for nine-month intervals. Those working in coal mines faced a 30-40% annual fatality rate, while arrests would surge around cotton picking season. Even those not arrested faced brutal sharecropping conditions who were only able to keep 7% of profits from land they had to pay 70% interest rates to acquire—though not slavery, this still bound blacks to the South.[24]But, before the South was able to strip the 13thAmendment of its meaning, the North had eleven years to try to prevent the terrible post-emancipation experience described above. 

            While the two years following emancipation in Russia allowed serfs to negotiate future land allotments, the two years following the American Civil War saw an all-out battle in D.C. over the future of slaves. Many scholars believe if Lincoln had not been assassinated, he would have worked with all branches of government in his plans for reconstruction; instead, his death lead to his racist, former slave-owning, formerly democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson to assume the role of the judiciary. Johnson worked unilaterally—without the Republican congress—to try to rush back Confederate states to the Union without giving political rights to blacks. Devastatingly, he required the Freedman’s bureau, an organization established to ensure proper treatment of former slaves, to take back confiscated land it had given to former slaves under the infamous 40 acres and a mule field order by General William Tecumseh Sherman. As one would expect from the contemporary case of Russia, in the few years free blacks in Georgia and South Carolina had land, they created fairly stable and vibrant communities. Unfortunately, as Union General Carl Schurz found, Southern blacks quickly went from slaves of lone owners to slaves of society.[25]

Eventually, the Republican supermajority would take true power from Johnson in an effort to ensure the Civil War was not fought “without securing [former slaves] their rights as free men and citizens”.[26]After congress impeached Johnson, he tacitly agreed to not impede the reconstruction efforts of Republicans. Johnson would, though, tell Southern leaders to ignore the measures passed by Republicans, arguing that in the next election they could get more sympathetic leadership. In charge, Republicans focused on three main issues: preventing Confederate leaders from regaining power, protecting political rights of former slaves, and ensuring the safety of white unionists in the South. The American reality in 1867 was that reform was being forced upon half the country, which happened to be rebuilding from war. 

Republicans went about protecting former slaves by passing two Constitutional amendments which would fundamentally change the way government operated. In response to the constricting Black Codes, in 1866 the 14thAmendment gave Congress the power to enforce provisions that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” and which stated all persons would receive “due process” and “equal protections of the law”.[27]This is a loaded amendment. Unlike the first 10 amendments (The Bill of Rights), the 13th,14th, and eventual 15thhad an incredibly monumental shift of vernacular: they shifted Congress (and thus the federal government) from being a body which legally avoided infringing on states’ rights to Congress being the protector of certain national rights, which superseded those of individual states. While Alexander’s Great Reforms of 1861 were certainly bold, they did not come from any nascent government structure. Meanwhile in the United States, the unhappy South saw perhaps their next largest fear behind slave emancipation—larger federal government—come to fruition. To show how different this was from Russia, consider that Alexander offered the nobility more political participation as an olive branch in reform, while the 14thAmendment had to explicitly bar former Confederate leaders from holding office. Of more impact to the former slaves, note that the 14thseeks to protect civil and political rights. Incredulously, though the second section of the 14thstripped states of congressional seating proportional to eligible black voters they refused to enfranchise, the South actually did just that, leading to Congress passing another immortal law. The 15thamendment, which also gave Congress the power of enforcement, furthered this thread by promising the right of American citizens “to vote shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”.[28]Senator Charles Sumner nonetheless argued that these two amendments made the Federal Government the custodian of freedom.[29]There were two major pitfalls of these amendments: neither contained a provision explicitly stating a positive right to vote, and at the end of Northern-led reconstruction, they were laws which protected intangible rights as opposed to tangible land. 

            Despite historiographies, so called Radical Reconstruction from 1867-1876 was quite successful. With voting rights protected, Louisiana had a black Governor, Mississippi would have two black senators, and South Carolina would have black majorities in both state houses. To put this in perspective, when Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, he was only the 5thblack Senator in US History! Southern propaganda (admittedly oft accepted by the North) portrayed the eventual rise of the heroic KKK as necessary to defeat villainous Republicans as derailing the lenient plan wanted by Lincoln and attempted by Johnson by allowing for the “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.[30] that was black government. Contrary to this false narrative, 962 of 1163 black officeholders were literate, and the KKK rise to power and lynch law was anything but heroic, and only possible after President Grant, and the Force Acts which enabled him to prosecute the KKK, left office in 1876. Black governments worked with Republicans in D.C. to provide for better education, infrastructure, and worker protections. However, they were unable to achieve land concessions from former slave owners in this period. The root of “40 acres and a mule” came from a meeting General Sherman had with former slaves in Savannah when they defined slavery “as enjoying the fruits of another man’s labor without their permission” and believing land instrumental to freedom.[31]Without this land, the 1877 election saw the tired North win the Presidency essentially in exchange for the end of Northern Reconstruction.[32]

            In addition to the North removing troops to enforce these new measures, the United States Judiciary stripped many reconstruction laws of their meaning and upheld this backwards society. The 1873 Slaughterhousecases, a complex legal suit of New Orleans butchers arguing that a sanitation measure infringed on their 14thAmendment rights, ironically lead to the gutting of the privileges and immunities clause of the 14thAmendment, with Justice Miller saying the 14thwas not meant to transfer all protection of rights from states to the federal level.[33]The 1883 Civil Rights Cases saw the court reject both the notion that the 13thconferred all the rights of free citizenship on former slaves and the idea that the federal government was the steward in charge of protecting such rights. Lastly, the 1896 Plessy v Fergusondecision legalized Southern segregation. Eventually, the doctrine based on due process would help build the framework on meaningful civil rights legislation in the 1960s. However, that was a century later. As prominent reconstruction historian Eric Foner stated in that same guest lecture, he knows of no other society “that freed slaves and then in three years gave power back to former slave owners in the same social setting”.[34]

            Russia and the United States both went about cataclysmic social re-engineering in the 1860s in their efforts to free enslaved humans. Tsar Alexander’s Russia had a broad consensus on the need for such a measure, had built its national efforts off of decades of steady reform, and freed serfs along with other measures to ensure a gradual accumulation of property and rights. Few people were killed in the process, and though the magnitude of which can be debated, Russian society undoubtedly advanced as a result. Juxtaposed to America, Russia deserves an A plus. While clearly race played an integral problem in America’s failure to provide former slaves ample opportunity, Russia would free 10 times as many people, clearly having monumental hurdles to also clear. Regardless, Russia’s Great Reforms were able to both protect civil liberties and provide an economic roadmap for serfs. Republicans used their decade of Southern power to focus on these political reforms after Andrew Johnson thwarted land redistribution. Thus, when the North retreated, the rights of blacks were written on paper, but not materialized in something tangible. If the formerly enslaved [legally] owned land, the money earned would likely have been worth more political power than those afforded by amendments in the racist South. While Russia proudly issued a coin to remember the 150thanniversary of serf emancipation, a recent Department of Education study found only 20% of American high school seniors could speak intelligibly on reconstruction.[35]Many argue that history is not linear: obviously the U.S. was bound to take a step back after such a positive step forward with the emancipation of slaves. By that metric, some 40% of American history would be a step back in social progress (until Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s), and this does not even factor the ensuing rise of mass incarceration. Regardless, the purported enemy of freedom, Russia, was able to take tangible political and economic advancements after emancipating millions of serfs. America’s vitriolic racism—which has not been fully eradicated—prevented it from attempting economic advancements, and lead to the failure of political efforts. That light is looking quite dim, Mr. Winthrop. 

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Serfs”.In Our Time BBC Radio 4. Podcast audio, May 16, 2018. 

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1946–58), vols. I and II; Also his Russkaia derevnia na perelome 1 861 –1 880 gg.

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v Rossii v nachale XIX v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1989), pp. 101–46; also his Tainye stranitsy

istorii samoderzhaviia (Moscow: Nauka, 1990), p. 238.

Finkel, Evgeny, Scott Gehlbach, and Tricia D. Olsen. “Does Reform Prevent Rebellion?

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Ukraine in 1847-48.” The Slavonic and East European Review 79, no. 4 (2001): 653-97.

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vykhodiashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti. St. Petersburg, 1860, part XVIII.

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[1]Eric Foner, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”, Reconstruction and its

Legacies.Podcast audio, March 16, 2011. 

[2]Vladimir Putin, “Chris Wallace Interviews Russian President Vladimir Putin”. Interview by

Chris Wallace. July 16, 2018.         

[3]N. M. Druzhinin, Gosudarstvennye krest’iane i reforma P. D. Kiseleva (Moscow: Izd. AN SSSR, 1946–58), vols. I and II; Also his Russkaia derevnia na perelome 1 861 –1 880 gg. (Moscow: Nauka, 1978); S. V. Mironenko, Samoderzhavie i reformy. Politicheskia bor’ba v Rossii v nachale XIX v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1989), pp. 101–46; also his Tainye stranitsy istorii samoderzhaviia (Moscow: Nauka, 1990), p. 238. 

[4]Melvyn Bragg, Sarah Hudspith, Simon Dixon, and Shane O’Rourke, “The Emancipation of the

Serfs”., In Our Time BBC Radio 4. Podcast audio, May 16, 2018. 

[5]Larisa Zakharova, “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 598. 

[6]David Moon, “The Inventory Reform and Peasant Unrest in Right-Bank

Ukraine in 1847-48″, (The Slavonic and East European Review 79, no. 4 (2001): 653-97.

[7]Emmons, ‘“Revoliutsiia sverkhu” v Rossii’, p. 380.  

[8]GARF, Fond. 722, op. I, d.230, ll. I-22. 

[9]Golos minuvshego. 1916, 1916, Nos. 5-6, p. 393; L.G. Zakharova, Aleksandr II, 1855-1811: Romanovy. Itoricheskie portrety (Moscow: Armada, 1997), pp. 400-90. 

[10]Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 595. 

[11]D.A. Miliutin, Vospominaniia, 1865-1867(Moscow: Rosspen, 2005), p. 202. 

[12]Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 609. 

[13]Pervoe izdanie materialov Redaktsionnykh komissii dlia sostavleniia polozhenii o krest’ianakh, vykhodiashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti (St. Petersburg, 1860), part XVIII, pp.3-6. 

[14]Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 612.

[15]See S. G. Kashchenko, ‘Nekotorye voprosy metodiki izucheniia realizatsii reformy 19 fevralia 1861g. v issedovaniiakh P. A. Zaionchkovskogo’,Otechestvennaia istoriia 4 (2004): 81–92; S. L. Hoch, ‘Did Russia’s Emancipated Serfs really Pay Too Much for Too Little Land? Statistical Anomalies and Long-tailed Distributions’, SR 63, 2 (2004): 247–74; D. V. Kovalev, Agrarnye preobrazovaniia i krestianstvo stolichnogo regiona v pervoi chetverti XIXv. (Moscow: Rosspen, 2004), pp. 258, 260–5. 

[16]Finkel, Evgeny, Scott Gehlbach, and Tricia D. Olsen. “Does Reform Prevent Rebellion?

Evidence From Russia’s Emancipation of the Serfs.” Comparative Political Studies 48,

no. 8 (July 2015): 984–1019. doi:10.1177/0010414014565887.

[17]BenjaminArrington, “Industry and Economy during the Civil War”, National Park Service.

[18]Abraham Lincoln, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, (1862) Pdf,

Access at <https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm000950/&gt;.

[19]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the

United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900(Oxford University Press: 2011).

[20]Alexander II, “Emancipation Manifesto”, Polnoe sobranie zakonov Russkoi Imperii(Complete

Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire), March 3, 1861.

[21]US. Const., amend. 13 § 1. 

[22]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, eds, Documents of American Constitutional and Legal

History, (Oxford University Press: 2008), 491. 

[23]Ibid, 490. 

[24]Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of black Americans from

the Civil War to World War II, Anchor, 2009.

[25]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the

United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900, 489. 

[26]Ibid, 491.

[27]US. Const., amend. 14 § 1-5.

[28]US. Const., amend. 15. 

[29]Foner, Eric, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.

[30]Ibid.

[31]Ibid. 

[32]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the

United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900

[33]Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1872)

[34]  Foner, Eric, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.

[35]Foner, Eric, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.

uction historian Eric Foner once noted at a guest lecture in London how the “USA is exceptional in our vehement insistence that we are exceptional”.[1]Foner is not wrong; John Winthrop, one of the first Europeans to descend on America, called the to be nation a city upon a hill. At core to our moral authority over global democracy and order is our insistence that America is the champion of individual rights and civil liberties. This type of rhetoric was constantly espoused during the Cold War as an excuse for America meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations across the world: for, as politicians of both parties argued, Soviet influence would cripple countries as they became imbued through a suppression of rights. Soviet leaders, in turn, presented back to the American public a history framing our democracy as the perverse distorter of individual liberties, bloodied by incomprehensible racial violence. Though American leaders refused to entertain Russia’s counternarrative, one that Vladimir Putin repeated in a recent interview with Chris Wallace, it is time to listen, because they are right.[2]And nothing better exemplifies the veracity of the Russian historiography than the shockingly parallel histories of both countries in the early 1860s. 

Though both American and Russia were increasingly scrutinized by the 19thcentury global community as backwards for their wanton institutions of slavery, their drastically different responses at this crucial crossroads would help chart the countries on incredibly different paths. Tsar Alexander II emancipated some 20 million Russian serfs (souls) in 1861, with President Abraham Lincoln following suit in freeing America’s four million slaves in 1863. Both men would see the two years following their proclamations serve as transition years before implementation, be assassinated years later due to their actions, and have successors try to undermine their incontrovertible decisions. 

However, both data and country historiographies look back on the decades following serf emancipation as a success which spurred even further social progress, while American reconstruction lead to another 70 years of de facto slavery for millions and would require 100 years for meaningful social advancements for former slaves. Clearly, race is the incredibly large elephant in the room: the majority of Russian serfs were ethnically Russian, while the racial hatred that white American Southerners and Northerners alike harbored toward black slaves was undoubtedly the driving cause of Southern resistance to, and Northern complicity in allowing social mobility for former slaves. This racism resulted in American Reconstruction focusing on political rights for former slaves, as opposed to their economic mobility. This reconstruction method stood in stark contrast to a more cerebral Russian effort, which after years of planning by multiple levels of government, realized that freeing serfs required adjoining economic reforms centered around land. In comparing these two confrontations with mass social change, Russia’s success in its national emancipation efforts suggests that economic improvements can empower people in politics, while political rights alone can often be stripped away by the true ruling class.   

Russian serfdom was just as big a part of Russian social fabric as slavery was in America; from a sheer statistical perspective, it was an institution even larger in size. Serfdom became a commonplace system at the dawn of the Romanov dynasty family rule in the 16thcentury, becoming officially codified into law in 1649. In Larisa Zakharova Cambridge History’s chapter on the Reign of Alexander II, historian Terrence Emmons advises “The view that serfdom was the ‘cornerstone’ of the state structure… has been increasingly corroborated in the historiography and is virtually undisputed”.[3]It is difficult to underscore how massive serfdom was: in addition to the 22 million privately owned serfs that were legally freed in 1861, there were an additional 23 million state owned serfs who the Proclamation did not effect. Though like in the United States, most nobles did not individually own a prodigious amount of serfs—who could be flogged, restricted in movement, effectively unpaid, and faced threat of exile to more brutal conditions in Siberia (the Deep South of Romanov Russia)—there were clearly salient differences between serfdom and American slavery. Most serf-owning nobles lived in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and therefore rarely saw their human chattel. Combined with the fact that serfs were comprised of the same ethnic and racial makeup as fellow Russians, nobles demonstrated less animosity towards their serfs than American masters did to their slaves. Additionally, serfs, unlike American slaves, lived on massive communes with fellow serfs, and from 1837 onwards had a form of self-government on these mirs.[4]However, on whole, it seems quite fair to say serfdom was at least as synonymous to Russian life as slavery to the ways of the Antebellum South. 

Unlike his contemporary Abe Lincoln, who would need to fundamentally shift American public and political opinion to arrive at the mere possibility of his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Tsar Alexander II’s 1861 Emancipation manifesto was decades in the making. Russian advancement toward abolishing serfdom began in 1816, with its fate cemented in the nation’s loss in the Crimean War in 1856. It was Alexander I, the grandfather of Alexander II, who emancipated serfs in the Baltic provinces of Livonia, Estonia, and Kurland between 1816-1819. This first flirtation with universal freedom from bondage was widely viewed as a failure as a result of the central government’s inability to pass needed accompanying land reform, a lesson bureaucrat would not forget in 1861.[5]The Ukraine province was the next guinea pig of serf reform, as Russia imposed mandatory inventories on nobles, essentially official records on land plots that the peasants would own.[6]Though the central state’s lack of unequivocal control of the periphery is a constant plague throughout Russian history, there were still once again lessons to be derived from this very different experiment. 

Two social trends in the first half of the 19thcentury also helped to set the stage for eventual serfdom emancipation: the rise of so-called enlightened bureaucrats and the creation of diverse government ministries. In the decades before 1861, enlightened bureaucrats started to study Western Europe, and began to pontificate on the idea of universal freedom amongst each other. By the 1850s multiple members of this sect of thinking became close advisors to Alexander II, which spurred a series of institutional reforms. Their gains in influence should not be underestimated: a leading scholar on the peasant reforms of 1861, Terrence Emmons, firmly believes that the rise of enlightened bureaucrats, starting during the reign of Nicholas I, “can undoubtedly be considered one of the preconditions of the 1860 reforms”.[7]Another key reform in this time period was the creation of ministries, where future reform leading cadres studied. But it is almost universally agreed upon by historians that it was the humiliating loss at the hands of the Ottomans in the Crimean War which would be the final element needed to push the arms of Russian Government to proceed with emancipation. 

On the eve of losing a war fought with techniques of the past, Russian Tsar Alexander II adroitly set off on one of the biggest social restructuring projects in European history with eyes to the future. Alexander and other politicians of the time realized it was best not to sit on the stirring of discontent within the country in the fallout to the Crimean War. N.A. Miliutin, who was Alexander’s Minister of War along with being a main author of the Great Reforms of 1861, wrote in an 1856 memorandum that the delaying of direly-needed economic reforms at the behest of maintaining serfdom “could lead to an uprising of the peasantry within fifteen years”.[8]Alexander echoed this sentiment in his speech to the nobility that same year, where he emphatically stated that it is “much better that [serf emancipation] be carried out from above, resident and from below”.[9]A.F. Tiutcheva, lady-in-waiting for the Empress, remarked reform was not Alexander’s natural demeanor, but rather that “his character, upbringing and world outlook equipped him with a sufficient understanding of the given situation to take non-traditional decisions”.[10]Alexander’s pragmatism at this watershed moment showed in his working with multiple affected parties, as well as political leaders in the lead up to the 1861 Great Reform. Furthermore, in discussion of the most controversial topic, land reform, the Editing Commissions which were scripting the laws, released 3,000 copies of proposals from meetings to gauge public reaction. By making the process relatively tansparent, Alexander was able to usher in his reforms with less public discontent than one would expect.

            1861 emancipation framers understood that freeing the serfs without additional reforms would be almost pointless. D.A. Miliutan, encapsulated this notion brilliantly in his memoirs in the 1880s, writing ‘The Law of 19 February 1861 could not have been a separate, isolated act, it was the foundation-stone of the restructuring of the entire state system”. Miliutan continued by noting that it was also imperative to constantly re-examine “the course of the three main reforms—the peasant reform, the zemstvo reform, and the judicial reform,” in order to ensure that if peasant reform was the starting point, that it was far from the final transformation the state should and would see.[11]

And so, when February 19 1861 finally saw the official emancipation of serfs, the state had already planned a gradual implementation of further reforms to successfully transition some 22 million souls into society. Serfs had the ability to claim a small plot of land, or have the government purchase them a larger plot, with the serf being able to repay the government through a redemption payment over the ensuing decades. The state used the two years following emancipation to allow serfs to negotiate regulated charters fixing the exact amount of land to be acquired. Following those two years, serfs were largely bound to their village for an additional seven years to afford a gradual integration into more rights. Despite these restrictions, serfs immediately underwent a dramatic legal transformation where they acquired a civic status, were given full self-government at the volost(village) level, ability to marry, and ability to vote and serve in the zemstvo(local assembly) and courts.[12]Education reform gave serfs the ability to attend schools, an option incentivized by military reform which not only required all classes to serve (the defeated army in the Crimean War was largely composed of poorly trained peasants), but also reduced service time from six to two years for serfs who completed basic education. What is perhaps most impressive about these sweeping reforms is the lack of national opposition they faced. While the Nobility was clearly displeased, and there is documented occasional violence in 1861, the country seemed to accept the political reforms and civil rights given to serfs. This is an unbelievably far cry from the near million lives lost in the United States Civil War just to enable the possibility of political rights to be given to the formerly enslaved. So, while Russia was able to pass political reform before encountering controversy to the more consequential land reform, the USA was unable to even get through political reform without it leading to violence. 

            Having learned from the negative results of Baltic peasant emancipation without land reform and having studied successes from French-creation privately owned small land plots and Austrian peasant land reclamation, Alexander II audaciously yet calculatingly set about his perhaps greatest reform of 1861: land reform. Zakharova remarks that the reformers believed land reform would be able to resolve questions of “abolition of serfdom and the future arrangement of land relations in one legislative act”.[13]Knowing that this reform would hurt the nobility the most, Alexander worked hard at attaining the highest degree of mutual consent between all parties as possible. That is why in hindsight, the land reform—eventually indisputable plots requiring eventual redemption payment in conjunction with 9 years of being bound to the land—may seem draconian. However, it is clear from the written plans of key reformers such as M.D. Dolbilov that the state planned, when it got the finances, to further help the serfs in their gradual transition. In fact, Cambridge History finds state finances as “the weakest link in the chain of reforms”, with Alexander’s government finally doubling down after the War of 1877-78 with economic reforms linking back to ’61, such as a reduction in redemption payments, abolition of the salt tax, and adapting of the passport system to allow for easier movement.[14]In some, if Russia were a wealthier country they likely would have done more for peasants, but nonetheless the country did give ample effort to improve former serf mobility. 

Though the proletariat did not, as the nobility feared, become the bourgeoise, by the 19thcentury it would be nearly impossible to not declare the emancipation of Russian serfs and ensuing reforms an unmitigated success. 21stcentury tools for statistical analysis of peasant outcomes using big data show that the Great Reforms lead to “the creation of self-sufficient peasant farming and the prospect of the predominance of the peasant family farm in Russian agriculture”.[15]This may sound like modest progress, but it is quite an accomplishment to transition some 40 million souls from de facto objects to real, contributing members of society within a half a century. 

One such example of modern survey tools helps to answer the biggest potential counterpoint one may consider in the declaration of Alexander’s reform as successful: the assassination of Alexander in 1881, the toppling of the Tsar in 1905, and the destruction of known Russian society in 1917 with the Bolshevik revolution. A study by Evgeny Finkel, Scott Gelbach, and Trcia D. Olsen compared the approximately 22 million privately owned serfs freed in 1861 to a perfect counterfactual: the 23 million state serfs still in bondage after 1861. They found a dramatic increase in peasant uprisings and disturbances among the freed serfs in the transition years of ’61-’62, which would decrease to levels still higher than pre-1861 and post-1861 control group levels[16]. Between 1862-1905, Noble land ownership decreased by more than 1/3—falling from some 85% to 50%, while peasant land share quadrupled from five to 20%. While riots and rebellions might indicate the former serfs’ dissatisfaction with life after emancipation, these historical incidents actually indicate how successful Alexander’s methods were. Having the political ability to stage a protest without mass retribution, and the economic knowledge to attempt a fundamental change of systems, demonstrates that Alexander truly liberated 22 million souls in 1861. 

            While Alexander II was freeing 22 million people from involuntary servitude as the first reform in a multi-pronged plan for economic restoration, the United States was in the midst of a devastating Civil War because of how afraid the agrarian South was of seeing slave political reform cross the Atlantic. While since 1817, Russia had slowly been paving a path to emancipation, American politics had only found ways to continually postpone such a decision. And though slavery was only operational in the South, it impacted the entire American economy. The Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act are all examples of the United States working to control the spread of slavery westward. The years of 1836-1844 saw the United States Congress place a gag rule on debating slavery. The Confederate Constitution states that they fought the Civil War to keep slavery, while Lincoln would say that he had no intention in interfering with slavery in the states in which it already existed if that would preserve the Union. Unlike in Russia, slave emancipation seemed anything but inevitable in America on February 19, 1861. 

Slavery was not part of the social fabric of the Antebellum South: it was the entire way of life in a society defined by race. While serfs in Russia were of the same ethnic composition as the nobles (they rarely saw), the dark skin of African American slaves was used by Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson to justify their personal possession of slaves, and the institution of slavery as a whole. The Slaves provided free labor to make the South the land of King Cotton; by 1840, the south produced two-thirds of the world’s cotton, an endeavor which made the export worth more than all other American exports by 1840.[17]Russian writers in the 1850s compared the practice of owning serfs to being in possession of souls; American slaveholders in the 1850s would have insisted they were doing slaves a favor, arguing that slavery was actually to the benefit of what they saw as an inferior race—the two countries viewed the issue through diabolically different lenses. This combination of vitriolic racism and economic theory led to half the country refusing to entertain changing a system that most of the contemporary industrializing world had long found obsolete. 

            Abraham Lincoln was admittedly hindered by the checks and balances that Tsar Alexander II obviously did not confront due to his nearly unlimited power. For the Constitution to which Lincoln was confined is by all accounts a pro-slavery document which has explicit sections seemingly in protection of slavery. As such, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1 1863, it was a legally dubious war time executive order which did not even free all four million American slaves, let alone come with a mass of other reforms that accompanied Alexander’s emancipation decree. While Alexander presented reform to the nobility as a needed progression in a society nearing moral bankruptcy, the Emancipation Proclamation declares itself “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing [Southern] rebellion”.[18]The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in states that were in open rebellion against the Union; in reality, it had a bigger impact on Lincoln’s re-election campaign messaging—which now shifted to telling Northerners that hundreds of thousands of lives were lost for the larger cause of ending slavery—than it did on slaves in states which were directly disregarding D.C. in order to maintain slavery. And so, the Northern, Republican-controlled congress would pass the 13thAmendment to ban slavery and require the defeated Confederate states to ratify such amendment in order to apply for re-admission. [19]Unfortunately for the slaves, while Alexander’s manifesto said serfs would receive “the full rights of free rural inhabitants” in due time after some temporary restrictions, the 13thAmendment had a massive loophole which the South would soon learn to exploit.[20]

            In fact, while Russia’s 1861 Great Reforms were written in an inconvertible fashion, America’s 13thAmendment would permit an astonishing eight hundred thousand blacks to be enslaved between 1865 and 1942. For, the 13thAmendment banned slavery “except as a punishment for crime”.[21]Undoubtedly, the writers of the 13thcould not have expected such an outcome. However, such a result can arise when, unlike in Russia, essentially none of the involved parties participate in constructing the legal framework for its end. While Russia fought no war to emancipate the serfs, the South emerged from the Civil War utterly decimated—both morally, but more importantly, economically. Slaves represented half of the invested capital in the South at the dawn of the Civil War, and their free labor allowed the South to not face immediate economic ramifications from not industrializing during the first half of the 19thcentury. As such, the South believed that in order to rebuild its agrarian society, it would need to find a route back to free labor. And so, new legal codes barely stopped short at defining it a crime to be born black.  

            Black codes painted the laws which would shape the Jim Crow-Era in the South and find ways to get back to as close to pre-Civil War Southern society as possible. Black individuals could be arrested for the extremely vague term of vagrancy or for walking along a train track, with two-thirds of arrests the result of accused theft of anything worth more than one dollar. Further, any child under 18 without suitable upbringing—whatever the state determined that to be—could be taken and rented out as an apprentice “to some suitable and competent person, on such terms as the court may direct”.[22]Labor contracts were structured to bound supposedly free blacks to former masters. Workers were required to sign a labor contract by the start of each year and would not be paid until the end of each year. If they sought out other work or ran away, they would have committed a crime, and would not get paid any wage from the year. Often, these crimes resulted in fines—vagrancy for example would result in a $50 fee—that the destitute former slaves could obviously not pay. And, of course, “in default of payment, he must commit such statement to the house of correction” where “the use of chain games, putting in stocks, if necessary” was permissible by law.[23]Thus, convict labor replaced slave labor. Over 90% of convict laborers were black men, and as many of a third of whom were under 16. Often, these convicts were worked even harsher than when they were slaves, as private employers only purchased their labor contracts from the state for nine-month intervals. Those working in coal mines faced a 30-40% annual fatality rate, while arrests would surge around cotton picking season. Even those not arrested faced brutal sharecropping conditions who were only able to keep 7% of profits from land they had to pay 70% interest rates to acquire—though not slavery, this still bound blacks to the South.[24]But, before the South was able to strip the 13thAmendment of its meaning, the North had eleven years to try to prevent the terrible post-emancipation experience described above. 

            While the two years following emancipation in Russia allowed serfs to negotiate future land allotments, the two years following the American Civil War saw an all-out battle in D.C. over the future of slaves. Many scholars believe if Lincoln had not been assassinated, he would have worked with all branches of government in his plans for reconstruction; instead, his death lead to his racist, former slave-owning, formerly democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson to assume the role of the judiciary. Johnson worked unilaterally—without the Republican congress—to try to rush back Confederate states to the Union without giving political rights to blacks. Devastatingly, he required the Freedman’s bureau, an organization established to ensure proper treatment of former slaves, to take back confiscated land it had given to former slaves under the infamous 40 acres and a mule field order by General William Tecumseh Sherman. As one would expect from the contemporary case of Russia, in the few years free blacks in Georgia and South Carolina had land, they created fairly stable and vibrant communities. Unfortunately, as Union General Carl Schurz found, Southern blacks quickly went from slaves of lone owners to slaves of society.[25]

Eventually, the Republican supermajority would take true power from Johnson in an effort to ensure the Civil War was not fought “without securing [former slaves] their rights as free men and citizens”.[26]After congress impeached Johnson, he tacitly agreed to not impede the reconstruction efforts of Republicans. Johnson would, though, tell Southern leaders to ignore the measures passed by Republicans, arguing that in the next election they could get more sympathetic leadership. In charge, Republicans focused on three main issues: preventing Confederate leaders from regaining power, protecting political rights of former slaves, and ensuring the safety of white unionists in the South. The American reality in 1867 was that reform was being forced upon half the country, which happened to be rebuilding from war. 

Republicans went about protecting former slaves by passing two Constitutional amendments which would fundamentally change the way government operated. In response to the constricting Black Codes, in 1866 the 14thAmendment gave Congress the power to enforce provisions that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” and which stated all persons would receive “due process” and “equal protections of the law”.[27]This is a loaded amendment. Unlike the first 10 amendments (The Bill of Rights), the 13th,14th, and eventual 15thhad an incredibly monumental shift of vernacular: they shifted Congress (and thus the federal government) from being a body which legally avoided infringing on states’ rights to Congress being the protector of certain national rights, which superseded those of individual states. While Alexander’s Great Reforms of 1861 were certainly bold, they did not come from any nascent government structure. Meanwhile in the United States, the unhappy South saw perhaps their next largest fear behind slave emancipation—larger federal government—come to fruition. To show how different this was from Russia, consider that Alexander offered the nobility more political participation as an olive branch in reform, while the 14thAmendment had to explicitly bar former Confederate leaders from holding office. Of more impact to the former slaves, note that the 14thseeks to protect civil and political rights. Incredulously, though the second section of the 14thstripped states of congressional seating proportional to eligible black voters they refused to enfranchise, the South actually did just that, leading to Congress passing another immortal law. The 15thamendment, which also gave Congress the power of enforcement, furthered this thread by promising the right of American citizens “to vote shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”.[28]Senator Charles Sumner nonetheless argued that these two amendments made the Federal Government the custodian of freedom.[29]There were two major pitfalls of these amendments: neither contained a provision explicitly stating a positive right to vote, and at the end of Northern-led reconstruction, they were laws which protected intangible rights as opposed to tangible land. 

            Despite historiographies, so called Radical Reconstruction from 1867-1876 was quite successful. With voting rights protected, Louisiana had a black Governor, Mississippi would have two black senators, and South Carolina would have black majorities in both state houses. To put this in perspective, when Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, he was only the 5thblack Senator in US History! Southern propaganda (admittedly oft accepted by the North) portrayed the eventual rise of the heroic KKK as necessary to defeat villainous Republicans as derailing the lenient plan wanted by Lincoln and attempted by Johnson by allowing for the “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.[30] that was black government. Contrary to this false narrative, 962 of 1163 black officeholders were literate, and the KKK rise to power and lynch law was anything but heroic, and only possible after President Grant, and the Force Acts which enabled him to prosecute the KKK, left office in 1876. Black governments worked with Republicans in D.C. to provide for better education, infrastructure, and worker protections. However, they were unable to achieve land concessions from former slave owners in this period. The root of “40 acres and a mule” came from a meeting General Sherman had with former slaves in Savannah when they defined slavery “as enjoying the fruits of another man’s labor without their permission” and believing land instrumental to freedom.[31]Without this land, the 1877 election saw the tired North win the Presidency essentially in exchange for the end of Northern Reconstruction.[32]

            In addition to the North removing troops to enforce these new measures, the United States Judiciary stripped many reconstruction laws of their meaning and upheld this backwards society. The 1873 Slaughterhousecases, a complex legal suit of New Orleans butchers arguing that a sanitation measure infringed on their 14thAmendment rights, ironically lead to the gutting of the privileges and immunities clause of the 14thAmendment, with Justice Miller saying the 14thwas not meant to transfer all protection of rights from states to the federal level.[33]The 1883 Civil Rights Cases saw the court reject both the notion that the 13thconferred all the rights of free citizenship on former slaves and the idea that the federal government was the steward in charge of protecting such rights. Lastly, the 1896 Plessy v Fergusondecision legalized Southern segregation. Eventually, the doctrine based on due process would help build the framework on meaningful civil rights legislation in the 1960s. However, that was a century later. As prominent reconstruction historian Eric Foner stated in that same guest lecture, he knows of no other society “that freed slaves and then in three years gave power back to former slave owners in the same social setting”.[34]

            Russia and the United States both went about cataclysmic social re-engineering in the 1860s in their efforts to free enslaved humans. Tsar Alexander’s Russia had a broad consensus on the need for such a measure, had built its national efforts off of decades of steady reform, and freed serfs along with other measures to ensure a gradual accumulation of property and rights. Few people were killed in the process, and though the magnitude of which can be debated, Russian society undoubtedly advanced as a result. Juxtaposed to America, Russia deserves an A plus. While clearly race played an integral problem in America’s failure to provide former slaves ample opportunity, Russia would free 10 times as many people, clearly having monumental hurdles to also clear. Regardless, Russia’s Great Reforms were able to both protect civil liberties and provide an economic roadmap for serfs. Republicans used their decade of Southern power to focus on these political reforms after Andrew Johnson thwarted land redistribution. Thus, when the North retreated, the rights of blacks were written on paper, but not materialized in something tangible. If the formerly enslaved [legally] owned land, the money earned would likely have been worth more political power than those afforded by amendments in the racist South. While Russia proudly issued a coin to remember the 150thanniversary of serf emancipation, a recent Department of Education study found only 20% of American high school seniors could speak intelligibly on reconstruction.[35]Many argue that history is not linear: obviously the U.S. was bound to take a step back after such a positive step forward with the emancipation of slaves. By that metric, some 40% of American history would be a step back in social progress (until Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s), and this does not even factor the ensuing rise of mass incarceration. Regardless, the purported enemy of freedom, Russia, was able to take tangible political and economic advancements after emancipating millions of serfs. America’s vitriolic racism—which has not been fully eradicated—prevented it from attempting economic advancements, and lead to the failure of political efforts. That light is looking quite dim, Mr. Winthrop. 

Works Cited

Alexander II. “Emancipation Manifesto”. Polnoe sobranie zakonov Russkoi Imperii (Complete Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire), March 3, 1861.

Arrington, Benjamin. “Industry and Economy during the Civil War”. National Park Service. 

Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor, 2009.

Bragg, Melvyn, Sarah Hudspith, Simon Dixon, and Shane O’Rourke. “The Emancipation of the Serfs”. In Our Time BBC Radio 4. Podcast audio, May 16, 2018. 

Druzhinin, N. M. Gosudarstvennye krest’iane i reforma P. D. Kiseleva (Moscow: Izd. AN SSSR, 1946–58), vols. I and II; Also his Russkaia derevnia na perelome 1 861 –1 880 gg.

Moscow: Nauka, 1978. S. V. Mironenko, Samoderzhavie i reformy. Politicheskia bor’ba v Rossii v nachale XIX v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1989), pp. 101–46; also his Tainye stranitsyistorii samoderzhaviia (Moscow: Nauka, 1990), p. 238.

Finkel, Evgeny, Scott Gehlbach, and Tricia D. Olsen. “Does Reform Prevent Rebellion? Evidence From Russia’s Emancipation of the Serfs.” Comparative Political Studies 48, no. 8 (July 2015): 984–1019. doi:10.1177/0010414014565887.

Foner, Eric. “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”. Reconstruction and its Legacies.Podcast audio, March 16, 2011. 

GARF, Fond. 722, op. I, d.230, ll. 

Golos minuvshego. 1916, 1916, Nos. 5-6, p. 393; L.G. Zakharova, Aleksandr II, 1855-1811: Romanovy. Itoricheskie portrety. Moscow: Armada, 1997.

Kashchenko S. G.. ‘Nekotorye voprosy metodiki izucheniia realizatsii reformy 19 fevralia 1861g. v issedovaniiakh P. A. Zaionchkovskogo’, Otechestvennaia istoriia 4 (2004): 81 92; S. L. Hoch, ‘Did Russia’s Emancipated Serfs really Pay Too Much for Too Little Land? Statistical Anomalies and Long-tailed Distributions’, SR63, 2 (2004): 247–74; D.

V. Kovalev, Agrarnye preobrazovaniia i krestianstvo stolichnogo regiona vpervoi chetverti XIXv. Moscow: Rosspen, 2004.

Lincoln, Abraham. Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. 1862. Pdf.

Miliutin, D.A.  Vospominaniia, 1865-1867. Moscow: Rosspen, 2005. 

Moon, David. “The Inventory Reform and Peasant Unrest in Right-Bank

Ukraine in 1847-48.” The Slavonic and East European Review 79, no. 4 (2001): 653-97.

Pervoe izdanie materialov Redaktsionnykh komissii dlia sostavleniia polozhenii o krest’ianakh,vykhodiashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti. St. Petersburg, 1860, part XVIII.

Putin, Vladimir. “Chris Wallace Interviews Russian President Vladimir Putin”. Interview by Chris Wallace. July 16, 2018.                         

Urofsky, Melvin, and Paul Finkelman. A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Urofsky, Melvin I., and Paul Finkelman, eds. Documents of American Constitutional and Legal History. Oxford University Press, 2008.

US. Const., amend. 13.

US. Const., amend. 14.

US. Const., amend. 15.

Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of Russia, edited by Dominic Lieven, 2:593–616. The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521815291.030.


[1]Eric Foner, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”, Reconstruction and its

Legacies.Podcast audio, March 16, 2011. 

[2]Vladimir Putin, “Chris Wallace Interviews Russian President Vladimir Putin”. Interview by

Chris Wallace. July 16, 2018.         

[3]N. M. Druzhinin, Gosudarstvennye krest’iane i reforma P. D. Kiseleva (Moscow: Izd. AN SSSR, 1946–58), vols. I and II; Also his Russkaia derevnia na perelome 1 861 –1 880 gg. (Moscow: Nauka, 1978); S. V. Mironenko, Samoderzhavie i reformy. Politicheskia bor’ba v Rossii v nachale XIX v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1989), pp. 101–46; also his Tainye stranitsy istorii samoderzhaviia (Moscow: Nauka, 1990), p. 238. 

[4]Melvyn Bragg, Sarah Hudspith, Simon Dixon, and Shane O’Rourke, “The Emancipation of the

Serfs”., In Our Time BBC Radio 4. Podcast audio, May 16, 2018. 

[5]Larisa Zakharova, “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 598. 

[6]David Moon, “The Inventory Reform and Peasant Unrest in Right-Bank

Ukraine in 1847-48″, (The Slavonic and East European Review 79, no. 4 (2001): 653-97.

[7]Emmons, ‘“Revoliutsiia sverkhu” v Rossii’, p. 380.  

[8]GARF, Fond. 722, op. I, d.230, ll. I-22. 

[9]Golos minuvshego. 1916, 1916, Nos. 5-6, p. 393; L.G. Zakharova, Aleksandr II, 1855-1811: Romanovy. Itoricheskie portrety (Moscow: Armada, 1997), pp. 400-90. 

[10]Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 595. 

[11]D.A. Miliutin, Vospominaniia, 1865-1867(Moscow: Rosspen, 2005), p. 202. 

[12]Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 609. 

[13]Pervoe izdanie materialov Redaktsionnykh komissii dlia sostavleniia polozhenii o krest’ianakh, vykhodiashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti (St. Petersburg, 1860), part XVIII, pp.3-6. 

[14]Zakharova, Larisa. “The Reign of Alexander II: a Watershed?”, (Cambridge University, 2008), 612.

[15]See S. G. Kashchenko, ‘Nekotorye voprosy metodiki izucheniia realizatsii reformy 19 fevralia 1861g. v issedovaniiakh P. A. Zaionchkovskogo’,Otechestvennaia istoriia 4 (2004): 81–92; S. L. Hoch, ‘Did Russia’s Emancipated Serfs really Pay Too Much for Too Little Land? Statistical Anomalies and Long-tailed Distributions’, SR 63, 2 (2004): 247–74; D. V. Kovalev, Agrarnye preobrazovaniia i krestianstvo stolichnogo regiona v pervoi chetverti XIXv. (Moscow: Rosspen, 2004), pp. 258, 260–5. 

[16]Finkel, Evgeny, Scott Gehlbach, and Tricia D. Olsen. “Does Reform Prevent Rebellion?

Evidence From Russia’s Emancipation of the Serfs.” Comparative Political Studies 48,

no. 8 (July 2015): 984–1019. doi:10.1177/0010414014565887.

[17]BenjaminArrington, “Industry and Economy during the Civil War”, National Park Service.

[18]Abraham Lincoln, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, (1862) Pdf,

Access at <https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm000950/&gt;.

[19]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the

United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900(Oxford University Press: 2011).

[20]Alexander II, “Emancipation Manifesto”, Polnoe sobranie zakonov Russkoi Imperii(Complete

Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire), March 3, 1861.

[21]US. Const., amend. 13 § 1. 

[22]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, eds, Documents of American Constitutional and Legal

History, (Oxford University Press: 2008), 491. 

[23]Ibid, 490. 

[24]Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of black Americans from

the Civil War to World War II, Anchor, 2009.

[25]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the

United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900, 489. 

[26]Ibid, 491.

[27]US. Const., amend. 14 § 1-5.

[28]US. Const., amend. 15. 

[29]Foner, Eric, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.

[30]Ibid.

[31]Ibid. 

[32]Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the

United States, Volume 1: From the Founding to 1900

[33]Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1872)

[34]  Foner, Eric, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.

[35]Foner, Eric, “The Significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War”.


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