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Reconstructing Local Government

Posted by on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 in Articles, Volume 70, Volume 70, Number 2.

Reconstructing Local Government


After the Civil War, the South faced a problem that was almost entirely new in the United States: a racially diverse and geographically integrated citizenry. In one fell swoop with emancipation, millions of former slaves were now citizens. The old system of plantation localism, built largely on the feudal control of the black population by wealthy white planters, was no longer viable. The urgent question facing both those who sought to reform and those who sought to preserve the “Old South” was: What should local government look like after emancipation? This Article tells the story of the struggle over the answer to that question. At the center of that struggle is an untold legal history of local government reform during Reconstruction. In the years immediately after the Civil War, idealistic Yankee reformers went south with the explicit aim of remaking the “fabric of southern culture” by rebuilding the South in the image of their northern homes. Specifically, in North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, these reformers rewrote state constitutions to replace the plantation and county court with townships modeled on the New England town. Southern conservatives resisted the new townships, understanding them as foreign impositions targeted to destroy their old way of life. Within a decade they had dismantled the new townships and built the foundations of a new Jim Crow local order rooted in the county and approximating a return to the plantation. By telling this new history, this Article contributes to present scholarship in at least two ways. First, the story highlights a binary struggle between “communitarian” localism embodied in the civic participation of the New England town and “proprietary” localism embodied in the private power of the plantation owner. This struggle was framed with crystal clarity during Reconstruction, but it remains a powerful analytic tool for understanding today’s debates and struggles over local government. Second and relatedly, this history reveals the extent to which racial anxiety shaped and continues to shape local institutions. The communitarian township experiment was fueled by a vision of racial equality—and the white supremacist response to it was fueled by resentment and resistance to that vision. When we think about localism and racial inequality, we tend to think about the responses to school desegregation in the mid-twentieth century when racial resentment and fear during the “Second Reconstruction” drove white flight and contributed to resegregation through suburbanization. This Article shows that we may be looking at the wrong Reconstruction. In fact, the pathologies of local government, racial segregation, democracy, and protection of property were framed after the Civil War, in the crucible of a direct conflict between utopian racial egalitarianism and white supremacy.


Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School. Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies, Harvard University.