Today my AP classes started Reconstruction. I always enjoy teaching this section of U.S. History and given that we are using a text by Eric Foner, my students get the latest historiographical trends. On the first day I try to present and engage my students in a discussion of the challenges that Reconstruction presents. We examine the perspectives of the newly freed slaves, Republican Party, and white Southerners. The first point I make is that the distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction is an artificial one used by historians to more easily carve up the past. Well, perhaps that is to go too far, but my point is that the issues involved are in large part a continuation of trends from the war years.
Thomas Nast’s images are some of the most useful sources for the classroom. For example, the image to the left is titled “And Not This Man (August 5, 1865) and can be used to examine the debate about civil rights for black Americans and especially those who fought for the United States. I ask my students to think about the intention of the illustrator and the message that he hopes to communicate. Without sharing the title of the image I ask the students to imagine the words spoken as this crippled veteran is presented to the nation. Students are able to connect Nast’s early work with the goals of the Republican Party, especially during Military Reconstruction.
The nice thing about Nast’s work is that it can be used to track the progress of Reconstruction or the commitment on the part of Republicans to continue the policies that led to important political inroads made by black Americans. As many of you know some of the most committed Republicans grew weary of their ability to bring about change forcefully in the South. Younger Republicans who had not lived through the turbulent decade of the 1850’s were more concerned about an expanding capitalist economy and Northerners generally gravitated to the allure of reunion and reconciliation. All of this comes out in Nast’s later work. Compare the dignified soldier in the first image with the conduct of black politicians in a reconstructed state. Did portrayals of black politicians in the South make it easier for Republicans, that were at one time committed to social and political change, to abandon Reconstruction?
Part of the problem in teaching Reconstruction is that there is simply too much good material that can be used. Let me know what you do.