Discovering Reconstruction

reconstruction_congressI am doing quite a bit of reading over this holiday break. One of the books I am making my way through is Capitol Men by Philip Dray. The book tells the story of the principal black leaders in Congress during Reconstruction. It’s well written and does a thorough job of explaining both the backgrounds of the individual subjects as well as the tumultuous times in which they lived. Actually, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Reconstruction and the postwar years generally, and there is a great deal to choose from. One can’t help but be impressed by the selection of books on Reconstruction that have been published over the past few years. [Click here for Ed Blum’s overview of this literature.] Just a few years ago you would be lucky to find the abridged version of Eric Foner’s magisterial history of the period. But the recognition of a spike in interest in the subject also begs for explanation. This influx of new books couldn’t have come at a better time given the election of our first black president. That said, this welcome change probably has little to do with the recent election.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the historiography of Reconstruction. I’ve read a bit of U.B. Phillips, and others who studied under William Dunning at Columbia; Dunning reinforced a rather narrow view of Reconstruction as a failure and one that reinforced white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century. It’s important to keep in mind that although this school of thought was challenged by scholars beginning in the early 1950s, and even more so in the 1970s, these debates were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands of newly-freed slaves, and a dismissal of the black perspective generally. However, it was not until the 1988 publication of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (and shortly thereafter, the abridged edition) that a broader audience was offered a readable account that synthesized much of this scholarship. In addition to winning a number of academic awards it also received a great deal of attention in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. It’s hard to say how much of an effect Foner’s book had on our popular perceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction – probably little to none, but it is difficult to deny his importance to this new crop of recent historical studies. Most of these authors acknowledge Foner’s scholarship as invaluable in their own quest to better understand the period.

But if Foner’s work constitutes perhaps the best example of a scholarly reconfiguration of our understanding of Reconstruction than it is the war in Iraq, which has introduced that scholarship to a broader demographic. It should come as no surprise that a resurgence of interest came at a time when the public discourse was centered around the reconstruction of Iraq. Historians such as Ed Ayers chimed in with op-ed pieces, which highlighted the challenges of such a venture and reminded the American people of an earlier attempt at trying to reconstruct a deeply-entrenched political, social, and racial hierarchy. Following a list of lessons that one should take away from that “First Occupation”, Ayers concludes with the following:

A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation’s history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge — and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.

It is not a stretch to imagine scholars and writers of various sorts following up their reading of these editorials by taking a more in-depth look at what went wrong with the federal government’s earlier attempt at Reconstruction, even as our public officials struggled to explain to the America people why there was so little progress in Iraq. For those of us who had an understanding of the difficulties involved in reconstructing a society, the president’s declarations, which reduced the challenge down to the conviction that all people desire freedom seemed grossly naive and even reckless.

The street fighting in Baghdad and Falujah echo those that took place in New Orleans, Memphis, and elsewhere, and while Americans were shocked at the indiscriminate killing among religious sects the postwar terrorism against newly-freed slaves rivals anything to be found in the Middle East. Recent studies of postwar violence include Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2007) and Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007). Two books, one by Charles Lane and the other by LeeAnna Keith, explore the Colfax Massacre of 1873. This does not include the numerous scholarly of Reconstruction violence against African Americans, and even newer editions of older studies, that have been published over the past few years. Collectively, these books can be seen as a vindication of Ayers’s warning that a nation engaged in so difficult a project as the reconstruction of another country ought to proceed with “humility and self-knowledge.”

If there is a silver lining in this resurgence of interest it is that a much larger audience now has access to books that present Reconstruction in a much more sophisticated light, one that takes seriously the steps that Americans took to extend and protect basic civil rights regardless of race. It not only involves moving beyond the overly simplistic language of scalawags and carpetbaggers, but involves giving voice to black and white leaders who worked to extend the franchise and other political rights to former slaves and even the vast majority of poor whites who had been excluded from the polity. Recent book include Garrett Epps’s Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007), Eric Foner’s Forever Free, as well as Dray’s Capitol Men. American Experience’s recent documentary on Reconstruction also reflects this newfound interest.

Finally, this could not have come at a better moment in the history of this country. With our first black president set to take office in a matter of weeks it is comforting to know that a solid body of historical scholarship is available for those who are interested in placing Barack Obama’s candidacy within a broader historical context. It is important for us to understand the struggle that led to this moment in our history, and in doing so, we should acknowledge that while it is a momentous step in a new direction, it is but one step on a long road that involves appreciating the extent to which race has shaped this nation’s political, social, and economic hierarchy. We should ask the tough questions related to the timing of Obama’s candidacy, why it didn’t or perhaps couldn’t happen sooner, and why so few African Americans have served in the federal government since Reconstruction. We should ask these questions not with the goal of self-hatred, but because we are all part of this larger national narrative, and because Democracy is a constant struggle. I am under no illusion that large numbers of Americans will flock to the bookstores to purchase these recent titles; however, the fact of their availability suggests to me that our society is in a much better place to ask some of these tough questions that at any time before.

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8 comments… add one
  • Gucci Handbags Dec 28, 2009 @ 6:18

    were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands

    • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2009 @ 14:20

      Thanks for the comment. Since we have very little evidence for free blacks in the army, I assume that much of what you do is interpretation of slaves. This is good since we need to understand how the war altered the master-slave relationship.

  • Caroline Lewin Jan 6, 2009 @ 6:21


    Can anyone tell me if there is a general concensus about who were the best reconstruction era governors?

    I have identifed James Webb Throckmorton as one but who were some others generally thought to have been the best? Any suggested reading?

    Thank you, Caroline Lewin

  • James Wade Jan 5, 2009 @ 4:59


    I enjoy your blog. As a person interested in Civil War history as it relates to personal and family history, the concept of memory is fascinating. As a young person, I was told that our family had nothing to do with the Civil War. After considerable research, I realized that just the opposite was true. The impacts were far reaching even for poor farmers’ sons who became the foot soldiers of the armies.

    I am reading Randolph Campbell’s Grass-Roots Reconstruction in Texas: 1865-1880. This local look is fascinating. The local politics were amazingly complex and strident. You might find this book interesting.

    Keep up the good work.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2009 @ 15:37

      First, thanks for the kind words re: the blog. Thanks for the book reference as I am not familiar with it, and best of luck in uncovering your family’s rich history.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 1, 2009 @ 13:09

    Marc, — Glad to hear you found the post helpful.

    Bob, — I read Waldrep’s book when it first came out and learned a great deal. Unfortunately, I think that book fell through the cracks compared with the amount of attention other memory studies focused on battlefields have received. Happy New Year to you too.

  • Bob Pollock Jan 1, 2009 @ 13:00

    Happy New Year Kevin.

    Interesting post. It really is amazing how pervasive Dunning’s interpretation of Reconstruction was (still is). If you haven’t already read “Vicksburg’s Long Shadow: The Civil War Legacy of Race and Remembrance” by Christopher Waldrep, I highly recommend it. Waldrep chronicles the interpretive development of Vicksburg National Military Park by National Park Service historians (from the north) who completely bought into Phillips and Dunning.

    Also, I think it is interesting that it is still more or less acceptable to show/view “Gone With The Wind” but not “Birth of a Nation” which, of course, had a profound influence on early twentieth century Americans’ view of Reconstruction.

  • Marc Ferguson Jan 1, 2009 @ 6:01

    Philip Dray’s book was recommended to me last summer by Michael Thelwell, who coauthored Stokely Carmichael’s autobiography. I have only read the first chapter or so, but it is is indeed well-written and is an important work in the ongoing reconsideration of Reconstruction. I also read Budiansky’s book, and while it is quirky in what it covers and what it neglects, I thought it worthwhile. This is a good post, and highlights, as your posts often do, how important our understanding, and misunderstanding, of our nation’s history is when reflecting on our current predicaments.

    Have a great new year!


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