Had a chance earlier today to read the introduction to Mark Summers’s new book on Reconstruction, which is part of UNC Press’s Littlefield Series. The following passage caught my attention:
In the end, the search for security helped justice go far beyond what most observers in 1865 expected. Freedom was just the first installment in a broadening of rights. The Constitution’s basis would endow the nation with a broad authority to break the patterns that slavery and prejudice had set on American society. It may have opened the way to a second American revolution. But it is important to recognize that most white Americans had not been looking for a revolution, and a near majority of them probably would have been content with a modified restoration. If we make the mistake of defining Reconstruction’s exclusive end as remaking the South on the basis of equal rights and democracy in a truer sense of the word than its inhabitants had ever known, then we can’t help calling Reconstruction at best a failure–though that failure seemed less clear, unambiguous, and complete in 1877 than retrospect. But if we see Reconstruction’s purpose as making sure that the main goals of the war would be fulfilled, of a Union held together forever, of a North and South able to work together, of slavery extirpated, and sectional rivalries confined, of a permanent banishment of the fear of vaunting appeals to state sovereignty, backed by armed force, then Reconstruction looks like what in that respect it was, a lasting and unappreciated success. (p. 4)
I’ve always struggled with understanding Reconstruction through the narrow lens of race and civil rights. The rub for me has always been in measuring Reconstruction’s success with the varying degrees of racial discrimination present in many Northern states. Certainly our popular memory of Reconstruction revolves around our tendency to view the period in light of Jim Crow and the necessity of a Civil Rights Movement. Summers’s understanding of the period looks promising. I am looking forward to digging in further.
Finally, is it any surprise that such a focus for a book on Reconstruction found a place in a series edited by Gary Gallagher given his insistence that the preservation of the Union be acknowledged as the most important achievement of the war?