Reconstruction As a Search For Security

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?

8 comments add yours

  1. I don’t know that it is useful to talk about whether or not reconstruction succeeded or failed. But it is surely a very depressing chapter in our history. The war to destroy slavery and preserve the Union was won, but the Union we ended up with after reconstruction was one where white supremacy, enforced through state governments as well as through terrorism, was just as complete and unrelenting as it was in 1859. Black people were better off than they were under slavery, but that’s a low standard. The implicit deal between the white power structure in the South and the Federal government (no disunion in exchange for no Federal interference in white supremacy) was a sordid bargain.

    • The war to destroy slavery and preserve the Union was won, but the Union we ended up with after reconstruction was one where white supremacy, enforced through state governments as well as through terrorism, was just as complete and unrelenting as it was in 1859.

      Perhaps it is more accurate to think of it as a war to save the Union that ended slavery in the process.

      You may be right, but I wonder if part of Summers’s point is that for many white Americans racial progress was of secondary importance compared with the priority of reuniting the country.

      • …part of Summers’s point is that for many white Americans racial progress was of secondary importance compared with the priority of reuniting the country.
        I don’t doubt this at all. To put it differently, for many white Americans the end of slavery was enough racial progress – they were either indifferent or hostile to black progress once slavery, and the Slave Power, had been destroyed.

  2. If the purpose of the book or his focus, as influenced by Gary Gallagher, is to emphasize that the goal was to merely preserve the Union, then the book — you don’t want to prejudge something — may be disappointing. After all, it’s not just re-union but reconstruction. To me those are different concepts.

  3. I’ve always found it useful to divide the country at that time into several sub groups, such as:
    o the white Northern majority
    o Northern radicals & African Americans
    o Southern African Americans
    o The white Southern majority
    o White Southern “nonconservatives”

    Viewed from the eyes of each group, Reconstruction was a “success” or “failure.”

    The white Northern majority did indeed get a Union that was preserved, and that removed the threat of slavery and the slavocracy. Thus, their wartime goals were achieved.

    Southern African Americans “lost” in that although free, the progress they made in the early part of Reconstruction was reversed, and then came Jim Crow.

    For the white Southern majority, it was a mixed bag. The attempt to virtually re-enslave the freedmen failed. But they did eventually get home rule/Jim Crow, they got full representation in the US Congress, and were eventually “integrated” into nation as a whole.

    So, there are many Reconstruction stories. It seems that this “new” history says, Reconstruction worked out well for the Northern majority. And that might be fair to say. Although certain critical theorists might bemoan the lack of vision on the part of most Northerners.

    • Hi Alan,

      Good point and nice to hear from you as well. We do need to acknowledge varying narratives, but I wonder if we also need synthesis in our history.

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