Thinking About Reconstruction

One of my favorite classroom exercises takes place during our examination of Reconstruction. I divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to imagine that they are serving on a congressional committee in charge of Reconstruction policy. They must work together and answer the following questions: (1) What responsibilities did the federal government have in protecting the rights of the newly-freed slaves? (2) What steps should have been taken against former Confederates? (3) What was the role of the U.S. military in enforcing the specifics of the federal government’s policy? (4) What was the relation between the former Confederate states and the nation? Once each group arrives at a specific list of responsibilities the class debates the relative merits of each list in order to arrive at one final class policy. I enjoy watching the students think critically about these issues as it provides a window into the question of what might have been had certain conditions been different. Were the harsh realities of Jim Crow inevitable?

I just received the new issue of the journal Civil War History (December 2005). This issue includes essays which “enter the realm of ‘what if’ history by conjecturing a Reconstruction policy that could have produced by 1900 better economic conditions for the South and a racial situation that would not have degenerated into the abyss of violence called Jim Crow segregation.” The essays were originally presented at the 2004 meeting of the Social Science History Association. I’ve already read William Blair’s insightful essay on the role of the military during Reconstruction and its importance in protecting the rights of black southerners. Blair considers the possibilities of maintaining a stronger military presence in the South, but in the end concludes that this “was unthinkable for practical, economic, and political-ideological reasons.” I found most interesting the introductory essay by James L Huston who provides a list of reasons that historians have cited over the years to explain why Reconstruction did not prove to be more successful.

• Refusal of Congress to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites
• Inevitability of a capitalist economy to reduce African Americans to wage-earning subsistence
• Cultural gap existed between the market-driven individualism of white reformers and communitarian subsistence goals of the newly-freed slaves over the definition of “work.”
• Republicans were too moderate
• Republicans were limited by the ideals of monetary responsibility, laissez-faire government, states rights, and individualism
• Republicans were too racist to more completely support black Americans
• Republican Party was sufficiently weak in the South
• White Racism: white southerners were willing to engage in violence to maintain the antebellum racial hierarchy

I am considering having my students right a short counterfactual essay as a way to bring this group exercise to a close. Here is Huston on the heuristic value of the counterfactual exercise:

Teaching students the importance of context in human affairs is actually a more formidable task than many of us realize. Having students determine the historical forces at work in some period (the parameters of the problem, so to speak), a set of potential solutions, and then sort out what was realistically possible, is a powerful exercise. Moreover, it also provides students with an insight into basic principles of historical inquiry that they can then apply to the present in which they exist: understanding the context, constructing hypothetical solutions, and then testing the proposed solutions against their understanding of the forces and ideologies at work. (p. 363)

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