Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction

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.

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10 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2007 @ 17:45

    Rosemary, — Thanks so much for the kind words. You made my day.

  • Rosemary Poole-Carter Sep 25, 2007 @ 16:57

    Kevin, I wish you’d been my high school history teacher. Your site is a treasure trove of information, to which I plan to return again and again for research and inspiration.
    Thanks, Rosemary Poole-Carter

  • Marc Ferguson Dec 19, 2006 @ 15:58

    It appears that you don’t understand the difference between perspective and bias. In my experience, those with the most pronounced biases are the quickest to accuse others of bias.


  • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2006 @ 11:20

    I’ve never claimed to be unbiased. That’s not the point. Readers are always welcome to share their thoughts, but they must be informed ideas. Say goodbye to the comments section Mr. Ruffian.

  • BorderRuffian Dec 19, 2006 @ 9:31

    “BR, — My blog is not a forum for your silly little uninformed comments. Consider this to be your final warning….etc…”

    Do you >actually believe< that you are unbiased?...

    …or just trying to give unsuspecting fools that impression?

  • Justin Felux Dec 18, 2006 @ 19:52


    Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?

    I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s _Reconstruction_, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.

    My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like “there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff.”

    Coach Blackburn inspired me to become a history teacher. Not because he was good, but because he was so terrible. He was a thoroughgoing racist and taught us a version of the Civil War and Reconstruction that could have easily come from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

    Interestingly enough, his main tool in teaching us about the Civil War was the Ken Burns series. He didn’t show us the whole thing. When I eventually watched the entire series on my own, I realized that about 90% of Coach Blackburn’s lectures were lifted entirely from the script of the documentary (from the portions he didn’t show us).

    I think it is very telling that Coach Blackburn was able to heavily rely on the Ken Burns documentary but still hold a thoroughly Lost Cause-influenced view of the Civil War. This owes largely to the commentary of Shelby Foote (Blackburn even repeated the “two authentic geniuses” comment about Forrest and Lincoln). I really think teachers need to be wary of using that series as a teaching tool.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2006 @ 17:47

    BR, — My blog is not a forum for your silly little uninformed comments. Consider this to be your final warning. You are more than welcome to share your thoughts in intelligent terms. You will be banned from the comments option if it happens again.

  • BorderRuffian Dec 18, 2006 @ 17:11


    They need to add a “C”-

    “PC BS”

  • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2006 @ 14:02

    The PBS documentary is first rate, but I haven’t yet thought about integrating it into the classroom. I would need to review it to find appropriate sections as I make it a point never to show entire videos.

  • Cash Dec 18, 2006 @ 13:57

    Far too few people ever learn Reconstruction history, and for too many what they learn is holdover from the discredited Dunning school. It’s good to see you’re reaching at least some young minds with the truth, Kevin. Have you considered incorporating the PBS “American Experience” program on Reconstruction? It’s out in DVD.


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