A People’s History of Reconstruction

By Jean Edward Smith

Few aspects of American history have been subject to such fluctuating interpretations as the causes and consequences of the Civil War. My generation was assured during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that slavery had nothing to do with secession, that it was purely a matter of conflicting constitutional interpretation, including such esoteric points as the Supreme Court’s ultimate jurisdiction under §25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Yet today, to reject slavery as the Civil War’s root cause is akin to denying the Holocaust.

Coming to grips with Reconstruction has proved even more difficult. Americans have been weaned on Gone With The Wind’s rosy depiction of the antebellum South, with gleeful pickaninnies frolicking in massa’s cotton patch. For too long, Reconstruction has been widely regarded as a time of rampant misgovernment thrust on the South by a vindictive cabal of Radical Republicans abetted by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, duplicitous scalawags, and former slaves totally lacking any capacity for self-government.

The tone of American historiography concerning Reconstruction was set by William A. Dunning, Lieber Professor of History and Political Philosophy at Columbia, and his colleague John W. Burgess, a founder of modern political science. Dunning’s principal effort, Reconstruction: Political and Economic, 1865-1877 (1907), is replete with references to “barbarous freedmen” committing “the hideous crime against white womanhood,” and corrupt northern politicians willing to force opponents “of their own race…to permanent subjugation to another race.” Burgess, in Reconstruction and the Constitution (1902), taught that “a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, and has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.”

Between 1876 and 1922 Dunning and Burgess directed the research of two generations of graduate students. Known as the “Dunning school,” the works of these disciples include Robert Stiles’s Reconstruction in Virginia (1890), Walter L. Fleming’s The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), Charles W. Ramsdell’s Reconstruction in Texas (1910), W.W. Davis’s The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida (1913), J.G. deRoulhac Hamilton’s Reconstruction in North Carolina (1914), C. Mildred Thompson’s Reconstruction in Georgia (1915), and Thomas S. Staples’s Reconstruction in Arkansas (1923). Researched from primary sources and presented with an air of objectivity, these dissertations were acclaimed for their application of the scientific method to history.

Yet despite every intention to be fair, these students, like Dunning and Burgess themselves, shaped their monographs to support prevailing attitudes of white supremacy. Blacks were depicted as inherently incapable of meaningful political participation while terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan were applauded for their efforts to restore the South’s natural order. Of some 16 studies of Reconstruction in the Southern states, only James Wilford Garner’s Reconstruction of Mississippi (1901) did not exhibit a pronounced bias in favor of white supremacy, earning the praise of W.E.B. DuBois, who himself penned the first sustained scholarly critique of Reconstruction.

The racist rants of the Dunning school reinforced northern efforts to conciliate the white South. These found popular expression in D.W. Griffith’s repugnant Birth of a Nation, hailed by President Woodrow Wilson for its depiction of Southern life during Reconstruction; James Ford Rhodes’s classic seven-volume chronicle of the Civil War era; and the 1920s national bestseller, The Tragic Era, by the well-known journalist Claude G. Bowers. With the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s, the work of an imposing array of contemporary historians—including David Blight, David Herbert Donald, Eric Foner, John Hope Franklin, Eric McKitrick, James McPherson, Kenneth Stampp, and Hans Trefousse—consigned the Dunning school to the museum of historical artifacts. * * *

Foner is America’s preeminent historian of Reconstruction and, fittingly, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History in the same department in which Dunning taught. His masterly Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (first published in 1988) may be the best treatment of Reconstruction in print. But it is written for the serious student and informed scholar. His new book, Forever Free, is a superbly written, wonderfully condensed restatement intended for readers basically unfamiliar with the details of American history, particularly concerning the Civil War and its aftermath. His narrative is strengthened by visual essays interspersed between his chapters, which collect contemporary illustrations and photographs together with commentary by Joshua Brown, Executive Director of the American Social History Project at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

The Civil War was not a war between the states and certainly not a war between sovereign nations. It was a treasonous rebellion mounted by the governments in eleven Southern states for the primary purpose of protecting slavery. It was suppressed by the United States Army after four years of bloody conflict. The bravery of those Confederate soldiers who fought to perpetuate the cause of slavery should not be disparaged. But it is for good reason that the rebel dead are not interred in cemeteries maintained by the United States.

Foner begins Forever Free with a brief account of American slavery, its exponential growth tied to the world’s insatiable desire for cotton. “By 1860, the economic value of property in slaves amounted to more than the sum of all the money invested in railroads, banks, and factories in the United States.” The coming of the war is treated gingerly. Foner sketches Lincoln’s initial concern not to alienate the four slave states that remained in the Union (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri), and carefully charts his march to the Emancipation Proclamation.

“The proclamation transformed a war of armies into a conflict of societies,” Foner writes, and he emphasizes the significance of African Americans serving in the Army of the United States. It is a quibble, but he might have addressed more explicitly the impact of the Proclamation on the South’s balance sheets—slaves were no longer assets and could no longer be pledged as collateral. The point is implicit, but the public might profit from being reminded.

His treatment of the 13th Amendment, Sherman’s famous Field Order 15 (forty acres and a mule), and the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau is balanced and fair. He notes Frederick Douglass’s remark that “the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins,” and the heart of Forever Free deals with what Foner calls “the meaning of freedom”: a terrain of conflict in which the former slaves, the white South, and the victorious North each supplied an interpretation.

The book is properly critical of Andrew Johnson’s efforts to restore the South to what amounted to the status quo ante. “Apart from requirements that they abolish slavery, repudiate secession, and abrogate the Confederate debt—all inescapable consequences of the South’s defeat—these [State] governments were granted a free hand in managing their affairs.” He calls the conflict between Congress and the president over Reconstruction one of the greatest crises in American history and asks tantalizingly whether a smooth transition (such as Lincoln might have engineered) would have been in the nation’s interest. “The crisis created by Johnson’s intransigence and incompetence was, in a sense, the creative element in the situation. It pushed members of Congress into uncharted political waters, eventually leading them to embark on a wholly unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 (the first significant piece of legislation to be passed over a president’s veto), the Reconstruction Act of 1867, the Enforcement Act of 1870, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, and the 14th and 15th Amendments not only reflected the national government’s enhanced power but the idea of a national citizenry enjoying equality before the law. The Reconstruction amendments in particular, as Foner points out, “transformed the Constitution from a document concerned primarily with federal-state relations and the rights of property into a vehicle through which members of vulnerable minorities could stake a claim to substantive freedom and seek protection against misconduct by all levels of government.” And it was for precisely this reason that they aroused such bitter opposition.

Foner highlights the determination of recently emancipated black Americans who struggled to secure their political equality. His treatment of church, family, and the rise of public education within the black community under the South’s Reconstruction regimes is especially good. Skillfully he charts the demise of Reconstruction; the sordid outcome of the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election; the role of violence and terror; and the betrayal of the South’s black population by a North no longer interested in equality. “The resurgence of racism was both cause and effect of the nation’s abandonment of the Reconstruction idea of color-blind citizenship.”

The Supreme Court marched in step with prevailing attitudes of white supremacy. Foner recounts the Court’s role in overturning Reconstruction legislation and emasculating the 14th and 15th Amendments. After Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, racial segregation became a constitutionally sanctioned way of life. Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” electoral disenfranchisement, economic inequality, and the return of violence, lynching, and mayhem characterized black Americans’ unhappy fate.

* * *

In an eloquent epilogue titled “the Unfinished Revolution,” Foner charts the progress made during the civil rights era, which he calls the Second Reconstruction, and in the half-century since. He pays just tribute to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and alludes to John Kennedy’s use of federal power to enforce integration at Ole Miss in 1962. He neglects President Eisenhower’s more decisive action five years earlier when he ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock, Arkansas, to compel compliance with a court order desegregating Central High. Although Eisenhower believed that the Supreme Court’s original decision in Brown v. Board of Education was wrong, he took his Article II responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” at face value. No focus groups were convened and no opinion polls were taken even though it was a presidential election year. Eisenhower responded instantly with overwhelming force to prevent mob rule. Had he not done so, desegregation in the South would have been set back at least a decade.

Foner’s epilogue also sets out an agenda for further political reform, and it is here that Forever Free is most hampered by its author’s well-known Marxism. For Foner, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement are the real unfinished American revolution, pointing toward unprecedented economic democracy and social justice. Among other things, his ideological preconceptions keep him from recognizing the role of athletics and the large national chains in breaking down segregationist attitudes in the South. Wal-Mart is a favorite whipping boy for liberal activists, but it is also an equal-opportunity employer in which African-American shoppers no longer are required to step aside for a white customer. Sam Walton put thousands of small merchants out of business in county seats throughout the rural South and he advanced the cause of racial justice in the process, just as McDonald’s, another equal-opportunity employer, drove hundreds of segregated Mom and Pop greasy spoons to the wall.

But it has been athletics that has changed the face of the South. When Bear Bryant desegregated the Crimson Tide in 1971, every team in the Southeastern Conference followed suit. When the colleges and universities integrated their squads, the high schools did the same. It is sometimes difficult for ivory-towered academics like myself to appreciate the role of high school athletics in shaping the South’s community values. But Friday night football and basketball are major social events. And it is almost impossible to retain the racial hostility that once came instinctively while cheering on the local team with young black men and women playing prominent roles. My family has resided for generations on a farm near a small hill town in northern Mississippi. Racial tension was always just beneath the surface. When the local high school was integrated in 1974 and the student body elected a black homecoming queen, the Ku Klux Klan torched the school that evening. Twenty years later when the school won the state-wide women’s basketball championship, the entirely black team became the toast of the town with billboards erected throughout the county touting their accomplishment.

Still, my criticism is more concerned with what Foner does not say rather than what he does. This is a superb book. The author writes with lucid precision and has crafted a compelling narrative of Emancipation and Reconstruction that is easily accessible to the general reader. He possesses an encyclopedic understanding of the subject. Reconstruction was not simply a Civil War hiccup. The failed effort to provide for black equality continues to reverberate through American society.

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