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Rethinking Reconstruction

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 35, Number 4, December 2007
pp. 545-555 | 10.1353/rah.2007.0072

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Rethinking Reconstruction
Thomas J. Brown, ed. Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. x + 246 pp. Notes and index. $30.00.

"Revising interpretations of the past is intrinsic to the study of history." With this concise sentence Eric Foner opened Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, his 1988 tour de force about the promise and peril attending the nation's first years after the death of slavery.1 This pithy first line belied the theoretical boldness and complexity that was to follow.

Foner set out to defang racist interpretations of Reconstruction, once and for all. For over a century, professional and public opinion regularly portrayed African American liberty as a cruel joke played upon a bedraggled people better off under slavery. Republican politicians came across as greedy ne'er-do-wells who, by handing the reigns of local power to docile black fools, consigned the defeated Confederacy and its honorable white citizens to a dismal future of corrupt state governments and unjust laws. As the South plunged toward a state of anarchy and immorality, committed bands of heroic southern whites took matters into their own hands during the late 1860s and 1870s. They successfully pulled the region back from the brink of social chaos and "redeemed" it from the evils of black rule by installing noble Anglo statesmen in political office, restoring social order, and reestablishing a spirit of respectful racial détente that had ostensibly characterized black and white relationships in the antebellum era. Although sometimes turning to extralegal means of violence to get their way, the redeemers acted honorably and justifiably given the seriousness of the social problems they confronted and the unwillingness of blacks to compromise with them.

This manner of historical understanding about Reconstruction became hallmarks of the "Dunning school" of interpretation, named for its main advocate, Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning, a founder of the American Historical Association and its president in 1913. They influenced generations of historians and framed the story of Reconstruction told in high school and college textbooks through the 1960s. At about that time, however, two alternative schools of thought about the meaning of Reconstruction came [End Page 545] into being, each designed to discredit the Dunning School.2 The "revisionists" enthusiastically stressed the depth and duration of black unity and accomplishment and the democratic thrust of political reform during the earliest years of liberty, while the less optimistic "post-revisionists" warned that transformation during Reconstruction was neither as broad nor long lasting as might be assumed. Foner drew on both of these schools in crafting his new view of the era.

The result was Reconstruction, in which Foner argued that emancipation was a historical event that fundamentally redefined the meaning of freedom and triggered lasting changes in American society. Many of them were quite positive. After Appomattox, most freed people immediately enjoyed the franchise and the right to seek office, which was infrequently the case historically in post-emancipation societies. Blacks encoded these and other civil liberties in new southern state constitutions. And they built a dense institutional infrastructure of churches, schools, presses, and fraternal orders that afforded them new opportunities of cultural expression and social achievement. Many other changes, however, were far less sanguine. Nationally, liberty became increasingly defined as the ability to compete and succeed in free labor markets for the prize of wages and promise of upward mobility. Freed people struggled to advance in these markets as class lines calcified in the rapidly industrializing economy and as local and national politicians struck down protective labor laws on the grounds that they were antithetical to the health of the business sector and to the fashionable principles of laissez-faire. Further limiting black aspirations, especially in the South, was the rise of racial violence. Often cloaking themselves under the mantle of "home rule," southern whites, with increasing impunity and success during the 1870s, turned to the whip and pistol to thwart black efforts to vote, attend school, protect their families, move at will, and speak their minds in public. Closing his book with the removal of federal troops from the South and the fall of the...