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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 252-258

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An Autopsy for Reconstruction

Michael Perman

Heather Cox Richardson. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. xvi + 312 pp. Notes and index. $39.95.

After less than a decade, the United States government ended its campaign to reconstruct the former Confederacy. Historians have offered several explanations for this change of course. Some have argued that new priorities and demands, mainly related to the emerging industrial order in the North, took precedence over the old and familiar issues of the sectional conflict. Others have claimed that political necessity compelled the Republican party to terminate its support of the increasingly unviable and unpopular Reconstruction governments it had created earlier in the South. Last, and perhaps most widely held, is the assertion that racial attitudes in the North were the ultimate cause of the weakening commitment to the former slaves as well as to the state governments whose survival depended on the votes of African Americans. But these propositions seem unconvincing to Heather Cox Richardson because they represent little more than "slices of the late-nineteenth-century Northern experience that were not easily reconciled into a larger picture"(p. x).

Richardson's "larger" and more inclusive and cohesive explanation contains two distinctive elements. The first involves a change in chronology. Reconstruction, she argues, was not dead until later, around the turn of the century. While the formal involvement of the United States government concluded in 1877 with the withdrawal of the troops and the accompanying resumption of control in every southern state by the Democrats, its commitment to the African American population did not end until twenty-five years later. In delaying the demise of Reconstruction until 1901, Richardson concurs with William A. Dunning who dated "The Undoing of Reconstruction" at around 1900 when disfranchisement was imposed. With the establishment of Jim Crow at the turn of the century, so he maintained, the last vestiges of the Reconstruction political and legal order were eliminated. 1 According to this view, which I also share, 1877 marked the end of Republican control of southern state government, but it did not remove the voters who were [End Page 252] enfranchised by Reconstruction and who constituted the Republican party's electoral base. 2 And it was not until these essential elements of the Reconstruction order were eradicated that northern involvement, even interest, in southern political and racial matters finally ceased, as Richardson indicates in The Death of Reconstruction.

The second element in Richardson's explanation is substantive, namely the process whereby northern commitment to Reconstruction degenerated into indifference as the southern Democrats brought their anti-Reconstruction campaign to a triumphant conclusion around 1900. She contends that the emergence in the late nineteenth century of new trends in American political and social thought threw northern Republicans onto the defensive and pressured them into adopting a more conservative position than they had taken in the immediate postwar years, one direct consequence of which was a rapidly growing alienation from the African American population that had earlier been their ally. At midcentury, the Republican party (and even many Democrats, according to Richardson) had espoused the notion of "free labor," a central feature of their more general understanding that the American political economy was based on a "harmony of interests." But when confronted a generation later by a rival viewpoint that postulated conflict, and more specifically class conflict, as the defining characteristic of the nation's economy, the formerly optimistic and liberal-minded Republicans held firm to their previous analysis and gave it an elitist and exclusive cast that was antagonistic to laborers and workers, whether black or white.

Ever since Eric Foner first formulated it in 1970, the "free labor ideology" has been a pivotal concept in historians' approach to the sectional conflict. 3 "Free labor," it is now generally agreed, was the core element of the emergent Republican party as it organized in opposition to the southern notion of "slave labor." During the war, the "free labor ideology" was...


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