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It has been over 150 years since Abraham Lincoln hallowed the ground and the Civil War at Gettysburg—even as he claimed he could not—by uttering one of the most remembered speeches in American history. The war that had begun as a means to preserve the Union, Lincoln assured his audience, had been transformed through sacrifice and bloodshed into one dedicated to human freedom and equality. Through the conflagration the nation must pass, so it seemed, in order to experience the “new birth of freedom” for all. Amidst the sesquicentennial of the war and Reconstruction, historians continue to discuss the promises and limitations of the freedom that African Americans had so dearly won.
John David Smith’s We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice (a revised and updated version of his 1996 publication, Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865–1877) is a welcome addition to this debate. Building on an interpretive model first introduced over a century ago by W. E. B. Du Bois, Smith places the experience of the freed people at the center of Reconstruction and explores the meaning and limits of the “new birth of freedom” for the millions of African Americans emancipated before, during, and after the war. Topical chapters on subjects such as the unification of families sundered by slavery, the development of free labor in the South, the beginnings of African American political organization, the growth of black educational opportunities, and the extent of racial terrorism rather seamlessly introduce the reader to some of the most debated issues in Reconstruction historiography. Most intriguing is the way in which Smith accomplishes this by blending copious first-hand documentation, often in the form of direct quotation, into the larger narrative structure. In short, Smith delivers on the promise of his subtitle and allows the “black voices” to speak for themselves. The result is a noteworthy achievement that movingly relates the individual and [End Page 755] collective struggle of African Americans to find liberty, justice, and dignity within the racist strictures that many white Americans worked to erect in the postbellum United States.
We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice is meant to serve as an introduction to the complex subject of Reconstruction for high-school and college students—and to this end Smith succeeds with remarkable aplomb. The text is a readable, learned, and succinct account of the revolutionary transition from slavery to freedom that achieves a great deal in a little over one hundred pages. The helpful addition of a timeline and an index will undoubtedly benefit students grappling with the intricacies of Reconstruction for the first time, and a short historiographical section at the conclusion directs the piqued reader toward classic accounts of the era as well as a number of important recent publications.
Although I would not hesitate to assign We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice as required reading in any number of courses, several questions must be addressed. The first deals with chronology. According to the subtitle, Reconstruction occurred between 1865 and 1877. As Smith documents within the text through his emphasis on the “processes” (p. 9) of emancipation and Reconstruction, however, black freedom efforts predated the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment—and they continued far beyond the ill-fated Compromise of 1877. A related concern is that the book is largely focused on the transitional years of the 1860s, and as a result the latter stages of congressional Reconstruction receive far less coverage. Still, such quibbles should not distract us from recognizing the stirring account of Reconstruction that Smith has constructed. [End Page 756]
JACOB A. GLOVER is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. His current research focuses on everyday racial violence during Reconstruction.