Reconstruction, a field dominated for a long time by historian Eric Foner’s trendsetting work, is finally getting the renewed attention it deserves from a cadre of excellent scholars. Continuing trends started by Elliott West and Richard White five years ago, Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur suggest two broad interpretations for the period. First, as Masur and Downs assert, “We ask whether thinking across regions might in fact might help us understand not just the regions themselves but the entire nation and its place in nineteenth-century history” (p. 3). The second claim is that the state during Reconstruction was not an overbearing behemoth, a precursor to the government of twentieth-century America. Instead, in what is an undoubtedly important contribution to the literature on Reconstruction, the editors describe the federal government of the 1860s and 1870s as a “stockade [End Page 437] state” (p. 6). Similar to White’s characterization in Railroaded, the state in this collection seems bumbling and incoherent, capable of projecting power in Washington, D.C., and isolated outposts, but lacking the efficiency and control to shape events in smaller localities.
One of the many strengths of this collection is that each essay seems to prove the editors’ contention that the “nation that emerged after the Civil War was not a Cold War state with training wheels” (p. 15). Instead, violence, local sovereignty, and entrenched economic relationships derailed the federal government’s best laid plans. Laura F. Edwards shows that state laws often focused on protecting the interests of property owners, derailing federal legislation attempting to provide new definitions of rights. Such a phenomenon is at work in Amy Dru Stanley’s excellent essay on the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The act defined freedom as the ability to pursue leisure activities, such as theater attendance. Yet, in the Civil Rights Cases ruling of 1883, the Supreme Court “struck down the [act] as an encroachment of state sovereignty” (p. 270). Local customs and law also prevailed in the American West. Stacey L. Smith shows how Radical Republicans found, to their horror, that New Mexican families continued “peonage,” a practice of forcing Indian children to work as domestic servants. Although Congress passed the 1867 Anti-Peonage Act, the system remained in place into the 1900s.
Despite the federal government appearing powerless to enforce change, a diverse set of individuals living in the United States sought to use federal and constitutional law to better themselves. This occurrence is apparent in Stephen Kantrowitz’s essay on the Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin. To avoid removal, the tribe argued that landownership conveyed citizenship rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Such rights, Ho-Chunk leaders believed, would allow them to avoid life on a reservation. In an innovative contribution, Crystal N. Feimster explains how black women took advantage of Civil War legal codes to defend themselves from rape and sexual violence, creating a “new sexual citizenship” (p. 250). [End Page 438]
Yet, for all that is new in this essay collection, many authors correctly echo Eric Foner’s emphasis on the importance of violence in Reconstruction. The hopes for a new South described by K. Stephen Prince’s contribution seemed dashed by implacable white resistance. Luke Harlow, in a truly excellent essay, shows that white supremacy continued unabated in evangelical Christian theology. He reminds historians that “we fail to understand many white southerners if we fail to see that, from their vantage point, to give up on slavery seemed tantamount to giving up on the Christian God” (p. 152). Kidada E. Williams documents that the effects of white violence were long lived, resulting in deep “psychological and sociological wounds” (p. 160).
In sum, while continuing in the general direction of Reconstruction historiography over the past five years, the scholars in The World the Civil War Made do indeed break new ground and offer excellent suggestions and inspirations for future study. I found the “stockade state” description quite apropos. Likewise, the broader formulation of Reconstruction as an event of...