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Reconstruction and the Making of a Free-Labor South

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 37, Number 2, June 2009
pp. 236-242 | 10.1353/rah.0.0101

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Reconstruction is the stepchild of United States history. Students in Civil War courses do not want to hear about it: instead, they prefer battles in which winners and losers are clear. Popular imagination—dominated by Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind—condemns it as a period in which rapacious Carpetbaggers from the North and ignorant freedmen combined to deprive the "real" (i.e., white) Southerners of their rights and property. Even historians have contributed to its general disrepute. For several generations, the work of William A. Dunning and his students dominated Reconstruction historiography. Unabashedly racist, the Dunning school presented slavery as a benevolent institution and Reconstruction as the work of vindictive Radical Republicans. Historians have long taken issue with Dunning's work. Most recently, Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988) has been the dominant interpretation of the period. Foner not only sought to restore black agency to the story of Reconstruction, he emphasized that Republicans intended to remodel the South in the image of the free-labor North. Despite Foner's insistence that Reconstruction was "but the beginning of an extended historical process: the adjustment of American society to the end of slavery" (p. xxvii), it is hard to see his "unfinished revolution" as concluding in anything but failure. Foner details too well the violence that crushed black aspirations and the abandonment by Northern whites of Southern Republicans. W. E. B. DuBois captured that failure well when he wrote in Black Reconstruction in America (1935): "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery" (p. 30).

Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867 seeks to capture that moment in the sun. Each volume of the series is a massive compilation of documents from the National Archives. This volume, Land and Labor, 1865, is divided into ten chapters, each of which begins with an historical essay and is followed by the transcribed documents, which are copiously footnoted. Notes to the documents not only contain explanatory material, such as whether a reply to a letter was found in the files, but sometimes reprint the text of other relevant documents, or contain mini-essays on relevant points in the document. It is not uncommon for the notes to a multipage document to be as long as the document itself.

Foner's influence is clearly evident in Land and Labor, 1865. Before he wrote his work on Reconstruction, Foner advanced his thesis of the free-labor North in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (1970). Foner's insight was that the Republican party was unified by its commitment to keep slavery out of the territories, thereby preserving them for the expansion of free white laborers. It was this free-labor ideology, rather than racial egalitarianism or abolitionism, that held the disparate factions of the party together. Foner continued this free-labor theme in Reconstruction, arguing that in the postwar period the victorious Republican party tried—but largely failed—to remake the slave-labor South in the image of the free-labor North. The editors of Land and Labor, 1865 clearly subscribe to the free-labor thesis and interpret the documents in that light.

Leisure was never an option. Whites—both Northern and Southern—feared that once free, blacks would simply not work. In African Americans' efforts to scale work back from the grueling routines of slavery, whites saw incipient signs of shiftlessness. Black women who wished to leave the fields and confine their labor to the domestic sphere were ridiculed for thinking themselves fine ladies. First the army, and then the Freedmen's Bureau, made it a priority to force or convince—with the army preferring the former method and the Bureau, the latter—freedmen to return to the plantations and cultivate the crops. In the towns, the military often demanded passes, which impeded blacks from moving in search of work and, moreover, often interfered with already-established black businesses. Although the Freedmen's Bureau was charged with aiding refugees both white and black—its full title was Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—officials threatened to withhold...