- A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction
In A Dangerous Stir, Summers reinterprets the politics of Reconstruction through the lens of paranoia and conspiracy. While acknowledging a debt to Richard Hoftsadter’s classic Paranoid Style in American Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), Summers carefully teases apart the myriad strands of wartime and postwar political discourse, finding more similarities than one might think between Republican and Democratic rhetoric. Rather than simply dismissing conspiracy theories as fanciful imaginings or calculated fear mongering, Summers delves into the reasons for the stories, taking them seriously and limning them for meaning.
A Dangerous Stir is richly detailed and tightly argued. Most of the action takes place in the corridors of Congress and the White House, with occasional forays to statehouses around the nation. The book is also illustrated with eighteen political cartoons—most of them by Thomas Nast—that help readers to visualize the disputes and polarization. Summers begins with an introduction to American politics of conspiracy, arguing it to have been a natural outgrowth of republican ideology: Liberty needed to be constantly on guard against the forces of tyranny and corruption. The rhetoric of conspiracy intensified during the two-party system of the 1840s and reached a fever pitch in the 1850s. Northern [End Page 470] Republicans feared the “Slave Power,” Southern white Democrats fretted about an army of fanatical abolitionists coming after them. The war itself did little to change the paranoid climate, especially given the realities of Copperheads and the ultimately successful plot to assassinate Lincoln.
Summers’ main concern is Reconstruction; the bulk of his book is devoted to the turbulent years from 1865 to 1868. He presents a dense thicket of charge and counter-charge, real secret plots and imagined ones, reminding readers that the war really settled very little. For years afterward, Northerners and Southerners, Republicans and Democrats wondered if a second armed conflict would erupt over the issue of black suffrage and the expansion of either congressional or presidential powers. Summers carefully traces the deterioration of the relationship between the Radicals and President Andrew Johnson, showing how misinterpretation of actions and motivations destroyed any chance of the two sides working together. Summers’ discussion of the events leading up to Johnson’s impeachment is particularly strong, vividly describing the Radicals’ fears that Johnson would raise his own army and set up his own shadow Congress.
Although all of this detail is surely interesting, Summers’ most important contribution comes in his final chapters, which delineate the post-1868 retreat from Reconstruction. Ironically, once Northern Republicans turned their attention away from Southern Democrats, the region was enveloped in a violent counter-revolution, which shattered the fragile gains made by African Americans. Summers reveals the real importance of the early fear and paranoia when he writes, “This book may be seen as the story of watchdogs who barked all the time and, because they set up such a steady yammering, ended up not heard by later historians and by a growing number of their own contemporaries” (269). In essence, the Radicals were the boys who cried wolf, and when the real conspiracy arose, through the Ku Klux Klan and “Redemption,” Northern whites were no longer in the mood to listen, or to intervene in meaningful ways. Summers also puts in a plug for the beleaguered moderate Republicans, suggesting that their less punitive, less constitutionally questionable course might have been the wiser one that could have broken the cycle of paranoia. All in all, this book is a powerful and fascinating contribution to the literature of Reconstruction politics.